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Mother’s Tongue

By Sanika Mahajan, Harvard College '21

Over the years I have become increasingly aware that I inherited many immigrant-isms from my mother. The habits that I had always scoffingly deemed as “so desi” as a teenager have nevertheless trickled down into the crevices of my American sensibilities. I cannot seem to stop secretly stashing and then washing plastic utensils for repeated use. I wince, despite myself, when someone walks into my room with sneakers treading on the carpet. I roll my eyes at spoiled children, thinking, “bachpan me thik kiya tha to…” If only they’d been disciplined as children...


It took me much longer to realize that I also inherited my mother’s pain. 


She tried desperately to shield me from it. The first time an older relative asked me pointedly when I was going to learn to cook, my mom deftly shifted the discussion to my prowess in school. For years after that, she refused to teach me. The first time I cried over a boy, my mother reminded me that I was going to be the financially-independent one: unlike so many women in my family, I could - and would - demand better. 


For some years, I believed myself to be that same impregnable beacon of hope that my mother brought me to this country to be. I was undaunted by math and science. I felt no anxiety at crossing streets alone. No one so much as blinked if I wore shorts. This entire “being a girl” thing was going just fine. 


Two years ago, I was sexually assaulted. Suddenly, I could not bring myself to explain my tears to my mother. I knew she would cry with me. 


Over the following years, I would go on to struggle with the decision of whether to report the incident through a formal channel. Of course, I had many reasons to be anxious. Perhaps most prominent, at the back of my mind, I was always thinking about my mother. At least my silence meant that she would not have to know that despite her best efforts, I had ultimately felt that pain. 


The experiences of South Asian-American survivors of sexual violence cannot be fully articulated without understanding the stories taking place in South Asia itself. (After all, who would we be without our mothers?) The #MeToo movement in India took off similarly enough to its American counterpart. In October 2018, actress Tanushree Dutta publicly accused actor Nana Patekar of sexually harassing her on the set of the 2008 movie Horn ‘Ok’ Pleassss, alleging that he had demanded she do intimate dance steps with him. Although she publicly addressed the incident that day, she faced shaming and threats of legal action that eventually prompted her to leave Bollywood. The reinvigoration of this case in 2018 prompted an onslaught of female artists and journalists that publicly accused men in their industries of harassment. 


One year on, #MeToo in India is at standstill of sorts. Police closed Dutta’s case without pressing charges. Journalist Priya Ramani, who led a slew of women in alleging charges against ex-editor MJ Akbar, is herself being sued for defamation. Collectives of men and women have begun fighting to “protect men” from false allegations. With seemingly few aliies in the homeland, perhaps it is not difficult to imagine that South Asian immigrant women in the United States report sexual violence at extremely low rates. 


To learn more, I talked to Sujata Warrier, director of the New York City Program of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and expert on gender-based violence in South Asia. She spoke to me about the numerous ways in which South Asian immigrant women have been taught to submit to men in their lives. 


“It’s an underlying theme when daughters are should want to get married and then when you do, he has the right to your body,” she said. Warrier also noted that many of these women may have their immigration status tied to a man, and that many of them are married to a man that was chosen for them. 


When it comes to reporting, South Asian-American women are fighting a battle on two fronts. For one, they must grapple with stigma, and risk triggering judgement in the form of gossip or isolation within their own cultural community. In South Asia, sex education is still minimal for both young boys and girls, and child abuse is still rampant. It is much more common to report domestic violence, with its tangible physical evidence, than to launch a conversation into the intangible. But even more saliently, Warrier observed, South Asians are always trying to fight “pervasive racism by upholding their status as a model minority.” (In other words, there is great incentive to cause little trouble in a country where they already may not be entirely welcome.) 


Why do South Asian-American women not turn to their own families and immediate circles for support? “It is more difficult [for them] to talk about or to raise public awareness about because it is seen as sensitive, and in some ways, taboo,” answers Nisha Varia, Advocacy Director for Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch. If the South Asian community were to become more receptive to discussion, Varia notes, it would “make it more possible for [survivors] to seek resources and know their options.” 


During these conversations, more than anything, I wanted to know how such a phenomenon carried over to a younger generation of South Asian women, like myself. In some ways, this was a project of self-excavation; I wanted to learn why was I so reluctant to speak about my own experience. When asked about this, Warrier told me that women of my generation actually seek outside help after sexual assault about three times faster than our mothers. In other words, while our mothers wait for seven years, we disclose our experiences within two-and-a-half. That is a slow, but sure, sign of progress. 


Unsurprisingly, we still struggle to tell our own mothers.


I wonder why it is that I can’t share this story with my mother in the same way I would say, “I fell and scraped my knee.” When I come across stories of sexual violence survivors and their families fighting for justice, side-by-side on a national stage, I think of the pain they are sharing, the burden they can shoulder together. Why can’t I do the same? I guess I don’t want her to worry too much. Oh, it’s definitely because South Asian families don’t talk about “these things.” Maybe...I am ashamed to admit to her that I feel the same pain she worked so hard to shield from me. 


In the end, I do not think our mothers would want to be silent. 

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