Identity, Life Stories, Life

My Desi parents are obsessed with asking me, “Log kya kahenge?”

This is, apparently, the worst thing ever.

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“What would people say?”

This question, often put forth by parents to their daughters, is so pervasive in South Asian cultures that Desi feminist groups are organizing discussions around the underlying ideology behind it.

When it comes to how you dress, your career choices, your friendships — anything and everything — you had better consider what people will say. If you transgress the perceived standards of morality or success in some way, other members of your ethnic or religious community could gossip about you like crazy and cast negative judgments on you.

This is, apparently, the worst thing ever.

In my hometown, my family isn’t plugged into a Desi community or a Muslim community. We had no Joneses to keep up with — yet their presence loomed all the same.

When I was in sixth grade, I went to see a movie with some friends. A couple of them were boys. Upon finding out afterward, my parents cautioned me against being in that kind of situation again, because what if someone saw?

Never mind that there was no one in the area who would complain to my parents if they saw me.

A few months ago, when I was talking to my mom on the phone, she mentioned that living on my own after graduating might look bad in the eyes of prospective in-laws. She didn’t have a problem with it per se, she told me, but she wanted to warn me about what other people might think. But shouldn’t I be trying to filter out people with regressive attitudes, rather than trying to appease them?

Sometimes I’ve felt like my full autonomy was being held hostage by the possible judgment of others.

Again, it was never about what my mom thought – she always framed it as being about what “other people” might think or say. The frustrating thing was that these people didn’t seem to exist. It might even make sense if were living near a lot of relatives who might be nosing around in our business, but how was anyone going to be around to judge us down in Texas?

When a fear of external judgment is so deeply ingrained in your cultural psyche, however, it’s hard to shake.

A few months ago, when I was talking to my mom on the phone, she mentioned that living on my own after graduating might look bad in the eyes of prospective in-laws. Click To Tweet

Since leaving home, I’ve ended up coming right up against some of the invisible boundaries set forth by culture and faith. I’ve still held fast to my moral values – I haven’t crossed the line into anything truly scandalous or dangerous – but some experiences are just questionable enough that I know to keep them to myself.

They might give people a lot to say. Somehow even I still feel the gazes of non-existent aunties on the back of my neck.

Whether in the East or West, worrying about female reputations and what other people might say is simply a means of policing female behavior. Taken to its extreme, a “What will people say?” mentality manifests itself in an obsession with female “honor” – and the violence that comes with it.

Somehow even I still feel the gazes of non-existent aunties on the back of my neck. Click To Tweet

Not too long ago, a mural went up in Lahore, Pakistan, created by a progressive arts organization called the Fearless Collective.

Its message, written in Urdu, translates to: “What would people say? We are the people. What will we say?”

via Tumblr

We should honor the right of people to live their lives to the fullest, and on their own terms.  We have the choice not to punish others, especially girls and women, for not lining up perfectly with cultural norms frozen in time.

We have the choice not to be those people that we’re so worried about offending.

Mariam Ahmed

Mariam Ahmed

Originally from Texas, she recently completed her Master of Public Affairs degree at the University of Texas at Austin.

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