By: Subrina Hossain
When I was 15, I told my parents I wanted to work in the fashion industry. They fought the idea at first, for obvious cultural reasons. Bangladeshi society believes that daughters are the pride and joy of the family. To have an educated daughter is one thing, but to have a daughter who’s education is based in the fields of medicine or engineering is even better. Parents ache to speak with their chests full of pride and their hearts full of joy about their daughter who is a doctor. I had never given my parents that chance because medicine wasn’t where my passions or interests lay. I vowed that I would still make them proud, in my own way. I had to broaden their minds beyond what they were taught and help them see that a girl can bring honor to her family, without having M.D. next to her name.
Eventually, after explaining the different career paths I could take with a business degree, and with support from my older brother, my parents agreed to my educational decisions. I was naïve in thinking that the battle to do something beyond the norm was a battle I’d only have to overcome when it came to my family. I had forgotten that Bangladeshi society is a community, and people of the community talk. An aunty or an uncle would say, “What is she doing? Where is the pride in that field?” One uncle even told me I was wasting my intelligence, since I had graduated as Salutatorian of my high school. I told him I could use my intelligence in any field, it wasn’t restricted to medicine or engineering.
What bothered me weren’t even the comments, but that my community felt that my choices were theirs to judge. I couldn’t understand how my choice had anything to do with them or their lives. That’s just how desi society works though, there is no such thing as your business…your business is everyone else’s business too. Regardless, I did what I set out to do, which was make my way to the fashion industry in the heart of it all, New York City.
By 22, I had already completed multiple internships, held management positions, competed in national retail competitions, and had a job straight out of college. With pride, my parents tell their friends all that I have accomplished. With joy, my mother shares stories of my life in the Big Apple. I understand now that for my parents, pride and joy wasn’t really about my career choice, but that I have a career in the first place. It was less about my decision to work in business and fashion, and more about the fact that I had the education, the resources, and the mindset to make this decision. Their honor came not from the fact that I live and work in a place like New York, but that I am able to stand on my own two feet and I have built an identity for myself.
Not everyone sees it this way though. Not everyone is as open-minded as my parents are. My parents both grew up in Bangladesh but immigrated to the United States almost thirty years ago. They’ve told me a few stories of their struggles, but the wrinkles on my father’s face and the weariness in my mother’s eyes tell me there is more to the stories than they will share with their children. When they left Bangladesh all those years ago, they set out with the intention of building a better life for themselves, but more importantly, for their future children. Their journey since, and the changing of times, has broadened their mindsets. My father always instilled the value of education in my brother and I equally. My paternal grandfather had passed away when my dad was only 11 years old. He became a man from a child over night then and put his studies on the backburner to help raise his younger siblings. My mother has always taught me to be strong and confident, “dooniya etho shojah na” (the world is not that simple) she would say to me when I cried about small things. My parents gave me freedom the best way they knew how, through education, through making sure I understand the importance of my own identity, through teaching me to be brave. Sometimes, when I hear my Bangladeshi community gossip about me, I forget that not all desi girls are allowed this same freedom.
I’ve learned now that some aunties do not agree with the clothes I wear, or how I carry myself. While I do not dress according to orthodox Islamic standards, I am, by no means, immodest in my clothing choices. While my parents trust me to be responsible and travel to and from work alone, complete my extracurricular activities, and do my part in taking care of our home and family tasks, these aunties don’t even let their daughters get on the subway alone. I hear the things they say about me, that they see me walking around in short sleeves with my arms showing (wow, so scandalous), that I shouldn’t be on a dance team, or that I should be getting married by now, not working.
At first I started to just keep my distance from these women, because of my sheer anger towards them. Who were they to tell me my freedom was wrong? Who were they to judge my parents for giving me the chance to be independent? I know that my mother always taught me to be strong and brave, but words are our most powerful weapon, and these women used them to blatantly hurt both me, and our family honor. For a while, I tried to hide in the background when I saw these aunties. Until, one day, one of their daughters said to me, “I want to be like you.”
That was it. Where my parents had given me the space to dream and make something of myself, these women had taught their daughters to be quiet and groomed them to only be someone’s wife eventually. They were not angry with my life or my choices, but rather that a Bangladeshi girl built this life based on her own choices, a freedom they had not given to their own daughters, for whatever reason. Whether that reason was tradition, or fear, or both, some Bangladeshi families refuse their daughters the right to think or decide for themselves. Perhaps they believe that with free will comes danger or risk of a woman’s honor being degraded.
I can understand why some may think that; we are all prone to making mistakes. However, with a strong support system, open communication, and understanding, a woman can make good choices for herself and a build a life both she and her family can be proud of. I was proof of the latter. I was proof that a woman can be something and someone outside of traditional norm.
So as quickly as my anger came, it dissolved. I realized that maybe, the only reason these aunties, and those members of my past community, had gossiped and made remarks about me was not because I was doing something daring and different, and successfully nonetheless, but that they had not given their own children that chance. For some desi parents, fear is synonymous with change. But, even if we can’t change the older generations’ mindset at this point in time, its possible to make sure that the backwards thinking towards women and their rights does not continue forward. We are the next generation of aunties and uncles. It’s up to us to ensure that our daughters and sons are treated equally and given equal freedom.
My mother always told me that to be weak would not get me anywhere. Traditional desi society believes that a girl is automatically weak because she is a girl, but the truth is, she is raised to believe that. It is through fair and open-minded teachings and life experiences that a girl finds her voice and strength…my mother allowed me to find mine, I will ensure that my future daughter finds and uses hers. I have filled my parents with pride and joy by carrying their values with me and building my own identity. To give my daughter this same chance…well that will be my biggest pride and joy.
Subrina Hossain works on the corporate side of the retail industry by day. But by night, she is running around to meetings or dance classes/performances, exploring New York City, writing articles, creating memories with her friends and family, and coming up with more goals she wants to conquer. Her latest, and lifelong mission is to be a beam of light. She shares the stories inside her heart with the hope that it brings peace and strength to someone else’s. She is living as an empowered woman who empowers women.