By Maya Jay Varadaraj
A couple of weeks ago I posted an image of my work titled “Recalling A Conversation That Was Most Impolite” on my Instagram. The miniature painted photograph shows me leaning on an engine, looking far off into the distance.
I remember laughing with my cousin as I titled the piece. “This title is hilarious” she said, “so dramatic, just like you”. She was right, it captured my theatrics, humor, and knack for whining. To engage my followers I posted a story of when an aunty had told me that my skin looked burnt, and my response to her, and asked for a story in return.
“an impolite conversation; share one to hear one” the post read.
Little did I know that I would be holding space for South Asian women to realize we all have one thing in common; an insulting aunty.
As the stories rolled in, so did the comments. With permission, I shared the stories, paraphrasing so as to keep the sender anonymous. The majority of the stories I received related to colorism, which then segued into body shaming, sexism, and subsequently sexual harassment.
Sharing my own stories, publically, amongst similar stories made me feel a sense of camaraderie with other South Asian women that I had never felt before. As I thought about it, I realized that most of these insults were hurled at us in places that were supposed to be safe, by people that we trust, and love. They are packaged as jokes, preferences, or cultural practices that we, women, would be stupid to question.
Insults are packaged as jokes, preferences, or cultural practices that we, women, would be stupid to question.
These insults create a fictional other that we grow to resent, which in my mind was every other South Asian woman who was “fairer”, “thinner”, “less hairy”, or “better behaved” than me. They are designed to make us feel isolated and alone.
It is clear that we are exhausted with the persistent intergenerational abuse, but it seems there are two main reasons that prevent us from speaking up. One; we are insulted in intimate environments like our own homes, or relatives homes, or in the company of friends and family. Two; we are predominantly insulted by other women. To be insulted in these circumstances forces us to internalize the abuse, brush it under the carpet, or laugh it off.
Here’s a story I want to share with you
I was running around frantically the day before my engagement ceremony. I was coordinating the decor, picking up family and friends from the airport, entertaining two sets of in-laws, all while trying to be polite. I was wearing a parrot green, paisley printed salwar khameez suit - it’s perfectly modest in every way and I always feel lovely in it.
I had to walk my mother and future mother-in-law through the venue and there it started:
“Why haven’t you changed your clothes?” my mother in law asks .
“Ya please ask her” my mother chimes in.
“I haven’t had the time, I’ve been running around all day and this outfit is quite nice” I said, exhausted.
“From now on your main priority is to impress your in-laws, and your father in law is very particular about what you wear so please don’t wear this anymore” my mother in law explains.
My mother didn’t say anything. She was the one who had picked out my green outfit.
My eyes teared up and I didn’t know what to say. My entire upbringing, my education, my experiences, and my efforts were all reduced down to impressing my in-laws and I was left seething.
I couldn’t find the right words to articulate my anger, partly because I didn’t know who to direct my anger towards - My mother who didn’t protect me, or my mother-in-law who was trying to erase me.
I had just exhibited my thesis intending to empower women, and here I was with no voice, nothing to say to empower myself.
I had to ask myself why I was giving hall passes to aunties and uncles, when I was demanding societal change. Aren’t societies made up of aunties and uncles after all? I had to ask myself why I was giving hall passes to aunties and uncles, when I was demanding societal change. Aren’t societies made up of aunties and uncles after all?
Khandayati, Installation, 2017
Let’s Talk About it
Does the way we respond to our own abuse inform how we engage with abuse and discrimination at a societal level? How often do we find ourselves not participating, asking people to laugh it off, and victim blaming?
I was thinking about how this blog could initiate a conversation, so I shared my thoughts with my family members. I brought up this particular incident, amongst others as examples. My mother, my husband, my two brothers, my sister-in-law, and her mother were all present.
I explained to them how this incident made me feel, and I asked them if a similar incident were to recur or happen to someone else how would they respond differently knowing that I or some other woman might need their support?
The conversation was tense and each family member had their opinion. My mother felt attacked, she had also been upset by the incident but didn’t feel it was her place to say anything. Is it ever our place to speak up for our mothers, daughters, and sisters?
I told her that she made me feel alone and that she wasn’t upholding the values that she had brought me up with. It was hard for her to hear, but she needed to hear it. Tears were shed, harsh words were exchanged but there was a silent agreement that we need to shift perspectives and take action if we want change.
We need to stand up for ourselves and ask for what we want and what we need. I say this without ignoring the circumstances that allow me to say it. The repercussions of standing up for myself would result in a heated argument or with someone ending up with a bruised ego at worst. However, I truly believe that if those of us that have some level of privilege in being able to push the bar forward don’t at least attempt to do so, the needle may never move. And the burden being placed on the shoulders who lack the agency to do so only grows.
If not us, then who. If not now, then when? There is strength in numbers.
Recall a conversation that was most impolite...let’s talk about it.
About the Author
Maya Varadaraj is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist, and designer. Her practice engages South Asian material culture to redefine feminine narratives and representations. Through the use and observance of material culture as a material in itself, her work makes social commentaries pertaining to gender inequality, hierarchies of consciousness, and animal studies. Varadaraj's work has been exhibited internationally at Vitra Design Museum, Museo Del Disseny Barcelona, Salone De Mobile, Mana Contemporary New Jersey, Medium Tings and Assembly Room New York.