‘As An Indian Girl, You’re Expected To Be Subservient’: How Sandy Jawanda’s Culture Shaped Her Decision To Find Love On MAFS
Of all the weddings we see on Married At First Sight this year, Sandy Jawanda's nuptials to Dan Hunjas are undeniably unique. Seeing the Indian bride walking down the aisle in a bright red lehenga, exchanging flower garlands with her groom at the altar, and dancing to Punjabi music at the reception is likely to be new territory for many Aussie viewers, and even somewhat of a spectacle to marvel over.
But the bright colours, henna-adorned hands and elephant statues are utterly familiar to me as a fellow South Asian woman, as are the challenges of growing up in Australia as a daughter of Indian immigrants, and then finding a life partner.
It's this experience that underpinned Jawanda's storyline tonight, as Australia met her on TV for the first time.
"Growing up a as a first-gen Indian in the 90s has been challenging," she said on-screen, inviting us beyond the veneer of a big Bollywood-style wedding, where years of trauma and an identity struggle have been brewing.
Thanks to the popularity of Netflix reality show Indian Matchmaking and local plays like Saman Shad's The Matchmaker, the concept of arranged marriages in South Asian culture have become more widely understood in western society. And while many argue that MAFS — where two strangers get married upon meeting one another for the first time at the altar — adopts the concept of arranged marriages, it's a vastly different experience when one's cultural heritage comes into play.
"It's not uncommon in Indian culture to have an arranged marriage," Jawanda tells Refinery29 Australia. "The difference is that the pool of people that my parents are choosing from is very different to what the experts are looking at, which is a much bigger pool.
"They're looking at exactly who I am as a person. I'm sitting personality tests and there's all sorts of things that I had to go through for them to know who I am and what I'm looking for," she explains.
"I love my parents and I adore them. But their criteria for what they're looking for in a husband for me is very different to what I'm probably looking for."
Coming from a culture where dating in general is often discouraged, — let alone dating or getting married on TV — Jawanda had to make the choice of participating on MAFS without receiving her parents' initial blessing.
On the show, she explained her Punjabi parents' worries about what the "community is going to say" about her finding a husband on national television, and shared that her mother said, "if she's [Sandy] going to do this, we don’t want anything to do with her".
Beyond the idea that "the word privacy doesn’t exist" in her culture, Jawanda elaborated on how her cultural upbringing has slowed aspects of her personal growth.
"As an Indian girl, you’re expected to be subservient In Indian culture," she told producers, adding that she's never had a boyfriend up until this point.
"Even though I’m 36, I feel like a 20-year-old in the dating world."
Growing up in a culture that often subscribes to patriarchal values and with a conservative approach to dating can fundamentally stunt one's personal development — it's something my psychologist has observed in me, too. Being sheltered from boys, navigating generational differences with parents, and trying to find a sense of self as you're caught between two cultures can impact the way you evolve as a person, potentially setting you back a fair few years behind your peers.
Do we blame our parents in this situation? I personally don't and neither does Jawanda — it's simply the reality of the first-gen experience in Australia and highlighting it on TV is Jawanda's way of coping with it, as she strives to change the norms.
"Our parents sacrificed a lot for us. They've come from nothing and they've built so much for us," Jawanda tells Refinery29 Australia. "As much as sometimes they don't understand us, they always have our best interests at heart."
Watching Jawanda's tearful display after her parents rejected her participation on MAFS was admittedly hard to watch, but Jawanda tells us her parents ultimately wished her "good luck" when the cameras weren't there.
While I personally wouldn't have gone on a show like this (and perhaps I initially harboured some judgment towards people who do), hearing her read out her friend's supportive text message during the episode made me aware of why seeing a brown woman on the highest-rating reality TV show in Australia would be extremely valuable to so many.
"You’re going to be a voice for so many girls," she began, reading out the message.
"The one that is stuck under her parents’ roof too scared to pursue her dreams, the girl stuck in a loveless marriage unable to leave because she fears community judgement, the girl that has never dated and doesn’t know how to put herself out there, and the career girl who wants a career in TV but has never seen an Indian figure on screen whom she can relate to.
"Above and beyond everything, you are shattering the stigma of an Indian girl just being raised to be obedient daughters and then obedient wives and daughters-in-law."
As she embarks on this social experiment that's notorious for posing its own set of challenges at times (ahem, dramatic dinner parties), I hope Jawanda is strong enough to weather any criticism that may come her way, and remembers why she chose to find love on MAFS in the first place.
"When we do something that’s not culturally appropriate, the community makes it like we’re doing something wrong," she said on-screen. "That’s what I’m trying to change."