[this piece was first published on Hello Giggles which you can find here.]
At the very start of 2020, I met the love of my life. From the beginning, I knew if the relationship blossomed into something more serious, the journey would be fraught with hardship, guilt, and a semblance of questioning where I stand not just with my culture, but my religion and family, too.
My family is from Bangladesh and we’re Muslim. But as someone who is U.K. born and raised, I consider myself assimilating more to the Western cultural norms and values, preferring the freedom it comes with over that of my own cultural heritage. While arguably, Islam provides similar freedom to Muslim women, it prevents us from marrying outside of the religion. This is because children are supposed to grow up following the religion of their father. Mix that with the South Asian culture, and women are, from a young age; expected to behave a certain way; adhere to every expectation, rule, guideline, and tradition passed on over centuries.
The thing is, my boyfriend is white and he’s not Muslim. But he’s a much better person than any Bengali or Muslim man I’ve ever personally met. However, I knew from the start my parents wouldn’t approve of him, so I kept our relationship a secret.
Then my cousin told my parents about him sometime in April of last year and for a few months, they pretended they didn’t know. One day, in the midst of some lecture about obeying the family’s rules and doing what was expected of me (otherwise what will people say?), my dad dropped my boyfriend’s name out of nowhere. He said that they knew about him and they knew how long I’d been with him. I remember staring in shock because I hadn’t expected them to just casually say his name like that. But we never discussed it after that.
It wasn’t until the months following that my family told me to break it off with him. “He’s not Muslim,” they said. “You’ll just end up going to hell.” Or my favorite: “What will people say if they found out?”
Growing up, I’d heard this phrase as many times as I’d had to pray every single day (which is a lot). It’s a warning, a “caution,” against becoming the woman who strays from familial obligations and cultural traditions. It’s a warning against becoming the woman who shames the family because of dating a certain man, defying her parents, getting divorced, or wearing tight and revealing clothing.
Being anything other than what was expected of me was shameful to my family. I was going against everything I’d been taught growing up. For my family, people’s opinions were everything—never mind that these very people were the same ones who gossiped about my family when, two decades ago, a cousin of mine ran away for some man. Granted, she did come back, but she was still spoken about in whispers for years.
So after when my family asked, “What will people say?” I could feel a part of myself sinking into guilt, knowing that, despite the happiness and unimaginable joy he’d brought into my life, they wouldn’t completely accept our relationship. Not unless he converted to Islam.
My family constantly telling me to tell him to convert is frustrating to the point where I just want to scream, “I don’t care whether he’s Muslim or not—he’s a good person, regardless of his belief in Allah.” They even told me to leave and not return on numerous occasions, but they’ve not yet followed through on any of their threats. Instead, they tell me to repent, to absolve myself of this sin.
But being with him won’t stop me from praying my salah or fasting during Ramadan if it is something I want to do. During Ramadan last year, he made sure I fasted. If anything, he encourages me to be a better Muslim when it counts. Having this pressure hanging over our heads for us to get married so we don’t “sin” is exhausting. That’s why I no longer bother to tell him what my family says. It will just cause a strain on our relationship. It’s pointless, too, when I already accept him for who he is and we both believe above everything that being a good person is what should count. Who cares what God you believe, or don’t believe in, as long as you’re kind?
But still, I am forced to face this innate Brown girl guilt, dealing with a sense of perpetual condemnation and shame from my family with every single decision I make and for everything I want. “‘Brown girl guilt’ is a feeling that is forced onto us,” Dr. Tina Mistry, The Brown Psychologist, tells HelloGiggles. “In many ways, it is a tool to manipulate and coerce children into engaging in behaviors that the parents want. Guilt is an emotion that is active and will allow us to change something, whereas shame is often an internal hidden emotion and rarely encourages us to change our behavior.”
It’s this guilt that reminds me I am supposed to be the “perfect daughter,” because I’m an only child. But they are holding onto the cultural values and customs from a country they no longer live in. While I understand that these values and traditions are all they know and it makes them feel safe, it’s something that will tear everything apart.
Despite all this, I am supposed to accept this culturally defined place in the world as a Brown woman, without any complaint.
But I am part of another culture, one that tells me I don’t need to feel guilty for being with and loving someone who isn’t Bangladeshi or Muslim. It’s a culture that gives me a chance to embrace myself wholeheartedly, without feeling an ounce of guilt.
I don’t want to have to split myself in half, forced to choose between the person I want to spend the rest of my life with and my parents. In some way, it feels like I’m living a second life where I am becoming the woman I was always told not to become, betraying the family customs and cultural beliefs and dancing on the edge of liberation. I want to be able to introduce my parents to my boyfriend, because I want them to see how wonderful he is on his own, even without proclaiming the shahadah (Muslim declaration of faith), but without that, they’re not willing to bend their beliefs or accept us.
Dr. Mistry says that parents want to control who their children end up with because “depending on gender, sons will need to bring a daughter-in-law that is traditionally going to be a carer for the aging parents. Daughters being ‘married’ out bear reputation of the family and therefore, need to go to a ‘good family’ in order to add value to the family status. In South Asian communities, the joining of families is seen as a way to increase ‘social capital’ and back in the day, with aristocracy, there were also links to financial capital.”
“However,” she continues, “in today’s world, I feel it’s to do with what ‘value’ the daughter-in-law or son-in-law will bring into the family and when the ‘out-laws’ are unknown, there is fear. Fear of whether the partner has inherited diseases, or is able to provide ‘healthy offsprings,’ etc. It really is about the outward gaze, what other people will think.” The South Asian culture, I have come to realize the older I get, is built on the foundations of honor and reputation and on the shoulders of daughters.
Dr. Mistry says that being brought up in a country where freedom is a right, where our white peers have the right to choose their partners without question, creates tension for Brown kids and their parents, due to this lack of freedom they feel within their own family. “The child feels like the parent does not value them or want them to be happy, or does not love them,” she says. I grew up seeing my mates able to introduce their parents to whomever they were seeing, even if the relationship, or situation-ship, barely lasted three months. The difference between them and me was that I couldn’t even say a boy’s name, let alone bring one home.
“If you have a partner that understands that is, of course, helpful,” Dr. Mistry explains. “But for those partners who may not be fully empathetic to the situation, there may be conflict arising from frustration. The partner may feel rejected by the child’s parents, which impacts on the relationship.” She points out that “the child feels like they are stuck and may feel the need to choose sides,” something I hope I won’t have to do.
However, Dr. Mistry says that if you want to mend the relationship with your parents, it’s important to recognize what their expectations are and maybe even think about their why, and whether it correlates with your desires and values. “If they are different, it is important to acknowledge that our parents will be thinking about the ‘collective outcome’ whereas children will be thinking from an individualist perspective (own happiness). This is often where the tension lies,” she explains.
“If you are able to hold true to your values, then this is important,” Dr. Mistry says. “Try to help your parents understand from your perspective, whilst also trying to hold space for theirs. Often, parents are just as fearful and find that having control helps to manage this.” She also suggests looking after yourself and making sure you have time with people who will support you. “Seek support from trusted friends or even a trained healthcare professional,” she adds.
Getting parents to change their minds is not easy, however, anything worth fighting for, like a relationship you deeply care about, never is. And though I know the “Brown girl guilt” will be a part of me, I also know I shouldn’t have to feel it and I definitely should not have to apologize for who I choose to love. One day I hope to introduce my boyfriend to my parents. But if it comes down to it, I will choose love and happiness over cultural expectations and obligations.
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