It’s always been difficult for me to find commonalities with many people, it’s rare when I meet someone and the both of you recite “me too.” As someone who grew up with three different cultures and 3 different continent before turning 18, I’ve longed for those “me toos.”
New York is a city where strangers become your close friends and to depart before you get to say your good byes. Although I’m surrounded by great friends and talented people, the “me toos” often seem to be far apart. Some coast to coast relationships, some who you have to cross the Northern border for. Some crossing the atlantic the route the vikings once took and some the pacific, where many pacific islanders roamed way before Europeans “discovered” and colonized.
When I (Vidhya) met Thushaa, I felt we had an instant connection over how we both felt when it came to Tamil nationalism, Tamil feminism (along with a dose of non white western feminism), non elitists, non caste based ideas and patriarchy traditions our community seem to put up on a pedestal. Both of us grew up similarly; being involved in sports, love for arts, understanding how to dissect a topic and journalism. We are both product of our environment which lead us to be who we are. Due to unfortunate events, the women from my mother’s side of the family surpassed their husbands. This led my great great grandma, great grandma and my grandma to have the freedom to do what pleased them in a Tamil patriarchy culture. Although they were free, the culture still kept them grounded as widows in many aspects. I always think of them, when I think about strong women; they raised my mother and aunt in a non patriarchy environment—selling thosai (not pronounced dosa) and peanuts—sending them off to Jaffna University. That, for me, is the root of my feminism and where I seek strength from when needed. When a pack of women unite, incredible things will happen.
I found similarities with Thushaa’s story with her history of alpha females in her family. She shared with me about her grandma and her mother being alpha females and rest of her family producing strong women that ultimately will help take back our culture.
Here is Mathusha’s story.
Photos by; Vidhya Mani @Videominivan on Instagram
“My childhood weeknights and weekends were spent doing extracurricular activities. I spent 12 years of my life dancing Bharathanatyam, 4 years playing the veenai, 10 years swimming (life guard level certification) and ice skating. Amma felt it was important that I learnt these skills and hoped that it would keep me in tune with my culture… it did.
Growing up, I was terrible academically—’R’ grades (equivalent to an ‘F’) and just disinterested in academia. When I was 11, a traumatic experience triggered my first encounter with depression, although at the time I didn’t know what that was or how to label it. Relationships with Tamil parents were different back then. There were no blogs or viral social media posts on mental health to help you piece things together and/or help you understand the things you were experiencing.
I began to seek comfort in reading stories, particularly the Harry Potter series. That began my love for words; reading and writing them. Fun fact: My Harry Potter tattoo is significant for this very reason. I attribute these books for bringing me out of a dark hole, helping me find my purpose. I struggled with depression alone until the end of 8th grade, when I was approximately 13. My first confidant and the woman who helped me confront these feelings was my 8th grade guidance counsellor. It was only then that I knew what I was feeling and why.
From there, it’s been uphill battles. For me, these feelings come in waves and then they go. But with the right help, I journeyed on. I pursued journalism in college because of my love for visuals and storytelling, and then I pursued communications in university because of how important of a skill I found it to be. I truly began to find my ‘happy’ once I left university… and that was only 3 years ago. Fast-forward to the present; I am a 25-year-old introverted-extrovert who works as a digital strategist and developer, curating written and visual content for the web. I have a handful of genuine friends scattered across the globe and a support system that I could have never fathomed having. My projects have taken me to different continents and with the support of my siblings and mother, shaped me to be the woman I am today.
Tamil women are fierce, resourceful, resilient and the glue that keeps culture evolving, fluid and intact, just not in a male prescribed way. My perspective of Tamil women come from first hand experiences—whether it was growing up with a strong Amma, a witty Ammama or interacting with Tamil women in Tamil Nadu and North-East Eelam.
Ethnic identities don’t shape everyone, but it does shape me. To me, being a Tamil woman is more than just a label. I am a first generation Tamil Canadian, the daughter of refugee Tamil mother who fled persecution (for merely being Tamil) and a civil war. My cultural identity and personal identity are interconnected; they’re intertwined and harmonize who I am as an individual.
Tamil culture isn’t immune to misogyny and Tamil women bare that weight daily. We’re conditioned to think that any sort of sexist double standard is engrained into culture and to an extent, it is. But misogyny is rampant in many cultures, including Western, relying on manmade and enforced interpretations. Without questioning things and working to dismantle the patriarchy, culture will continue to be stigmatized as regressive and be used to manipulate and control people, especially women.
Growing up as a young Tamil girl had its share of obstacles, but for various reasons. For the most part, I think I was fortunate enough to grow up in a more “progressive” than usual household with emotionally strong women. My Amma allowed me to travel; she even funded it when I couldn’t. She’s a full-time career woman and a full-time Amma. She encouraged me to be financially independent and pursue paths that made me happy. And as a result, I had little to nothing to rebel over growing up. Of course, there were battles to be had in between all of these. We clashed over what other in the Tamil community would think or say, we argued about the double standards I sometimes faced in comparison to my brother but at the end of the day, these battles came and went quickly. They did so because she was always willing to listen and understand (sometimes it took the help of my little sister!). My Ammama (though she would fiercely deny it) taught me every Tamil curse word I know. Feminists raised me and I consider myself privileged as a result. It might not have been “perfect” feminism, but it paved the roads for me. Not everyone is that lucky and because of that, there is so much more work that needs to be done to dismantle the false correlation of culture and patriarchy.
Nationalism and feminism should go hand-in-hand but that doesn’t always end up happening. A lot of nationalist men are complicit in putting down feminism while trying to uplift LTTE women, ironically failing to realize that both are related. Many of the men that advocate for justice and a homeland are the same men that put down Tamil women and vocalize their dislike about how they dress, present themselves and so forth. Their nationalism and unity only goes as far as achieving Eelam but never truly factoring in the women that held the struggle and continue to hold our community together. Nationalism doesn’t automatically eliminate misogyny and patriarchal practices unless effort is made into doing so.
The irony is striking because the LTTE was filled with Eelam Tamil women in all ranks. They weren’t just taking orders, they were also on the front lines calling out these orders and leading men and women alike. Many Tamil women were feminists—they are feminists—whether labeled or not. Tamil nationalist men will be the first to point that out when questioned about misogyny in Tamil culture, never truly addressing their roles in it. “How can you dress like that, killing Tamil culture? That’s not what women in the Tigers died for!” Funny how that works, doesn’t it? Morphing the struggles of Tamil women at their convenience, rewriting our stories and tell us what we think or really meant.
To me, Eelam nationalism as a whole is the epitome of feminism. To this day, Tamil women and girls are leading protests on the front lines, demanding their homes and loved ones be returned to them. It’s Tamil women and girls who are calling for accountability and justice. We forget that in the diaspora. We become so clouded by labeling white feminism as intersectional feminism that we detour away from realizing that feminism is inclusive to the Tamil struggle. Feminism helped lead it. While our culture as a whole has a very long way to go in realizing gender equality and sexism (this starts at home), feminism isn’t a new concept to us. It played a huge role in the liberation struggle yet it’s something we struggle with as a community.
Alas, “not all Tamil men” but enough for it to be a problem. Tamil women don’t need to be saved. Tamil women just need to be left to live. Do better, be better.”