When Unmarried South Asian Women Move Out: 'It's Like You're Exiled'

·6 min read
(Photo: MoMo Productions via Getty Images)
(Photo: MoMo Productions via Getty Images)

(Photo: MoMo Productions via Getty Images)

In most cultures, you’re a fully-fledged adult at 18. You’re expected to look after yourself, pay your own way and, crucially, move out of home. But it’s doesn’t play out like that in all families.

In South Asian communities, at 18 you’re still very much likely to be living with your parents. This only changes once you’re getting married or, in some situations, if you need to move for work or distant universities – though even these circumstances can be a challenge to the status quo.

So when young, unmarried South Asians, particularly women, flee the nest of their own accord, it can come as a shock, a disappointment even, to parents who, out of love and fear, want to hold on to their children for as long as possible.

When I, as an unmarried 27-year-old, told my parents that I was moving out of their east London home to a flatshare on the other side of the river (I know, why did I do it? Think of the rent prices!), they were saddened to hear it.

I’d meticulously prepped a list of practical reasons why it would be good for me – closer to work, more space – and after some coaxing, they were pacified and allowed me to move.

But the decision did come with some heavy feelings: guilt on my part for ‘abandoning’ them, and not sticking around my siblings, with whom I love spending time; and some shame on theirs. They shrouded the news in secrecy from others in the community in case they were considered bad parents.

Women moving out to prioritise their own space, mental health or enjoyment is seldom talked about in our community, and those who do manage it can sometimes be ostracised.

That’s been the case for Malia*, a fashion designer, 27, from London. When she wanted to move to the capital for university, she was met with resistance but it was eventually accepted.

Then, after graduation, Malia decided to permanently move to the capital as it had more opportunities for fashion.

“I knew broaching the subject with my father would be tough,” she tells HuffPost UK. “And it was. He didn’t want me to leave as he was worried about ‘what would people say’– the classic desi parent line.”

Can you relate? (Photo: Hiraman via Getty Images)
Can you relate? (Photo: Hiraman via Getty Images)

Can you relate? (Photo: Hiraman via Getty Images)

“The worry here is that my reputation will be tarnished, people will make assumptions about me that I’ve strayed from religion or that I’m on drugs or sleeping around. I explained how being out of the loop of the industry and the whole situation was negatively affecting me but gained no sympathy,” says Malia.

“In the end, I had to move out without the support of my family. As a result, I was ostracised and isolated from them for a year.”

In this time, Malia continued to miss her family, especially her siblings who she is close to, though, she did have their support. And thankfully, things did ease with her dad. “In the end my father apologised for his behaviour and our relationship is much improved.”

But to placate her parents in the first place, Malia had found a middle ground  – moving in with relatives to be closer to work – and it soon became clear the new living situation was’t going to be sustainable either.

“Moving out of there was tougher than the initial move out of parents, I had to leave because one relative was suffering from an addiction, whilst the other was suffering from depression as well as being verbally and occasionally physically abusive. This home environment was something that I wasn’t used to, so it really affected my mental wellbeing. I had to get out.”

Since then, she has found accommodation with a friend and is enjoying having her own space, especially with the knowledge she has her parents’ support.

For writer Lubna Hoque, 27, from south London, the choice to leave home also courted controversy in her family, but she was firm in her decision. Though she felt initially rejected when she moved out in 2014, eight years later, her parents have come to terms with it.

“Even after all these years there is a lot of stigma around my not living at home,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“I didn’t have any fears over telling them as I knew they wouldn’t stand in my way, but I knew that my choice would come with consequences that may not be easy on me. When I left, they lost their power over me and I gained a new type of freedom. I had little to no communication with my family for a period of time.”

Hoque says while this estrangement was difficult, it was needed to maintain boundaries and ensure that she could begin to live her life autonomously.

“I did not contact them as I didn’t feel welcome to and I had to find ways to stand on my own two feet without them. The lack of communication was a boundary drawn up to help assert a sense of privacy. In hindsight, I can see it was necessary so that we could begin again from our new respective positions.”

Hoque appreciates that when she made her first foray into freedom, things were a bit different in the community. Even eight years ago, female autonomy wasn’t as accepted as it is now. But there is still a long way to go.

“Though it is more common now and other women in my extended family have left the family home without being married – there remains this idea that a woman who does this is somehow tarnished,” she says.

(Photo: COROIMAGE via Getty Images)
(Photo: COROIMAGE via Getty Images)

(Photo: COROIMAGE via Getty Images)

Reflecting on the reasons behind this, she says: “It is a dishonouring of the traditions and rituals. I have found in conversation with other women (and men) with similar experiences over the years, that leaving the family home was often times synonymous with experiencing an exile (physically/mentally/both).

“I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from it yet, it just matters less because I have a wonderful support network and love in my life.”

Hoque is glad to see the situation become more normalised and hopes parents and family leaders realise what makes the home situation difficult in the first place – and that they might take steps to either ameliorate it or allow their children to find their own space, whether in the home or by moving out of it.

While no one wants to hurt their parents or sever connections to family and community, for many young people, living in an environment where they aren’t free to do as they wish is restrictive, stifling and harmful to their mental health.

And for parents, knowing your children would rather pay hundreds of pounds to support themselves instead of live at home, rent-free in many cases, is a hard pill to swallow. No one wants to feel unwanted.

But finding a compromise might be necessary: effort from adult-aged children to continue to play a part in family life, and greater acceptance from their parents.

After all, if you accept it, they may just come (back).

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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