“Aunties” are an inside joke in the South Asian diaspora: Hating them has become a recognizable cultural signal among Desis. Aunties aren’t always related to those who call them by this name; rather, it’s a catch-all term for any and all older women who engage in gossip and display judgmental attitudes. In his 2017 Netflix comedy special, Homecoming King, Hasan Minhaj recalls his Muslim parents initially being opposed to him marrying a woman from a Hindu family because they worried that his wife’s relatives would ruthlessly scrutinize him. “You want me to change my life for Naila Aunty?” Minhaj asks. “Fuck Naila Aunty.” Homecoming King declares that obstinate Brown women elders like Naila Aunty are the real barriers to happiness for young Brown people.
Likewise, popular Pakistani Canadian artist Maria Qamar, a.k.a. Hatecopy, is jokingly referred to as an “aunty survivor” in the publisher’s blurb for her 2017 illustrated book, Trust No Aunty. The book reflects the art that made Qamar popular on Instagram—Roy Lichtenstein–esque pop portraits that use speech bubbles to layer in commentary about navigating the diaspora as a South Asian woman. It’s described as an “indispensable survival guide to dealing with overbearing aunties” that will “encourage you to pursue your passions.” Trust No Aunty earned an endorsement from Mindy Kaling, one of the most visible Indian Americans in pop culture, which is unsurprising given that a similar theme permeates Kaling’s Netflix show, Never Have I Ever. While the show, which follows Indian American teenager Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she attempts to lead a normal existence in the face of her father’s sudden death, has been praised for its depiction of Indian culture, there’s also an entire episode focused on navigating get-togethers populated by aunties.
“Aunties are older Indian women who have no blood relationship to you but are allowed to have opinions about your life and all your shortcomings,” John McEnroe, the show’s narrator, explains. When Devi, her mother, and her cousin attend a Ganesh Puja celebration for the Hindu festival Ganesh Chaturthi, they’re forced to weave through uncomfortable conversations full of undue scrutiny and unsolicited advice from aunties. The episode ends on a shot of Devi, her mother, and her cousin smiling contentedly after escaping the treacherous trappings of such an event. Pop culture treats aunties as villains who lurk around the corner at such gatherings, just waiting to pounce and tell you that you look fat in that shirt. In our cultural imagination, aunties are the monsters responsible for our deepest traumas. But is it possible that we’re being just a little too harsh on our aunties?
My grandma has a rule: If you’re menstruating, no one can touch you for 48 hours. After that time has elapsed and you’ve bathed, then you’re deemed “clean” enough to be touched. If anyone touches you before that 48 hours has ended—even so much as accidentally brushing against your leg—then they must also bathe. There are levels of severity associated with the concept of “menstrual untouchability,” depending on where in the world you live. Growing up in Canada, I felt embarrassed when I attempted to explain the rule to my white friends, as though I were proving their worst stereotypes about Indians. I knew my grandmother wasn’t a bad person, but the rule made her sound like a monster to people unfamiliar with our cultural practices.
It was a confusing way to go through puberty, and ultimately I blamed my grandmother for making menstruation an even more difficult experience. In the winter of 2018, during my most recent visit to India, I escaped my grandma’s period rules by staying with a family friend for a few days. As I complained to my family friend about the rules, she brought up the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, South India. It was the first time I’d heard of it, so I Googled “Sabarimala” and learned about the women fighting to gain access to the temple at that very moment. Many Hindu temples still discourage people who are menstruating from entering, but Sabarimala took it a step further, banning all girls and women, between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering—whether they’re menstruating or not. Women who chose to disobey this rule were threatened with physical violence. Learning about Sabarimala helped me realize how much unfair blame I’d put on my grandmother.
Up until that point, I’d considered menstrual untouchability her rule. To me, the rule was emblematic of archaic, misogynistic traditions from the rural community where my grandmother grew up, and I vilified her for enforcing it. As I researched Sabarimala, I fought a nagging voice in the back of my head. It was scolding me for being in a mental bubble that prevented me from having more empathy for my grandmother. In fact, the bitter feelings I carried about her rules were in line with the cultural villainization of Indian women elders, which is prevalent across popular culture. Bend It Like Beckham (2002), a favorite among diaspora Desis, serves as an intriguing case study of how we view Indian women elders. The film is about Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), a British Indian girl who faces scrutiny from her family as she pursues her dream of becoming a professional soccer player. Bend It is overrun with representations of the auntie figure.
Women elders are also victimized under patriarchy, and thinking of them as barriers to progress is unproductive and misogynistic.
In the movie the women are villainous, judgmental gatekeepers or the “bad” parent, while the men are largely Bhamra’s allies. In the climactic scene near the end of the movie, Bhamra briefly imagines a wall of players from the opposing team as her real-life obstacles. We see that in her mind, her obstacles are a group of women made up of her sister, mother, and aunties. As Bhamra kicks the ball and it soars around the players and into the net, we know that she’s no longer trapped. The movie tells us that Bhamra has overcome the barriers created by the women in her family and community. However, it’s not these women alone but a societal stigma that’s holding her back—one created and upheld by racist patriarchal expectations of Brown women, their work, and their bodies. Women elders are also victimized under patriarchy, and thinking of them as barriers to progress is unproductive and misogynistic.
As evidenced by some of the most popular art and media to come out of the recent boom in identity-focused work from South Asian creators, a combination of ageism and misogyny is prevalent in younger diaspora communities, which shows a disregard for the generations before them and their work in art, activism, and organizing. Our aunties are chided for buying into the same unfair systems we collectively have to muddle through, including whiteness, the myth of meritocracy, and patriarchy. Imagine if, instead of directing our ire at the women in our lives who don’t understand why we became art majors—and consistently and repeatedly showcasing this trope in pop culture—we worked on understanding how patriarchy encourages women to act as its agents while actively oppressing them. Can we imagine freedom for all women, including the ones who may have hurt us? Yes, they have agency, and they don’t have to say or do the things that hurt us, but I question what agency looks like in practice against a centuries-old order that still dictates the value of women, their opinions, and their bodies.