For some students, getting to class is as easy as rolling out of bed and walking to a classroom. For Nisha Choudhary, a Stony Brook student whose name has been changed for privacy, it means waking up five hours before class, taking two trains, and making it to class just barely on time. It means traveling through all sorts of conditions, four hours a day. It means falling asleep on public transportation, doing homework on the road and never missing a train. But above all, it means following the wishes of her parents.
Choudhary is one of several South Asian female students at Stony Brook whose parents have prohibited her from dorming, no matter how convenient it may be for all parties involved. As first generation Americans, these students are exposed to two cultures: a conservative one at home that tells them that leaving the house before marriage is wrong, and the outside world which implores children to become independent at a young age. The result is a backlash from immigrant parents, who try even harder to hold on to the customs they followed back home.
“India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are traditional societies with traditional roles and values for women,” said Professor Shikaripur N. Sridhar, Director of Stony Brook’s Center for India Studies. “And the culture is extremely protective,” added his wife and colleague, Dr. Kamal K. Sridhar.
According to the Sridhars, females are encouraged to get an education in South Asian cultures, but their parents’ main goal is to keep them from experiencing temptation. And to them, temptation comes in all forms.
But there is no greater evil enticement in their eyes than the pull towards, as Professor Sridhar says, “sexual promiscuity.” According to him, one of the primary aims of parents in these cultures is to protect their daughters from becoming immersed in a sexual college environment.
“This free sexuality in American society is bothersome,” said Dr. Sridhar, an associate director for the Center for India Studies. “Men can fool around, but women cannot succumb to temptation.”
The idea that women must protect themselves from sexual activity stems from the notion that they must keep themselves pure in order to be considered for marriage.
“Some more orthodox parents want to preserve their daughters’ purities so that they can be offered as perfect brides to future husbands,” said Dr. Sunita S. Mukhi, the Director of Asian and Asian American Programs at Stony Brook.
Female commuters agree. “My mom tells me that as soon as a woman leaves the house, her value drops to zero,” said a sophomore at Stony Brook who commutes from Huntington and who also wished to remain anonymous.
Another temptation that South Asian parents fear their daughters will be drawn into is independence. The fear that an Asian woman will forgo her traditional role as a wife and mother and instead enter the workforce as an independent seems, to many Asian parents, devastating.
“On the one hand there is protectiveness, and on the other is the fear that their daughters may also be exposed to feminist ideas and freedom, and then become too independent, and cut-off or not want a conservative domesticated life,” said Dr. Mukhi,
According to Professor Sridhar, South Asian parents are accustomed to a culture of “emotional enmeshment,” a term found in the “Spiritual Self in Indian Psychology” by Alan Roland. It explains that young women are held tightly by their parents in order to be kept under control. Professor Sridhar crossed his arms and squeezed tightly. “Like this,” he said.
“For the young woman, it is stifling,” his wife added.
Still, many parents are looking forward, and many South Asian parents already let their daughters leave home. “Many parents realize that they must change with the times,” said Professor Sridhar. He said that he would be open to letting his daughter leave home for school, if he had a daughter.
Students are optimistic about what the future holds for generations to come. “When my parents hear about a girl who, for example, dorms, they don’t look down on her. They just get uncomfortable with the thought of letting me go too,” said Choudhary. “They aren’t accustomed to this kind of ideology and are not ready to change yet.”