How do we challenge the status quo? – with Good Indian Daughter author Sneha Lees

How do we challenge the status quo? – with Good Indian Daughter author Sneha Lees

by Suswati Basu
1 comment
Podcast Episode 33: Radical – How do we challenge the status quo?

There are many discriminatory practices committed regularly over long periods of time that communities and societies begin to consider them acceptable. Whether this is within a system or culture, it’s important to look at what it is, and how we can change it for the better.

So how do we challenge the status quo?

Thanks to the following guest for participating:

Author and writer Ruhi Lee spoke to me this week on her book Good Indian Daughter. Here is the full interview:

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Julien S. Bourrelle argues how we see the World through cultural glasses. By changing the glasses you can change the way you interpret the World.

The year 2011 was filled with people-powered resistance, starting with Arab Spring and spreading across the world. How did it work? Srdja Popovic (who led the nonviolent movement that took down Milosevic in Serbia in 2000) lays out the plans, skills and tools each movement needs — from nonviolent tactics to a sense of humour.

Books looked at this week:

Ruhi Lee: Good Indian Daughter

Edward T. Hall: Beyond Culture

Srdja Popovic: Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 33 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

The global Black Lives Matter, climate change, and MeToo movements have shone a stark spotlight on the need for society and organisations to stop, reflect and acknowledge where they need to start making changes. And this also means taking a long hard look at what is culture, toxic parts of tradition and where there needs to be systemic change and a shift in the status quo.

Hence our first book comes from Ruhi Lee, who writes on Boon Wurrung land which is sacred to the First Nations people in Australia.

Her articles, poetry and book reviews have been featured in The Guardian, ABC Life, SBS Voices, South Asian Today and The Big Issue among other publications. Her manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Write it Fellowship and in 2020, she was one of the commissioned writers for the Multicultural Arts Victoria’s Shelter program. Good Indian Daughter is her first memoir. We had a great chat this week. Find the full interview on but here’s a preview.


Whilst written in her perspective, the book explores self-esteem, confronts the abuse threaded throughout her childhood, and a family in crisis, struggling to connect across generational, cultural and personal divides. Her major aim was to break the cycle of abusive parenting.

Lee is keen to make sure that readers are aware that the book is written from her own experience and that our circumstances are not homogoneous, however, nothing happens in a vacuum. She also talks about the difficulties of embracing identities as a non resident Indian, being a mix of both Australian and South Indian.

She says while she has been working towards incorporating both aspects now especially as she imparts the best aspects of the culture to her daughter, as a child she carried guilt for being part of a diaspora that other Australians seemed to believe was taking over.

Obviously, the irony of this belief, in light of Australia’s colonial history, she says was entirely lost on her while growing up. Now she’s keen to also raise awareness about the conditions that the First Nations people live in. But she also talks about the levels of intolerance and inequalities she faced growing up.

Whenever she questioned the inequality of servants working in the household in India, she was reminded about how the servants in her grandparent’s house worked in vastly better conditions than those in other homes, where they were most likely abused. And there was a sense of intolerance of other belief systems which coloured her family’s worldview.

Trauma seemed to be inherited from generation to generation. She says she noticed that in our Indian communities, both in Melbourne and India and I can say in the UK as well, mental-health issues are more often than not ignored for several reasons. As in many other cultures, until very recently, people were generally uneducated on mental health and therefore unable to recognise the symptoms.

But when it was ‘invisible’, as with learning disabilities, chronic fatigue or depression, for example, it either went undiagnosed or the diagnosis was ignored; these weren’t considered “legitimate” problems. Instead, those who struggled were blamed. Parents, especially, often put it down to weakness of character, which could easily be fixed if the child simply tried harder. And instead of listening there was a tendency to try and cure the problem instead.

Due to experiencing anxiety and continuous panic attacks, she eventually went to therapy. And years later, after marrying her husband Jake, her panic attacks became more sporadic. But nothing proved as good for her mental health as the simplicity of companionship and the promise of love without performance in a safe space that she called home with Jake.

However, Lee adds that it was uncommon for anyone in the community to divulge their inner worlds. Even within immediate families, if someone noticed a shift in their demeanour and asked what was wrong, more often than not, she says the family sought to keep the boat steady by lying.

Sometimes this was exacerbated by the need to be perfect. Like many other traditions, the idea of community coming before individual is prevalent. As a result, her parents were interested in keeping up appearances. Her mother did it with her clothes and jewellery she says; whilst her father did it by insisting his children be as close to his idea of perfect as possible. Reverence for guests, elders (especially older men) and for the family unit was often upheld at the expense of self-respect.

In response, Lee says she lacked the self-awareness to see how counterproductive it was for her to insist on behaving like a ‘normal’ family, then keep cutting herself off emotionally in her parents’ presence. She attempted to be the Good Indian Daughter, a paragon of virtue and repository of values which was as much a part of her childhood as were problematic depictions of sexuality.

What she did not yet understand was that love, in its purest, most altruistic form, was given freely without expectation. Whilst she was aware of her privilege of living abroad, it made her feel wedged between shame, for being different, and guilt, for trying to fit in. So she spent most of her childhood stuck in the middle, waiting to be rescued by marriage.

Constructive discussions about respectful, consensual sex and intimacy were forbidden even among adults. As a result, her parents never ended up having ‘the talk’ with her or her sister in their adolescence, other than to say, ‘Don’t do anything before marriage’.

And it wasn’t just Indian culture that had elements that needed addressing. Lee, who is Christian, said diversity on church boards and leadership teams had a lot to be desired especially with the lack of women, queer people, black, indigenous and people of colour in these areas. She also asked how long would we have to wait before churches stopped whitewashing Christianity and actively engaged in its decolonisation?

And there is an entire chapter on the grim stats when it comes to the consequence of this Good Indian Daughter notion. According to a 2018 study in The Lancet, clinical professor Rakhi Dandona and her colleagues point out that in 2016, almost 40 per cent of women around the world who died by suicide were Indian, not to mention the large number of female infanticide cases.

Women also pay with their lives for all kinds of ‘offences’: premarital sex; premarital pregnancy; falling in love with someone of the ‘wrong’ caste, religion or gender; rejecting a favourable proposal for arranged marriage; seeking divorce; dressing ‘inappropriately’; or being raped, among others in the dubiously named honour killing. And it obviously doesn’t help that women are portrayed as fulcrums of morality in Indian cinema.

However this isn’t just in India, Lee says in 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data revealed that 7,852 sexual assaults against children aged fourteen and younger were reported across Australia. So there’s a lot of work to be done all round.

In the end, Lee found the only way to move forward was to try and convince her parents to go into counselling with her. She gave them an ultimatum that if they were unable to commit to it and to her healing process, she would be unable to allow them to continue in her life. And despite how painful this was, learning boundaries was ironically an essential step to breaking barriers.

Our next book comes from Edward T. Hall who was a renowned American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher. Written in 1976, Beyond Culture explores how people across cultures display diverse patterns of behaviour, from resolving conflict to perceiving passages of time. Julien S. Bourrelle, who is a rocket scientist and wrote books on how culture drives behaviour in this TED Talk.


As a global society, we have overcome the world’s physical and technological barriers to connect easily with one another. Yet one hurdle to connecting remains, and that’s culture.

Dr Hall says human beings are cultural by nature. Regardless of where a person is born and raised, her culture – the ideas, customs and social mores of her community – will inevitably have an effect on the way she acts and thinks throughout her life.

From birth, we begin to learn from the people around us. In this way, a person’s actions are changeable, as they suit the cultural context in which the person exists. Over time, learned actions develop into ingrained habits. Eventually, these habits become second nature, almost automatic.

By the time we’ve reached adulthood, these learned actions have become internalized, unconscious behaviors, specific to the culture in which we were raised. For example how people greet each other or what language they speak.

Some researchers have argued that the language a group speaks has a big effect on the way a group thinks. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, formulated in 1929 by anthropologist Edward Sapir and linguist Benjamin Whorf, supposes that the way people see the world is significantly influenced by the language a people speaks. This can be seen in the use of certain time words in languages or ones without tenses.

Small talk like talking about the weather is also a great example of a cultural pattern and such a cultural pattern is also called a ritual. We perform rituals daily, whether working, buying groceries, even dating.

The sequence of actions that people perform together differs from culture to culture. Settling disputes is one particular practice that is often culturally determined.

Dr Hall says a person from England or America, for example, might first offer subtle verbal hints that something is wrong. He might then send a message through an emissary, before directly confronting the other party. If none of these actions resolve the dispute, he might resort to legal action.

People from Latin America or Mediterranean cultures, on the other hand, see handling disputes much differently. He says in general, people from these cultures try to avoid confrontation with coworkers or family members unless they feel that they must engage directly.

Different cultures have different ways of communicating. Some communicate explicitly while others communicate implicitly.

Cultures that communicate explicitly include those in Germany, Switzerland, the countries of Scandinavia and (although to a lesser extent) the United States. In the context of these cultures, plans are typically set clearly and plainly, using words. A message must contain all the necessary information so there can be communication at all.

Other cultures, however, rely more on implicit communication. This means that a lot of communicated information is embedded in context and the body language of the people involved. Dr Hall says in Asian cultures, for example, people are on the lookout for verbal symbols or physical gestures as part of a conversation, and such gestures are easily understood by the group.

There are pros and cons, of course, to both styles. Explicit communication is slower, requiring more spoken information and longer messages. But the upside is that meanings can be changed quickly. Implicit communication, in contrast, is faster in the moment but much slower to change overall. Physical gestures, in particular, rely on historical tradition for meaning. Gestures can’t take on new meanings quickly, but spoken language can.

Not only do people from different cultures talk differently; they move differently, too. In fact, each culture comes with particular ways of sitting, standing, dancing and moving around. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states cultural practices affect the way we think, too. Apparently people even hold a different perception of time depending on cultural background.

In Northern Europe and America, people view time as a straight line, moving forward into the future. Such a view leads people to schedule work hours strictly, setting deadlines for specific tasks.

People from cultures in the Middle East and Latin America, in contrast, tend to focus on the present moment. They often prioritize tasks on the fly, based on what is most pressing at that moment. For people in these cultures, time is flexible, and deadlines are seldom hard or fast.

As a result, because we view the world through our unique cultural glasses, we expect other people to act and think the way we do. It’s no surprise then that there are many misunderstandings between cultures. Our world is becoming increasingly connected, which means you’re more likely to meet or work with someone from a culture different from your own.

For this reason, it’s more important than ever that we learn to understand the way culture affects people’s behavior. We need to be able to see beyond our cultural lens. Because culture is so deeply ingrained, it can be hard to realize that the way you view things isn’t the “only” way.

So what’s the best way to discover cultures beyond your own? It’s simple: interact with people whose cultural backgrounds differ from your own.

On a very different note, our final book is from Serbian political activist Srđa Popović (Serja Popovic) with the very long title Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. He was a leader of the student movement Otpor! that helped topple Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. Here he is at an incredible TED talk.


The book is a guide to starting a social movement that inspires people to come together and make real change happen. From Gandhi’s successful struggle against the British to the overthrow of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević, nonviolent revolutionary movements have proven effective in changing the world for the better.

Popovic first says you can start a revolution by picking a battle you can win. During its infancy, any revolutionary movement is relatively unknown to the public, which makes it difficult to build a following. That’s why movements need to make names for themselves before they can draw in the crowds. The most effective strategy is picking small, winnable battles.

He refers to Gandhi’s long march to an independent India which began with a smaller journey that has since been dubbed the Salt March of 1930. This action was a response to the high taxes on salt imposed by the British Empire. It ended with 12,000 people, and forced the British to drop the salt tax. Launching his movement in this way gave Gandhi access to momentum and fame that helped him win bigger fights down the line.

American politician Harvey Milk who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the United States thought that speeches could change people’s minds. But actually a small campaign such as cleaning up dog litter in San Francisco helped move him forward into local government.

Popovic says to really get people moving, you need a vision of the future that your followers can support. In the case of the Serbian Otpor! movement, this dream focused on openness to the world, a powerful aspiration that led to the overthrow of the country’s dictator, Slobodan Milošević.

In 1973, a political science professor named Gene Sharp introduced a cutting-edge theory. He postulated that every regime or even institutions is propped up by a handful of supports that he called the pillars of power. If you apply sufficient pressure to one or more of these pillars, the regime will topple. An economic pillar can be a key target.

Humour is also a powerful tool. Activists can ridicule a regime, counteracting the fear it instills in its citizens. But why does humor work so well? Primarily because it’s hard for a regime to respond to pranks. For example, in the Russian town of Barnaul, where citizens held a protest in the city’s center using Lego figures. The toys even held little signs emblazoned with protest messages, and the stunt garnered a great deal of media attention.

Apparently peaceful revolutions are more likely to create vibrant democracies. Just take a 2011 study penned by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, which considered statistics from 323 revolutions between 1900 and 2006.

The study found that the chances of success for nonviolent revolutions are double those of uprisings that use violence. Countries that experiences peaceful forms of resistance had more than a 40 percent chance of remaining democratic five years after the conflict ended.

But the numbers aren’t the only reason nonviolence is more desirable. It also has a unique ability to inspire action and draw in many people and almost anyone can participate in a nonviolent campaign, even the elderly and children. In the end he believes oppressive measures often backfire.

So to sum up:

Lee says in Good Indian Daughter that there are many amazing aspects to culture to embrace within your identity, but that the darker more toxic areas cannot be ignored and need to be changed for the next generation. This includes addressing inequality, gender parity, abuse, mental health, and trauma let alone crushing perfectionistic standards to maintain a facade. And while this can happen in any culture, she speaks from her own experience.

Dr Hall says in Beyond Culture that from the way we talk and walk to how we resolve conflicts and view the world, our cultural backgrounds determine how we behave. By interacting with people from different cultures, we’re better able to recognize and understand contrasting behaviors and communicate with individuals of all backgrounds. He recommends asking questions first before you judge someone’s behavior.

Popovic says in Blueprint for Revolution that protest movements are built on powerful visions for a future that ordinary people can believe in and work toward. If you want to change the world, you can do it without violence. Propose a compelling path forward, work creatively and get out in the streets to make it happen.

My friends on Twitter Spaces this week said something important, that if we want to change the status quo, sometimes we have to be selfless and suspend the need to see achievement. Because most of the time, the results are seen generations down the line. And culture is everyone’s responsibility to change. I will see you next week and if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe!

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