We’re Just Friends

This week’s blog begins with a sigh. And an accompaniment of me rolling my eyes as I find myself blogging on a topic, which is seemingly banal, yet one which remains to be annoyingly timely.

Friends. Friendship. Or for those who check the ‘other messages’ tab on Facebook “fraandship” (you can see where I’m going with this).

For those not in the know, a number of young women (usually of South Asian descent in the Diaspora) often receive unsolicited messages from gentleman in the motherland asking to commence a friendship with us. Naturally we are not amused and reject such advances – because they’re not after friendship. Trust me. And hundreds of other South Asian girls and women that this happens to.

It got me thinking about the dynamics of friendships that exist between men and women in the South Asian Diaspora (and motherland). A part of me feels like this isn’t a topic to really be blogging on; after all we’re in the 21st century and being friends with members of the opposite sex really shouldn’t be an issue. But it somehow always ends up being one.

I’m part of the British Asian brigade who grew up with stern immigrant parents warning me off having male friends – and other things which would have made me look cool – when I was at school. Looking back on it, I understand the rationale behind it all, though I don’t fully agree with it.

It seems to be embedded in many communities and pockets of the quilt that makes up South Asia and its many cultures. I remember seeing this in most areas of life: from being at the temple, social events, family occasions and general outings.

Why must a bond between a man and a woman solely be based on carnal desire?

It’s as though we are on autopilot: men into one half of the room and women into the other. From a religious angle, I completely understand and respect why men and women are expected to sit separately, even if some religions place an emphasis on gender equality. But from a social angle, I don’t understand this, but if you do please feel free to enlighten me!

Naturally, this is a time-old question which people (regardless of ethnic background) sit and deliberate for hours, but this way of thinking harms the dynamics between men and women.

To me, and many others who are first or second-generation, the idea of men and women sitting separately in a non-religious social setting feels old-fashioned. Granted not every single South Asian family, across the Diaspora, does this but I believe that many of the attitudes that we all currently hold towards men and women stem from this.

The fact that men and women are made to sit separately (not even in a conscious manner which shows how ingrained this is) immediately infers that the two are not to be trusted when sat in the same room.

There is this notion that men and women simply cannot be friends without something sexual going on between them. This then leads onto the shaming of men who have lots of female friends, and women, who have lots of male friends.

An example that I have experienced was when I was visiting family in East Africa. A statement that I carelessly said, got misconstrued by my cousin and resulted in my extended family questioning my morals and upbringing.

When you take this pre-conceived idea, and place it against the backdrop of a mish-mash of South Asian ideals (which are currently in limbo between being backward and progressive) it doesn’t bode well.

I would say that route around this ‘issue,’ would be to educate our children and teach them that platonic relationships can exist between men and women. But I have to stop and ask myself this: ‘Can people really be bothered to change an age-old idea that victimises everyone and stigmatises those who go against it?’

Got a view? Join in the conversation on Twitter: @c_syal

The Strength in a Woman

This week, I’m feeling a mix of apathy and irritation. I’ve actually been feeling like this since I watched the interview between former adult actress, Sunny Leone, by Indian journalist Bhupendra Chaubey.

I have to say that, this was not the best PR moment for backward South Asian attitudes towards women to rear its ugly head. It showcased the very best of misogyny and was a glorious moment for shaming female sexuality.

While many will say that: “Well it’s not an attitude exclusively aimed at South Asian women, it happens to women of all colours and backgrounds” I firmly stand by what I’m about to say.

The interview, and Chaubey’s attitude, is just the tip of the iceberg, in how many South Asian communities attempt to morally dismember women who are independent and express themselves without feeling a sense of regret over their actions.

‘Every girl feels a sense of regret, no matter how modern she is.’

It also revealed how deeply ingrained ideas of shame are when it comes to South Asian women in the Diaspora and the motherland. There is the expectation that we must always feel a sense of shame if we express things such as sexual desire, behave, live or speak out of term.

I wholeheartedly admire the unapologetic attitude that Sunny displayed throughout the interview; she doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. What did strike me was the insistent attempt made to reinforce an antediluvian view of how ‘every girl feels a sense of regret, no matter how modern she is.’

We see the dichotomy of women being defined as virginal Madonnas or sinful whores whose behaviour is held up as being responsible for the moral state of society that they are supposed to represent.

At one point, I remember thinking: “I didn’t realise that all South Asian women – regardless of where we are born and how we grow up – are indirect ambassadors of India and Indian society.”

The attempt of blaming Sunny Leone for the rapes and sexual assaults in India was simply ludicrous – the root behind that widespread behaviour is one which goes beyond the actions of a former adult actress. Ironically, the root is more or less quite similar, but not in the way that you would initially think.

We should never feel a sense of regret about how we choose to live our own lives.

Rape and sexual assaults are actions which are not committed to experience sexual gratification or pleasure. It is about power and exerting that power over someone (the victim) helpless.

Throughout the interview, the evidence of power play that Chaubey was trying to exercise was as clear as day. It probably isn’t the same level of power that rapists exercise over their victims,  but it is a point worth considering. He may have only been doing his job – to get the goss – but he accidentally revealed his own attitude towards Leone in the process.

There is a sense of power one feels when the person that they are talking to admits a shortcoming. It places that person in the stocks – morally speaking – and the other up in their ivory tower of self righteousness.

It would have proved that despite being born and raised in the Diaspora, she still felt the sting of South Asian female shame that we have felt at some point in our respective lives.

It would have shown that she compromises her own sense of self-worth, happiness and self expression at the expense of appeasing what ‘the community thinks’ in the same way that thousands of South Asian women do in the Diaspora and the motherland.

It would have shown that she is still a ‘good, Indian girl’ whose sense of regret immediately roots her in an image of a South Asian woman that is recognisable in terms of behaviour.

But her answer proved to herself, and to South Asian women across the world, that we should never feel a sense of regret about how we choose to live our own lives.



I am My Mother’s Daughter Part 2

Back you retreat! Back behind those walls! Build them higher! Make them stronger! Make them sturdier! But what you don’t realise is that you’ve ended up building a demonic prison with your own tears.

Hell, you’d decorate them with spikes if you could! But they only keep you safe for so long. Behind the fortress walls, you sat in silence, tears rolling down your cheeks and falling onto the backs of your hands as you hugged your knees in desperation staring into the darkness.

A chill forms in your chest, your throat constricts as a golf ball sized lump rises from your stomach and the internal shriek of “No!” begins to wail uncontrollably in your rib cage. You clench your jaw, tightly ball your fists, shut your eyes and try to drown out the screaming. You mutter: “Stop. Please stop. I’ll do anything…just…stop.”

Suddenly the shriek begins to quieten. Curiously you open your eyes and look up to see a pair of feet standing in front of you. They’re a dull shade of crimson,  with neatly rounded toe nails and delicately shaped ankles. As your eyes travel up you see a boy with a red face standing in front of you with pair of defiant eyes burning back into yours. It fills you with fear and anticipation: how did he get behind the walls? Before you can say anything, he silently extends his arm, pulls you up and hoists you up to your feet –  almost as if to save you.

Anger. It has always been there; you just never realised it.

Anger didn’t turn around and say: “I don’t want you because you’re a girl. I never wanted you.”Anger became your best friend, your cheerleader, your guide in the dark, your motivator and your protector. It wrapped you in its fiery arms when the pain intensified. It comforted you as you cried yourself to sleep every night for years and held your hand as you stepped out of the house feeling frightened, self conscious and unwanted. It dried your eyes, gently touched your chin and said: “You can do this, stand up and fight back” when the pain came back in waves of anguish.

It worked. It powered you through dark times. It drove you, focused you and made you strong. You fearlessly strode through the mist of your mind, you shouted down the internal shrieks of pain and braved the world as you both walked hand-in-hand. No one hurt you. No one made you feel helpless, small and worthless.

But then it all went wrong. So horribly wrong. It started when you felt a child-like sense of joy. It blossomed and bloomed in your heart; like a rose. It removed the burns of Anger and said: “You can leave this behind and start to live. Let me show you.”

You took a leap of faith and suddenly you felt like you were flying without the stinging undercurrent that you were so used to. You were soaring in the sky, so high and among the clouds. The air smelled fresher, the internal shrieks began to quieten and the chill in your chest receded.

Anger may have been your best friend and an ally, but it came on its own terms, as you started to fly and leave him behind. You felt the backlash as Anger realised this and retaliated: “How dare you do this to me? After all I’ve done for you, you do to me what she did to you? You’re just like her. You are no different. I will make you pay for this.”

And it did. Little by little, it began to break you down in the same way it built you up. Suddenly you feel empty; just like before but a thousand times worse. It’s like an arm has gone missing; you look around trying to find your best friend but see nothing.Even the soft, velvety petals of hope dried up, withered, fell and left you as the chill returned. The internal cries came back, but less ferocious and with less anguish – now it just sounds like a child pining for comfort.

You function on auto-pilot just to get through the day: “One more hour. Ok: another hour to go. Just get through to lunchtime” you tell yourself as you wake up, get dressed, shove breakfast down your throat and numbly walk out of the house to start another day. It gradually lessens; the emptiness subsides, the quiet moans settle down and a small bud of satin begins to appear in your heart.

But Anger realised what was going on and pummelled you with its tiny red fists: “Don’t leave me! I’m sorry! I promise I won’t hurt you anymore, I’m sorry I hurt you. I didn’t want to lose you that’s all – please don’t leave me!”

You look at your best friend’s tear stained face, down cast eyes and swollen cheeks. The bud suddenly opens as you take him in your arms and hold him close to your chest. You gently caress his curly hair and say: “I won’t ever leave you. I never will; you are a part of me and we are bound together. But you’re not me; you are only a part of me.” 

This post is the final part in Project AvidScribbler’s “I am My Mother’s Daughter.” Read I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Part 1 here.