Frozen, she stared in utter disbelief at the words etched across her computer screen. She had not anticipated seeing the website that her father left open on the desktop – but there it was, threatening her vision of the future. Words had always been her source of liberating self-expression. These words, however, betrayed her:
Placed next to three of her photos, these words neither relieved the grip tightening her heart nor silenced the questions flooding her mind.
She knew her friends’ parents were drafting similar matrimonial ads on websites to marry their daughters off within the coming year, but she did not think her parents would succumb to the social pressure so easily. After immigrating to the United States from India, every waking moment had been spent trying to secure a stable life in this new country. For the first generation, this stability included ensuring that their children had a steady job and a spouse of good reputation.
To check off these two items meant that they had fulfilled their duties as parents. She, however, was only twenty-five years old. Are you supposed to be ready for marriage at this age? What is marriage? Why did her parents describe her like this? These flat, one-dimensional words hid her dreams, her vision, her voice. They hid her.
She loved her parents and witnessed them make painful sacrifices so that she and her younger sisters could have a better life in the US. She also admired how many of her older cousins approached marriage as a union of two families, not just two individuals.
Yet, it sometimes felt like her culture knew how to get people to the altar but suppressed or denied any problems that arose afterwards. She knew of several friends and relatives from her generation who masked their issues with silent denial to preserve family honor. To resign herself to marriage pressure would only compromise all that she had endured to pursue her dreams. To rebel against her parents would only make her ungrateful for the life they had given to her through their numerous sacrifices. How was she to navigate between all these different value systems attempting to define who she was as a young Indian-American woman?
For many Catholic Indian-American women in higher education, the pressures for marriage often confront them unexpectedly. Having already made several negotiations between two cultural systems vying to define their personhood, marriage pressure heightens this existential dilemma. Within diaspora communities, this pressure echoes a former logic that has not only been lost in translation, but also reduced to the values of the marketplace. In these online matrimonials, women are advertised according to their educational achievements, earning capacity, and physical beauty. Unable to resist these cultural tensions, many young women run toward a form of premature closure – either resignation or rebellion. Many give into the pressure with a sigh of resignation because they are overwhelmed by the barrage of judgements from relatives and community members that stigmatize their single status. Others rebel by denying their roots and leaving the community altogether.
Amid these contradictory pressures, however, an ecclesial imagination that recognizes that one is first and foremost a child of God who belongs to the people of God offers a liberating alternative. While secular feminist theory helps to diagnose the multifaceted problem confronting these young second-generation women, the practice of holy writing works both with and beyond these theories to help them to prophetically call their faith community to its higher values. According to Susan Abraham, holy writing is “writing about ambiguity and plurality as a way to advance the movement of the pilgrim church to wholeness and healing. It does so by closely tracking the ways in which contemporary selves are blind to the ways in which they use, oppress and discriminate other beings with whom they share time and space.”
This practice becomes a sacred space of revelation – both
oneself – by becoming a path of holiness that resists the loss of individuality expressed by resignation and the loss of community expressed by rebellion.
In the opening scenario, the young woman felt betrayed by the words of the advertisement because they
Words, especially when written by others, have the power to conceal, distort, and misrepresent a person. Often, however, the second generation struggles to find a language that can make sense of their concerns. They wonder if they are alone in trying to articulate their confusion, fear, or betrayal. This isolation only heightens the belief that resignation and rebellion are the only two options. To resist the temporary solutions promised by these forms of premature closure, these women must discipline themselves to become attentive to all that is awakened within them by contradiction and ambiguity. These thoughts and questions then guide their immersion into the stories of others who came before them and navigated these same troubled waters. As they wade through these narratives, they wait for that transformative moment when they encounter a wisdom that pierces through the usual silencing mechanisms and provides them with language.
Initial waves of US feminism did not reflect the cultural subtleties of navigating multiple worldviews. First and second wave feminism essentialized women with the assumption that they all think, desire, and act alike. Numerous women of color contested earlier waves of feminism by stressing what it meant to be racialized within white hegemony. Chicana feminist Gloria Anzald?a referred to this racialized existence at the juncture of multiple contexts as
. This consciousness is born from a “clash of voices” that result in “mental and emotional states of perplexity.”
Receiving multiple, often contradictory messages, the individual experiences the coming together of “two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference,” causing a cultural collision.
Yet, from this collision, one develops a tolerance for contradictions and ambiguities. This tolerance enables her to resist rushing to a premature decision by operating in a pluralistic mode – “nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned.”
Rosemarie Tong and Tina Fernandes Botts further argue that racialized existence
entails living in a constant state of vigilance regarding when and where the fact of one’s having been racialized as nonwhite might pop up and operate as a barrier to the liberal ideal of the autonomous self. It also entails·claiming one’s unique cultural heritage and opposing white cultural hegemony when it presents itself as operating in opposition to that cultural heritage, or to one’s autonomy.
Prior to theoretical formulations of third wave feminism, the struggle for survival between the racial oppression of the dominant culture and the patriarchy of the heritage culture expressed itself in grassroots activism. Motivated by a desire to end violence against women, this activism generated an experiential language that inspired what would become theorized as
According to political scientist Ange-Marie Hancock, the early activists of the anti-violence movements traversed a fine line concerning how they rendered their oppression visible. To fight for systemic change, they made “strategic use of both invisibility and visibility” to hold “perpetrators of violence accountable” without “inviting the state to further oppress their communities.”
In 1989, for example, a group of South Asian
women recognized that something had to be done about the prevalence of battered women in their communities. The organization SAKHI, which means “female friend” in Hindi, was born in response to this need. SAKHI challenged the notion that “home is private, its affairs governed by [traditional] culture,”
i.e. domestic patriarchy. By shifting the issue of domestic violence from a private issue to a social issue, these activists disrupted sanitized constructions of the community to protect the lives of the vulnerable.
For Purvi Shah, this false dichotomy between the private and the public also undergirded the silencing of activist messages during larger community events. In 1995, the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) forbade more progressive groups like SAKHI from partaking in the India Day Parade in New York. FIA justified its decision with the excuse that these groups were not strictly Indian and that they did not represent traditional Indian values. As a general community event, one of its “unstated goals” was “to set cultural norms” for the next generation, which must not be undermined by attempts to “redefine the family or the individual.”
In addition to the fear of destabilizing traditional norms, the organizers of this patriotic event were weary of airing out dirty laundry in front of mainstream America. To publicly expose domestic violence would shatter the socially constructed fa?ade of “economic success in the public sphere while retaining strong cultural values in the private sphere.”
In reaction to the racial oppression of white hegemony and in contrast to what they perceived as the moral decay of US family life, many Indians constructed an image of domestic bliss that remained deaf to the cries of the abused.
ociologist Margaret Abraham builds on the experiential language of SAKHI and the personal narratives of twenty-five survivors to theorize why a prevalence of battered women exist within this community. One of her vignettes powerfully captures the multiple dimensions of marital violence:
Abraham begins her analysis of this situation by stating that typical US discussions of marital abuse use family violence theory to focus only on the troubled couple. In contrast, she uses feminist methodology to widen the scope of investigation and examine how cultural expectations and family norms heighten an immigrant women’s vulnerability to abuse. Abraham defines
as “any form of coercion, power, and control – physical, sexual, verbal, mental, or economic – perpetrated on a woman by her spouse or extended kin, arising from the social relations that are created within the context of marriage.”
She begins by identifying the enormous amounts of pressure placed on women to marry because of the extent to which their social status is determined by marital relations (irrespective of their own economic productivity). To be unmarried is heavily stigmatized, with guilt and shame often leading to the loss of honor for the entire family. To analyze how various cultural strategies are employed to gradually diminish the personhood of women even before marriage, Abraham chooses the story of Yamuna as representative of what most of her interviewees experienced.
Raised in an orthodox Hindu family, Yamuna was twenty-three when the pressures for marriage began. For many years, her parents placed her advertisements in different venues and corresponded with numerous potentials. Because the wording of the advertisement was vital to securing initial contact, her parents sometimes described her as fair. She told Abraham how this lie concerning her skin color “humiliated me to no end·I saw it as my own parents seeing something about me as a flaw.”
The next stage involved meeting the potential groom and his family. Each time, she was expected to dress in the finest saree and jewelry to add to her marketability, emphasizing not only good upbringing, but also her symbolic role as the preserver of culture. Young women are socialized from an early age to adhere to culturally prescribed gender roles that often elevate domestic skills as equal to or above education level. Irrespective of whether she enters the work force, she is expected to bear most of the domestic burden. Amidst being judged on her appearance, Yamuna recalls feeling “like there was a whole part of me that just didn’t matter to anybody at all. There was a whole inner life to me that perhaps they were just not interested in.”
What makes the entire process especially degrading, however, is the shame of rejection. With every passing year she remained unmarried, she experienced an increasing loss of self-esteem. Yamuna continued by recalling one unmarried teacher who was nearing her forties. She would privately wonder,
My God! Will I turn out like her? Her whole life was such a terribly lonely life. There is something pathetic about that life you know. Eventually she did get married at the age of forty. Again, it was an arranged marriage by some of her friends. She got married. I think even she could not take the pressure. The fact that it was difficult to fight my parents, difficult to fight the pressure from people at work, from relatives and everybody – I mean you go anywhere and they know that you are old and not married. You see all your friends married and things like that. Despite everything, I mean, you know, just some part of you feels that need to be married and um, you’ll marry the next person that comes along.
Underlying the stigmatization of singleness are the erroneous assumptions that the woman must be undesirable, that there is something wrong with her, or that she is becoming a burden on her family. Such pressure often forces women into a state of desperation, willing to marry anyone to end the shame. Often giving in with a sigh of resignation, women sacrifice their dreams by equating their needs and desires as those expressed by her relatives and community.
Amidst mounting pressure and the shame of rejection, Yamuna’s parents hastily responded to an advertisement of an overseas Indian groom who could provide their daughter with a green card to the United Sates. Because these grooms are often in town for a short visit, there is limited time for brides and grooms to become acquainted. The matchmaking process, therefore, was accomplished quickly. Yet, from her wedding night onwards, the sexual abuse and financial control Yamuna experienced “was a completion of the degradation of what had started with my parents looking for somebody.”
Losing all individuality, she was transferred “as property from father to husband.”
While not all women experience abuse, the entire process attacks the inherent dignity of a woman as she is gradually transformed into an object that has little value apart from what a man assigns her.