How does Canadian South Asian culture calculate the value of a woman?

Published by anna kaur on

In a previous post, I discussed the results of a survey we ran in which we asked South Asian women (mostly in Canada) about feeling undervalued compared to the men in their lives.

In this post, I want to dive further into those results. As I sorted through the survey responses, I started to think about all the factors that contribute to the value our culture gives us, and what that value is based on. And how ultimately, so many of the ways in which we are controlled and restricted come back to our family’s/community’s/culture’s attempts to preserve our value. Ultimately for marriage, which is of course, the brown girl’s entire reason for existing.

So let’s talk about the value of the South Asian woman (according to culture). Since most of our responses came from Canada, that’s where the focus will be.

If you are successfully married off to a culturally desirable man, your value has, through some miracle, remained intact. I say this because keeping your value in tact is very difficult, and it happens throughout the pre-marriage stage, when you only have marriage potential.

During the pre-marriage phase, there are a number of factors that can taint you and soil your marriageability. Based on the survey results these factors seem to be:

  • How you look
  • Your education level
  • Your career
  • Your perceived purity level

Whew! Ladies, we need to be careful…so many things can ruin us! Nobody wants to be a tainted, soiled, brown girl, amiright?!

But let’s dig deeper into survey responses for each of these areas. Starting with:

How you look

It seems that how you look is a combination of 4 main things:

  • Your weight
  • Your skin shade
  • Your figure
  • Other subjective factors

In our survey results, one girl mentioned that some members of her family prefered to focus on her weight or physical appearance whenever she tried to talk about her academic and career goals. She mentioned that as a light-skinned Punjabi girl, people often put down her friends and sisters for being darker in comparison to her, which objectifies both parties and puts unnecessary strain on her relationships with others.

Another girl mentioned constantly being told that she was fat, being forced to walk with her head down and her shoulders bent forward because apparently her bust was too big.

These sorts of signals tell us what our culture values when it comes to beauty. I for one am so grateful to all the aunties that point out how I’ve lost or gained weight whenever I make my increasingly-rare appearances at mosque.

Your education-level

It seems that our education can increase how much we’re worth, but only to a certain extent:

  • If you’re too educated, you are perceived as a threat to your potential partner. The Gods forbid you be smarter than your man.
  • If you’re not educated enough, you will not be worthy of the more highly sought-after men. No man wants to be with a simpleton.

One girl mentioned in her survey response that she was told that the purpose of a girl being educated is to get her married, while another said she grew up being reminded by her family that money was being saved for her wedding but not for her education (she had to pay for her education).

Education seems to be encouraged in some instances and discouraged in others. We’re walking a fine line when it comes to the appropriate level of ambition needed to win at life (aka get married).

Your career

Based on some of the responses we got that I talked about in a previous post, it looks like your career can contribute to your overall marriage-potential in the following ways:

  • Traditionally “feminine” careers, i.e. ones that “girls usually do” are acceptable, and generally preferred.
  • Traditionally “masculine” careers, i.e. ones that “girls don’t do” are threatening or inappropriate.
  • No career: Unclear. I’m not sure if this makes a woman more or less desirable when it comes to marriage. Maybe having a career is fine, as long as when the time comes to make babies and take care of your man, you’re willing to toss it all to the wind.

In addition to the girl whose family insisted on focusing on her looks when she tried to talk about her career goals, another respondent wrote about how her sister was criticized because she worked evening shifts at a call center for a reputable company. One person talked about how she was not allowed to move to another country for an internship, and another mentioned that she couldn’t do things that men got to do, such as getting a job. Clearly, the careers of women are not valued or prioritized in any way before she gets married.

Your perceived purity level

This is where the fun really starts. Are you ready?

A South Asian woman’s purity level is perhaps the most highly-valued, heavily-policed, and absurdly calculated contributor to her overall value. It is a completely meaningless metric that single-handedly destroys our lives in the most oppressive, misogynistic way possible. Oh, and if you didn’t notice, I despise it.

Let’s break this mofo down.

For starters, I prefer to call this your perceived purity level. This is because an “actual” purity level does not exist. It is a construct created by men and upheld by our brainwashed elders as a way to discuss whether, and the extent to which, a woman has been “ruined”. Which I refuse to acknowledge as a real thing.

Sure, you can identify an education level, a career status, and I’ll even concede that “beauty” is kind of a thing (as subjective as it is, it does exist from a biological perspective…even some animals prefer other animals based on how they look). But “purity” is 100% bullshit.

As a South Asian woman, your perceived purity level is determined by considering the factors listed below. The numbers reflect how many of the survey respondents mentioned these things as restrictions that were placed on them:

  • How often you go out, and where → 16
  • The clothes you wear → 8
  • How late you stay out, and how often → 15
  • Whether and how often you travel → 3
  • Whether and how often you are seen drinking in public → 2
  • Whether you have and hang out with friends, and how often → 11
  • Whether you talk to boys, and how often → 2
  • Whether you date, as well as how often, and who → 6
  • Anything else about you that might bring shame to your family → 3

All of these things about us are policed so closely because, if we’re not careful, they can make us look like one of those “corrupt” girls. Basically, any time you spend out of the house where your family can’t keep track of you, you could be engaging in horrific activities that could soil you and turn you un-marry-able.

And even if you’re not engaging in such preposterous behaviour (I think Western society calls it “fun”), the mere possibility that others in the community could suspect that you are engaging in such activities is enough of a reason to keep you on house arrest.

Below, I’ve put together a list that summarizes what we’ve covered on how Canadian South Asian culture calculates the value of a woman.

Factors that determine the value of a Canadian brown woman (according to South Asian culture):

  • How you look
    • Your weight
    • Your skin shade
    • Your figure
    • Other subjective factors
  • Your education level
    • Too educated = Perceived as a threat to your potential partner.
    • Not educated enough = Perceived as not worthy of the man.
  • Your career
    • Traditionally “feminine” careers = Acceptable, generally preferred.
    • Traditionally “masculine” careers = Threatening, inappropriate.
    • No career: Unclear – acceptable as temporary until babies and husband?
  • Your perceived purity level
    • How often you go out, and where.
    • The clothes you wear.
    • How late you stay out, and how often.
    • Whether and how often you travel.
    • Whether and how often you are seen drinking in public.
    • Whether you have and hang out with friends, and how often.
    • Whether you talk to boys, and how often.
    • Whether you date, as well as how often, and who.
    • Anything else about you that might bring shame to your family.

Preserve your maximum value

So the next time you need to make a decision about what to wear, whether to go out, or what career path you should pursue, make sure you consult the handy dandy list above to ensure that you’re preserving your maximum value—even if it means you don’t actually live your life, pursue your dreams, have fun, and reach your fullest potential.

Your family and future husband will thank you for helping them keep you in *mint* condition, just as any collector’s edition comic book should be.

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