Many young Desis (particularly Desi women) feel stifled by the expectations that our communities impose. We struggle against the “log kya kahenge” (translation: “what will people say”) mindset at seemingly every major step we take. But while this sentiment reigns among a lot of elderly Indians, regardless of gender, we seem to be most pressed by the imposition of these standards by our elderly women, commonly referred to as “the aunties.”
We get mad at the aunties for asking us about our marriage prospects and not supporting other women in the ways we want them to. Our generation loves memes like this one that highlight the hypocrisy of aunties who wear saris while slut-shaming girls & young women in crop tops (bonus points when they use fatphobic references, but that’s for another article).
Indian American humor has “evolved” from making fun of our parents’ accents to making jabs at the values they were raised around. Yet somehow, we primarily fault older Indian women for having these beliefs.
I only really started questioning the logic behind this during quarantine, when I spent a lot more time with my mom.
Especially when the protests for Black lives dominated the news cycle over the summer, we started discussing social issues in a way we never did before. During these conversations, I realized that I had never actually considered that my mom had opinions about these topics.
The way that older Indian women are represented in media (especially social media) had seeped into how I thought about the older women in my own life. All the other young Desi Americans I knew shared the idea that our parents are just old-fashioned and our mothers just spout whatever our fathers or their families told them.
We pity the aunties for growing up in a “backwards” society where they were “never able to be liberated.” While most older Indian women were indeed oppressed into gender roles, there’s a presumption that aunties aren’t capable of analyzing their own gender roles critically and that they have never done so. We’re quick to point out their internalized misogyny, but oftentimes we do so in a way that highlights our own.
It’s almost like we expect better from older Indian women but still oppress them with the same misogynistic beliefs that they’re not capable or willing to change. We simultaneously expect nothing and everything from our aunties.
With our uncles, we often just accept that most of them will be stubborn in their views. The adage, “boys will be boys,” is applied to the ways many elderly Indian men reinforce gender roles. Sometimes, we even scapegoat the uncles’ shortcomings by blaming our aunties for not doing more to change their husbands.
There are extremely valid criticisms about the way that older Indians impose trauma onto younger generations. I am not justifying the toxic behavior older generations have spread in our communities. That is unacceptable and has caused real emotional impacts to our generation.
I just want us to be careful about how we speak about this trauma. You have every right to feel what you feel when someone hurts you. But if we normalize communicating about that pain by degrading those who impose the trauma, we perpetuate the negativity that we’re fighting against and offer no room for growth for our parents. Offering compassion and kindness when approaching these conversations can go a long way in both enacting change and in our own healing processes.
It’s unfair and unreasonable to expect anyone to change their beliefs on the flip of the coin because you get mad at them for holding beliefs that don’t align with your own. All that accomplishes is shaming them into silence while they continue to hold harmful beliefs. Instead, we can do better in actively listening to the concerns our parents vocalize and give them baby steps to grow into.
Once I started actively engaging in these conversations with my mom, I started to notice a lot of similarities that we share. She’s fierce, opinionated, and doesn’t put up with anything. I’m honored that I can share these qualities with her and I hope that we can both grow to make our ideas of equity as inclusive as possible.
*Note: all references to social media accounts were made in an educational capacity. I do not fault any of the individuals who made the content cited and do not wish for any negativity towards them. I also claim no rights to the art or imagery referenced, except for the featured image of myself.