“I am oppressed by Desi Aunties,” a post by a fellow South Asian blogger on my Tumblr feed glared at me a few days ago. For some reason, I couldn’t stop staring at it, couldn’t stop thinking about it, and realized that it made me deeply uncomfortable – because it hit too close to home. Of course, the way the blogger’s thoughts were phrased might have been too extreme (the word ‘aunty’ itself is a contested one with diverse connotations, which are sometimes even negative), but the basic issue that it address – moral policing from female elders.
Too often, older South Asian women become the custodians of patriarchal norms and continue to further them in trying to control or subjugate their (female) children and the other young girls and women that they know. Whether it be marital pressure, body shaming and policing, slut shaming, constantly scrutinizing them, or condemning even their platonic relationships with boys – these elders have multiple ways of both subtly and not-so-subtly curbing young agency as a woman. In fact, this has become such a common experience across the board (even for non-resident South Asians), that it has become a meme (courtesy of the desi side of the internet.)
“Trust No Aunty.” That’s not just some strange life advice, but the title of Toronto-based South Asian pop artist Mariam Qamar’s memoir. Qamar, who goes by the pseudonym ‘Hatecopy’ online, often radically challenges the patriarchal scrutiny that older women level at young women through her artwork, and some of her most subversive pieces includes commentary on exactly how these elders do this, and how deeply it affects young women. One of her most popular pieces shows an older woman asking her daughter “Why aren’t you married yet?” in an accusatory tone while the girl replies “But I’m only 12, Mom!” in trepidation.
This scrutiny from female elders often occurs in the most innocuous yet hypocritical of ways. Sometimes, it’s them telling young girls not to eat ‘too much’ because they’re gaining weight (and gaining weight, of course, makes them ‘less desirable’), sometimes it’s them ignoring a young girl’s academic or professional potential and pushing them towards marriage instead, sometimes it’s them passing judgemental comments on seeing young women mingle with boys – the instances are so vast and numerous that they are everywhere. Very often, these elders function within a community; whether it be a group of friends or relatives but instead of using that community as a means of female solidarity, they use their scrutiny and policing gazes to bring down young women, and to make them conform to a ‘submissive’ model of the patriarchal subject.
Of course, the scrutiny works in different ways in different contexts. Depending on class, cultural, social and economic backgrounds, the scrutiny increases or decreases. Sometimes, the policing is not even discreet, and instead, is an open repression of young female sexuality and sexual liberation; but there are also countless instances where it’s an insidious, subtle process. In fact, so many young girls internalize this policing, thinking it’s a natural occurrence, that they subconsciously stop themselves from doing things because the elders wouldn’t approve. Girls have to often date in secret, or wear the clothes of their choice in secret, and many a times, even eat certain things in secret because they’re scared that their mothers, aunties, or other female relatives will disapprove if they find out. This often ends up having an adverse effect on the psychological health of young women, so much so that South Asian women living in the US have been reported to have the highest record of mental health issues due to such pressures.
The answer to this is complex and difficult. Many a times, these older women are trying to perpetuate the same kind of repression that they themselves have faced while growing up in their assessment of young women. Because they’ve been told to become submissive to the male gaze by the generations of patriarchal conditioning instilled in them, such behaviour has been normalized for them. So, for them, a young woman claiming agency and defying the status quo becomes an act of deviance, something ‘not fit for a woman’. There are older women who genuinely believe that a woman is ultimately subject to her husband’s wishes, and that’s what leads them to instil the same beliefs in their children and other young people.
Hence, their policing becomes a product of the vicious cycle of South Asian patriarchy, where women have been silenced and oppressed for ages, where women are continuing to be silenced. Young South Asian women are now being exposed to greater knowledge and awareness of women’s issues, and are speaking out more and more against oppression because of the social or cultural capital made available to them (via the media or otherwise). In light of this, is the continued patriarchal pressure from older women because they experience a form of envy for not having the means to do the same in their youth? Is it this which translates into them trying to suppress young women’s individuality and voices?
In so many ways, this kind of a suppression ends up becoming even worse, because as a fellow woman, one expects sympathy or solidarity from them, but ultimately, they turn out to be upholders of this age old patriarchal cycle.
Perhaps there is no better way to combat such policing other than educating our elders about feminist issues, to help them understand the need for agency and the need to break out of patriarchal notions of female behaviour. It’ll of course be a long and time-consuming process because breaking years and years of internalized conditioning isn’t easy. But maybe, with more communication, with an actual exchange of beliefs and ideas, we can trust our aunties more?