"We were in a huge panic and did not know what to do."
You see a pregnant Desi woman going for her checkup in hospital. What if the child is to be born outside marriage to a Desi couple? How would the family and community react to this?
The typical outlook of Desi life is that no one has children unless they are married. So, you marry first and then you have children.
However, with more Desi couples having relationships where they live together, albeit often without the knowledge of family and relatives, the prospect of having children outside marriage is becoming a real one.
Most from the Desi communities in the UK would vigorously be against this notion and would see this as a disgrace, shameful and against the grain of culture.
We take a look at how having children outside marriage would impact the Desi community and individual views.
Civil partnerships and live-in couples are becoming more popular in the UK and India respectively, as an alternative or pretext to marriage.
Although this would be a dramatic shift for the ‘norm’ of Desi life even in the UK, there is a possibility that couples will follow the way of life for many of the indigenous population in the 21st century.
Therefore, increasing the likelihood that Desi couples, especially, in the UK, who decide to live together this way, may decide to have children without marrying.
Yes, even in the UK in the past, especially in Victorian times, having children outside of wedlock was seen as morally unacceptable.
Children born this way were labelled as ‘bastards’ which introduced a major stigma for the life of the children and their families.
Children born this way in higher society in Britain were often sent away to establishments that catered for such children.
Similar views are held in South Asia when it comes to children born outside of marriage.
However, this expectation of marriage first and then children are being challenged by a visible shift in lifestyle with less emphasis on marriage coming first nowadays.
Couples are living together without the formality of marriage and having children. Such civil partnerships are even having marriages after children are born.
So, seeing this way of life could well be something we see happening amongst those from South Asian communities living in the UK too.
Meeta Kumari, a UK student says:
“I think living with someone before marrying them has its appeal.”
“At least you get to know the person before any thought of marriage.
“If I fell pregnant living with someone I loved. I would not hesitate to have my child.
“Yes, this would create a huge issue for family and relatives most likely.
“But it is my life, so if I am happy with it, who is anyone to tell me otherwise.”
Nilesh Patel, an accountant, says:
“I have been living with my partner for five years now and we often talk about having a family.
“I’m actually happy to have children without marrying but I know my partner would find it very difficult because her parents would not accept such a decision.
“Therefore, we would need to marry before we have kids.”
Falling Pregnant Unexpectedly
Desi couples in relationships who may not be living together could be faced with the predicament of an unexpected pregnancy.
This introduces a major change in the dynamics of their relationship and leads to a decision that would need to be made related to the child.
This means one of two decisions.
One to keep the child. Or for the woman partner to have an abortion and terminate the pregnancy.
Many dating Desi couples have chosen the second option; primarily to keep their relationship a secret and fully knowing that a child out of wedlock would cause absolute mayhem amongst their families.
Paramjeet Sangha, a bank worker, says:
“Seven years ago when I was dating my partner and now husband, I fell pregnant.
“We both knew that there was no way we could break this news to our respective families.
“So, we had to make a very difficult decision and I terminated our pregnancy.
“It was one of the most difficult choices for me to make.”
“Yes, I have a family now, but I often think about that child even today.”
However, there are occurrences of some young Desi couples in the UK who have decided to keep the child.
These couples have either been disowned by their families or they have broken all ties with them due to their decision to have a child outside marriage.
Anita Lall, a shop assistant, says:
“I fell pregnant with my son when I was 17-years-old.
“It was a rollercoaster. My partner was adamant we kept the baby.
“I too wanted to have the child but was very scared and afraid of what would happen to us.
“We decided to courageously tell our families. It was a nightmare.
“My family went literally crazy and told me to ‘see to it’ and have an abortion
“They went into the whole issue of what are people going to say, they cannot show their face to society and so on.
“Not once did they think about the child or my relationship.
“His family was similar but were not as vocal but either way, they were not happy either.
“Despite the backlash, we decided as a couple we are going to have our baby.”
“When my family heard this they forced me to leave. They said we are going to tell people you have gone abroad. So, leave and don’t come back.
“His family realised he was going to side with me. His mother accused me of taking her son.
“We left, moved to Scotland and never looked back.
“We had our son and then had two more. We are totally happy.”
Hemant Shah, a computer engineer, says:
“After two years of being in a relationship, when I was 22 and at university, my girlfriend fell pregnant, after contraception failed.
“We were in a huge panic and did not know what to do.
“We knew we had two options but when you have to make a choice it’s very hard.
“She said it’s best if we do not have the baby because our families will be livid and we will not cope with the rejection.
“However, I could not contain the news of having a baby which was going to be ours.
“Where our families found out, they were very angry and told us both not to come back.
“So, we decided to have the baby and stay and live in the city where we were studying.
“A few years later, her family and even mine came round to the idea of seeing their granddaughter.
“Last year, before having our second, we had a small ceremony and got married.”
The hardest aspect of this situation is the acceptance by families of the pregnancy, which leads to the couple either keeping the child or not.
If they do, they are going to most likely be ousted by the families in some way or other.
If they don’t, then in these cases it is a ‘non event’ as it is something that is never going to be shared with the families.
As Desi society gets more liberal, there is the chance that pregnancies of this nature will be something that is likely to increase too.
However, the decision to have the baby outside marriage, will always be with the couple but most likely will come under the scrutiny of the families if they are told.
Therefore, for Desi couples, it is not just about having to deal with the news of having a baby but also how to manage the reaction of the respective families.
Abortion as the Answer
It’s evident from the outlook and lifestyle of South Asian communities in the UK that there will be very few cases of couples who have children outside marriage.
Because marriage is still seen as the cornerstone of life among Desi communities and although young people are having more and more freedom, expectations are still imposed on them to follow the rulebook.
Therefore, for many couples, the answer is to have an abortion to terminate the pregnancy.
According to the England and Wales Abortion Statistics for 2018, 81% of abortions were carried out on single women and were highest for women aged 21.
The statistics found that 8% of the women were of Asian or Asian British ethnicity.
Interestingly, 35% of the Asian women having abortions in 2018 previously had an abortion previously, compared to 47% of black women and 39% of white women. This figure was 33% in 2017 for Asians.
The figures show that abortions within the British Asian community are more common than many would expect.
This indicates that many British Asian women are, therefore, taking the option to terminate their pregnancies due to most likely to keep their relationship a secret and not have a child outside wedlock.
Amrita Shergill, an optician, says:
“When I was at college, I had a relationship with a guy who was studying with me.
“One thing led to the other to where we began to having sex and I fell pregnant unexpectedly.
“When he found out, he was not prepared to take any kind of responsibility and became quite cold.
“I knew that there was no way I could have a child as my family would literally disown me. So, I decided to have an abortion.
“After my boyfriend found out, he began to rekindle the relationship between us. But I was not going to carry on after what I had to go through alone.”
Shenaz Ali, a bank worker, says:
“I was dating without the knowledge of my family.
“Not knowing too much about contraception, I fell pregnant.
“I was in a massive panic and worried about what I was going to do.
“My boyfriend told me there was no way he could have a baby. His family would go ballistic.
“I knew mine would just kick me out of the house and disown me.
“So, I had no choice but to have a termination.”
“Deep down I still do think about it today, what if I kept the baby and went against everyone. Would it have been worth it?”
Therefore, changes in South Asian society where couples increasingly choose to live together, will no doubt create challenges.
No doubt it will get the tongues wagging of the Desi aunties acquainted with the couple via their families.
For women, the impact will be much greater than it will be for the men, largely because of the outlook of Desi society on females.
While living away from families and relatives provides an ideal solution for some, it may not be something that can be ‘sealed’ without having to get married – to please the families.
If they are going to have a child, then it will be the choice of deciding for themselves, or still thinking about ‘what are people going to say?’
For Desi couples who do have a child outside of marriage; expecting its acceptance within South Asian society is never going to easy.
On face value it may be seen as ‘accepted’ but based on Desi traditions, customs and beliefs, behind the scenes, it will be gossiped about and viewed as abhorrent.
Until newer generations find the status of being Desi, single, and a parent, acceptable, such Desi couples will have to learn to survive amongst a sea of societal judgement or live their lives the way they individually see best.