We ran a survey on gender inequality among South Asian women. The results are in, and (SURPRISE!) they’re upsetting.

Published by laadliyan on

Words by: Farah Hirani

It was a simple survey with only 8 questions, and I’m going to get into the results in this and the posts that follow. If you’re a South Asian woman, it’s unlikely to be news to you. I think these results are worth talking about, so be warned that if you continue to read, you will be subjected to my opinions. Sorry. (But also, as woman are conditioned to apologize for everything and I’m really trying to do less of that these days, NOT sorry. 🙂 )

*Data Disclaimer*

This was an informal survey carried out mainly in Canada (largely in the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver), with about 10% participation from people in the United States and United Kingdom. There were 100 respondents, from ages 14 to 35.

Obviously, the scope is limited, but the goal of the survey was really just to get a sense of what girls are experiencing out there. We know there are problems when it comes to gender inequality in the South Asian community, and we’re trying to understand the breadth and depth of these problems better. A lot more work needs to be done using proper methodologies, but we feel these insights are still useful and important to discuss.

And with that, onwards we forge. In this post, I’ll talk about…

Gender roles in the (mainly Canadian) South Asian community

We asked two questions about gender roles. The first one was:

Have you had experiences of being excluded from certain activities because they were “not meant for girls”?

And in response, we get this lovely pie chart. I know, not the sexiest thing:

See? NOT sexy. And even less sexy when you understand what it’s saying. As someone who very easily becomes infuriated by (and immediately rebels against) being told to do conventionally “girly” things because I’m a girl, this is enraging. But not surprising, of course. A full 83% of respondents said they had been excluded from certain activities because these things are “not meant for girls.” Several girls went on to mention not being allowed to pursue sports growing up. One particularly bizarre response was that a girl wasn’t allowed to get a Jeep, because “girls shouldn’t own jeeps” (what?! Everyone knows ladies love Jeeps!).

Sure, I joke. But it’s not really funny when you think about what this means for so many of us. If you’re told that something is “not for you” from a very young age, you often internalize it. Jobs in industries where men have historically dominated (because men made the rules) become off-limits. Politics, sports, STEM, entertainment, construction, mining, and so many more quietly fall off our radars, often without us even consciously thinking about it. You just turn elsewhere, those industries continue to be dominated by men, and the cycle continues.

What if one of those careers was what would have made you happiest? What if you would have been the one to solve some major world problem or make some incredible discovery that changed everything? We’ll never know, because that path was “not meant for girls.” It honestly pains me to think of all the possibilities that could have been but never were because we were excluded from doing so many things.

Aren’t we having fun?! Let’s move on to another graph.

The second gender role-related question was:

Have you ever felt pressure or been told to do more domestic/household activities because they are “what girls do?”

More unsexiness, I know. So 84% of the girls surveyed said they felt pressure to carry out more household activities. Many girls mentioned being expected to do housework more so than the men, sometimes at the expense of going out. Things like making chai for guests, serving meals to princes brothers, cooking, and other chores. One person brought up the important point that women are also expected to take on the emotional labour at home and “take care of things”.

This is upsetting. And you probably didn’t need a survey to know this is a problem. We brown ladies have been watching this play out every day in our homes, our communities, in Bollywood movies, and at our elders’ gatherings. Can you remember a gathering you went to where Uncles WEREN’T congregating in one room while the Aunties bustled around in the kitchen, cooking, washing dishes, serving food, clearing tables, and cleaning up? I can’t.

I actually remember one particularly painful gathering where this happened and, at first, I was sitting in the kitchen with the ladies. I kid you not, they talked for like 20 minutes about what they like to put in their chai. The varying percentages of milks and creams were discussed in detail, followed by debates about sugars and other sweeteners. I wanted to die. So I got up and went and sat with the men in a different room, where they were very seriously discussing politics, often saying things with strong conviction that were absolutely not true. I wasn’t that young (I was probably in my early 20s), so I knew a lot of it was utter garbage. I honestly don’t know which was more insufferable, but the stark contrast was not lost on me.  

There have been moments in gatherings where maybe just one or two women are doing all the cooking, serving, and cleanup, while the men casually sit around, and I have felt unbelievably conflicted. On the one hand, I don’t want these women to have to do everything (often times one of them is my mother), and I want to help. But on the other hand, every single fibre of my being is screaming to me “DO NOT PERPETUATE THIS STEREOTYPE. DO NOT JOIN THE WOMEN AND BE COMPLICIT.” It feels wrong to sit there in my rebellion at their expense. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in this situation, sometimes even in my parents’ house at my family’s dinner table. The guilt is a force to be reckoned with.

These days, when I feel like I can get away with it, I say something. “We should all be cleaning up, we’re not children,” I’ll say, as I get up and start cleaning. It usually makes at least some of the men uncomfortable enough that they make an effort to pretend to help. They get up awkwardly and move some dishes around like foreign or hazardous objects. Their discomfort is enough for me (for now), but it really shouldn’t have to be. And I know my environment is pretty lax and I can get away with doing that sort of thing; others might not be so lucky. It’s ridiculous that we even have to waste mental brainpower on stuff like this. No wonder men rule the world.

It’s sloooowly getting better though, I think. As western culture increasingly is open about shaming men who don’t do their share (definitely not a problem solved, though), I think it’s seeping into the next generation of men, even the brown ones. I remember seeing this commercial, which aired in India several years ago:

I was literally in tears. Yes, it’s a brand, and brands exploit people to make money. I get it. But I’d argue that this brand did their market research and decided that this message would resonate strongly with enough people to be good for business. Which means that the sentiment is changing in India. So it’s gotta be changing here too, right?

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