Who gets to define the characteristics of a “strong” woman? // Simrun Kaur
What does it mean to be a “strong” woman? Why is it that the Western definition of female “strength” often seems to dominate the narrative around what it means to be a “strong” woman? Why do westerners get to determine what being a “strong” woman means? The western definition of strength is much more dependent on the values of individualism, while my South Asian culture’s definition of strength is in line with its collectivistic values. The Western, more individualistic, conception of “strength” requires women to be more independent and assertive. This Western model of a “strong” woman will at times be incompatible with the way other cultural groups define female strength. South Asian women may deem “strength in a more collectivistic framework in which interdependence is seen as requiring more strength than independence” (Patel, 2007, p. 59). These women may view prioritizing what is best for the individual as being “selfish” and an easier task than maintaining a strong emotional bond with the family. Being willing to set aside their own needs in order to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good of the family may be perceived as taking greater “strength.” However, members from Western cultures may perceive these women as being weak or submissive because of the conflict between these differing cultural values.
Oftentimes, being a “strong” woman in the Western, American culture means leaving an abusive relationship. Those women are labeled “survivors,” while those still in “the situation” are labeled as “victims.” In the heterosexual context, the expectation is for the woman to stand up to the man by ending the relationship and not allowing him to harm her anymore. However, this particular cultural ideal is not present in every cultural group. I grew up in a home with heterosexual South Asian parents, where my father was the abuser. I am in no way condoning the violence that my father perpetrated, or saying abuse is excusable from my cultural context. Instead, I would like to talk about how my mother is one of the strongest women I have ever met. It kills me to think that there are people out there that would label my mother as being weak. She never left “the situation,” despite how terrible my father was to her, as her individual feelings were not her salient priority. Her needs and desires took a back seat to the needs and future of her children. I am forever grateful for all of the sacrifices she made for us. She endured a lot of hardship, hurt and abuse in order to provide her children with the best opportunities possible. It is because she stayed with my father that I was able to grow up in a middle class family and have the privilege of being in a doctoral program. Due to her dedication to provide me with the best future possible, I have not had to take out any loans throughout my undergraduate and graduate education. I get to start out my professional life free of debt, which is an enormous blessing! Leaving my father would have meant that my brother and I would have grown up in poverty, with far less opportunities available. I was able to spend time volunteering for organizations focusing on the social justice issues I was most passionate about, rather than having to work 30 hours a week at a job that was meaningless but I had to do in order to fulfill my basic. I am privileged and blessed to have had such an incredibly strong mother. So while some Western, Americans may wonder why she stayed in an abusive, unfulfilling relationship, I am eternally thankful for her strength and determination.