The International Women’s Day theme for 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. As I thought about how to mark the occasion, I began to wonder about all that had been challenged in order to give me the freedoms and choices I have had, and all that I will have to challenge to pave an even better life for my daughter.
I’ve been blessed to grow up in a family where I was taught I could do anything if I worked hard enough for it. I was supported in my decision to work part time from the age of 16, to participate in the various competitive sports I was so passionate about and to complete two degrees. At the time, parents of others in my community didn’t allow girls to go out as much. With a lot of my friends, there was one rule for sons and another rule for daughters. This was underpinned by the continual fear, particularly for girls, of what ‘other people’ might think and how a bad reputation could affect your eligibility as a future wife!
I took the time to quiz my mum on both her upbringing and mine, to understand what she chose to challenge whilst raising me.
My mum has been an incredible role model for me. Throughout my life she has been my confidant, my guide and my best friend! Mum was born in Gujarat, India in the late 1950’s and in 1970, her parents brought her to England in search of a better life. In 1978 she married my dad and soon after gave birth to my two older brothers and I. Although she came from a fairly traditional family, my childhood felt like a perfect melting pot of the cultures of the east and the freedoms of the west.
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to ask my mum these questions! But here goes..
When you came to England, it must have felt very different to life in India! What was it like? How did you feel being brought up in such a foreign environment?
We arrived in October 1970 and I had never felt so cold! It was very strange being in country where we weren’t used to the customs and didn’t even speak the language. We did however have family and a wider community around us who we often turned to for support. But, It was a very different life to the one we live now. Through grit, determination and by God’s grace, we were able to provide you with all the opportunities that we had and much more!
In our culture, when you get married, you’re not marrying a person, you’re marrying the entire family! When you joined the Rabadia family and had your children were there any traditions that you had to challenge?
Your grandparents’ generation were quite traditional in their thinking and because we all lived together, I had to adopt many of their ways. One of the customs I challenged fairly early on in my married life was the need to wear a Saree day to day (and cover my head in the presence of elders). I was one of the first in our family to start wearing western clothing (Sarees are really not designed for London winters). For me, it was important to have a voice in the household and to stand up for things that I believed in from the beginning.
Culturally there’s always been a difference between sons and daughters, but I didn’t feel as though you treated us differently, was that a conscious decision?
I’d always wanted a daughter, so I was over the moon when you were born. It was always my intention to raise all of you in the same way. That meant making sure you all had the same fair chance at a good education and that you all helped me around the house with cooking, cleaning and chores. These were skills that I knew would be important for both boys and girls later on in life. I didn’t just want raise a good daughter who would someday make a brilliant wife, I also wanted to raise great husbands.
In our community, everybody has an opinion about everything! Did you have to challenge others in order to bring me up how you saw fit?
When I got married, a lot of the wider family had opposing views to mine on the role of girls vs boys. They would often say to me that girls should know how to cook and clean and the kitchen was no place for boys. Many didn’t like how many chores I gave the boys to do. But, you all ate and you all made a mess, so in my view you all had a responsibility to pull your weight around the house.
Others commented on the amount of time you spent playing sports, again saying it wasn’t right for a girl to be playing tennis until so late at night (often with boys) and that you should be focusing on your studies instead. But, I encouraged you to go, I saw you coming out of your shell when playing sports and knew you were capable of doing both. I also loved playing sports myself, so knew the benefits.
Because you didn’t treat us differently, I felt empowered to do everything my brothers did and more! How did you feel when I decided to study engineering?
We didn’t question what career paths your brothers wanted to follow, and so we didn’t question yours either, It made me happy that you were pursuing something you were passionate about. I didn’t mind that you were studying a subject typically studied by boys, I thought it was great that you were setting an example for other girls and I’m so proud of all you have achieved!
When I was growing up, I had a more diverse group of friends than others in our community (and I still do). How important do you think diversity is both socially and professionally?
When I was studying in Bolton, I had a very diverse group of friends and I encouraged you to have the same. This was a consideration in choosing the high school you went to (Church of England), the activities we let you be involved in such as the tennis club and even our decision in allowing you to have a part time job. I thought it was so important for your knowledge to be expanded outside of just our culture and for you to be surrounded by people that helped you to excel. It didn’t matter to me if they were boys, girls, Hindus, Christian, Jewish, Indians or Africans. We have so much to learn from one another and I have always trusted your choice of friends.
Though women have come such a long way, we still live in an unequal world, what advice would you give me in raising Diyan and Niya?
I think it’s important to raise them both as equals, but also explain to them the inequalities that exist. Niya will already have a great role model in her life. You’re showing her that the role of a woman in society, the workplace and a household is just as important as a mans. And with Diyan, you have an even bigger job, because it’s changing the attitudes of the men of tomorrow that is the going to help create a truly equal world! But the shared responsibility environment that you and Dips are raising them in will show them both that both mums and dads have an equal role to play in raising children, in building careers and with helping out at home.
Thanks mum for a trip down memory lane! I am so grateful for all you have done to pave this path for me. As each generation passes, the role of women is certainly edging that little bit closer to becoming equal because of amazing women like you!
Happy International Women’s Day All!