“It takes a village to raise a child” is an age-old proverb originating from African Igbo and Native American culture, and one that many South-Asian families can no doubt attest to. South Asian women are rarely done justice; depictions are often static and seeped in misogyny. Our real life experiences are so far removed. So on this International Women’s Day, we want to highlight the indispensable role women have in immigrant families, in our own families, by sharing a “love letter” to the women who raised us.
According to Nationwide’s Great British Family Survey, the average British household is made up of two parents, two siblings, and a dog. I, like many other first and second generation British-Asians, grew up just outside of London in what they call an “extended family” household; 13 of us to be exact. Think Kevin McAllister's Christmas Morning in Home Alone…everyday. Despite being technically “sisterless”, I’ve never felt that way, and unlike my peers in the playground, my first formative “sisterhood” lay in the hands of my mother, aunties and cousins.
For as long as I can remember, I've been a witness to the power of platonic love between women; the type of love that romantic love can never replace – what I can only describe as the true meaning of “sisterhood”. It’s both a power and privilege to know that at every turn there is a group of women to both celebrate life’s successes, but also to help buffer the hardships of life’s transitions - women who just “get it”. Women who hold each other accountable, but hold each other regardless.
It’s both a power and privilege to know that at every turn there is a group of women to both celebrate life’s successes. Women who just “get it”.
For me, my mother is my driving force, whose unwavering support and belief has carried me through my teens and twenties; there are aunties who taught me the power of prayer and the art of tadka daal, the one who sat with me on my kitchen counter the day I lost my grandmother; there are the cousins who who’ve soothed sleepless nights whilst a parent lay in hospital, who I’ve cried and laugh-cried with, and the now sister-in-law who held me through my first heartbreak. With numerous studies highlighting the correlation between female friendships and improved levels in women’s overall health, successes and happiness there’s no doubt in my mind that being exposed to this type of community from a young age, filled with multifaceted, intelligent, and supportive women has surely impacted my own approach to friendships and my overall wellbeing.
I was never one of those girls that had a poster of my idol up on a wall, but knowing that I’ve had, and continue to have, a strong circle of women around me has helped me both exist and thrive in spaces not built for me; in both the corporate world and entrepreneurship. It’s taught me the real power of sisterhood through compassion, connection and true friendship; these women are my lifeline.
Navigating culture, family and selfhood was upon my mother’s shoulders in her early 30’s – having sacrificed her 20’s to her family. At 30 something, she was now raising two teenage daughters as a single parent – which to the South Asian community in the West Midlands where I was raised, was nothing less than a mind-blowing experience. Not only do I recall passing comments on how my mother should have handled her marriage, but also comments on how her decision (to leave an extremely toxic relationship) would negatively affect my sister and I. Still, she took these in her stride and stuck by her decision. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, seeing my mum manoeuvre that part of her life taught me that sometimes selfishness is necessary. To be able to give back to her daughters, my mother needed to fill her own cup first. A lesson I have gone on to learn in my own adulthood.
Whilst she began pursuing her career in nursing, my sister and I found ourselves spending much more time with our aunties – my mum's two older sisters who formed a double household (a popular setup in the South Asian community). This felt completely normal, having never called them my masi’s (aunties in Punjabi ), but instead copying my older cousins and calling them both “mum”. They have always been my safe space. Although they share the same DNA as my mother, my aunties played completely different roles. They sacrificed their lives for their families, taking on the traditional role of South Asian mothers – cooking, cleaning, and maintaining a well-run home. They engrained the power of prayer into me and taught me that not everything needs a reaction - a contrast to my mum's passionate and resilient personality.
To be able to give back to her daughters, my mother needed to fill her own cup first. A lesson I have gone on to learn in my own adulthood.
As a child I always wondered who I wanted to be like – my dream chasing mother who no longer suppressed her feelings, or my family-oriented aunties who sacrificed their whole lives for their families - society's idea of perfect mums.
However, upon my own journey in life, I’ve learnt shattering glass ceilings requires a multifaceted approach, which for me, was absorbed by sharing my years as a young girl with a community of role models from whom I chose to embrace different, but equally admirable traits. My mum's passion serves me in my career and as I fight for equality for other women who look and grew up like me, whilst the softness of my aunties has taught me to talk to myself kindly and extend grace to others. Together, and unconsciously, they taught me to break out of the box, to embrace my multifaceted identity. Funnily enough, this is now a lesson I attempt to ingrain into my young sister and nieces as I take on the role of their role model, only wishing I can be as wonderful as my own were.
On International Women’s Day, we’re reflecting on how our own respective “sisterhoods”, and female role models have shaped us. From our strengths in forming authentic female friendships to our passion for mentoring and social mobility, the effects are stark. Our experiences are no doubt a likely catalyst for us co-founding the online community, NotYourWife, a digital platform for the South Asian diaspora. The inherent need for a sisterhood, combined with the fact that so many women miss out on having these crucial, “in real life” sisterhoods has undoubtedly been pivotal to our monumental growth of 30,000+ in just eighteen months.
Further, the impact of having female role models on leadership and success is vast, and studies show that gender stereotyping can act as a sizeable barrier to women in leadership. Whilst patriarchy remains prevalent and deep-rooted within South Asian cultures, being surrounded by women that continuously and consistently shattered stereotypical gender norms has equipped us to reject these and strive for more.
Seeing is believing, and having a strong sisterhood around us meant we were always inspired to be more than stereotypes and gender biases, as was the case for 34-year-old Child and Youth Counsellor, Rav Kaur Dhaliwal who is part of our online community and was raised in Ontario by her four older sisters. “In our family, there were no gender norms,” Dhaliwal says. “We were all raised to be independent and think for ourselves. I grew up watching my sisters study and wear makeup but still cut the grass, take out the garbage, play sports, and help pay household bills.” Whilst wider community members would express their concern over the lack of male figures in her family, Dhaliwal says she has “never felt the absence of a brother, especially being raised by four strong women who showed me that what you’re capable of is more about will power and less about gender.”
According to Forbes, role models (and essentially sisterhood) have three core benefits for women. Not only do they represent what is possible, they inspire women to aim higher, and often demonstrate the behaviours of how to rise which spur further ambition. This is particularly true for Warwickshire based BBC presenter Monika Plaha who, in her own words, was “single handedly brought up by three iconic women. Mum, Nani (grandmother) and sister Neela.”
Plaha, who is based in the Midlands, chose to reject stereotypical gender norms by pursuing a nontraditional career path in presenting, despite initially being faced with judgemental comments. She was determined to make her dreams a reality and attributes this back to her grandmother who is a partition survivor who came to England in her 50’s and went to school for the first time at the age of 60. Plaha describes her sisterhood as “everything”, with the women around her not only supporting her dreams, but also following their own, essentially supporting our statement that women who have strong sisterhoods and female role models around them are more likely to strive to break down barriers.
As we’ve gotten older, visits are fewer and farther between; having both moved away from our family homes, and with the women who raised us embarking upon their own journeys – some married, some mothers, some thriving abroad. But this unspoken bond remains untarnished. In the words of novelist Alice Adams, “I think women know how to be friends. That’s what saves our lives.”
To the village that raised us, who provided much needed support systems, who recognised the exhaustion of our parents from time to time, who not only taught but also encouraged us to chase after our dreams, we say thank you. Thank you for your guidance and kindness. We only hope that when all is said and done, we made the same impact on someone else that you did in our lives.