i spent the entirety of today with J, free from the cultural toxicity and the unbelievably infuriating four words that i’m forced to hear every day; what will people say? but this freedom only lasted until i came home at 8pm.
growing up, i’d heard manushe kita khoyba at least as many times as i’d had to pray every single day. i’d been cautioned against becoming like the women who run away for a man, the women who get divorced, the women who defy their parents, the women who never get married, the women who never wear hijab, the women who wear mini skirts or tight shirts, the women who have babies before marriage, the women who are autonomous and independent and free thinkers.
being anything other than what was expected of me was shameful and deeply embarrassing, horrifying and against our cultural norms and values.
women like the ones i mentioned above were ones that didn’t fit into the societal mould; they didn’t fit into this culture, this image of what a real woman should be. they were cautionary tales, a warning: don’t be like them and you won’t be exiled.
these stories lived on to deter us from straying, from making the choices that went against our parents wishes (see: demands). years ago, someone i know ran away at 16 to be with a man twice her senior, only that relationship never worked out and the man ended up in prison. he was a piece of shit and obviously a pedophile, and there’s a lot more to the backstory, but the outcome of her actions was people, that the family didn’t even know, talking about her.
what she did was on the tongues of complete strangers, for decades, as a warning, as a tragic tale of a daughter who ruined the family izzat. it was told and retold and retold and retold, constantly discussed and laughed about too. i was told to never repeat those mistakes.
she wasn’t gone for long though. she came back to her family.
the thing is, however, the way people in this culture always talk about and shame a woman for her choices or don’t let her make the choices she needs to make to learn from her mistakes, or the way they ostracise her for making said choices. i’d always been brought up to believe that the only way to live a good and happy life was to do everything i possibly can, and more, to make my parents happy. to make them proud. to not ruin their izzat: their reputation, their honour, their name.
i was raised with the belief that if i ever became anything than what my parents wanted me to be, or did anything they didn’t deem right, then i would shame not just myself, but my father too. i would become one of the women who get shunned by the family, waiting or wishing or praying to be able to come back home, despite how suffocating it is. because after all, home is home even if it doesn’t feel like it. it is still where we grew up.
and it is a place i hate being at, but it is a place i don’t want to be forced to leave without ever being invited back in.
there is a fear that it is buried deep inside me. not just a fear, but guilt, sadness and already, a sense of loss. i have been told to never become the woman who disappoints and embarrasses my parents by choosing a man myself. to dress a certain way.
i cannot exist without feeling this overwhelming guilt.
i grew up trying to live the life my parents would be proud of, trying to mould myself into someone who fits into their ideology of the Perfect Daughter. and as an only child, and as a girl, the pressure is heavy and weighs on me, mightier than a mountain and stifling every breath. it only lets a semblance of light through.
i am supposed to live quietly and without complaint, repaying my parents for raising me even though that was their duty as parents. i am supposed to put them before me, with every decision i make, even though they won’t be here forever and i will be living some of my life without them, with the decisions i’ve made for them. to please them.
i am meant to hold onto a culture that i despise, because of how sexist and misogynistic it is, where a girl is taught to be ashamed of, and hide, her body from the moment she is born, where she is blamed for being assaulted at 9 years old, where she is told to keep quiet because nobody would marry her, where she is told to not take it further because of what people would say.
my sole purpose in this world is to please my parents and make every decision revolve around them, and feel guilty for wanting a life outside of what they want, and to make some future brown husband happy and cook and clean and tidy and do everything for him and his parents. the customs my parents brought over from bangladesh is so ingrained in them, despite their migration decades ago, that they can’t see how times have changed.
my family, not just my parents, still hold onto the cultural values and customs from a country they no longer live in, thinking that everything we do must be to protect their honour. their reputation. because it’s not as if our life is our own, and we don’t live for other people.
i am made to feel guilty for everything i want.
i understand their need to protect the things they’ve left behind, the families they’ve said goodbye to. but holding onto these traditions is what will destroy this family.
but i know that these values, traditions, are all they know and it makes them feel safe in a land that is still foreign to them, all this time later. because even though they have settled here, even though they have buried their roots in new soil, built a home, have family members and friends around them, it is still not their motherland. and their parents are buried back home. by holding onto the place they’ve left, it keeps them safe.
this community and culture is one they’ve tightly grabbed onto, with the same old traditions, because it is what reminds them of home and helps them to continue trying, in a place that makes them feel Other. and i get that. i understand that feeling. but i shouldn’t, because of this, have to be forced to live that same way.
because as Other as i am in a land i was born in, i am still part of another culture, one that tells me i don’t need to feel guilty for wanting to live my own life without considering my parents every minute of it. and i love my parents. i love my family.
but i don’t want to be feeling guilty for wanting to do something that goes against what they want, or believe, or accept.
even wanting to travel to another country is something so shameful, so against tradition, because i don’t have a brother or a husband, and so i had to hear what will people say when i went to Paris and Berlin.
and falling in love isn’t something i’m supposed to do, not before marriage anyway. it is a thing i am supposed to be ashamed of, doing it quietly and in secret, because otherwise it will ruin my family’s izzat.
i grew up watching romance movies, reading romance books, where the main characters fell in love loudly and quickly, stumbling through the feelings, getting heartbroken and doing it all over again. and each time, they were able to tell their parents.
i lived on the outskirts of it for a long time, watching through a window as my friends fell in and out of love, as characters i read about or watched jumped into relationships, wanting it to be me. and then it was.
and this one now, with J, is a love where i am all in, 100%, but a small part of me is standing at the door terrified because of my parents and their reaction. because one day, whether it is a few months from now or a year from now, i will be telling them about him. and i know what it will result in.
i don’t want to have to split myself in half, forced to choose between someone i want to spend the rest of my life with and my parents, the people who love me, and right now that love is unconditional, at least until i tell them about J. so maybe it is conditional. brown parents’ love is only if you do what makes them happy, what they want, what they think is appropriate.
i am in love with someone, happier than i’ve been in a long time (and no, don’t worry it’s not just because i’m in a relationship—he only adds joy to my life but isn’t the sole reason; relationships are supposed to add to you, not be the only thing making you happy), and yet a small part of me is feeling guilty for it. because i know they won’t approve.
giving into emotions and love feels somewhat like a betrayal to my family and culture, consumed by brown girl guilt, the burden of being an only child, an only daughter. i’m living a second life and becoming the woman i was warned about, and will be the woman i was told not to be.
i will never be able to introduce him to my parents until we’re ready to get married, even though i’ve met some of his family, and i will never be able to talk about him without changing his name and pronouns to that of a girl.
i will never be able to hear my parents say “i’m happy you’re happy, i’m happy you have him, i’m happy he brings more light into your life”, because what i will hear instead is “manushe kita khoyba. what will people say?”
me not wanting to endure the same old story of forced love and mediocre dick means having to one day hear what will people say for the last time, and become the woman whispered about by aunties and uncles, because i’ll have become the next cautionary tale.
the guilt will always be there, will always be a part of me, even though i know i shouldn’t have to feel this way and i should have no apologies for who i choose to love. because it is my life and i am the one who will be living it. this brown girl guilt, and this whole “what will people say?”, is bullshit and shouldn’t have to burden me, or any of us. we shouldn’t have to fear the reactions for wanting to live our lives the way we want.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Reading your story, I couldn’t help but mutter “You too! I thought I was the only one.”
I’ve been with my partner for almost three years and, with him, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and everyone around me sees that. I met him when he first moved to my country, which is somewhere in the middle east, and honestly it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Everything is going very well between us and I have a really good relationship with his family. We do everything together… sleep-overs, road-trips, and vacationing overseas. However, I feel as time goes by and the more I mature, the less I’m able to handle the fact that my family is completely clueless to and missing out on this big and important part of my life, my partner. I’m starting to feel guilty each time I look at my mom’s face and tell her I’m leaving the house to meet my girl-friends or that I’m traveling for work or training when, in fact, It’s him I’m seeing. Recently, whenever I’m with my partner, my eyes would randomly fill with tears and I feel a big heaviness in my chest. I try to fight it sometimes but then there are times where I lose it and start crying hysterically. I don’t understand my feelings because I don’t believe I’m doing anything harmful or wrong. I’m simply in love and it’s the purest thing. I guess I’m tired and exhausted of leading a double life. And as you said, I’m worried about their reaction on the day where I have to confront them about us getting serious. It saddens me since I’d hate to leave the house without the option of coming back. I’d hate to have to cut them off. I feel truly torn.
Thank you again, Sumaiya.
Thank you so much for reading, and i’m sorry you relate to this.
My entire family now know about my partner and are badgering for him to convert, as it’s the main and primary issue — religion comes before everything, which I understand. But I’m not going to force it on him, if he chooses to be Muslim it’s his call, I’m happy with the way we are and who he is. I don’t want him changing his entire identity just to be accepted, when i accept him. But this guilt doesn’t ease up, especially when my parents are getting older and my father has a variety of health problems.
I totally get you about the lies and suddenly feeling this overwhelming wave of emotion appearing when you’re with your partner, it’s the same for me! It’s horrible.
I’m always on the side of choosing love. It’s horrible, having this decision to deal with — because why should we have to choose between our families and the person we want to be with for the rest of our lives? It’s unfair, and shouldn’t be the case.
I truly hope it gets easier for you and this journey you’re on is filled with ease and warmth, and you’re happy. I’m here if you ever want to talk — feel free to email me or DM on Insta/Twitter. <3 xo
It’s saddening to read these words. I know, as a sylhety, that parents are more conservative and less understanding. But as much as they are responsible, it’s our society that makes them become conservative.
do you mean society in general, or more specifically the Asian society/community, that makes them un-progressive?
I would say South-East Asian society, more specifically. Because the society talks a lot about others. “Yallah go vabi hunso ni, o ghoror furi a kita korse!” – such words are more common in South Asian societies.
oh yeah, definitely that is the case all the time. the South Asian society makes everything so much worse; caring too much about what others think/say is so deeply ingrained within the very root of our people, and it is so damaging.
Reading this felt more like a train wreak! All that we’re expected to do, not do or say, not say. I’m new to this, but it’s so obvious as to how guilt is no longer an emotion but a trap. A leash around our necks. Much love to you! 🌸
thank you so much!! the expectations weigh us down, and keep us locked in a cage. guilt IS a trap, you’re so right! thank you for reading. xo
Wishing you happiness and an easy journey to where you want to be. It’s taken a few years of being cut off, but there has been a family reconciliation although my parents haven’t met him yet. If you ever want any advice or to need to vent to someone who’s been there, just reach out to me, or dm me on Twitter. More power to you! 🙌🏾
This hit me on so many levels! I’ve spent the last few years reflecting on brown girl guilt. You have explained in one page what I have taken some years to figure out and try to unlearn. How our culture uses guilt as an emotionally currency. How we have been conditioned to feel this guilt. How the guilt can bind us, trap us, pull us back in when we dare to dream. I became that cautionary tale, the girl who married a white guy and left home. I have never been happier. I also read your piece about faith and it spoke to me. I’ve ordered both your books. I’m so glad you were tweeted into my timeline! Good luck with everything x
you’ve said it so beautifully there. it really is a form of imprisonment, because this guilt keeps us trapped and afraid to seek a life of our own outside what our parents see as acceptable. even when we know it’s wrong and undeserving, that guilt still can weigh us down. i’m glad you’ve found that happiness and were able to escape!! im going to be that same cautionary tale; my partner’s white and so, you know what everyone’s going to say and how they’ll react. omg thank you so so so much! that means the absolute world to me! thank you, i hope you continue to be happy. <3 x