I am not alone. My mother and I are both witnessing, in the arrival of Sen. Kamala D. Harris from California, an event as unlikely as the moon landing: the rise of the desi alpha female.
“Desi” is slang for people of South Asian origin. I love my people, and so I point out lovingly: We are notoriously patriarchal. This isn’t a judgment so much as a statement of fact. Nothing President Trump has said publicly about women rivals the things I’d hear the men and boys in my family say when I was a child. I will not repeat the smut. But I will summarize the key message: While men are allowed (and even expected) to be vulgar; an outspoken girl or woman is a liability, an animal to be domesticated.
My uncle once threatened to break my mouth because I didn’t go to the kitchen when he’d ordered me to do so.
My mother, on her wedding day, asked why she had to walk behind her groom in the ceremony. “Aren’t we equal partners in life?” she wondered out loud — and got slapped by her parents in front of the bridal party.
How far we have come. Today, pop culture and U.S. politics are proving that the big mouth isn’t a liability as much as an asset — one with market value and political power.
This summer, I sat on the edge of my seat as I watched reality TV star Aparna Shewakramani in “Indian Matchmaking.” In her mid 30s — a spinster by my culture’s standards — she is a lawyer looking for a man. She has a lot of work to do to become emotionally available. But what enthralls me is that she does not gaslight herself with tropes such as, “Maybe I’m just too successful.” She takes pride in her accomplishments and wants a partner who takes pride in them as well.
In the same way, Devi, the fictional high-schooler in Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever,” uses her brain (and her wit) to shatter the demure, pliant expectations placed on women. “You shouldn’t wear so much makeup,” her nemesis tells her one day in front of the lockers. “It’ll collect on your mustache.” (Well before White girls talk about shaving their legs, we desis are dealing with our upper lips.) Yet Devi is unfazed. Applying pink gloss, the comeback queen retorts: “At least I can grow a mustache.”
These Netflix megahits suggest a level of public fascination and acceptance of the strong desi female at the very moment Harris is about to step onto the world’s biggest stage.
As NPR’s Silicon Valley correspondent, I covered Harris in Senate hearings. A former prosecutor, she is good at asking questions. The first time I watched her interrogate a witness, my mind went back to that evening by the kitchen with my uncle. My leg had trembled as I mustered the courage to defy his order. Yet here she was, confronting men without even a hint of fear.
I assume she draws her strength from a family that was light-years ahead of its time. Both of Harris’s grandparents allowed her mother to travel alone across oceans to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. Harris’s grandmother would gather village women and teach them about contraception. She’d take in those who were abused by their husbands and then give those husbands a lecture about shaping up. In the United States, too, domestic violence remains an endemic problem for our “model minority” community.
I was surprised at the surge of emotion I felt when I learned of Harris’s nomination. That she is “half Indian” doesn’t explain it; that she and her family have challenged the worst parts of our culture does.
Desis are often taught at an early age that a woman is supposed to be dutiful, and at all costs. My working-class parents didn’t send us to Hindu youth programs or read us passages from the “Ramayana.” That said, I still learned about the goddess Sita. In broad strokes: Sita gets kidnapped by another man-god and is held captive. Upon her return, her husband demands that she prove she was faithful to him — meaning that she did not indulge in being raped. To assuage his jealousy and uphold her family honor, she walks on fire.
Harris’s mom was no Sita — and for that, I am grateful. She was supposed to return to India to marry a member of her own caste. But she defied that order. Shyamala Gopalan chose a partnership that broke all the rules. Decades before “Mississippi Masala” depicted Brown and Black love on the big screen, she married a handsome young scholar from Jamaica. They wed, and she gave birth to Harris the same year she completed her PhD, at age 25. “Her marriage was as much an act of rebellion as an act of love,” Harris writes in her memoir, “The Truths We Hold.”
For the desi alpha female, rebellion is our love language. While it may bring short-term shame to our families, it’s a formula for long-term progress — and may even save our country.