Lessons I learned from my Grandmother: the shifting representations of South Asian diaspora woman-hood

Making life choices seems hard enough for any individual, and society more and more frequently gives us cause to ask questions about how we express our identity and where we fit in, what we want in life and who we are at our essence, something many South Asian millennials have grown up knowing that we will be continually judged on, by everyone. There is nothing quite so infuriating though, for the brown millennial woman as having to answer questions about why you aren’t married past the age of 30 (for a little morale boost see Rhianna Patel’s article in gal-dem), or what exactly it is that you do if not a traditional profession, “so you studied law but you’re not a lawyer, why?” and the side-eye you encounter when you speak passionately about your job that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to your mother, father or their peers (check out Lily Singh aka iiSuperwomanii YouTuber turned NBC Late Night Talk Show Host for a highly successful non-lawyer). Let’s not even delve into comments on how you dress, whether you wear enough makeup or your wonderful body shape, skin colour and weight (see the incredible Jameela Jamil’s @i_weigh campaign). And the world we live in then goes on to heartily say that it doesn’t see my colour which whilst well-meaning, feels tantamount to ignoring all of those aspects and makes my identity smaller to fit into the comfort zone of the patriarchal gaze. Then there are those who definitely don’t see my brown-ness because it just doesn’t occur to them that I am multi-faceted in my being and whilst knowing how to manage a live music venue and make an espresso martini, that doesn’t divorce me of my ability to make a banging masala chai in contribution to the family and community occasions my mother has hosted and I’ve dutifully supported.

With these messages that are steeped in stereotyping around various aspects of our lives and a lack of perceived success for not having it all, it can be hard to celebrate your identity and feel a sense of belongingness to it. I am a heathen for women over the age of 50, frighten millennial men, make hiring managers slightly nervous around pronouncing my name and confound my parents, all of whom have a different set of expectations around how I should and shouldn’t live. The only grace lies in the abundance of admiration that pours from Gen Z’ers who love to hear about smashing stereotypes and the range of ways you can be yourself and claim your space regardless of who “gets it”. And therein the answer to who you are lies – you are the impact that you truly seek to make on others’ lives for the better and can only represent by doing this in the best way you know-how.

That is one of the many lessons I learned about how to own my identity authentically, which was central to how my grandmother who, against all of the judgment she received as a divorced woman, lived a remarkable life. And while I reflect on her fearlessness eight years after her passing, I see that she shares with some of our most esteemed role models today a story of struggle and a lack of belonging where she found an authentic voice and way of being. That through conviction in her own self-estimation despite the outside judgment, has created space to empower future generations of women in my family to do the same. Just some of those role models who do the following to achieve centralization of our voices and represent an aspect of South Asian identity espouse these simple values:

1. Authenticity – So often we second guess whether our talents, experience or our very physical being are worthy of recognition that it stops us from even pursuing a dream, because we are told it isn’t valid and that we don’t belong in certain spaces. This is inextricably true of the fashion industry that globally sets the standards of beauty we feel marked against, and what remarkably Neelam Gill has done in pursuing her dream, is platform the message to other women with a dream to believe in their own authentic being and represent it proudly. Khairan Majid, Creative Director and Founder of oneself_label, has also grounded this belief in authentic self-expression in a brand that seeks to create an aesthetic that emphasises the beauty of simplicity and ethics, whilst maintaining a passionate message about embracing and celebrating diverse representation.  

2. Courage – If it makes sense to you then all you need to do is put the work in and start with your authentic voice which will reach the hearts of those who believe passionately that your message holds meaning and value. It has never been easy for anyone but Malala Yousafzai  is definitive of living proof that the road though fraught with danger can lead to remarkable impact and her influence has gone on to inspire many, but one that I would love to share with you is the founder of Girls Who Code and author of the New York Times best seller Brave Not Perfect, Reshma Saujani.

3. Solidarity – To promote, support and celebrate other women when marching to the beat of your own drum is one of the finest character traits of any woman. The emotional labour can be extremely burdensome and often lonely work, especially when at the early stages of your journey towards delivering what you offer to the world and where within your authentic voice it comes from. Brown Girl Gang and Asian Women Festival are just two campaigns that platform the beauty, range, creativity and originality of South Asian Women seeking to see more of their culture represented in the world. Via the wonderful medium of Instagram, followers get to connect with a message about us that promotes a sense of pride in belonging to a unique and diverse set of characteristics beyond the mystique of Bollywood or the denigration of women who wear hijab. 

My grandmother’s story is one of many that represent the fearlessness of the Asian Woman who migrated to the UK for a better life, aspiring to create opportunities for her children and grandchildren so that they never have to face the struggles she did. It should follow then, that generations later we are comfortable in our assimilation into society, accessing the education, safety, nourishment and social structures that we need to thrive. More truthful, is the very human understanding that aspiration can only come from a sense of lacking, a knowledge of barriers that represent indignation for us when they do not exist for others. My grandmother, who didn’t have the leverage we are able to utilise today to advance her social and financial position did it with blind self-belief, a little risk taking and the love and support of her friends. And she didn’t regret a single thing.

Author: Kainat Javed

From criminal law to leadership development, Kainat’s deeper purpose is to help people nurture their authentic voice and find their tribe. As a trainer, spokesperson, advisor and mentor she has contributed to leadership development programmes, Entry Level Boss, Common Purpose and Broadcast Bartender for Solidarity at the NewBridge Project on connected topics and loves to real talk about overcoming the barriers that stand in our way to achieving a positive culture in all of our communities – work, social, political, economic, familial and racial. She is a patron for the Muslim Women’s Network UK and her current focus is as a Trustee of The Roots Charitable Foundation, an organisation that strives through philanthropy to empower grassroots organisations in the global south to deliver sustainable solutions to poverty and achieve dignity for those in need. 

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