Dowry Doesn’t Devalue South Asian Women, Orientalist Stereotypes Do


by Maheen Akhter

This article, originally published by Neon Tommy, was written in response to USG President Rini Sampath’s commentary, titled “India’s Dowry System Devalues Women.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Brown Girl Magazine.

My parents are immigrants from Pakistan, a beautiful South Asian country that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its beautiful land and culture. But rather, it is all too often chastised for its fiasco of a government and its “outdated” traditions.

From how I dressed, to how I addressed elders, and even how to act around boys, a lot of the things I was raised to believe at home were contradicted by what I saw in TV commercials and by the way my American friends behaved.

Growing up as a first-generation American was no easy feat—I was forced to pick and choose what I believed was right and wrong as my Pakistani heritage pulled me one way and Western society dragged me in another. It was clear to me that American practices did not always agree with my parents’ generation of South Asian traditions.

[Read Related: What it Means to be a First Generation Desi——From the Lens of a Half-Indian, Half-Irish Woman

While there are many things about my background that I do not see eye-to-eye with, I constantly find myself being reminded by my community that Pakistani culture is the way that it is for a reason, tailored specifically to its people. It is admittedly a difficult idea to accept, but remember that the Western world caters to nobody else but its own people, either. Despite the spread of America’s influences into the developing world, our country has not changed its expectations to accommodate other societies. Instead, many Western societies dispel what they see in other parts of the world, mostly Africa and Asia, as backward or abnormal without acknowledging that every culture has a different “normal.”

In a society where feminism is a mainstream movement and freedom is epitomized by a sense that “love always wins,” the idea of a monetary or material exchange over marriage throws the average American into fury. But in South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan, dowries are a part of a shared regional tradition that has existed for centuries and remains a deeply rooted practice. Dowries are gifts or money that the bride’s family presents the groom’s family with at the time of marriage.

That’s right. There are people in India who pay another family to marry their daughter. I can hear the outrage already.

But little known to most, the concept of dowry was also practiced across Europe and early America at one point.

Records indicate that the dowry system was initially established between 800 and 300 B.C. in Greek city-states, and later became a legal obligation under Roman law. At the time, dowry was paid monetarily and it was suggested that the bride’s family pay roughly 10 percent of the bride’s father’s wealth. Colonial Americans also paid dowry in the form of money, following a suggested dowry amount as well. Europe’s practice of dowry collapsed along with the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century. Origins of dowry specifically in South Asia are debated, but the practice became most popular within the past century.

Also known to few people is a practice called bridewealth, or brideprice—a dowry from the groom’s side that is presented to the bride’s family at the marriage. Bridewealth also originated in early civilizations such as Mesopotamia and the Aztec empire, and is still practiced today in parts of China, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

While dowries today do amount to a larger proportion of household income than brideprices in areas where the practices are still common, brideprices still play a significant role in marriages within those communities.

The original purpose of dowry was to give the bride an inheritance from her parents as she enters life with a new family.

This aspect of dowry is often overlooked: the gifts are not always directly presented to the groom’s family as a form of payment for marrying a woman, but rather as a form of security for the bride. Whether the dowry is paid in money or in property (or these days, even as a car so the bride may travel on her own), dowries are seen as a safety net that parents furnish for their daughter. If she one day needed to support herself and was not financially independent, the daughter would have assets to fall back on. Many families also see dowries as a way to help their daughter get settled in with a new family by gifting the couple with household items and investments for their new shared life.

[Read Related: Why Comparing India’s Marital Rape Law to Other Countries is a Crime in Itself

Today, many South Asian families believe that it is customary to exchange gifts at the time of the marriage, rather than formally proposing a dowry and a bridewealth. A modern dowry is not at all like putting a price tag on your daughter as she is sold off to a husband and a new set of in-laws. Likewise, bridewealth is not meant to impose a material value on the groom as he marries into another family. It is a tradition that uses an exchange of wealth as a symbol of unity between two families, and is now commonly reduced to a simple gifting process as part of the wedding.

An aunt of mine who has lived her whole life in Pakistan, had this to say about modern-day dowries:

“I don’t think dowry is a big issue these days in modern society, but is still quite common among people who aren’t as progressive. Lately, I’ve seen many weddings where neither side asked for dowry, but the bride’s parents are still open to providing for their daughter by helping pay for things for the new home. I personally don’t believe in dowries and I oppose them strongly…marriage should be easy on both parties, and both the groom’s family and the bride’s family should be held equally responsible for the costs of a marriage.”

When I asked a recently married cousin whether her family paid dowry, she said that her husband’s family is against dowry but that her “parents still gave [them] money to buy things for [their] new home, out of their love and support.”

Another family friend living in Pakistan questioned why a groom’s family would demand dowry at all:

“Parents give their whole life’s investment to a groom when they give away their daughter as a bride. That should be enough of a dowry on their part.”

Consider also that the demographics and economies of South Asian countries have changed significantly since dowry payment in the original sense was prevalent across all social classes. Women’s literacy rates continue to rise, allowing them to enter the workforce and engage in careers that allow them to be breadwinners too.

Daughters, who once may have been considered less useful than sons, are now an equally valuable asset to a family when they become educated wage-earners. South Asian society is adapting to Western standards, which not only advances women’s rights but also slowly erases old, outdated practices like paying a full, one-sided dowry.

Repercussions of the dowry tradition, however, should not be mitigated. Even though dowry as a condition of marriage has been illegal for decades in India and heavily frowned upon elsewhere, Pakistan annually faces up to 2.45 female deaths per 100,000 women as a direct result of dowry violence, with India and Bangladesh following closely behind.

These crimes probably sound like reason enough to eliminate dowry completely. But take a moment to consider the socioeconomic background of those who illegally demand dowries and are willing to abuse the bride and harass her family if they find the dowry insufficient. They are mostly rural, less educated, and very fixed in their patriarchal worldview, making them more likely to devalue a woman’s life for the possibility of a dowry in order to compensate for their impoverished conditions. In these cases, families have no other choice but to oblige with an exorbitant dowry if they want to see their daughter married and her future secured. If dowries are putting a financial burden on a woman’s family to the point where a mother would end a baby’s life just moments after discovering that it’s a girl, I think there are larger problems with poverty and misogyny in South Asian societies to be addressed besides just eliminating the traditional model of dowries.

Many statistics on dowry violence are likely skewed. Indian authorities have scant comprehensive statistics on general murder cases due to domestic violence. In addition, dowry harassment often becomes the most reliable allegation for a domestic violence victim (or her family, if she dies from the abuse) to make in order to obtain justice in the Indian court system, since the anti-dowry movement is so popular and the public is most unequivocal in condemning dowry-related abuse. In rural areas where the old dowry model is typically followed, the bride’s family is often resentful about the expensive dowry they were compelled to provide and will chalk up any domestic abuse to dowry violence. These factors can make dowry violence appear much more prevalent than it actually is.

In areas where dowry and its consequences prove to be a significant problem, a cultural shift would be necessary to alleviate many dowry-related issues like gendercide. Measures to broaden women’s access to education and vocational training will help pragmatically in improving women’s independence and economic value in a community, thereby enabling greater acceptance of women’s equality—particularly in rural areas where social practices are much less progressive.

However, I do not believe that these steps will fully eradicate the dowry tradition; rather, the established, often religiously-affiliated concept of dowry will shift to a more gender-equal exchange that comes second to the legal and emotional bonds between two people.

To say that all South Asian women are victims of dowry and forced marriage is a huge generalization that I cannot accept. Not only has the practice of dowry greatly evolved, the majority of arranged marriages in South Asia today do give time for the man and woman to get to know each other and build a relationship before marriage. To say that I, as an American, am unquestionably more privileged with the possibility of “love marriage” and gender equality than most women in South Asia is also false.

For the same progressive South Asians who either forego dowry or offer it as a vehicle of independence for the couple in their new life, the idea of arranged marriages has also undergone a major shift. Instead of a man and woman meeting for the first time on their wedding day, arranged marriages today are more like being set up through parents or a close family friend, and possibly dating if the initial meet goes well. Familial involvement in helping choose a spouse is seen as a form of guidance for their children in one of the most important decisions they will make. The parents can judge a potential partner’s character, status and life goals prior to two people developing an intimate connection. Compared to “love marriages,” an added benefit of arranged marriages is that you are dating someone who has already been “parent-approved”–expediting the step that usually comes last in Western dating.

Modern arranged marriages do give two people a chance to assess their own compatibility and grow to love each other, like in any other relationship—but with the added benefit of knowing that your parents are actively looking out for you.

I speak as an Indo-American citizen who refuses to accept the stereotypes that our Western society, misinformed and oblivious to the improving status of women in South Asia, places on people of my heritage. I speak as a first-generation American youth, and as one of the majority of modernized South Asians who puts women’s humanity before wealth and status.

Lastly, I speak as a woman when I say that it is unacceptable to assign material value to any person. But times have changed. While there are extreme cases of oppression within dowry arrangements, Western ideas have made their way into most of South Asia. Believe it or not, women’s rights do prevail, as does the “modified” dowry where families exchange gifts to celebrate new kinship ties and the bright future of their newlywed children.

To portray modern South Asia as the unyielding patriarchy that it was decades ago does a gross injustice to a beautiful culture and to the progress its people have made in promoting women’s equality.

Meheen Maheen Akhter is a pre-med student at the University of Southern California. She lives for carrot juice, Venice Beach, longboarding, and sales at Anthropologie. In ten years, she sees herself as a happy cat lady and looks forward to the day that having ice cream for breakfast won’t be weird anymore. Maheen can be contacted at

By Brown Girl Magazine

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Ramadan is My Spiritual Sanctuary for Healing in a Chaotic World

This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.

This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.

For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.

The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.

Siyam in community

The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.

When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.

During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.

[Read Related: How I Create Everlasting Ramadan Memories as a New York City Mom]

The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.

I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking. 

Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.

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In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11.  During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day. 

Ramadan as a space to heal

These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment. 

During Ramadan, I find myself closest to my faith and to myself. Just as the Quranic verse says, “so, surely with hardship comes ease”,  I am reminded of our resilience and how obstacles can be overcome through spaces of community and prayer. 

I believe that the healing we need in the world begins from within. My community needs the sanctuary of Ramadan now more than ever to reflect and rebuild, away from the violence. 

Reckon is a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.

Feature Image courtesy: Aysha Qamar

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By Aysha Qamar

Aysha Qamar is a writer, poet and advocate based in the tri-state area. She currently serves as BGM’s News and … Read more ›

In Conversation with Neha Samdaria Founder and CEO of Aam: A New Type of Fashion Label


Neha Samdaria is the founder and CEO of Aam, a new type of fashion label. Aam’s mission is to change the way womxn with the hourglass and pear-shaped body types shop for clothing. The word Aam means ordinary in Hindi. The community consists predominantly of womxn of colour with naturally curvier hips. Aam has a low return rate of 3%. The team at Aam has built sizing charts and tested them over a 10-month period. The clothing was made with sustainable materials in ethical factories. If you are struggling to find clothes that fit appropriately check out Aam today. Continue reading to learn more about Neha Samadria’s company Aam!

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What were your personal struggles with shopping for clothing that fit and how did these experiences inspire you to start a company?

I have what you would call a “pear shaped” body, meaning my hips and thighs are wider than my upper half. I’m 1-2 sizes bigger on the bottom than on the top and for years, I’ve struggled to find clothes – especially pants – that fit me correctly. Too tight on the hips? Size up. Too loose on the waist? Wear a belt. My entire life, I felt alone in my struggle. Eventually, the pant shopping experience became so unpleasant that I started avoiding them entirely – choosing to opt for dresses, skirts and stretchy leggings instead.

When I arrived at Stanford Business School in 2016, I learned that I was far from alone in my experience. 1 in 4 American women – predominantly women of color – shared my struggles. And when I dug deeper to understand why, I uncovered the bias-riddled foundation of size charts in the United States. When I learned that the fit issue was systemic and rooted in bad data, I felt inspired to do something.

You’ve had a range of experiences working in consulting, marketing, as well as completing an MBA program. How have these range of experiences helped you start a company?

On a practical level, acquiring a range of skills helps with the various hats you have to wear as a CEO. On a daily basis, I am a strategist, marketer, fulfiller, accountant and designer. But the biggest thing I feel I’ve gained is an approach to tackling new problems. One of the toughest things about being a solo Founder is that the buck stops with you. You have to have faith that even if a problem is brand new and well outside your area of expertise, you’ll be able to forge a path forward. My life before Aam gave me a lot of practice in that.

Have you faced adversity as a newcomer in this space?

The biggest adversity we’ve faced is in marketing and sales. As a bootstrapped e-commerce business with no outside investment, it’s been tough to compete with large retailers with big marketing budgets. How do you get noticed as a small brand? Through trial and error we’ve found success in niche influencers who are excited by the problem we’re solving and are keen to support, in-person markets and events, and organic, word of mouth referral. We’re also beginning to partner with marketplaces and small retailers, to expand our brand reach.

Who are some mentors and leaders you look up to and what characteristics do they possess that you sought to emulate while starting your own company?

My biggest mentors are bootstrapped entrepreneurs who built up their businesses brick by brick. My father is one such example, and I have a handful of folks in my circle who have done the same. I find their grit and scrappiness inspiring; most of them don’t have a professional degree and gained their business acumen on the field.

I also admire kind and supportive leaders; team culture is one of the most difficult things to nail, and you have to be intentional from the beginning. I had a wonderful boss at my first job out of college. He knew how to nurture the strengths of his direct reports and wasn’t afraid to task them with challenging, meaningful work. Crucially, he was always there as our safety net in case we had questions or needed help along the way. I’ve tried to build the same type of ethos within Aam.

Do you see Aam as a strong contender in the fashion industry helping a wide variety of individuals?

I do! We’re one of the only brands catering to pear and hourglass shapes, perhaps because the fit issue is so fundamental and expensive to fix (see Q7). But beyond this, we’re one of the only brands that focuses on fit – period. The entire industry – from runways to fast fashion brands – is focused largely on design, when poor fit is actually the #1 driver of returns. Aam’s return rate is just 3%, vs. an e-commerce industry standard of ~30%. We can make the industry more customer-centric and less wasteful by investing in the early steps of proper sizing and fit testing.

In terms of helping a “wide variety” of individuals, Aam is a niche brand that is committed to helping the 1 in 4 women with curvy hips and thighs. I don’t plan to expand to other shapes at this time because I believe that in order to add value, you can’t be all things to all people. Our community has been underserved for almost 100 years and we’re here for them.

What made you decide to name the company Aam?

“Aam” means “ordinary” in Hindi, my native tongue. The company’s approach to design – starting with the consumer, and designing entirely for her – runs counter to the industry. My goal with this business is to make this consumer-centric approach to design more “ordinary,” giving power back to the women who wear our clothes, and elevating their voices on a global stage.

What is the process of rethinking fit standards?

Modern size charts are based largely off of a 1939 study that surveyed 15,000 women across the U.S. This study was flawed for several reasons including: 1) it relied on bust measurements, assuming women are proportional throughout and 2) it excluded women who were not Caucasian from the final results, thereby underrepresenting body shapes that are more commonly found among women of color.

At Aam, we’ve rebuilt a fresh dataset of 314 women across the U.S. who have pear and hourglass shapes, and are using this dataset to inform all of our collections. By fixing bad data, we’re addressing the root cause of poor fit and rethinking fit standards.

[Read Related: Tech Leader Asha Easton is Pioneering an Innovative Future, Inclusive of All]


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Where do you feel the fashion industry can improve?

There are big opportunities for improvement in supply chain, fit and inclusion.

On the supply chain side, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to ethics and sustainability. There are great auditing standards out there (SEDEX, OEKO-TEX, GOTS, for example), but only a small percentage of factories are certified. In 2021, as I was building out my supply chain in India, I visited factories that spanned the full gamut, from regularly-audited, responsible manufacturers to those who enforced 14+ hour daily shifts and refused even chairs for their workers to sit on. Brands are engaging in conversations about diversity and inclusion but it’s often on the consumer side; few are willing to be as transparent when it comes to their supply chains, where women of color are disproportionately exploited. As consumers, one easy thing we can all do is check the Ethics & Sustainability page of the brands we love. Do they talk about certified factories, third party audits and following sustainability standards? If not, we have the power to ask – why?

I’ve shared a bit above about the issues surrounding fit – it is the single biggest driver of returns, an issue that has been plaguing retailers for decades. It’s costly, harms the environment and (in the long term) hurts your brand. I believe that investing in better upstream processes – improved size charts and more rigorous fit testing – will lead to huge improvements down the line.

And finally, inclusion. One of my pet peeves is seeing brands design styles that are clearly intended for straight shapes and small sizes and then scale them up to mid and plus sizes claiming that they now design “for all bodies.” Putting ill-fitted pieces on models of different shapes and sizes doesn’t mean you understand or care about that customer. We should be asking ourselves – what does this customer really want? How is this garment going to make her feel? How can we design FOR her, first and foremost? This is being inclusive in a real way.

As a CEO of a company what is your daily routine?

My day starts the night prior, when I write down my priorities for the upcoming day. I use this great planner by Kindred Braverly that helps break down my activities into bite size segments. I’m not a morning person and part of my team is based in India (with a flipped schedule), so I usually start my date late around 9am.

First, I workout, so I can feel like I’ve accomplished something early in the day. Then, I grab breakfast, coffee and start work around 10:30. I start with the highest priority items on my list, which can range anywhere from sales and marketing to strategic planning and design. I work in 1hr increments with 10-15 mins of break in between. During these breaks, I’ll step outside, hydrate or crank up some music and just free dance. I try to get away from a screen, so I can return to my work with fresh eyes.

I then have a hard stop from 7-9pm to spend time with my husband, and then I’ll usually squeeze in an additional hour or two of work with my India team, before heading to bed.

Early in my Founder journey, I started tracking productivity patterns during my week. For example, I’m usually less productive on Mondays than I am later in the week. So I try to schedule more interesting, strategic work early in the week in order to stay motivated. I also work a half day on Sundays, to take some of the pressure off of the following week.

As there are many companies interested in fast fashion, how does your company differ in terms of sustainable materials and ethical factories?

Responsible production is one of our brand pillars, so we think about it in each step of the process. All of our suppliers must be third-party certified for ethical working conditions from one of the leading, global certification programs (more info here).

Additionally, we use sustainable fabrics in all of our collections. For example, we work with organic cotton (vs. regular cotton), which saves water and is made without toxic pesticides. We work with new fabrics, like lyocell, that can emulate the handfeel and durability of less sustainable fibers without the environmental footprint. In our most recent collection, we introduced premium deadstock wool, which is fabric that was produced in excess by brands and would have otherwise gone to waste. We also ensure that all of our dyes are free of Azo compounds (several of which are carcinogenic) via rigorous testing.

On the production side, we rely on a combination of third-party audits as well as personal, first-party checks. I’ve spent days in each of our factories, observing the working conditions and interacting with the team.

On the packaging side, we spent a great deal of time thinking about how to recycle and reuse. Each Aam pant comes inside a reusable cotton cover, inspired by the beautiful saree covers you see in southern India. This cotton cover is placed inside a fully recyclable box, with a simple packing slip and card. There’s no excess paper, bubble wrap, or cardboard.

I’m proud of where we are in terms of ethics and sustainability – and I think we can still do better!

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We would love to hear some testimonials from previous customers.

“I have paid hundreds of dollars for ‘custom fit pants’ from various brands, and none of them fit quite as well as this pant did straight out of the box.” – The Flex Waist Pant, Size S

“This pant is amazing!! It is so lightweight and breathable… the material is so soft and silky, it feels like you’re wearing PJs but they look like elegant chic work/business pants.” – The Wide Leg Pant, Size M

“Never have I ever been able to easily pull a pair of pants over my thighs. I have ALWAYS had to jump to pull my pants up comfortably. These pants are amazing.” – The Crop Pant, Size L

“I can tell these are Aam pants instantly from how they taper at the waist. No other pants do that.” – The Limited Edition Wool Wide Leg Pant, Size S

Where do you see the company expanding in terms of different types of clothing offered?

I see bottoms as the biggest area of need, so we’ll first expand to other types of bottoms or clothes with bottoms: skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, potentially underwear and swim. Then, we’ll start expanding into other categories.

What is the toughest part of running your own company?

Staying motivated and showing up every day – even the bad days. As a Founder, there’s no one to answer to, no fixed schedule, and progress can sometimes feel very slow. There are weeks where I feel frustrated because I keep missing targets. Other weeks, we get a string of wins. It’s important to detach myself from both types of outcomes (wins and losses) and take neither very personally. This helps me commit instead to the process and just focus on the next small step forward.

But, easier said than done!

Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?

I’ve read Brown Girl Magazine for years and am so honored to be featured. I hope folks reading this feel inspired to tackle whatever problem – small or large – that they understand innately. Personal experience is a powerful motivator and difficult for others to replicate.


Photo Courtesy of Yogini Patel

By Arun S.

Arun fell in love with music at a young age by way of his middle school music teacher Mr. D. … Read more ›

My Meaning of Dharam is Different From my Mother’s

The feedback from the microphone gratingly penetrated the vacant bubble I had fallen into after watching yet another performance by the youth, educating us on the benefits of Jainism. I had been daydreaming of the skits I had put on as a child, remembering the diligence with which I memorized my lines. “Why did I?” I wondered. I never truly knew what these skits were about. I knew the plot, but they all felt a little too neat to me.

Every problem had an answer; every story ended triumphantly. Victory over evil. Good deeds are rewarded. Back on stage, I saw an auntie wrapped in a sparkly red sari walking to the center of the stage, her hands folded together graciously. “Let’s put another hand together for these children!” she said, gesturing behind her. Some children sheepishly peeked out from behind the curtain. “And let’s thank their parents. Parents, it is your responsibility to bring your children to the temple. Without your involvement, our children will not know the correct way to live. It is your duty, your dharam.” 

Glancing over at my mom, I could see her eyes clouding as she clapped. The weight of that word was not lost on me, and it certainly wasn’t lost on my mother. Dharam felt like a heavy word. To me, it felt like it somehow encompassed morality, duty, and culture all into one. Many religions have a version of dharam, they all define it differently, but it always seems to boil down to the same idea: a guide on how to live one’s life. I felt like it was interpreted in a much more rigid and arbitrary manner. The skit highlighted waking up early, not spending too long on your phone, and doing your homework as dharam. Growing up, some of the whims of my parents: not staying out after dark, spending too much time with our friends versus our work, and being obedient, also fell under the umbrella of dharam. Dharam was being diluted. 

Dharam, when broken down into its roots, means ‘to support’. But often it would feel like the opposite of this, suffocating with heavy expectations that seemed to grow with each year. What did it mean to be a good daughter, good sister, or good person? How had a guide on how to live life turned into the only correct way to live at all? 

[Read Related: Jainism and Mental Health: How my Renewed Faith Made Me Stronger]

I remember telling my mother I wasn’t sure I believed in religion anymore. My mom was driving me back from the temple, and it no longer felt peaceful to me; no longer felt right. Walking around after the pooja, speaking to all of the aunties and uncles…I felt out of place. All of them told me how lucky I was that my parents were such pillars of our faith. They forced me to promise that I would come to the temple every time I was in town when I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. It felt wrong lying; it felt wrong to pretend that I was religious when I wasn’t anymore. 

My mother’s nostrils flared, but she kept her eyes on the road. She increased the speed of the windshield wipers even though it was only drizzling slightly. 

“How can you say that? How can you reject a god that has given you so much?” she fumed. “You know nothing about Jainism. You know nothing about what you are just throwing away. You don’t know how lucky you are to be born into this religion.” I let her fume. My change of heart hadn’t come out of thin air. I hadn’t prayed in years. I only went to the temple for my mother’s sake. Deep down, I think my mom knew I didn’t have a strong attachment to my religion anymore, but she didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she thought dragging me to the temple would somehow make it habitual for me; a part of my routine. But religion cannot be forced, and no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work for me. 

Maybe part of the shock of my disbelief was the fact that secularism feels non-existent in India. Indian soap operas emphasized the proper actions of a good daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and villainized those who deviated from traditional roles and values. Even progressive shows such as “Anupamaa, which shows a housewife divorcing her husband, entering the workforce, and creating her own dance studio, showed that divorce is only acceptable in extreme circumstances. Failing to impart these values to your children is viewed as a failure in your role of a good parent. 

But my mother is an amazing mother. She raised me to learn to question the world around me. She fostered the importance of working hard and being humble. She taught me to be a good person and care for others, not because I was obligated to by my faith or karma, but because it was what I should do. She supported me and taught me to support others, which I believe is the meaning of dharam. She did not fail her dharam as a mother, but because of how dharam was presented to her, she will never know that. 

Image courtesy: Casimiro PT via Shutterstock

By Vashali Jain

Vashali Jain is a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University. In her spare time, she likes to experiment in the … Read more ›