“Good desi girls don’t date” – so where does that take me?

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This first-person column is written by Aysha Tabassum, a second generation Bangladeshi Canadian who lives in Kingston, Ontario. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, please visit the FAQ.

I’ve always been afraid to date someone. It wasn’t just the fright of the first date, like what to wear or how to invite a boy out.

You clearly see desi girls don’t go out – or at least that’s what my family would say.

So dating – a rite of passage for most Canadian teens – was tainted for me because I had to hide it from my family.

At the same time, dating offered a release from desi expectations. If I could fall in love, it would prove that I was not bound by the unfair and anti-feminist cultural restrictions of my parents.

South Asian women – especially Muslim women like me – experience love in constant dichotomies. When we are clean, we are oppressed and make our parents proud. When we fall in love, we are both empowered and enslaved by harsh cultural expectations and the competing need to be truly “Canadian”.

Our romantic choices are deeply political – even the choice to date or not to date.

This double-edged sword had dire consequences for me.

My first relationship, which lasted three years, was toxic, and I stayed for the same reasons I committed to: to prove my parents wrong. They hated that their loving daughter was so “western” and I stubbornly wanted to prove that I was a “normal” Canadian teenager.

The end of this relationship brought relief, but it didn’t necessarily get rid of dating anxiety. I always wanted to be in a relationship, but my decision wasn’t just mine.

Could I find a partner that my family would approve of? (And let’s be clear: only a dark, Muslim man from a “good family” would do.) Could I get over their disappointment if I didn’t? And even if I could accept my parents’ disappointment, would my non-South Asian partner get my “cultural baggage”? Would they even want to face it – or would they still love me for me despite all the Bollywood drama?

All of these insecurities escalated as I attended a predominantly white academic institution.

I flourished academically and surrounded myself with people who took care of me. But I knew that none of this, or the happiness it brought me, would matter to my parents, the judging aunts or the mosque elders if they just knew who I really was – from dates to short skirts and occasional nonconformities. Halal meat.

As a brunette Muslim woman, I constantly balance my parents’ expectations for love and dating with my own desires, writes Aysha Tabassum. (Aïcha Tabassum)

Back in my hometown of Scarborough, Ontario, my friends would immediately understand the classic desi struggle to hide a boyfriend. But in Kingston, Ontario, any mention of this to my new peers was accompanied by pity or judgment.

Every achievement I’ve worked for – from being elected to editor-in-chief of my school journal to getting my dream internship – has come with impostor syndrome. What would my white peers, managers and professors think of me if they knew where I came from? What would they say if they knew that this person they kept calling “brave” and “innovative”, probably just because I was brunette and existed in their white spaces, would fall apart about introducing her parents to a boyfriend?

Being desi in Canada comes the often invisible burden of balancing the expectations of others at the expense of your well-being. For me, choosing who to love and how to love is just an extension of that.

I still feel an overwhelming shame living a double life.

I still don’t know how to love without shame, ignore judgment without guilt, and not feel the pressure of packing my experiences in a neat box for my white girlfriends.

i know i’m not the only one desi woman going through this.

I just hope that someday my desi my sisters and I can enjoy joyful moments of meeting and love as they come without the balancing act.


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