By Farah Khan
On December 16, 2012, Jyoti Singh Pandey’s brutal rape became the assault heard around the world. Her subsequent death eternalized her memory as a symbol of the perpetual struggle against sexual violence and gender inequality in India. The flaming rage that burned in the hearts of Indians across the country would never extinguish – such a revolting attack would never again make international press headlines. Or so I thought. Less than 1 month after the horrific attack on Jyoti Singh Pandey, another woman was gang-raped in the Indian state of Punjab. And yet another woman was gang-raped and murdered in the Indian state of Bihar.
These attacks have forced me to reflect upon my own upbringing in America. Raised by Indian Muslim parents in the land of Southern Belles, I have a surprisingly strong sense of female empowerment. My parents emphasized the importance of independence and education for their daughters, and we grew up with the same privileges and freedoms as our brother. This background serves as a stark contrast to the gender discrimination that runs rampant in South Asia. And I cannot keep ignoring this harsh reality. By some estimates, a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India. Every 20 minutes, a South Asian woman loses her pride and dignity with 1 violent, oppressive act. Every 20 minutes.
Enraged by this statistic and searching for answers, I began reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Authors Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn call on the Western world to support developing countries with grassroots movements that can lead to change. Kristof and WuDunn believe that successful partnerships between developed and developing countries can lead to sustainable transformations of the deeply rooted prejudices that allow oppression against women to be viewed as routine occurrences as opposed to revolting crimes. I believe in their views, and I want their mission to resonate in the hearts of others the way it has resonated in mine. But before I join arms with those fighting for female empowerment in India, I must reach out to my fellow South Asian Americans. How can I form a fighting team if the very same societal and cultural rigidities that have landed India in its current state are still very much entrenched in the mindsets of many South Asians settled in the West?
I am referring to the countless South Asian Americans who questioned, and even chastised my parents for allowing my older sister to attend college away from home. Those who wondered how they could let their defenseless daughter go to a school in distant Boston. Those who doubted my sister’s ability to take care of herself without my parents checking on her regularly. Those who implied that allowing a daughter to leave her parental home before marriage just did not seem proper. Impropriety was all that anybody could see. Opportunity was a concept lost on everybody.
It has been over a decade since my sister graduated from college with honors, without crumbling beneath the misery of being an allegedly helpless South Asian American female. My parents have always believed in empowerment, education, and equality for their daughters, but why are they the exception and not the rule for South Asian parents in America? So many young South Asian American women even in my generation never harness the reins of empowerment despite countless opportunities for education and advancement. But rather, they ferociously husband-hunt above all else, because apparently even in America, only a good man can help a woman please her parents and find fulfillment in life.
These South Asian American mentalities must change now. Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi; young or old; male or female; Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, or Christian; and everything in-between – we must all join forces to encourage South Asian women to build upon their strengths and discover empowerment. The complexities, strengths, and talents of women are lost in South Asia, and these losses traveled with our parents or grandparents when they left for America. How can we look at the Jyoti Singh Pandey case with disgust from our comfortable western homes when so many of us carry the seeds of prejudiced thinking that give rise to this kind of oppression? How can we ask for change in South Asia when we have not even achieved change in America?
Only when we start expecting more from ourselves will we be in a position to demand better from the rest of the world.
About the Author: After graduating from college, I returned to my hometown for medical school where I was reunited with the blend of Southern hospitality and South Asian flair that had shaped my childhood. Follow me on Twitter @farah287 or read some of my thoughts at farah287.blogspot.com