Don’t give into your parents’ permission wars.

There is an interesting dynamic surrounding permission in Indian culture, especially in a mother/daughter dynamic. I almost wrote “parent/child” dynamic, but seeing as I just got into an argument with my mom about how “boys have different standards” (paraphrasing her words), I have to digress and say, no, this is mostly reserved for mother/daughter, or parent/daughter relationships at best. 

If you’re like me, and you’ve grown up with a fairly liberal Indian household, and you’ve seen swarms of other Indian (or South Asian) households where parents aren’t as liberal, where the standards of speech or dress or behaviour are much more strict, you might feel inclined to say, “Gee, my parents are pretty awesome.” I (try to) do this frequently. I appreciate everything my parents have given me, I am grateful that my parents didn’t kick me out of the house when they found out about my ex-boyfriend, and I am grateful even now that they still let me traipse around my neighbourhood in skirts and short dresses. My parents are pretty great.

However, if you’re a single woman like me, at some point, you might ask your parents for permission (or better yet, tell your parents you’re doing something) and your parents might say No, you can’t do that. And you might get into a fight with them and they might relent, and next week the same thing might happen again, and this time, you might be inclined to say, “Well, they let me do [x] last week, so I guess it’s okay if they don’t let me do [y] this week.”

If this is what you’re saying to yourself: don’t.

Let me tell you a story: today, I got into (yet another) fight with my mom about how she restricts a lot of my freedoms. My mom then brought up a point that my aunt had apparently told her. According to my aunt, my cousin (my aunt’s daughter) and some of her friends had seen me walking around my university campus in a really short skirt. Apparently this skirt had been so short that they had caught a glimpse of my underwear (oops). My cousin’s friends turned to my cousin and asked, “How does her mom let her walk around campus like this?” My cousin later relayed this information to my aunt, and thus began the gossip.

When I heard this story, I was a) mortified that my underwear had been showing and b) demanded when my cousin’s friends had seen me around campus, since I don’t normally hang out with them. My mom mentioned something about how it happened during my time as an Orientation Week leader. (Cue dawn of understanding! It was a really short skirt, but I had been wearing black shorts underneath! Success! Pre-frontal Cortex 1, Embarrassment 0).

Nevertheless, this was where the guilt was about to set in–yes, I was about to concede that my mom has given me ample freedom, and perhaps the freedom she has given me is enough. After all, she lets me go out, she lets me dress how I want (mostly), she lets me date (with some bickering here and there)… I don’t really need much more. Do I?

This might sound like a reasonable line of argument until you stop and ask, where is this authoritarian assumption coming from? My cousin’s friends had said “How does [her] mom let her walk around like this?” at a time when I wasn’t even living at home, when I was living on campus by myself. It would have been more reasonable if my cousin’s friend had said “I can’t believe [she] dresses like this.” I was 21 years old. Let that sink in: I was 21 and my cousin’s friend was asking why my mom “allowed” me to dress how I want.

And you see, that’s the flag I want to raise: when do I get to make my own choice?

I tried to hypothetically follow my life down the line, and ask when this would change. There’s not much difference between a 21-year-old single woman and a 25-year-old single woman, or a 28-year-old single woman. Would everyone assume that it was my mother’s responsibility to police my choices for the entirety of my single life? And then what? Would this disciplining later transfer to my husband? When I’m 30 and married, would someone say, “How could her husband allow her to dress like this?”

Even if you believe that woman are extensions of their mothers’ will until they’re married, and extensions of their husband’s will once they are, I think it’s important to ask ourselves one thing very carefully: who gets the most freedom? Who can wear the most scandalous piece of clothing and have others say to them, “I can’t believe this person chose to dress like that.”

The answer doesn’t really matter. The point is that there are people who are allowed such freedoms while I am not. And why? Because I was born a woman? Because I’m Indian?

That’s why my lack of freedom is so infuriating; that’s why it doesn’t make sense to placate your parents with yours.

It’s one thing to say, “I’m not going to do [x] because it won’t make my mother happy,” because in that case, you are acknowledging that your biggest peace of mind will arise from your loved ones’ peace of mind. However, it is completely different to say, “I’m not going to do [x] because my mother won’t let me.” Being born a woman, or Indian, or whatever situation you’re born into does not make you less worthy to the world and its opportunities. It’s this kind of thinking that beats us down and stops us from rising to our full potential. If you are taking no for an answer, stop to ask yourself why–and what types of people might not have to. Hint: it’s not people “whose mothers let them do whatever they want.” Embrace the world for what it is, and realize how fortunate you are to be born into a country where you have the freedom to make your own choices.  And no matter how much you love them, don’t let your family hold you back.


Dear aunties, who believe that obedient daughters are the best daughters

I’m sure your daughters are kind, smart, wonderful girls. I’m sure you’re imagining their weddings to wonderful Indian boys, raising wonderful Indian children, in wonderful Indian tradition. I’m sure you’re imagining that in two to five years, your daughters will finish their degrees—biology, psychology, speech pathology, engineering—and go on to work in places where they make upper-middle-class salaries. I’m sure they’ll live in upper-middle-class homes, take vacations every six months, and call you every time they make a major life decision. I’m sure they’ll be outgoing around their female cousins, modest around their uncles, and respectful to their elders.

And I’m sure that in fifteen to twenty years, they will also guilt, scare, and threaten the disobedience out of their daughters.

You see, what you are not imagining is this: you’re not imagining that your daughters may see more in the world than just her parents and her relatives. You’re not imagining that some day, your daughter might want to champion a fight—against poverty, cancer, climate change, global injustice, politics—or that she might want to start her own business, write her own book, direct her own movie.

I’m sure you have no trouble imagining your sons doing this. I’m sure you can imagine that your son might be that new business co-founder, that your sonmight be Ph.D. who’s rallying the government to get more funding for anti-cancer therapeutics, that your son might be the Senator razing his bridges to the ground in an effort to preserve his integrity.

But your daughters?

You’re not imagining the number of times people will tell her no, you can’t do that, you’re too young, too foolish, too inexperienced. You’re not imagining that people—many of whom will be her elders, her mentors, her bosses—will attempt to talk her out of ideas before they’re even formed. You’re not imagining that they’ll use logical arguments, illogical arguments, emotional arguments, sarcasm, guilt, fear, ridicule, to tell her that she can’t do it.

You’re not imagining the number of times that people will tell her she’s a woman.

You see, every time you ask us to be obedient, you ask us to doubt ourselves—you ask us to believe that our parents know the outcomes of our decisions better than we will, that our elders can make better choices than we can. Every time we ask for permission, we are reminded that we are not old enough, experienced enough, knowledgeable enough to make a decision for ourselves.

When you’re asking us to be obedient, you’re not asking us to make smart decisions. You’re asking us to follow the decisions that you made.

And how can we ever be a leader if we just follow what is asked of us?

Dear aunties: we’re sorry that we can’t be the best daughters.

But, believe us—we will be damn good women.