Why the Desi middle-class isn’t as progressive as it should be
02 Apr 2017
The conversation is always the same. It could be a dinner party, a simple get-together at tea time, or a charged rebuttal at an uncaring television. Someone has brought up the topic of violence against women – dowry deaths, rape, assault – and someone must defend their cabal.
“It’s so sad, yaar. Education is so important for these things. We know it’s not the educated or the middle class doing this, it’s the lower castes, the poor and uneducated.” Translation: our complicity is a fiction, and our socioeconomic background signals a vehement opposition – both in thought and action – to “backwardness”. We are not rascals.
This is usually muttered by an uncle. Uncle has attended IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology), he works at a large international engineering firm, and makes six figures. He has a wife and a daughter, so of course he respects women. He isn’t planning to ask for a dowry, and he ensures his daughter attends the best school in town. Uncle is convinced that his upward mobility and education sets him apart from the rest.
So I say, “No, uncle, that’s not true. Many highly qualified and educated upper middle class Indians continue to demand dowry and then burn women when their demands aren’t met.”
A fractured silence brings the conversation to a halt. The feminazi has spoken: a child in everyone’s eyes (“Arey beti, I remember you when you were in your school uniform!”), speaking up against an elder, to confront a truth. No, not a truth…to confront everyone there. This must not pass.
“Beti, that may be true, but most of the time it is those people. Jo gaaw-waale hote hain.” The village people. Although, the way it’s said, they might as well be saying those village idiots.
The conversation shifts sharply, away from the foggy abyss and onto clearer paths. Corrupt politicians, sabji prices, cricket. The girl is silenced. The room, and the cabal, is safe again.
I am a solidly middle-class Indian, and a privileged one at that. I am an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) from the United Arab Emirates who has travelled extensively, gets to go to India every year, and has all the comforts that I could want. I am fair-skinned, Brahmin, and pursuing a Masters in North America. But I am also a part of the Indian middle class; the cohort that praises itself for allegedly going places and being progressive, when- in reality- it remains a heteronormative straight man’s world.
I grew up as an Indian outside of India. My neighbourhood and social circle for all my life has been Desi, a segregation of raced concerns that separate South Asian from Arab. (That’s another story in itself.) I went to an Indian school- one of countless others in the country- and my first interaction with someone who wasn’t South Asian was in the eleventh grade, when two of my classmates were Ethiopian and Irani. Then, I went to an American university in the country and met Emiratis for the first time. I also met my partner of two years, a Canadian man brought up in Kenya. Things got very multicultural for me very suddenly; while I changed, my neighbours and family friends did not. Well, not really. But they think they have – therein lies the deception. Some things change, others don’t, and the choices made are a hybrid of convenience and hypocrisy.
This summer, I attempted to sell a phone online. Simple, right? Loads of people do it all the time. The internet is the future: a tool I, a middle-class privileged girl, has constant access to. But it was not simple, and it got ugly fast. Within hours of putting the ad up, with just a phone number, I began to receive sexual messages from men less interested in the phone, and more interested in hitting me up. One man went from offering me a good price for the phone to asking me to go on a drive with him. When I blocked him, he messaged me from another number, insisting he could never send a message like that (he did) and how much he respected me and other women (he clearly didn’t).
When I complained to my parents about this sudden onslaught of messages, my father grew increasingly frustrated. He finally took the phone from me and sold it to a corner shop for a fraction of the price it was worth. In this instance, I learnt the following:
1. The Desi middle class simultaneously protects its women and does not defend them when they mention how badly they are treated. The solution is to have a man do things instead of women, as a means of protection.
2. The Desi middle class respects its women, but only insofar as they stop bloody complaining every bloody time they get a message. Women, shut up. If everything is a hassle, just don’t bother. Or see point 1, and get a man to do it for you.
3. Protection and respect are not mutually exclusive. No man would have hit on you if you hadn’t left your WhatsApp image as your own face; the complete erasure of your personhood – your womanhood – was necessary to prevent a simple phone sale from melting down into this natak.
The Indian middle class is scrupulous and principled, or so we’re told. We were angry when Nirbhaya (who was gang raped in Dehli in 2012) succumbed to the brutalisation of her body, and reminded ourselves that her dignity remained intact. At the same time, we ensure our girls’ skirts are not too short, that they constantly call their parents confirming their whereabouts, and that their lipsticks are not too bright or “vulgar”. We send our daughters to school and tell them to be ambitious- but not too much- and to also learn to cook and clean because these are life skills (that somehow don’t always apply to our sons).
Caste doesn’t matter, until we get on Shaadi.com and fill in that blank with our own. Or when the news parrots on about those guys always asking for reservations yaar- you are seen as holding yourself back. We tell our girls that they can do anything they want, be anything they want – but it has to be sanskaari, they have to think about their futures, and they can’t possibly wear that dress because log kya kahenge? We never blame our girls for being sexually assaulted, because that is so last century, but why did she have to go down that dark road alone? And did you see Sharma aunty’s daughter wearing that low-cut blouse with her midriff-baring lehenga? Chee, aaj ke ladkiyaan.
At my completely single-sex Desi school, we were segregated from those boys, who would no doubt corrupt us or compel us to open our legs to them, thus robbing us of our personhood and dignity (which has somehow come to reside in our hymen and vaginal canals). School rules ensured we never painted our nails because that was just not done, and we never kept our skirts above our knees because that was slutty. Any girl who had a boyfriend was whorish, because good Indian girls did what their parents told them and stayed away from boys. After school, we’d go for tuition at someone’s home, and if you saw Neeta kissing Abhishek behind the stairs, she was a slut and exactly the kind of girl your mamma told you not to be. (But then you hit 13 and saw William Moseley in the first Narnia movie, and by jove, he was yummy).
We studied Moral Science (yes, that’s a real thing!) in dedicated classes at school, and we learned to respect our parents, obey our teachers, and in some cases, love God. We didn’t wear makeup because…well, we didn’t. And if we did, it was clear lip gloss. We were told to constantly study diligently, because that’s what good children do. Especially good middle class children. Of course, we also sang in the choir and played sports, but when we played sports we wore a pleated skirt in favour of the more practical full-length sweatpants the boys wore. When we performed Mamma Mia! for our annual function, Sophie didn’t have three possible dads- she had one deceased father and Sam, Bill, and Harry as her uncles. Gimme Gimme Gimme! didn’t make the cut, because no good girl meets a man past midnight. Donna could have learnt a thing or two about sharam from us Desis.
I have a dream, a song to sing. We will go far, but not far enough that we lose ourselves. If you see the wonder of a fairytale, you can take the future, even if you fail. And if you fail – you inevitably will – don’t complain about it like a harpy. No good middle-class Indian girl or woman does that.
Old family friends of my parents recently visited us at our home. They had two children, one of whom was a daughter my age, living in North America and working as an interior designer. She had been hired straight out of school and was seemingly doing well for herself. But her mother had a gripe of her own.
“You know kids these days,” the aunty said to me. Kids these days – that includes me. “Career-oriented and all that. I keep asking my daughter to settle down, but she always dismisses me. ‘Where’s the rush’, she tells me. What can you do?” Aunty weakly laughed. I laughed too, but forcefully. (This just happens to be the period of my life where every second person on my Facebook friend list is rushing to get married. I’ve had two ex-classmates from school get married in the last four months alone.)
Later, in the kitchen, Aunty said, “These days girls want a man who can do it all! They say: ‘you lived alone previously, so why should I suddenly do things for you after marriage? This is how it is.’ ”
I wasn’t sure if that was a lament, but I affirmed the sentiment and said that if my partner couldn’t do his bit of the work then there would be no future.
This should not be a comment needing to be stated. It should be common sense. But for us, bred to cook and clean, to graduate with a Bachelor’s and then be someone’s wife after being someone’s daughter…it’s unusual. It’s the new India. And not everyone is happy.
Luckily, my partner is as feminist and supportive as they come. But, he is also not Indian. He is a black man who speaks Arabic and has a parent who is devoutly Muslim. And New India- middle class India- does not seem ready for this at all, evidenced by the constant staring we get in my neighbourhood, at Indian restaurants (I have shown him the light that is a ghee roast dosa), and at malls. I have family members who hate Muslims, who are highly casteist, and who disapprove of “such unions”. It’s not our culture. Dating: good Indian girls don’t do that! And they certainly don’t date non-Indians. And when we do, it’s a scandal of sorts. I once introduced my partner to an Indian friend living in my building: “Hi X, this is S, my boyfriend.” Her reaction: “REALLY?”
And shame on the women who stand up for themselves. Every personal experience my friends and I have had when it comes to speaking up about current events, social justice, and feminism has been met with condescension, spite, or warnings about not letting ourselves get “too feminist”. We’re told to speak up, but not too much – because we cannot be louder than the men or the status quo. Speaking up about being sick of harassment devolves into a lecture on avoiding so-and-so road at such-and-such time, or glances from relatives, friends, and parents that furtively let us know we’re overstepping a conversational line.
Sorry this happened to you, but what did you expect? All women deal with it; you must too. In silence. Just don’t go there anymore! Simple. Daddy/Bhaiyya will drop you off.
But no. We, the Indian middle class, are progressive. We’re college educated, we know better than to hold our children back, especially our girls. But meet a nice boy, or we’ll arrange your marriage for you. You pick, but the selection is ours – everyone wins! Dowry? We don’t do that at all! How old-fashioned. But here’s a car for the two of you, and some gold too, while we’re at it. And if he turns out to be a hateful, spiteful husband, you still have to think twice about divorce, because Indians don’t divorce. We grin and bear it. But we respect our girls and our women because we send them to school, we keep them sheltered and safe, and we look after them. They can do what they want, go where they want to go, but must be careful not to venture too far, because life will eat them up and spit them out. That’s just the way it is.