The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday August 14th

Column: 'It’s time for South Asian women to seize the narrative.'

I always felt like I was walking down a tightrope growing up, trying to find a balance between my two ever-contrasting cultures. 

There’s a part of me that recites Bollywood movies by heart, goes to the local mosque every Friday and religiously keeps up with Lahore Fashion Week. But I was always off-balance, dangerously leaning into my so-called "white life," defined by years of covering up my culture at school and feeling ostracized by other Pakistani girls. And at one point in high school, I completely fell off the tightrope, stumbling through the air desperately trying to figure out who I was.

The thing is, I never had anyone in popular culture who looked and thought like me. It’s lonely trying to navigate this weird, cultural partition by yourself, especially when all four of your best friends from high school are white. 

We’re finally getting some South Asian representation, but besides Mindy Kaling, the most celebrated actors and comedians are all men. And frankly, their portrayals of South Asian women don’t do anything to empower or represent us. 

In “The Big Sick,” the critically acclaimed feel-good romantic comedy between a Pakistani man and a white woman, almost all of the Pakistani women are reduced to comical stereotypes. Kumail Nanjiani’s white love interest, based on his real life wife and co-screenwriter, was portrayed as witty and independent while every other Pakistani woman was docile or marriage-obsessed. South Asian women weren’t even featured in the first season of Aziz Ansari’s show “Master of None.”

Look, I’m glad we’re finally making steps toward inclusivity in Hollywood. I grew up watching Apu on “The Simpsons,” so it’s refreshing to see such honest narratives come from South Asian men as a young adult. And it’s not that I can’t relate to these narratives, either — I’ve had plenty of crushes on non-Pakistani guys and complain about the conservativeness of the culture at least once a week. 

But I don’t even have a place in the narratives seen in Nanjiani and Ansari’s works. South Asian women are simply props in their quests to find true love, and symbolize an antiquated culture that has no place in today’s America. South Asian women have compelling stories and deserve to have multi-dimensional roles. After all, in real life we’re Nobel Peace Prize winners, head of states and Condé Nast editors

I’ve had strangers stop me in the streets and tell me I look exactly like Mindy Kaling for years. Part of me would like to believe it’s because I genuinely do resemble a famous television star, but I know it’s because most Americans don’t have anyone else to compare me to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a, “Wait, you’re Muslim?” from friends, because a loud-mouthed, sleeveless journalism major doesn’t exactly fit the image painted for us in the media. 

I wish I had someone to relate to growing up. South Asian men have finally been granted a voice, but they’re not doing anything to elevate the status of their female counterparts in television and movies.

Maybe it’s time for South Asian women to seize the narrative. 

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