Tag Archives: dowry

From the Darkness of Desi Culture, Women Find the Light

Desi Talk – A column that works on embracing our brown background and unique identity using Coach Yashu’s helpful tips. Find her talking to IC Editor, Srishti Prabha on Instagram LIVE Tuesdays at 6pm PDT/ 9pm EDT!

Being a Desi woman can be hard…

I often hear of the specific struggles my Desi clients face in their communities. 

My mentor used to say, “things in the dark always come to light”, and my hope is, through this article, that women will feel empowered enough to break down generational curses of antiquated traditions that are not working for them in this day and age.

One of the most brutal and painful, yet extremely common issues I have confronted is one of Eurocentric beauty standards in the Desi community. Being a woman who has been forced into this conversation at home for her entire life, I’m just eager to dive into this one!

From complaints of being too fat, too dark in complexion,  too short, having small boobs, and even having short hair – I have heard it all. 

Who said beauty was limited to these features? More importantly, who has control of said inherited genetic traits?

The worst part is society, family, even friends, at times.

I remember my relatives would set me up for arranged marriages with men larger than me, mainly so that I would not be rejected.

I once had a family bargain for me. They said, “Since your daughter is not good-looking, make sure she has a doctorate so we can show her off that way.” 

I have heard Desi women being told: just look nice until you get married, and then it doesn’t matter how you look. There are matchmakers that say things like “She is dark. I have the perfect dark-colored boy for her.”

All these dialogues need to stop. We need to change the narrative about beauty in our South Asian households and encourage our communities to embrace all bodies and all forms of beauty. It was this that pushed me to address stereotypes and motivated me to become one of the first few Indian American Plussize Models in the world.

Marriage Talk

This topic can be toxic, especially when it comes from other women.

I have heard many families refer to the marriage of their daughter as an escape. “We have raised you all this time, once we hand you over to a man, then we can finally rest.”

Starting from the age of being “legal”, a typical desi woman enters the age of marriage talk. Growing up, my eldest female cousin did not really know how to cook and clean. My relatives used to say, “If we don’t send you to your in-laws’ house without proper training you, they won’t blame you. They will blame us for sending an inadequate woman to that household.”

It used to blow my mind. In what way was she inadequate?

She is educated. She is beautiful. She is so sweet and caring. Yet, she is inadequate.

And now, with women being so educated, independent, and self-sufficient, marriage has become a competitive sport! Parents are trying to get their daughters liked by “qualified” men.

I would often hear: “We are the girl’s side, we have to go along with their demands” or “You are the girl, just adjust.” Women don’t get to choose, they are the ones being chosen.

Oh, you thought dowry was an old practice? Well, you’re wrong.

Prospective in-laws and parents parade their gold and silver jewelry and discuss how big the dessert table was in their respective daughters’ weddings.

Once you’re married, the nature of the pressure changes to childbirth and motherhood. Many South Asian women are forced into having children, one after the other, because that is what their husbands and in-laws want. 

Career Choices – For Women

In one narrative, it all boils down to how your work affects your husband and your child-rearing capabilities.

In another narrative, Desi women are discouraged by their husbands or families from accepting promotions and higher positions to avoid ego clashes with their counterparts.

I worked with a Desi woman studying to be a surgeon. All throughout her medical school and residency, her family members would question her parents, “Why are you allowing her to do surgery? That is very difficult. Tell her to do something more women-friendly” or “How will she manage a family if she picks such a difficult career path? She has to take care of her husband and children and also patients?”

How is a woman’s personal choice for a career dependent on her future husband and unborn children?

This places the burden of children and running a household on the woman.  

“What does women’s empowerment mean to you?”

This was a question I was asked and it is one that I ask others.

Empowerment is a two-way support network. Women supporting those around them while receiving genuine support from the others in their life. By educating yourself on the painful narratives of Desi women, see how you can empower HER by having the right conversations.

For the Desi women out there, do not be afraid to speak your mind.

For the Desi men out there, support the women in your life by listening to their needs.

For the Desi parents out there, give your daughter the respect and independence she deserves. Let her make choices for herself.

By bringing touchy subjects to light and having healthy communication in your households, we can ensure the proper treatment of desi women.

Yashu Rao is the first South Indian-American plus-size model and doubles as a Confidence Coach. She is the Founder of #HappyYashu, a Confidence and Lifestyle Coaching Service specializing in desi family structures. She’s here breaking down stereotypes and beauty standards as well as inspiring and empowering people to lead a life with self-love, confidence, and genuine happiness. Find her on Instagram giving tips and modeling.

South Asian Seniors Get Educated on Black Lives

Growing up as a South Asian girl, society, media and even family had always ingrained in me that light was beautiful. Days in the sun would always be followed by the dreaded moment of evaluating how much I had tanned and then a series of home remedies, skin lightening products like fair and lovely, and even milk baths. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that this experience, one shared by many South Asians, has a name: Colorism

This summer, as our country reeled from the Black Lives Matter movement, I started to think about anti-blackness or colorism in my own community. Inspired and motivated by national activists, I sought to take action in a way that felt authentic to myself. Drawing on my experiences as President of the Palo Alto Youth Council and Co-founder of a Real Talk, where I facilitate conversations between people with different political perspectives, I knew I wanted to start an intergenerational discussion about the role of the South Asian community in the Black Lives Matter movement. So, I reached out to the Bay Area Indian Community Center to take over their weekly Thursday morning virtual yoga class for seniors to lead a seminar on Black Lives Matter. 

Coming into the seminar, I worried about what the response would be to my presentation. Talking about skin color with South Asians has always seemed taboo to me. I knew that starting this conversation would be uncomfortable, especially with individuals much older than me, but also a critical step in the culture shift around beauty and race that needs to happen in our community.

I started off the seminar with a presentation on Black Lives Matter, explaining the parts of the movement, especially on social media, that many seniors lacked information on. I next moved into a lesson about the connection between the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and Indian independence movements, highlighting the influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Martin Luther King Junior. Finally, after presenting some statistics about the booming business of skin-lightening products, the dowry system, and colorism, I opened the floor up to discussion, and to say the least, I was blown away.

My initial fears of silence and anger quickly dissipated as seniors started to share their own experiences. They spoke passionately about housing discrimination they had faced in America, personal insecurities about their skin color, and the beauty standards associated with marriage. I also received pushback – some uncles and aunties highlighted my own lack of knowledge growing up in America and argued that this was just how the system worked. However, overall, the conversation ended on a hopeful note, as seniors reflected on the power of the younger generation to start shifting old beauty standards to reflect our community’s core values of good character, equality, and justice. 

As communities across the country fight for racial justice, I believe we, the South Asian community, not only have an opportunity, but rather a responsibility to look within at how we perpetuate racism. This means educating ourselves, showing up as allies to support other people of color, but also having uncomfortable, even taboo, conversations about race. My call to action for you as a reader is to start and lead these conversations with your parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. That is how we will begin to shift our culture.

Check out the Seminar below!

Divya Ganesan is a senior at Castilleja High School in Palo Alto, CA. She is passionate about connecting different cultures, ages, and political perspectives through leadership, collaboration, and technology.

Calling Off The Wedding

The Indian TV channel was playing Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK) when the phone call came to say that Aparna’s wedding had been called off. 

“Is the wedding postponed or canceled?” my mother was asking on the phone. When she hung up, she shook her head. A single word: “Dowry.”

On the screen, Arti Shahani, the new bride and daughter-in-law in HAHK, was cheerfully working in the kitchen, bidding the male executives adieu, peeling an improbably large number of apples in a demure sari with head covered. This cloyingly sweet scene suggested she had no ambitions of her own whatsoever, and was therefore the ideal gharelu (home-making) daughter-in-law. The one bright spot offering some diversity in this fantasy-land was the token professional woman, Razia, the Muslim “lady doctor,” who confirmed the good news that a child was on its way. In this Bollywood la la land, there was lots of aap and hum. No sign of class struggle. Servants were malleable and agreeable, harmony reigned with no sign of discord. And this is what it takes for a family to chug along, we are to understand.

Chalo, it’s good that we found out what kind of people they are before the wedding,” my mother was saying in a soothing voice. The wedding card had been on the refrigerator magnet for months. I took it down and tossed it into the recycling bin.

Photo Credit: Parekh Cards

I grew up with such happy memories of Delhi weddings. I remember when my uncle got married in the 1970s. I was a young girl, and had a particular fondness for softies, soft-served ice cream cones, being careful not to spill them on my made-for-the occasion frilly frock. Unlimited (free!) Coca-cola and Fanta outside of parental supervision. Espresso with sugar cubes. Spotting a hippie foreigner near a hotel pool, from a faraway land called America, and marveling that hair color came in a shade other than black. What fun.


And then another memory popped up in my mind, less sanguine. Hushed whispers. The unhappily married aunt who died in a blaze of kerosene fire. The demands from the groom’s family had been insatiable, unceasing, relentless. It seems every family has a story of a ‘dowry death.’ Was this the dark shadow of all the bright lights I remembered? What was the relation between my aunt’s death and all those sparkling weddings?


Those “5 star hotel” wedding parties from my childhood came swimming back to my memory. Who exactly had paid for my free wedding dinner?

Wedding costs are rising in India. In 2017, there were “over 12 million weddings in the South Asian nation every year estimated to cost over $25 billion and growing at 30 percent annually. In short, it is an obscene display of wealth,” according to Murali Krishnan.

“A person in India spends one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on a wedding ceremony, sometimes pledging their land as collateral” said Ranjan, an MP in India trying to introduce moderation in weddings.

Some scary statistics cast a shadow: according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), dowry-related crimes are on the rise. In 2001, this number was 6,851 dowry deaths, in 2006, that number had risen to 7,618 and reached 8,233 in 2012. The conviction rate in these cases, however, remained at only 32 percent.

Dowry deaths continue to rise, according to 2012 NCRB figures. “On average, one Indian woman commits suicide every four hours over a dowry dispute notwithstanding existence of laws for their empowerment.” 

Things are particularly bad in the capital city of Delhi.

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

“Dowry cases in Delhi have been on a rise over the years. Though crimes such as murder and robbery have been either decreasing or seeing a marginal rise each year, dowry cases have doubled in the last five years.” On August 14, 2017 Hindustan Times published a special report about Delhi’s dowry-related cases. It analysed all the alleged dowry cases registered across Delhi in the first six months of 2017 and found that the tradition cuts across demographics. According to the statement of women in FIRs, their families were bullied for many types of dowry items — from an Audi to a buffalo, to a motorcycle or a house.” From 2,046 cases in 2012 to 3,877 in 2016, dowry cases in Delhi have almost doubled in that period.

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

On screen, HAHK,  the subject of dowry has come up, with the clownishly vampy Bindu gnashing her teeth at Arti Shahani’s lack of dowry. To his credit, the patriarch Alok Nath sticks up for this dowry-less girl.

Manjua Devak’s story popped up on my Facebook feed. Someone had posted it on a group, and I was saddened to read about this IIT scholar who killed herself after being harassed for dowry. I thought of the radiant smile in a photograph of my aunt, whom my mother had loved, and how my aunt had become one more statistic of a dowry death.

I turned to my mother. “I agree with you. There are worse things than calling off the wedding.”

Photo credit: Parekh Cards

This article is dedicated to my late Sunila Masi. I was too young to remember meeting her, but her story stayed with me.

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.

Cover photo credit: kevbabe

Say No to Dowry. Photo Credit: Tara Hunt.