freedom
[Photo Credit: Cory Simmons]

Freedom. It’s something all desi girls crave. The freedom to make our own decisions, the freedom to choose our own paths, the freedom to live our lives as we please. From the moment we’re born, we are put into cages. First, we’re told, it’s to protect us from the evil in the world. As we get older, we’re told the restrictions are there to protect our dignity and reputations from being bad-mouthed by society. This is just another manifestation of, “manosh ki bolbe” (“what will people say?” in Bangla). We’re reminded of these restrictions so often and taught to be “good daughters” by staying within these limits. 

We’re taught from very early on to suppress our own desires in order to keep the family name high. This includes giving up our independence to explore the world on our own. If a desi girl, like Mousumi Islam, asks if she can travel, her mom will tell her “you can [do that] when you’re married.” To travel without a husband or parental supervision is just asking for society to spread rumors and gossip about what the girl is really doing because there’s absolutely no way she’s actually just traveling to explore and learn.

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The word “no” and the phrase “you can do ____ when you’re married” will only stop a desi girl who dares to dream for so long. After a while, she’s tired of being told she can live her life after marriage. After a while, the need- no, the right to live her life the way she dreams is a vision too important to give up, no matter what “manosh ki bolbe.” This is Mousumi Islam’s story. A woman who expresses herself through art, feeds her spirit through exploration and inspires others to be the artists of their own lives.  

A few years ago, Islam stumbled upon a Yayoi Kusama exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery. This was just the first step into the vast world of New York City art, but she craved more.

“I started going to galleries and museums. I dug through Instagram hashtags for hidden gems. I changed my name to ‘Museumi’ on Instagram because I wanted to share my newest passion with people who cared to listen.”

Islam is also majoring in Art History. Her decision, to this day, does not come without surprise and judgment from the desi community, purely because it’s an unconventional choice.

“I am breaking boundaries in the desi community, refusing the infamous titles of doctors, nurses, and engineers. My dreams lay in art and it is my only source of contentment. People wondered what I would do with my major after college. I didn’t know back then and I still don’t know. In the meantime, I am seeing as much of the art NYC has to offer, describing it for my followers as if they were also with me.”

Even in a place as saturated with art as NYC, there’s always more to see. Islam wanted to break free and see beyond the buildings of the place she knew all too well. She ached to be lost; lost in another country’s atmosphere, in the aroma of its foods, in the way and word of foreign people. All her daydreaming and wanderlust made Islam forget that she wasn’t just desi. She was a desi girl. Therefore, traveling without family or a husband was always a big no. And as a girl who relied on her mother financially, Islam had to push her dreams to the side.  Nothing told her she could break free of her restricted cage, so she didn’t try. That’s the funny thing about the universe though. It gives you a sign when you need it most.

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“The years leading up to 2017 were excruciating. I had depression, lost my father to cancer, grew distant from my family, and heart-wrenchingly ended friendships. But with a breath of fresh fate, I came across a video about Thailand on Facebook. Splendid sun hitting the shores of the pristine, blue seas, friendly elephants stealing bananas from tourists, high rise buildings with brilliant Bangkok views, and an incomparable cheapness. ‘Do you know what this means?’ I thought to myself. ‘You CAN travel. You can get out of here. You can go. You need to go.’”

Desi women are used to always having to ask for things, but Islam didn’t ask her mom if she could go to Thailand. She just told her she was going.  Islam no longer felt the need to ask for something that should rightfully be hers. When Islam told her mother she was going to Thailand in January, she was immediately met with refusal. However, she had forged her own path to independence by saving her own money. From there, Islam and her mother had a real conversation about the trip, answering the usual questions of who she was going with and what she would do. The fact that this conversation happened alone is shocking. It was a victory for Islam.

“I was in utter disbelief. Perhaps it was the circumstances of our intertwined lives or the confidence in my voice which finally thwarted her Bangladeshi mindset. Maybe she didn’t believe I was going to accomplish this feat. Whatever the case may be, I was going to Thailand with my mother’s consent.”

Islam felt both excited and anxious knowing that her dream of traveling without the constraints of parents or a husband was going to come true. Some desi girls grow up being taught on a daily basis that their wishes, dreams, and opinions are second to everyone else: second to what their parent’s deem to be best for them, second to what their husbands will “allow” them to do, second to what their in-laws think is acceptable, etc. So for Islam to actually break a barrier standing in the way of her dreams and how she wants to live her life is not an everyday occurrence. That alone is saddening and frustrating. Shouldn’t it be normal for a woman to follow her dreams? Shouldn’t it be acceptable that a woman explores the world and broadens her horizons? The fact that it’s not, and never has been in desi society, is a problem.

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The consequence is that desi girls grow up thinking they are not only restricted from doing certain things but that they are also not capable of accomplishing them. If a girl spends years being told that she cannot be an artist, for example, she may very well think that she is incapable of it.

“My mom’s constant rejections and subversive statements convinced me that I couldn’t do this for the longest time. In fact, it would be preposterous to travel before marriage because my freedom simply transfers from my parents to my husband. He becomes my emotional support, my financial provider, and the new controller of my life. But I don’t blame my mom or even the culture I grew up in. It’s my own fault for allowing myself to believe the same thing. I allowed the ridiculous traditions dictating my existence to falter my self-confidence and self-worth. “

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Desi women are courageous. We spend our entire lives fighting stigma, judgment, and gossip. We face these cultural battles daily, and yet here we are the next day, trying again. We are more and capable of more than what society thinks of us. We are more than just the boxes our families try to put us in, and we are more than just our future husbands.

I didn’t need my mom and I definitely didn’t need a man to travel to a foreign country.  I just needed faith in myself and there it was, right inside of me all along. “

First and foremost, desi women are individuals, we are not meant to go from being the daughter of one family to the daughter-in-law of another. Really, we deserve the chance for freedom,  to just be us and make our lives what we want them to be, whether that be through traveling to Thailand, or studying a subject we are passionate about. It’s sad that we have to fight for something that should be an intrinsic right. 

“I know it’s difficult to break the social constraints of our gender, to melt our strict parents’ hearts,” Islam says. “Just don’t give up. Our desi community is very narrow-minded, but keep your heart open. There is simply too much to experience and life is tragically too short for us to remain caged, whether it’s in the city or in our own homes. It’s time to travel.”

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