Before watching Murdered by My Father, I was concerned as to how the show would depict South Asian people, especially women. As I tweeted, “Hopefully it will not shroud South Asian women with the stereotypical victimhood and will be sensitive to the issues” – that is, the real issues we face in everyday life.
When I watched it, I was pleasantly surprised; it was a powerful, engaging drama which at times was too close to home for comfort. It showed how families can get embroiled in the control of women with devastating effects when women reject an arranged marriage and choose to form an intimate relationship. I congratulate all who were involved in the making of it.
But why was my initial response guarded? Why was I worried about something that is increasing the visibility of South Asian women on major media platforms and social media? While this important issue needs to be discussed more widely, I can’t help feeling it is, again, another manifestation of the same Orientalist genre: arranged marriage, forced marriage and so-called “honour based violence” that gets dusted down and brought out to prove that South Asian women choose to form relationships that place us solely as victims.
People’s perceptions about arranged marriages have cast an unwelcome shadow over any conversations about my relationships for as long as I can remember. At the age of fifteen, I was talking with my white school friends about what we were going to do after our exams. One of them turned round and declared, “Well, we know that you’re going to have an arranged marriage as soon as you leave school!”
This was my first encounter with a record that has been played time and time again, and not by me. In my second year at university my friend, the late Maz Harris, invited me and several others over for a meal. There was a young white couple also attending. After an exchange of pleasantries, the first question they asked me was whether I would have an arranged marriage.
During my final year at university I was interviewed by IBM for a software programmer role. I expected to answer the usual interview questions about how to design and implement software. Instead I was asked if I considered myself to be a “typical Asian woman”. Incensed, I questioned them: “What do you mean, ‘a typical Asian woman’? In fact, what is a ‘typical’ white woman?” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to a party at the home of close friends, where I hoped to have a relaxed evening. No such luck. The conversation was moving swiftly in separate little groups in that nice middle class fashion where people adopt a friendly and engaging façade, when all of a sudden I heard, “Well, you obviously didn’t have an arranged marriage”. All eyes turned to me; there was a sudden silence as everyone waited for my answer.
When I retold this experience to my fifteen-year-old daughter she said, “Mum, you should have just responded with a decisive ‘No!’ and changed the subject”. But I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time. Instead I fell into my usual trap of speaking for and defending my community. In similar situations I always feel as though I am required to speak for all South Asian women to ensure that we are not thought of as completely submissive to and undermined by our partners, always walking three paces behind them.
What I achieve in society as a professional, what sort of parent, wife, sister and daughter I am is irrelevant – I get reduced, primarily by white people, to this singular and inaccurate label of “arranged marriage” due to my appearance.
Early in my career as a young software engineer, I wanted to go on holiday to India, my first ever visit. I applied for some unpaid leave. I was summoned to my manager’s office and during the ensuing conversation he asked if I was going to India to get married. I explained I wanted extended leave to visit family including my grandparents who I had never met. I realised he had in fact presumed the reason for my holiday was to fulfil an arranged marriage, and felt compelled to give a long account of why that was not the case. It was as though I had a duty to educate him about being a British South Asian woman in order to erode his stereotypical thoughts.
But this time, at my friend’s house, I felt angry. This woman at the party was intrusive in a place where I am usually comfortable and unguarded. I felt as though my personal life had been laid bare for all to examine, question, and demand responses to. My white English husband was not questioned – likely because I was an easier target to interrogate, with the expectation that I would oblige in that oh-so-Asian subservient manner.
Of course South Asian women do face gender oppression. We have to deal with forced marriage, violence and abuse that seek to control our bodies, mind and sexuality. But when we are further subjected to verbal oppression by strangers at supposedly pleasant social gatherings in a way which smacks of superiority then it is not surprising when we become defensive.
Yes, initially my parents weren’t amenable to my marriage choice. In fact communication terminated between me and my parents and siblings for over a decade. But this was in no way an exclusively Asian occurrence. Ten minutes earlier, the woman who questioned me had been telling the story of her daughter being with an “unsuitable” partner. Rather than pointing out this irony, I chose to try and help her understand by drawing comparisons between her attitude and my mother’s, instead of her ignorance being her problem. That one event ruined my evening, and in the car on the way home I ranted to my husband that I would never be totally free from people’s judgements.
Furthermore my past decisions are impacting my children’s interactions. My children get asked questions about how my family responded to my decision to marry their father. It’s been easier for me to deal with having a social evening ruined or even missing out on a job opportunity. But it’s costing my children now too; that’s how stereotypes work. As a parent now, it feels just as painful to see and hear my children giving accounts of their experiences of people’s prejudices.
I’ve learnt that I have been deluding myself thinking that going to university, my professional achievements, and my voluntary work is what defines me and shapes how people see me. Only now am I realising that to strangers, particularly white strangers, I am the personification of victimhood. That’s what most people mean when they ask us about arranged marriage: interpreting us as women without agency or independence of thought. We are excluded from the generosity of spirit that is accorded to a white man with all his achievements and contribution to society, as clearly depicted by my husband’s freedom from having to answer the arranged marriage question. No, it’s about unpicking and delving into my private life.
One may suggest that all my questioners were expressing some concern for me: a possible hint of a forced marriage in India, congratulatory sentiment that an Asian woman was studying Computer Science and seeking work in a male dominated sector, an expression of feminist solidarity. However, these weren’t enlightened sentiments; they weren’t coming from a place where the many intricacies of oppression I face both through my race and gender were on their radar. Their questions fuel their stereotypes of how I am perceived, and erase the need for them to ever see me as an individual.
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Kalwinder Sandhu is a black feminist activist, writer and researcher. She is currently researching British South Asian women’s experiences of departing from arranged marriages and choosing their own partners.
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