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Amercian Born Confused Desi

March 2008
Amercian Born Confused Desi

By Reshmi Hebbar

Is feminism in full swing in India? You would think so judging by the images of Indian female paragons that emblazon glossy surfaces and big screen televisions across cultural boundaries, projecting themselves as icons of liberalized Indian women.

This is why I find the madness surrounding Aishwarya Rai so fascinating. I once saw her on Oprah, where, in addition to demurely discussing her position as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” she answered questions about the role of tradition in her life, and the fact that at about 30 years of age, and more than financially solvent, she still didn’t mind living at home. It was a memorable interview where Rai even managed to drape a sari over an awestruck Oprah. She went on to explain her determination never to kiss in any film, Bollywood or Hollywood.

I remember thinking that it would take just that type of particularly beautiful and successful woman to so seemingly effortlessly live out all of those impossible dimensions of femininity: to be racy yet pure, sexy yet traditional, and independent yet one of the people. Though she appears to be liberated, Aishwarya’s super-dimensional femininity, to me, represents the double standards in how the real India treats women, expecting them to be powerful but also pliant.

Even in the U.S.—the so-called champion of the feminist movement—the life of an Indian female is made a bit specious by a torrent of cultural influences. We don’t entirely escape the patriarchal bent of Indian culture by being born and bred she-ABCDs. Whatever strides American culture may have made towards gender equality, Indian American women still endure more traditional baggage in this department.

I was one of the lucky ones when it comes to these double standards. I never felt that my parents were more protective of me than my brother, or that I was not allowed to do the things that he was--unlike so many of my female peers who endured double standards in curfew times and the tolerance of teenage vices as compared to their brothers.

However, today, I feel like I am living in a bit of a flux. I am a part of one of the first generations of women, both in India and America that are, at least theoretically, afforded the same opportunities of education and compensation as men. Yet, I can’t let my hair down as perhaps a male compatriot can, without inviting murmurs if not ire from society.

But sometimes I just wish I could be a bad girl. Not in a clichéd way, not like standing atop a table in some Coyote Ugly-type scenario—but nice and angry. Not nice and quiet and biding my time for the opportunity for redress. Just nice and messy, like some boys and men. Forget what shelves and drawers are for. Forget to be civil to the checkout girl or the waitress. Forget that the kids are my responsibility first. It’s not that I don’t have these impulses like probably all of us women do, it’s just that I have this powerfully-whirring counter-mechanism that tries to lock these impulses in. I am reigned in by a lack of completely-liberated Indian female role models—women who rock and roll at whatever cost, be it societal opinion or failing to come across as sane mothers. Having no outlet for my frustrations, I sigh and curb the desire to scream at the incompetent serviceman.

Emotionally, psychologically, socially, all of this is a bit difficult to parse out. I am biologically hard-wired with maternal instincts, but I envy the carefree approach that fathers are allowed towards their children. I feel guilty about having an easier time than women in India, and even some of my peers here in the States, women whose partners are not as supportive as my own, and this guilt feels more female than anything else. I have been bred to be socially responsible and civil, but occasionally, I would like the indulgence of not only speaking my mind, but shouting it. And it would be nice if just once I could get a pat on the back for shouting, like a man gets kudos from a buddy for slugging someone. Feathers ruffled, but for once cocky and proud—just like a guy.

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