Sexism is Real: My Experience Growing Up in a Tamil Sri Lankan Family

Edited by Sophia Savva

I would like to start off this article with a quote by Martha McSally: “Sexism is real.”

This sentence is simple but powerful. For those who have not experienced sexism: that is great, and I am glad you have not. But just because you have not experienced sexism—or any other “ism”—does not mean it did or does not exist in our society. Before you state that something does not exist, it is important to look around you—whether it is in your private and social life—and evaluate others' experiences. 

I come from a traditional Tamil Sri Lankan family where rules and regulations are set in stone not just by the standards of right or wrong but also through gender. It was never, “You cannot do this because...”; it was, “You cannot do this because you are a girl.” This was very difficult for me, because growing up in Canada, I grew up not conforming to these gender-based ideologies enforced by my family, and I adopted what many call a “modern-day mentality.” I did not see things based off of gender, but by what was right or wrong—if a man can do something, a woman should also have the right to do it. 

So, growing up it was always difficult: my parents and I would not always see eye-to-eye. I would argue a lot with my family because my brothers would get to do anything they wanted without restrictions, while the same was not applicable for me. If I argued and said, “But my brothers got to do it” the response was once again, “It is not the same, you cannot do this because you are a girl.” These words always made me furious. As a child I could not do anything about this. I did not have power to argue back, and I was left helpless with no other option but to listen.

Once I turned 18, I remember having an argument with my mom. I told her I am no longer a child, and I should be able to do what I want without these restrictions. After that (although it was difficult), I stood my ground about how I felt. 

Now, fast-forward 4 years. I am in my fourth year and my family still has these gender-based ideologies. I am told how to dress, how to behave, and how I should be as a woman. However, unlike the 10-year-old me who was helpless, I can finally stand my ground. I am finally able to not let this sexism internally affect me, because I am much more than my gender. 

I decided to speak with two female university students, Anne and Sara, to learn about their experiences with sexism while growing up in a Tamil Sri Lankan family.

Anne, University of Toronto

Her Campus (HC): Can you please describe your experience(s) with sexism/gender differences growing up?

Anne (A): I am the first child and a girl, so my parents were stricter on me in terms of going out with my friends, even for just movies or shopping, and parties. I wasn’t even allowed to have my own phone until I was in grade 12. It was only after grade 12, and in university, where I got more freedom, whereas my brother who is 4 years younger than me always got what he wanted when he wanted it. At a younger age he was able to go out with his friends and go to parties when I was not allowed at that age. When I would ask my parents, they’d be like he is a guy, so he can go out, and how it wasn’t safe for me to go out in my younger ages. He even got his first phone in grade nine when I had to wait until grade 12. There was always that restriction for me growing up because I didn’t have much freedom. So, I wasn’t able to have fun like other students at that time. I got mad and frustrated knowing that my parents were giving my brother way more freedom than I ever got at that same age.

HC: Did that have an effect on who you are today? If the answer is yes, how did it impact you?

A: Yes, that did have an effect on who I am today. I was always scared to ask or to tell my parents that I wanted to go out with my friends or go to a party.  I would be scared that in case they say no, I didn’t want to be disappointed if they did. So sometimes even if my friends asked me to go out I would just say I can’t come because I did not want to go through the process of asking my parents and them asking me a bunch of questions before I was given approval to go. As a result, I became more of a quiet person since I didn’t have that out of school social life in high school. I wasn’t that outgoing and so not rebellious. I was more of a person who was scared to take risks and instead of getting mad at the situation that my brother was getting more freedom than I was, I learned to stand up for myself and tell my parents it’s not fair. Over time I was able to gain more confidence in a way and not be scared. After university, I was able to come out of my quiet shell and now I’m slowly becoming more of social person.

HC: What do you have to say about the prevalence of sexism/gender differences in our culture today?

A: Sexism should stop, basically. It's not fair to create differences based on one’s gender. You cannot tell someone they cannot do this because you’re a woman or because you’re a man. People should be advocates of feminism to create a world without sexism and a world that promotes equality for all.

Sara, Ryerson University 

HC: Can you please describe your experience(s) with sexism/gender differences growing up?

Sara (S): Yes, growing up I felt sexism a lot, especially in the private sector (home). I hated hearing the expectations I had as a girl, like, “You are a girl you have to do it.” I always did most of the chores and stuff around the house. I would have to make my dad and my brother food. I had to clean, and honestly, every time my parents needed something they would call my name. I used to scream being like, “You have another child, ask him!” But of course brown parents never got it. It wasn’t even just doing chores. It was related to everything I do.

HC: Did that have an effect on who you are today? If the answer is yes, how did it impact you?

S: Yes, growing up facing sexism has shaped me to be who I am. I know I wouldn’t enforce these sexist ideals on my kids. Of course, my son or daughter will be treated equally. I feel like I still act in a “gendered role” in my everyday life. I make coffee for my parents, do the laundry, clean the house, and go to family events–even though my brother doesn’t go. I mean, I do these things because I was raised this way.

HC: What do you have to say about the prevalence of sexism/gender differences in our culture today?

S: Obviously, sexism and gender differences hasn’t been eliminated in our society or culture. I also see that there is a lot of focus on it now compared to what it was in the past. Even in the past couple of years, there is so much more focus on equal gender roles and equalizing gender roles. Women and men having equal rights to jobs, and men doing what is considered 'women things.' Of course, these are socially constructed norms or ideals of what is expected to be feminine or masculine. But there are a lot of people rebelling against this in our generation through social media, etc. I swear, a couple of years before, you would never find a man doing makeup. Now it is a common thing and it has become more accepted in our society. So, I think there is a shift in change towards breaking that socially constructed bond.

Remember: Sexism is real.