In the wake of the recent Unnao and Kathua rape cases, a range of reactions have emerged, from Swati Maliwal’s hunger strike to celebrity tweets and candle-lit marches across Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to push for greater respect for women. Those in power, however, have remained ambivalent to the cause, often evading the issue altogether even when directly asked to comment. Underlying Bhartiya Janata Party’s* lukewarm response, are pervasive perceptions of the Indian woman, which have been distinctly paradoxical in their portrayal of women. Time and again, Indian women have been presented as pillars of virtue and respectability on the one hand, and as dehumanized, sexual objects on the other.
It is futile to think about the portrayal of Indian women without first recognizing the role that tradition has played throughout history in shaping the notion of the ideal Indian woman. As a young girl growing up in a conservative, religious, household in South Bangalore, I was passed on information about what it meant to be an Indian woman via tidbits woven into bedtime stories, or more overtly, during encounters with elders at mildly overwhelming family gatherings.
In a classic cross-cultural study of attitudes towards rape, L’Armand and colleagues had two groups of people, one consisting of Indian respondents and the other American, evaluate the importance of chastity and virtue in determining the seriousness of rape. Strikingly, Indian participants highlighted the loss of chastity and virtuousness significantly more than their American counterparts. Traditional conservative norms, then, are markedly still at the core of what it means to be an Indian woman.
Consequently, deviants from this idealized blueprint are faced with punishment. Modernizing forces over the past few years have led Indian women to behave in ways that seem to attack the very foundations of traditional norms by dating, delaying marriage and pursuing traditionally all-male careers. In An Ambivalent Alliance, Glick and Fiske describe hostile sexism as the antipathy towards women who are viewed as usurping men’s power. At the macro-level, by breaking conservative ideas of womanhood that reinforce subordination, the modern Indian woman faces such hostile sexism in various forms, becoming a natural target for sexual assaults or at the very least, sexual objectification in a society rooted in tradition.
Returning to the Party’s ambivalent reactions to the recent rape cases, this paradoxical perception of the Indian woman emerges as being at the root of the problem. Women adhering to their proper roles–as demarcated by tradition—are revered as virtuous and chaste. Those who choose not to conform are denigrated, seen as ‘more responsible for rape than a boy’, and ultimately, deemed as unworthy of protest. Are we, as Indian women, resigned to a constant, high-stakes tussle between tradition and modernity?
Those who believe in an either-or narrative of womanhood will likely say no, but the experiences of women who have been able to balance both sides of the equation speak otherwise. In the words of Chanda Kocchar—50-year-old CEO, wife and mother of two—“Indian women can have it all”. The close link between traditional roles for women and their public perception suggests that a potential solution could be centered around increasing exposure to egalitarian roles, from a young age.
Conversations about respecting women need to move past a binary branding of women as either good or bad, traditional or modern, and deserving or undeserving. Now, more than ever, this shifting, dual identity of the Indian woman must be viewed as a strength and a testament to her ability to reconcile the old and the new, rather than a liability.
Apurva Nidgundi is an undergraduate student at Princeton University, NJ, working towards a degree in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. On campus, she enjoys conducting public health research, volunteering, singing in a South Asian acapella group, and practicing martial arts. In the long-term, she aims to contribute to pediatric healthcare on a global scale as a physician and researcher. Apurva also founded a non-profit, AJANI (meaning ‘she who fights for herself’), in Bangalore, that aims to empower young girls from underprivileged backgrounds by teaching them self-defense techniques and organizing awareness talks.
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.