Raising My Beti

04/03/2015 10:55 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015
Praveenkumar Palanichamy via Getty Images

I am an Indian-American mother, raising an Indian-American daughter, my beti.

In many ways, I have the same fears, doubts and worries as any other mother. But as a first-generation immigrant, it is important to me to raise a daughter who is aware of her ethnic roots. I accept undeniably that my daughter is growing up in America, but I want her identity to include a conglomeration of western and Indian values and traditions, the best of both worlds. I want her to speak Hindi, to appreciate and enjoy Indian music and art, to understand Indian history, because I want her to feel a connection to her heritage and not think of it as alien.

It is inevitable that my daughter will learn about the Indian culture not just from her parents, but also from our extended family and our friends who are Indians or Indian-Americans. She will learn by observing and absorbing what this community shows to her. But as with any community, there is a wide spectrum of ideologies and orthodoxy in the diaspora. And therein lies my dilemma. For every Indian cultural value I want to pass on to her, there are plenty that I do not want her to adopt, primarily those that have to do with the treatment of her sex. Old school culture has held back generations of women in India and exists like a sickly viral strain that still manages to thrive in the face of societal progression and education in India as well as the Indian diaspora in America. And I don't want my little girl getting sick.

To be clear, and to state what should be obvious, neither India nor the Indian-American diaspora has a monopoly on perpetuating gender inequality. Even in the U.S., women are still fighting for fundamental fairness with wages and control over their reproductive systems. But my focus, selfishly, is on my daughter, and the countless girls like her who are being raised by or amidst a society that places upon them limitations or expectations, however high or low, simply because they are girls. All too often, Indian-American children raised in the U.S. are taught to conform to Indian cultural norms that stem from a painfully patriarchal system, not to mention that often the Indian immigrant parents are raising their children based on how Indian society was decades ago, when they first immigrated. With all the competing ideologies, it is imperative that I am loud and clear in the messages I want to pass on to my daughter.

What I have on my side is that I am, right now, the biggest influence in my daughter's life. She's young and still wants to spend time with me and chat with me. But as the social influences in her life grow, my voice may fade into the background. So, while I still have her attention, I have to teach her, through example and through conversation, values that are important to me, starting with these:

1. Skin Deep: I cannot be clearer: the color of your skin is irrelevant. You will hear often that a book is not to be judged by its cover. And yet, many in the Indian diaspora, much like Indian society itself, are preoccupied with the precise shade of brown each of us is. Even when a baby is born, skin color comes into play: "he's got his dad's eyes and his light skin" or, "she's got dimples like her mother, and also her color," or "he's darker than his sister." And it's often meant innocently, just an observation that is being made, like identifying a car as being red or a mug as being blue. Except that this "innocent" identification of skin color is a perpetuation of our fascination with assigning value to the color of skin. If you're a girl, the spotlight is that much brighter. Find a family seeking a bride for their son and you'll often find them seeking a "fair" bahu (and a thin one too, of course), at least one who is lighter-skinned than their groom. Our distance from "the motherland" hasn't diluted our focus on skin color. When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America in 2013, many Indian-Americans congratulated her, while pointing out the irony that she was likely too dark to win a pageant in India, never mind that these commentators were themselves focusing on her skin color, albeit from a soap box.

So, beti, be prepared to listen and ignore. There are people who will comment on the shade of your skin, who will judge you based on how "tan" you are, who may disregard you because you're not fair-skinned enough or may value you more because you're "not that dark." While your non-Indian friends will talk about lying out by the pool and working on their tan, your Indian elders will discourage you from spending time out in the sun. People may ply you with offers of home remedies and products to lighten your complexion. And some of these people, maybe most of them, will believe they mean well and are "looking out for you." Because in India, being fair may give you a step up; lighter skin is more likely to get you a better job, a seat on a bus and plenty of unwanted attention. But this isn't India. This is the United States; while I don't deny that racism exists in this country, you're up against a double whammy if the people of your own ethnicity also hold you up or push you down because of the color of your skin. So, forgive these "well-intentioned" people for their ignorance and pay no heed to them. They are perpetuating the very problem they are trying to protect you from. So go out and play heartily in the sun (but don't forget wear your sunscreen!).

2. Girl Power: Many families are embarrassingly unabashed about their preference for boys over girls. In other families, the birth of a girl is viewed as good luck, with the baby said to embody the goddess of wealth and prosperity -- no pressure there, little one! In some parts of India, families host a celebration when the daughter gets her first period, because, honestly, what good is a girl who can't bear children? And yet, when that time of the month does come around, a girl is treated as unclean, an outcast who is shunned from temples, prayers or even the kitchen in some of the most orthodox of homes. The daughter is the izzat, the honor of the home; but don't mistake that position for a pedestal because if ever a man dishonors you, fingers will blame you, how you speak, how you dress, the company you keep, anything at all as long as you can be blamed. In the old country, while sons carry on the family name and are assumed to take care of the family, a daughter will simply leave her family to get married and take care of another: her husband and her in-laws. We may have Hindu goddesses of wealth, knowledge and empowerment, but those sculpted, decorated images are frozen in Indian temples. Indian girls are expected to be demure, obedient, and subservient.

But not my daughter. Not you. You are not the izzat of our home. That is not your burden. What I want for you is to lead a life where you make decisions without worrying about what others may say about me or our family. You should have independent ambitions. I will do my best to give you the education and opportunities you deserve. With what you are given, I hope that you will contribute to society, work for humanity, be passionate, dream big and work hard. Make a mark, in whatever field you choose, but make the decision for you. Do not plan your future based on being someone's wife, daughter-in-law or mother. Whether in a classroom, a boardroom or just in the company of family, share your opinions and your ideas because they are valid and relevant. You do not have to ask permission to speak and you don't have to allow being interrupted. Be your own advocate, kind-hearted but strong in conviction, polite but assertive. Nothing is out of your reach just because you are a female.

3. Comfort Zone: In Indian culture, we are all one big family, in theory. Every elder is your grandparent, every man is your uncle, every woman is your aunty, every child you meet at the playground can be a bhaiya or didi. We take comfort in these labels because they engender a sense of community and safety. And undeniably, many of us who grew up in India fondly share nostalgia of playing outside late into the night, running freely into a neighbor's flat and sharing a meal with them, like members of our family.

While I appreciate this value of community, genuinely, I would be naïve to think that this community always equals safety. The truth is that you do not demonstrate respect for someone simply by labeling them as a relative. Sometimes this can blur the lines for you on who can and cannot be trusted and could put you in a vulnerable situation when you feel upset or threatened by someone.

So beti, know this: You should respect elders for their age and experience and respect your teachers as people who impart knowledge to you. But also trust your instinct. You are never too young to know your own comfort zone and if someone makes you uncomfortable, speak up loudly, no matter who that person may be. Disregard any label we have assigned for them, as a relative, an elder, a teacher, a community or religious leader; disregard our relationship with them; disregard any other notion that may fog up your instincts and know that I trust you. Do not doubt for a second that you are my priority, and I will do all that I can to protect you.

4. Life Partner and Marriage: Find a life partner who is worthy of your love and your intellect. Someone who encourages you to dream and supports you turning your dreams into reality, someone who knows unquestionably that your aspirations are just as important as his. And if you find such a person and your relationship turns into marriage, I imagine that will be one of the happiest days of my life. Indian marriages, even in the U.S., are known for being extraordinary, with celebrations lasting several days and guest lists so long that the event can rarely be called "intimate." And, in the name of tradition, oh, the giving of "gifts!"

India has made illegal the giving of dowry at a marriage, but ask any Indian and they will tell you it still goes on, within every social class, every caste and at every level of education. Sometimes the groom's family is explicit in their demands; at other times, the bride's family is ready with the gifts, complicit in assigning a value to their own daughter. As though without such gifts, their daughter would not be worth marrying. As though marriage is worth the financial woes suffered by far too many brides' families. And it happens in Indian-American families too, if for no other reason, then because "that's the way it is." In addition to paying for the bride's trousseau and the wedding, the bride's family may give sets of jewelry, or furniture for the new home or gifts for the in-laws. We don't call it dowry, of course not; but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck ...

So, beti, at your wedding, there will be no giving of solicited "gifts." Not in the name of religion or culture, tradition or society. Anyone lucky enough to share his life with you should accept you as you are, knowing that his life will only improve with you in it. You will contribute to his happiness just as he will to yours. I am passing no burden on to him and he is doing me no favors by marrying you. And for those same reasons, if ever you find yourself in an unhappy in your marriage, know that, without a doubt, you can return home to me. Your marriage to someone does not change that we are family. (And if your life partner is a woman, the above still applies, every word.)

My values stem from my upbringing in India and the U.S., taking from each qualities that have allowed me to be not just the best woman, but the best person I can be. As proud as I am of my Indian ancestry, the truth is that Indian society, in India and abroad, has skeletons, some in the closet, but many out in broad daylight. And if we continue to pretend that they do not exist or to excuse their existence in the name of tradition, then shame on us. Our children are impressionable and what we say and do impacts them. I want my daughter to know that while she could not choose her Indian ancestry, she can choose how it impacts her life. I want her to know that she is enough as she is and no one else need set cultural boundaries for her to stay within or limits for her to cross. Because what good is it raising a "cultured girl" if that very culture is holding her back in a man's world?

A shorter version of this post first appeared at India Abroad.