Women in Indian diaspora try to balance expectations
Opinion / 17 August 2019, 10:05am / Sheetal Bhoola
Hindu goddesses as well as their superpowers and strengths have been idealised by society for decades.
The cultural influence has become significant in influencing society into believing that a woman is supposed to be continually doing it all to sustain their familial and household responsibilities, their careers and cultural expectations.
Many women of the South African Indian diaspora (a group of people who reside away from their place of origin, India), whether employed in formal and informal economies, have maintained some of their traditional Indian identity.
While in employment, their day includes household chores, such as preparing two or more family meals for the day, food shopping, as well as engaging in cultural tasks that strengthen their Indian identity and belonging.
In Hindu homes, cultural practices range from preparing meals offered for spiritual and religious reasons to cleaning prayer utensils and gathering family members to partake in traditional and customary practices.
In most Hindu households, women willingly and unwillingly continue to actively engage in various customs and traditions.
For the women of Islamic faith, for instance, the Friday midday meal, which is traditionally served after the prayer ritual at the mosque, is a social milieu of family unity, love and festivity at the end of the week. In most Muslim homes in South Africa, this meal is prepared by the women on Friday mornings when the men are at work.
The men proceed to the mosque from their workplace, and then to their houses where they are treated to a sumptuous meal. The tradition does not easily blend into the lifestyle of a career woman in the modern era and might be perceived as a continuation of patriarchy imported through the Indian diaspora.
Similarly, the simple practice of men being served their meal before women, men and women eating at separate tables and being segregated by gender at large cultural events is indicative of the perpetuation of patriarchy or gender discrimination.
The examples are only a few of the thousands of habitual practices, which are sustained in the diaspora.
In most Indian diasporic homes, the sustainability of these cultural practices and traditions primarily depend on the women’s capacity to meet the expectations.
Woefully, there is a popular trend for women to solely manage Indian cultural practices despite their contributions to the financial functioning of their homes.
Some practices are primarily traditional and not religious or spiritual, whereas others are ancient familial traditions that no longer serve the modern nuclear family.
Historically, the practices were appropriate for the lifestyles that women of Indian households led in previous decades.
In most cases, women were primarily homemakers, parents and child-bearers. They were often engaged in unstructured and informal economic activities, which allowed them the flexibility of time.
However, many families of the Indian diaspora have made the choice to integrate historical traditions in a contemporary modern era with women being taxed the most to accommodate these traditions.
Research has indicated that despite their viable potentials, skills and intellectual capacities, some women of the diaspora have opted not to be employed full- time, in order to accommodate the various cultural practices.
Male spouses choose not to take full responsibility for some traditional practices, even though they are fully aware of the time-consuming cultural practices and rituals that require tedious preparation.
In order to accommodate the traditions in the modern nuclear home, the responsibilities need to be shared by men and women.
The tasks can become stressful and tedious for the woman of the home when almost every traditional cultural practice is followed despite its lack of relevance to religion and spirituality.
Some ethnic and caste-based practices do not contribute towards spiritual growth but are practised due to the insistence of patriarchal traditions in Durban.
Some traditions have merely become habitual for families and, for others, it represents ethnicity, familial lineage and ethnic heritage.
The value of such practices is questioned when women are continually expected to support them despite their inability to incorporate the traditions into their lifestyles, especially if they are employed in the formal economy. Then, as women, we are challenged even further if we choose to keep up almost all practices throughout the year, which can be laborious.
Are the practices holding us back as women? Are we engaging in the traditions that are obligatory, merely ritualistic and redundant? Does the modern woman have the right to consciously decide which practice and tradition to keep up?
Of course she does, but the only approach would be to aim to achieve a formidable balance that can support and contribute towards one’s ethnicity and religious identity.
More importantly, a woman’s independent ideology should be accommodated, which influences how she prioritises her time and energy amid multi-tasking as a career woman, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law and wife.
The balance can include the modification of some traditions so that the lifestyle of the contemporary woman is taken into consideration.
Some traditions that hold no personal or familial connectivity for individuals can possibly be discontinued.
One needs to realise that each diaspora globally has had its own cultural amalgamations, influences, and changes.
Our diaspora is no different and therefore we can possibly explain that some traditional practices were modified by the earliest immigrants of India.
As a result, traditional elements of practices have been lost and localised.
However, at this stage, there needs to be a different type of localisation where women in particular are not prioritising cultural practices at the expense of the growth and development of their careers, capacities and educational initiatives, amid housekeeping and parenting.
The concept of time and prioritisation of tasks is one of the most discussed topics between women today. Time and its management are of more concern to women in the Indian diaspora who attempt to master it all for the sake of familial traditions, social pressures and superstitious beliefs.
We tend to forget that culture itself is a broad term to describe lifeways and that there are no rigidities within the term.
This becomes more important when we realise that culture is evolving and modifying itself through the fight for gender equality and the impacts of globalisation.
In addition, as a diaspora, we are bound to be influenced by the immigration of all nationalities, socialisation of all peoples and their cultures, as well as dominant South African ideologies.
Culture is fluid and we, as women, have the right to shape our own cultures that can complement our modern lifestyles.
* Bhoola is an academic in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as a professional MC for all events. www.madammc.co.za
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.