Six life milestones that are different for brown women

Cultural background can change the meaning behind universal adolescent experiences

This Women’s History Month, Aysha reflected on her experiences as a brown woman.
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Women’s History Month always makes me think about my own womanhood. But this March, I’ve thought a lot about how my experiences as a brown woman differ from my white counterparts—specifically as a cis woman raised in a semi-conservative Muslim household.

There are a ton of depressing statistics about how I’ll make less money than white women and struggle with building lasting relationships with people who don’t understand my perspective, but a lot of it’s less depressing and more hilarious. Based on my own experiences and those of my peers, these are the different aspects of brown women’s experiences that I’d like to touch on. 

Getting your period 

Getting your period as a Muslim girl is an even more awkward experience than normal. I didn’t get a stack of chocolate bars and a hug. Instead, my mom taught me the lengthy process of wudu— a cleansing ritual that must be carried out before prayer—that comes with getting off your period.

After I first experienced the most physically uncomfortable week of my life, I had to learn how to shave preteen pubic hair and just about everything else on my body, all to be viewed as clean according to misinterpretations of the Qur’an and my mother, who stood outside the bathroom the whole time.

Getting the talk

As Ryerson’s student newspaper The Eyeopener put it, here’s how immigrant parents educate their children on sex, love, and puberty: they don’t.

Let’s just say I read a lot of Teen Vogue and some Cosmopolitan to make up for the lack of parental sex education I received.

Going to prom 

Prom is a wild experience for those brown girls who can convince their parents to let them go in the first place. Everything is a minefield which might take away your opportunity to attend.

For instance, you won’t be going with a boyfriend, and you will certainly not be wearing an open-backed dress. Prom for us brown girls often has a curfew, a strict dress code, and absolutely no option to attend the after-party.

If you want to have a good time, you have to hope your school chose an Instagrammable venue, and that at least some of your friends are in the same boat as you in terms of social restrictions.

Going off to university 

Staying home for university is very popular amongst brown women in my cohort. In fact, sometimes, there isn’t any other option.

Those of us who do manage to convince our parents that we’ll benefit from an out-of-town experience, though, have a much different experience than our white peers.

Visits home are encouraged—but we do get to bring back cartons of homemade food with us when we return. We send texts to our families every night so our parents know we’re alive. And, of course, we still find it a little weird leaving the house—even though it’s our own student house—without having to ask anyone for permission.

Getting married

I’m at an age where a lot of my cousins and family friends are getting married, or have already gotten married. Yes, some were arranged. Others weren’t.

Either way, one universal experience seems to bind these women as they enter this new chapter of their lives. While white women tend to view marriage as limiting their freedom, or as a symbolic end to the adventures they had as young people, brown women can view it quite differently.

Essentially, the first year of marriage for a brown girl is a lot like the typical woman’s first year away at university. It’s basically when you can stay out past midnight and you don’t have to worry about getting a frantic call from your mother. 

Getting twice the marginalization 

It’s really complicated combatting intersecting marginalized identities. One second, you’re hit in the guts with this womanhood thing. The next, racist white women are kicking you while you’re down.

But all of that really does build resilience. More importantly, it connects you with a tight-knit, powerful, and compassionate community.

When I think of Women’s History Month, my lens means that I think of the feminists overshadowed and forgotten—the ones who are doing work behind the scenes. 

I think of the women at the University of Texas who started #unfairandlovely, a campaign calling for diversity in media and the end of skin-bleaching creams. Or I think of the girls on the ground in India driving the university protests making global headlines, and the daughters across the country in conservative households quietly shaping a better life for everyone who comes after them. 

All in all, though being a brown woman means that I’ll always face barriers to success based on my gender and race, I wouldn’t trade it for anything—it adds a little spice to my life.

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