Abbot Inkwell, Commentary

Deconstruction of Indian-American Gender Roles

By Eshwar Venkataswamy ’22

Illustrated by Erin Kim ’23

From my time at Phillips Academy, I have learned to view the world from a new lens, one which enables me to understand others’ perspectives and to critically analyze the most mundane occurrences. As a result, when I returned home this spring because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I felt uncomfortable in the environment I had lived in for more than fifteen years. I noticed the existence of harmful gender roles in my conversations and relationships with my family and relatives. 

My grandparents live in a small agricultural village in rural India in which traditional patriarchal culture is influential in propagating gender constructs. The men are expected to be the breadwinners through farm work, house construction, or even vehicle mechanical services. Their wives are seen as a supportive force who provide the food and keep the home comfortable for the husbands to relax and prepare for another day at work. I remember my grandmother telling me that she had only gone to school until third grade because her education would not get her anywhere and that she already had the skills needed to be a housewife. In the same village household, I have an older cousin who consistently commands his mother around and disrespects her. In traditional India, it has always been important to hold elders in high esteem, but at a very young age, male children imitate the demeaning manner in which husbands treat their wives. 

I was afraid to establish discourse about this trend with my parents since my disapproval of the dynamic may have been noted as disrespect to our Hindu culture. In ancient India, a woman’s value was equated to her domestic skills like organizing the household or preparing meals. I worried that my parents would interpret my mentioning of the dehumanization of women in India as rude or inconsiderate of our Indian paternalistic family values. With some support and online resources provided by Dr. Vidal, I found the confidence to approach my parents about my thoughts. To my surprise, they were more than willing to have the conversation about gender constructs in Indian culture with me. 

My parents explained that domestic life in rural India is, and has been for many centuries, very conservative. In such locations, it is considered proper for Indian women of color to possess both a submissive and modest character. My mother attested that she was constantly criticized by her relatives for immersing herself in medical studies and not learning more “practical” skills. On the other hand, my father is one of three children — he has an older sister and a younger brother.  Although all of them had the same educational experience and degrees in similar enterprises, my father’s sister, when married, became a housewife who looked after her husband as opposed to pursuing her academic interests. The story my father told reminded me of a story I read about women working at factories in colonial India; young girls worked overtime in terrible industrial labor conditions and sent most of the money home to pay for a brother’s education. 

I learned so much from just one short conversation by approaching the gender construct at the family level. The societal gender roles that are constructed by mass media and religion advise the beliefs and values of families, especially in rural areas without other sources of information. This passing of incorrect and harmful stereotyping continues for ages until people like you and me start to question them. I hope that someday I will have the strength to challenge these societal constructs in a way that educates the people of India, but even trying to convince family members that some of their most cherished beliefs may be stereotypes can be a very difficult task. The Andover community has been very supportive and encouraging in teaching me to critically analyze the world around me and to perceive the existence of such dangerous gender roles.