Written by Kim Bansi
Many South Asian women are taught from a young age that living away from their parents can only be enjoyed once they’re married. But a new generation of South Asian women is feeling more empowered than ever to live their lives according to their own rules.
Go to school. Tick. Get a job. Tick. Get married and move out. That should’ve been a tick, but my life didn’t quite pan out according to this well-known formula passed down to many South Asian women.
This path, which is so ingrained in our culture, centres marriage as the most significant milestone in a woman’s life. Many South Asian women are told from a young age that securing a marriage is a women’s highest achievement, that certain freedoms, such as going on holiday, wearing certain clothes and living away from your parents, can only be enjoyed once married.
It’s a belief that has seemingly carried over from a time and culture where marriage was all women could hope to accomplish and was needed for their financial stability and community approval.
However, there’s now a whole new generation of South Asian women who, like me, are feeling more empowered than ever to live their lives according to their own rules, including moving out of their family homes before tying the knot.
No longer are we simply accepting tired stereotypes of South Asian women as meek and oppressed. Instead, we’re choosing how to live for ourselves.
It’s a shift in mindset that’s coming hand-in-hand with an explosion in progressive representations of South Asian women in the diaspora, such as Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, which features an Indian-American character, Bela Malhotra, who openly discusses sex and relationships and forms her own identity away from the confines of her family’s expectations. It’s a win for the portrayal of modern South Asian women.
When I moved out of my family home in 2020, I felt a lot of fear about leaving our cosy unit. I worried about how I’d cope without my parents’ support, but I was also anxious about how my decision would be viewed by my extended family.
Kieran, 34, a British-Punjabi, moved to Amsterdam on her own in 2016 when she received an unexpected job offer. When she deliberated over whether to take the leap of faith, she tells Stylist: “Every con on my list came down to expectations”.
Kieran worried about how others would feel about her going against the grain. “My sister had just got married and moved out. I thought, ‘How would it make my mum feel if I left now too?’ In the end, the pros list prevailed and even though I knew deep down my family were sad to see me leave, they gave me their full support.”
For many South Asian women this transition still comes with its challenges. Mal, who was raised in a Pakistani family, initially had support from her parents to move out, but as it became clear she wanted to make her move more permanent, she felt a significant shift in their attitudes.
“I compared it to when my brother got married and moved into a new home; my parents were doing his shopping for him and going to Ikea, but I had to manage things myself,” Mal tells Stylist. “I felt like I was only going to get that love and support from my parents if I got married.”
Although Mal felt she didn’t have the complete backing of her family, she doesn’t regret her decision, and her favourite part about living in her own space is the new relationship she has developed with her body.
“Growing up in my family home… it was a lot about covering up, modesty and restricting yourself, but now I’m able to go to bed naked and it was so nice to become more in touch with my femininity.”
Feeling more connected to our own wants and needs is something Virali Patel, 28, a British-Gujarati body positivity advocate, can understand. For her, living with her family in Bristol was “limiting”, but living alone in east London she has been able to build a whole platform dedicated to defying cultural stereotypes.
“I would not be able to post the things I do if I had to face my family after each post. They’re still getting used to the body image and body hair posts and don’t quite understand why I would want to share these things,” she tells Stylist. “It’s my outlet for years of criticism at home, so being able to share this part of me is super important for my mental health and self-growth.”
Not only are South Asian women finding that moving out of the family home can help with creating healthier relationships with themselves, but for people like Rhea Manuel, 28, who moved out of her family home in Berkshire and in with her partner in central London, it also allowed her romantic relationship to develop.
“I was the first in my family to move in with a partner before marriage,” Rhea tells Stylist. “I come from a Catholic and Indian family, so it’s a double whammy, and sex before marriage is a bit of a no-go. For my parents, though, their concern was ensuring that I was 100% sure of my decision.”
Despite flying the nest, one thing all these women have in common is still feeling a strong connection to their culture and heritage. For Kieran, she’s “never felt more in touch” with her Indian roots and feels proud taking a “chicken and rice dish in all its fragrant glory into the office”.
For Rhea, a first-generation immigrant, food has also played an important role in reminding her of home. It’s something she’s enjoyed sharing with her boyfriend too. “One of my personal highlights from lockdown was FaceTiming my mum and learning how to cook her best Indian recipe, which I took for granted while living at home.”
It’s true that there are many challenges when it comes to choosing to move out as a South Asian woman, but those who take this step are living more authentically than ever.
As a community, I believe we need to do more to encourage this level of autonomy rather than sticking to outdated traditions that often don’t bring us the happiness we deserve.
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Images: courtesy of Kim Bansi, Virali Patel
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Written by Kim Bansi