Mariam Raza is a college lecturer and head of her program, a mom and a wife. But twenty years ago, she was a young girl whose immigrant parents, she says, only had one vision for her: marriage.
“Growing up, all they ever spoke about was, he’s going to become a doctor, and she’s going to get married,” she says, of her and her older brother.
Though Raza is now happily married - to a man of her choice - she says it only happened after a few tumultuous years. She was pulled out of a STEM degree by her parents, and had to pay her own way through university, during which she left home because of marriage pressures. As a result of her experiences, she focused her graduate research on understanding how parents impact young south Asian women’s career choices.
“I’m a case study of a woman who didn’t end up in a STEM career because of my family’s expectations of me,” Raza says.
In India, where marriage is nearly universal, there is a marriage penalty. Half of unmarried women work, a rate that has grown over the years. But only 20 per cent of married women do. How much do these cultural norms influence immigrant families, and the choices their daughters make, in countries like Canada?
There is little research on the topic –Raza’s literature searches in grad school came, not from published work, but from graduate theses and dissertations by diaspora South Asians like herself. The studies show that: marriage, and ‘marriageability’, are integral to how South Asian women see themselves; that in south Asian families, women are only seen as adults – with freedom and independence - once they are married (see here and here); and that these women begin facing marriage pressures much earlier than men.
A common theme in these dissertations were young South Asian women being encouraged to pursue professional degrees, but a career was much less important. Education became a box to check before marriage, and work was something to be balanced with managing a family. In India, over half of IT and Science grads are women. But women comprise less than a third of the IT workforce, and just one tenth of computer science researchers.
Raza wonders if marriage expectations in the South Asian community hinder women’s ability to make informed choices about their own lives.
“This whole fascination with getting married is that you rush into [it],” she says. “It’s so important to know who you are,” she says, before making big life decisions.
Options that are seen as permitting one to maintain their independence – such as living with a partner outside of marriage, remain largely unavailable to South Asian women. In a 2018 study, young South Asian women born in the U.K. were significantly less likely than their white or Caribbean peers to say they would live with a partner outside of marriage. In a 2014 study, women in Australia and across Europe described living with a partner as a way of exercising their freedom and maintaining independence - whether that was in their identity (not having to take a partner’s last name), employment and job opportunities, or with finances. But for South Asian youth, this option remains largely unavailable. We're not suggesting that South Asian women should be encouraged to adopt the western "model" of living together, but that they should not be judged for doing so.
Girls Raza spoke with for her graduate thesis expressed facing gendered marriage pressures while in university. She admits her study was too small to make conclusions, but what she heard mirrors the experiences of many South Asian women.
“Are parents letting women realize their full potential?” She hopes to answer these questions, and continue her work on a bigger scale through a PhD.
Her biggest regret is she did not have the opportunity to decide what she wanted to do until much later in adulthood.
“Who would I have become?” she says, if not for her parents’ predilection with her marriage.
It is why she thinks organizations like Lotus STEMM, on whose board she sits, are so important for young women.
“I want to help girls know they’re worth more. To tell these little girls –you can do what you want, and nothing is going to stop you.”
About the author
Priya Iyer is a public health professional, a freelance writer, and a content writer at Lotus STEMM.