When my mother was 19, she was forced into an arranged marriage. Her new husband, my father, became abusive shortly after the wedding. 3 years later, she had the courage to divorce him, an unprecedented step to take in Punjabi communities in Britain at the time. After the divorce, older members of the community, particularly older women, repeatedly asked her: “What have you done? How will you cope by yourself?”, “You know that if you had had a boy things would be different?”, “How will you get your daughter an education alone?”. I now study Modern Languages at Cambridge University. I grew up in a home full of love thanks to my mother and her sisters, and we never heard from my father again. The strength that my mum had to escape a life of misery that so many South Asian women continue to face inspires me everyday. Unfortunately, being a Punjabi woman brings challenges such as these, dictating the type of life you will live as soon as you are born a girl. However, this is just considered as a ‘duty’, with the conversation surrounding these issues almost non-existent.
Before I began studying here at Cambridge, I felt a strange sense of pride in my background. I was so proud of myself, coming from a single-parent, working class home (at one point my mum was raising me on £6,000 a year), going to a shit school and somehow ending up at one of the best universities in the world. However, I had no idea how difficult it would be fitting into an environment where everyone else’s privileges were shoved in my face. From friends, to boyfriends, to people I didn’t even care about on my timeline, it seemed like everyone went on three holidays a year, had a ton of friends from home who threw lavish 21st birthday parties, and had parents who had been married for their whole lives and now come and see them once a term for a family formal. All things I didn’t have. For me, on the other hand, the pain of my family history had never felt heavier. The pride I felt before coming here vanished overnight, I became bitter and resentful, and my mental health took a bit of a turn.
Then, I found FLY. Being around such a strong group of women of colour, all with their own hardships and similar feelings to mine about the life we have here, helped me to heal. Instead of feeling like I’d been dealt some kind of horrible card in life, I began to see that I wasn’t alone. I realised that there are other women like me, who carry within them stories of hardship and heartache of some sort. But, I learnt that that doesn’t need to define us. I am now starting to rebuild from that vague sense of loss (I don’t know if you can feel a loss for something you never had but anyway) I had during first year, and I now use the stories of my mum and her three sisters, who raised me together, as a source of strength. Yes, Cambridge is difficult. Yes, it can be lonely and isolating. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to get up in the morning and go to your supervisions. But, being here is an act of resilience itself.
I have began working with a project called Pink Ladoo. In South Asian cultures, traditional sweets, called ladoos, are handing out at the birth of a new boy in a family. The moment ladoos are given out for the birth of a son, and not a daughter, is the moment the problem is created again. Working to eradicate these harmful gender-biased traditions, and opening up a debate about these practices, instead of just accepting them as ‘tradition’, is the first step in creating a better life for South Asian women across the world. Pink Ladoo is a project so close to my heart, and I encourage each person who reads this post to read more into the work that we do, and to talk about it with their families, friends, and anyone else that will listen. I now have a life full of opportunities that my mother never got a chance to have, and I want to same for all girls my age, and the girls of the generations to come. Find out more about the project here: http://www.pinkladoo.org/.
Happy International Women’s day xo