4 Ways Indian Culture Sends Its Young Women Toxic Messages – And How We Can Stand Up to Them

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Source: Huffington Post

In any culture, women are made to play certain roles – to look and behave certain ways – so that men can control culture.

Culture often acts as a defense in regard to women’s conditions, status, roles and behaviors by carving out a separate space that is more often than not immune to political and legal checks.

The public-private dichotomy in many societies has given the patriarchy much lease on controlling women, with little or no outside intervention.

This, more or less, is the foundation of feminism.

Yet women have found so much freedom and confidence through their struggles against a patriarchal culture. Women’s rights movements have catapulted women to the streets to protest, to the workplace to leave the home, and to institutions (like education) formerly closed to them.

And now that patriarchal culture is worried. And I don’t blame it.

Patriarchy fears instability because of numerous fearless women. The number one question on its personified mind is “How do we make women feel less-than, now that they think they’re enough?”

And, often, patriarchy finds ways to do so.

There are so many discreet ways in which the culture we live in still clogs our potential to grow and to be free. And it’s important to notice those hindrances to our growth, rather than to casually dismiss them as “personal problems.”

Because it’s often the things that are clothed as personal that end up having the most political impact.

The personal, as they say, is political.

Here, I seek to understand a few ways in which we can counteract the toxic messages we receive from the culture we live in.

1. You Are an Individual – Don’t Let Them Get Away With Calling You Their ‘Honor’

A part of the recent debate surrounding British documentary maker Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter involves some people’s frustration over showing India in a bad light.

It seems that a nation’s honor is deemed more important than opening up uncomfortable discourses within that nation for its own growth as a society.

While I find the title of the documentary off-putting because it (once again) does what most discussions on sexual violence towards women in India do – that is, appeal to people to empathize with a woman based on her relationship to them – I believe the intent to “hide” what goes on in a country in an attempt to protect its image is a country-level example of how the concept of “honor” dictates actions and decisions within communities.

The numbing silence on child sexual abuse within families, for instance, is rarely broken. It’s a family secret.

If it gets out, it breaks a family – worse, it brings shame to it. I believe the Hindi film Highway is perhaps the rarest of Indian films that touch upon the subject of child sexual abuse by a family member.

Further, numerous cases of “honor” killings are depictions of how fearful some people are about the exit of a female member from a particular community and her entry into another – or her complete disregard for a membership of either community.

“Honor” killings are also an example of the fact that not everybody is able to escape such violence.

Being referred as the family’s “honor” denies women human dignity and self-autonomy. She is no longer seen as an individual, but somebody’s somebody.

And when women don’t fulfil the roles that are set for them, they’re punished for having a mind of their own.

That’s why it becomes important to call out people and society in general for referring to women as “honor” in any kind of discussion.

It’s important to rebuke films that promote women as the “honor” of the family under the guise of culture. We need to stop celebrating those films as the ultimate family drama.

Because no matter what anybody says, you’re not tarnishing your family’s honor when you’re out with your partner, or when you come home late, or when you dress the way you like. And you’re not tarnishing their honor when somebody harasses you.

If you can, speak about the harassment and abuse you faced, and accuse the perpetrator.

Know that, as a woman, you are not anybody’s honor.

Honor is for people to earn for themselves, not for women to gift to their families or communities just by being women.

You are an individual. That is what needs to be honored.   

2. Question the Media Messages You Receive Around Beauty

At present, the Indian media is selling a market-oriented image of an independent woman. This image doesn’t just sell products, but sells a specific message about power.

This is a way of taking power out of women’s hands when they start to seem too powerful.

Here’s an example of how it does that: The West’s obsession with anti-aging (read: with looking younger) has now entered India. And it’s entered in the form of anti-aging creams that promise to make women look ten years younger.

It’s not that women’s aging wasn’t a focus in Indian society before this. There’s always been an urgency of getting a girl married early; there are jokes about women lying about their age; and there is a “moral offense” attached to asking women how old they are.

Aging has always been considered an undesirable thing when it happens to women.

And why? Well, as Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth points out, “Aging in women is ‘unbeautiful’ since women grow more powerful with time.”

In most societies, old age gives women something that their youth did not: It gives them power.

With age, women tend to have more of a say in things. Our mothers and grandmothers, for instance, experience a sense of power that has come with their age.

But a powerful woman threatens culture.

So it’s no coincidence that a need has been created for women to obsess over wrinkles and gray hairs. And that’s why to stop the power that age brings to women, a new culture of anti-aging is being created in India to stop aging from reaching them.

A patriarchal society requires women to feel unhappy about their age, for fear of the tables being turned.

Here’s another example: Sexual liberty and sexual expression of women in India is still taboo. Yet it finds space in certain areas – for instance, in movies. A sexually liberated young woman is the new fad in Indian movies.

And so, a counteraction enters – in the form of vaginal whitening creams. That way, in case a woman thinks she is emancipated and sexually liberated, patriarchy manages to take away that sense of power that she felt from her identity. Because now she’ll worry about how her vagina looks.

Messages like these are oppressive because they aim to deny women any sense of worthiness and power.

When we understand the politics behind things that are passed as desirable, we no longer feel a sense of inadequacy that comes from being dependent on outside approval. We are then able to use a lot of filters to stop those messages from reaching us.

I often mute the TV when a skin-lightening cream advertisement is on. I say a big, loud “No, I am not interested” to saleswomen who look at my dark skin and try to sell me the latest skin-lightening cream in the market.

There are various ways to reject body-shaming messages, but it all begins with critically analyzing them, and honoring and loving yourself first.

3. Take the Decision-Making Power Out of Other People’s Hands

Just before Valentine’s Day this year, a Hindu right-wing group announced that if a couple were seen together on Valentine’s Day, they would be married off. There was also a demand to celebrate February 14th as Parents’ Day.

Obviously, the group faced criticism from liberal groups and mockery by youngsters. At the same time, they also got some support.

The fact that a group of people can openly threaten other people and force them to do things they don’t wish to do says a lot about the society we live in.

Namely, it says that coercion is normal and accepted.

Such behaviour is often criticized when an unrelated person – an entity, like the conservative group in this case – is the source of such coercion. But it’s almost never openly criticized when people we know practice coercion in our lives.

I have friends whose parents got them to break up with their partner because they didn’t approve of the relationship. It was either caste, or class, or religion that was the problem.

Similarly, I know of young women whose fathers decide which job they should apply for. And marriages have long been controlled by families.

But coercion by family members is not care. Compulsion is not love. These are tools used to control a woman’s actions and movements, and eventually her entire life.

And where coercion doesn’t work, guilt often does. Societies and families use guilt as a tool to control women – guilt associated with breaking families, guilt about not honoring wishes of parents, guilt about not being a sacrificing partner.

Guilt is toxic for women.

So be mindful about what makes you feel guilty. Analyze whether any sense of remorse within you is triggered by society or any person who thinks you didn’t meet the cultural or societal demands made of you.

Remember that the idea of women making their own decisions is repugnant to some minds.

So, do exactly that: Make your own decisions!

Priortize yourself and your needs. Set limits to who gets to make suggestions in your life and to what extent.

Find out how the law in your country protects you. Get in touch with support groups, activist efforts, and women’s organizations in your area.

Don’t let people have a say in who you should love, what career you should have, and what kind of person you should be.

4. Take Action When People Limit Your Way of Life

I was 14 when I last visited my great-grandparents and when my great-grandmother scolded me for letting my hair down. In my extended family, letting your hair down is not what good girls do. Good girls tie their hair and grow their hair long.

As a kid, I wasn’t in control of my hair because my mother was in charge of oiling and combing it so that I looked neat. My mother combed my hair until just before I finished high school.

In my mind, I thought I couldn’t do things to my body or my hair without somebody else’s permission. A friend in high school was even surer about her situation: She told me that she couldn’t cut her hair short because her dad would get angry at her.

When I cut my hair short just before leaving high school, my mother retired from her job of combing my hair.

The length of my hair changed several times after that – depending on whether I wanted long or short hair – and never again did I feel that I needed anybody’s permission or approval in doing anything to my hair.

Another example of people – and especially family members  feeling entitled to have control over our lives is when, recently, an acquaintance told me that her mother-in-law asked her to stop eating a fruit she was enjoying because their relatives were around.

She said that it looked indecent for a newly married young woman to be so comfortable so soon as to chew something in front of relatives.

Brides are the newest addition on the list of things that can honor or bring shame to a family. A new bride’s behavior, speech, clothing and even laughter is closely watched upon by the elders in the family.

A “well-behaved” young woman is the best presentation a family can make in the society.

This, once again, is a way to push young women into fitting into the idea of an “ideal” young woman – and to meet the expectations of the family and the society. Once again, women are expected to give up their individuality.

Neither all cultures nor all families have the same restrictions on women. But every family has its own culture – its own rules and regulations – that tie women.

Sometimes, censoring can seem trivial, especially when done by family. But it’s important to understand that what seems trivial is what often holds the most power.

So in order to be in charge of our own lives, we must do things that make us feel aligned with our vision of our best life.

Grow your hair or cut your hair – whatever you like! Take that trip you wanted to take. Eat fruit in front of your relatives. Wear what feels like you.

It’s not an easy battle when you’re fighting your own parents, or relatives, or culture. But the fight is crucial because the personal is political.


If we want to truly love and honor ourselves as women, we must critically analyze the messages and expectations that define womanhood in our culture.

Only by loving and honoring ourselves do we start to shake up the status quo.

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R. Nithya is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and lives in New Delhi, India. She has a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s in Political Science and has worked as a reporter with an online political news and analysis magazine. Read her articles here. Visit her here or follow her on Twitter @rnithya26.