Growing up as the eldest daughter in an Indian family, I would often be told about my future wedding. Choices like the “right” age to get married and even desirable attributes in my potential partner were conveniently made for me by my extended family.
Unlike many South Asian women who grow up with the pressure to get married in their early 20s, I was lucky that it was (almost) never my own parents who tried to predetermine the trajectory of my life. However, my grandparents, uncle, and aunt, who I am equally close to, overcompensated for the lack of parental pressure by obsessing over my marriage, and ramping up the search for potential matches as soon as I turned 20.
Two years ago, at 21, I got accepted into my dream graduate program abroad. My parents’ decision to fund my education was met with resistance from the rest of the family, who thought I should be married off soon and that the expenditure would only eat into the funds which should be saved for my wedding. Only when I secured a full-ride scholarship did they warm up to the idea, while simultaneously continuing their search for rishtas.
“I know you’re looking for jobs, but all that is secondary. After all, we’re waiting to brag about a son-in-law and all his accomplishments soon,” my aunt told me on the phone a few months ago. Like any ambitious young person graduating into the historically terrible job market, the past year for me has been rife with insecurity and anxiety. But the remark made me wonder if my struggle was futile, considering all anyone cared about were my future husband’s credentials.
“After all, we’re waiting to brag about a son-in-law and all his accomplishments soon.”
The increased frequency of such remarks and new potential matches every few months without my consent have made it impossible for me to envision a future for myself. Every time I think about graduating, my thoughts inevitably end up snowballing into worries of living an inadequate life, disappointing either my family or myself. Instead of having new experiences and making the most of life as an international student, I’m busy trying to evade something that’s far from being a personal priority.
While I struggle to walk this tightrope between personal ambition and familial expectations, many women often have no choice but to eventually give in to the pressure, stifling their dreams. 20-year-old Ayleen Karamat was forced to swap out her coveted medical degree for one in journalism owing to her mother’s concern that the time-intensive profession would interfere with her ability to manage her future marriage and kids.
Growing up in Pakistan, Karamat has seen examples being made out of other women such as her cousin, who’s in her early 30s and unmarried. “I remember an aunt saying she wouldn’t let her daughters grow that old without getting married,” she told me. “I find it odd because my cousin has a great job, and is also pursuing a Master’s degree on the side, but even with all her incredible accomplishments, people can only poke fun at the fact that she isn’t married.”
While I struggle to walk this tightrope between personal ambition and familial expectations, many women often have no choice but to eventually give in to the pressure.
This pressure to conform to cultural practices of marriage and child-rearing isn’t new, and generations of South Asian women have been subjected to it. However, what makes its impact greater on Gen Z is the turbulent political and economic state of the world in which they’re coming of age. Studies have shown that owing to factors such as student loans and now a rough economic climate, financial independence is an elusive dream for newer generations, moving marriage down their list of priorities. The incessant pressure to fulfill cultural expectations only adds to the anxiety of adulting in a world made more unkind by increasing injustice and inequality, and we’re left to cope with it on our own.
I, for one, have been trying to evade any such reminders by calling home less and diving into my studies and work. Others, such as Karamat, cope by learning how to be outspoken and “letting family members know that this isn’t their concern.”
Of course, being able to avoid the pressure, or even deal with it, is a huge privilege that not all women in our culture have access to. But for many of us, this privilege comes at its own cost.