How 2 Toronto women are reshaping what it means to be South Asian and taking that message worldwide

Two South Asian women from the Greater Toronto Area have taken their conversations around cultural pressure and brought them to the forefront by creating a peer support group called Burnt Out Daughters.

The initiative was started by Nivetha Sivaranjan and her friend, Farwa Farshori.

They cooked up the idea in 2019 during a long drive up to Muskoka searching for butter tarts. Both women talked about feeling burned out by the expectations placed on them as South Asian women, which included pressure around relationships, getting married and having children. 

 “What really clicked in that car for both of us was, ‘Hey, if we’re feeling this way, there’s probably other people who are also feeling this way,'” says Fashori.

The group, which began on Zoom six months ago, is now also on the social media app Clubhouse. Originally, the group was focused on women in the GTA, but sessions have since included young women from the U.S., Australia, Europe and Singapore. 

Sivaranjan says Burnt Out Daughters never sought to act like a formal therapy group, but discussions during sessions have always felt like a form of therapy for those participating. (Yanjun Li/ CBC)

Sivaranjan, who identifies as Tamil-Canadian, says the culturally sensitive approach resonated. 

“Unless you’re actually genuinely from that culture or you have some level of that experience, that’s the only way you’re really going to resonate with folks.”

Farshori, who identifies as Indian-Muslim, says though she and Sivaranjan are from different South Asian communities, they share similar struggles. 

“Sometimes, within our own communities, we found it very difficult to connect with people who are going through similar struggles. So it was nice to … be able to lean on each other with that.”

Farshori and Sivaranjan started holding zoom sessions six months ago and have since launched on Clubhouse as well. Through Clubhouse, women from across the world have been able to join. (Nivetha Sivaranjan/Clubhouse)

“We don’t act … like a formal therapy group, but it ends up being therapy and we end up having such cathartic conversations,” says Sivaranjan. 

According to the 2016 census, South Asians are the largest visible minority group in Ontario, accounting for 29.6 per cent of BIPOC communities. For the Toronto census metropolitan area, which includes adjacent municipalities, South Asians make up 32.3 per cent of all visible minorities.

Expectations of South Asian women shift with age

Farshori says expectations of her from parents, relatives and other community members shifted as she got older, and it was hard to keep up.

“I think a lot of South Asian women who were in their late 20s will relate that when we were younger, we were told not to date … and then suddenly, you get to this age, and they’re like, ‘When are you getting married? Where’s your partner?'” she says.

“Where’s this magical person supposed to appear from?”

Farshori, top left, says within her own family, the pressure to get married has been stressful. She says when she was younger, she was expected not to date. But as she’s gotten older, the pressure has mounted for her to find someone. (Noor Aqil Photography)

“You spend all this energy trying to be this ideal daughter, and … obey them and avoid relationships, and then they’re like, ‘Now you definitely need a relationship to kind of define you.'”

Sivaranjan feels the weight of treading the line between her South Asian and her North American upbringing. 

Sivaranjan says many young South Asian woman want to focus on other aspects of their lives, including education and careers. And while that is celebrated in South Asian families, there is still a focus on domestic responsibilities. (Nivetha Sivaranjan/Submitted)

“It was very evident growing up there were differences in expectations where my brother and my cousins … had the freedom to do what they needed to, whereas I had to be home by a certain time. I couldn’t date,” she recalls. 

“You had to get certain marks. You had to look a particular way.”

Many young South Asians feel a ‘tug of war’

The expectations placed on South Asian women are contradictory, says Tania Das Gupta, a professor at York University’s School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.

Das Gupta says many young South Asian women try to balance the expectations of seeking higher education or professional success while also adhering to strict gender roles —  getting married, having children and keeping family bonds strong.

“I think that there are larger societal stereotypes about what an Asian woman should be like, and then more specifically, a South Asian woman.” Das Gupta says.

“Historically speaking, we know that there are stereotypes of South Asian women being very family oriented.”

Tania Das Gupta, a professor at York University’s School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, says even though South Asian families sometimes push young women to pursue higher education, they’re also pressured to maintain family linkages. But she says expectations are changing as successive generations of South Asian families put down roots in Canada. (Tara Kidwai)

Das Gupta says for many South Asian women, the struggle to balance their cultural identity and their Canadian identity can pose a challenge. 

“I think that there is a tug of war inside the young people, particularly the women. Because they want to fit into the Canadian mainstream. They want to be just like their friends and peers. And at the same time, they want to make their parents happy and their community members happy.”

Group brings allyship to the forefront

Sivaranjan says the response from men, even within her own family, has been reassuring. Her brother tuned in for one of the sessions on Clubhouse.

“He was surprised at some of the experiences that I’ve been going through. And his question was, ‘How can I be an ally?”

Sivaranjan feels it is her duty as a millennial to have these discussions with younger women, so they don’t have to go through the same struggles her generation went through to find that balance.

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