The Scars that No One Can See

 

Image sourced from: https://www.edvardmunch.org

 

 

As a writer, I love reading and writing stories, yet it is listening to other people’s stories which fills me with a sense of wonder.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always imagined that other people walk around with a massive scroll of inky parchment inside of them, which spills out of their eyes, mouths and hearts whenever they talk about an aspect of their life

Yesterday, I was working with BBC Asian Network on a radio package which has turned out to be one of those experiences which has imprinted itself in my mind and my heart. It was a really emotive and powerful phone-in discussion which saw many people (from all walks of life, backgrounds, religions etc) feel compelled to contact the show to tell their stories.

“Literature, the arts and storytelling are the ultimate expression of what it means  to be a human being – the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The playback link is here, I’d urge you to listen to it, even though it is  heart-wrenching in places because of the topic we were discussing, it’s  important for us all to listen to these people’s stories about emotional abuse.

What struck me, was how many people contacted the show to tell their stories, how candid they were and how widespread instances of emotional abuse are.

I, like many others in the South Asian Diaspora, have often grown up either indirectly/directly/seeing/experiencing emotional abuse happen to someone we know – or even to us as individuals. Many of us have grown up knowing the stigma surrounding mental health, divorced families and having children out of wedlock – there’s a reluctance to discuss depression let alone emotional abuse!

At first I thought: “How have we managed to fail so many people across generations, in the motherland and the Diaspora, and not address a toxic behaviour that has the ability to destroy people’s lives, their families and sense of being?”

It was heart-breaking to listen to people crying on the phone, their voices breaking as they told their stories and this only reinforced the latter. I felt furious that this sort of behaviour is generally not taken seriously because some people believe that it is ‘not as bad as physical violence.’

“It chips away at you; it’s not like a single nasty statement which would make you walk away. It’s difficult for South Asian women to walk away and leave everything you love/know behind.”

What was even more poignant, was the number of people who realised that it counts as a form of abuse and is illegal under UK law, when they looked back on their experiences.

Growing up, I remember being told by teachers that: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will not affect me.”

As a young adult, I believe that this the stupidest phrase I have heard in my existence on planet Earth (so far). Everyone knows that words are specifically designed to either boost or cut people; look at how most women react after someone calls them fat.

Throw a rock at someone any day (not that I endorse or advocate such behaviour). They’ll go to A&E for a bandage to heal that wound and be ok, but it is scars from cruel words that no one can see which cause us the most excruciating pain, because no one can see it.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will not affect me.”

When it comes to trying to define emotional abuse, it’s often like trying to navigate your way through smoke with a blindfold on.

So many of us are simply not aware of what it entails or what counts as emotional abuse, yet, we know the devastating impact that it has on the lives of thousands of men, women and children across ethnic groups, religions and cultures.

Towards the end of the phone-in discussion, I suddenly felt a golden balloon of hope begin to swell inside of my throat. While I had initially felt a sense of white-hot anger and disgust at the unnecessary suffering these people had experienced, I suddenly felt proud of them.

I felt so proud of them for being brave to tell their stories, to discuss an issue that many South Asians are not willing to acknowledge (let alone discuss), to challenge bigots on national radio, to stand up for themselves/other victims of emotional abuse, to reclaim their sense of self, their power and break through that barrier of silence that so many South Asians have become accustomed to living under.

It felt like every single one of these people were subconsciously trying to help others who might be in similar positions and to give them a simple message:

“You are not alone. There are people who will help you.”

 

Cuckoos in the Nest

Image sourced from https://www.theguardian.com

Across the world, there are parts of many major cities, which are affectionately known by particular nicknames and become a part of every day urban life.

There’s Little Venice in London, Little Italy in New York City or various Chinatowns in large cities in many countries who have a large number of Chinese people residing in a particular urban area.

It’s a similar story here too: Leicester/Wembley (Little Gujarat), Southall/Birmingham/Derby (Mini Panjab), Tower Hamlets (Bangla Town) and Bradford, which became known as ‘Bradfordistan’ thanks to a scrawl of graffiti on a motorway road sign.

These are terms, often used by British Asians, and most British people of other ethnic groups,  to describe areas with significantly higher percentages of South Asian residents.

The context behind why such large numbers of South Asians live in these areas, is because it was often the first place where their parents/grandparents settled when they arrived in the UK. Like any other ethnic group, you either end up staying in the same place or you move away.

It’s human nature to want to fit in and belong to a social group, be liked, accepted and regarded; we are social creatures.

Many British Asians often make these tongue-in-cheek comments to each other, because many have grown up visiting relatives in these areas (and others), were born and raised there, or because it’s where we buy all our food, sweets, spices and traditional clothing from.

Growing up, I was never really sure if people used these nicknames with affection, disdain or embarrassment. I remember having cousins who were extremely reluctant – and even disgusted – to visit areas like Ilford, Southall or Wembley because “it was like being in an Indian village.” The irony of this was that they had never even been to a village in the UK, let alone India!

Similarly, for British Asians who are born and raised in such areas, visit parts of London (and the UK) where there are much lower numbers of South Asians and experience culture shock.

My part of London is an example; I was one of a handful of British Asian girls throughout primary and secondary school in the late 90s/early 2000s in an area that was (and still is) very English/Irish and Italian. I wasn’t socially exposed to the British Asian experience in a place like Hounslow or Wembley; I grew up with a stronger emphasis on North Indian culture and where I stand with that.

“A cuckoo in the nest is an unwelcome intruder in a place or situation.”

It wasn’t until I went to university and met British Asians who had never gone beyond their hometowns, didn’t even have friends of other ethnic groups or religions, that I suddenly felt like a cuckoo in the nest – socially speaking.

At first, people viewed me as though I were some sort of strange social experiment (like The Truman Show) and whenever they spoke to me, they were visibly uncomfortable and tense. Then they ended up flat out ignoring me or making snide comments which made me feel very out of place.

They felt like – and had already decided that – I wasn’t a true ‘Indian’ because I didn’t grow up the way that they did, I spoke other languages, had a different spiritual outlook and because my parents weren’t from India.

I remember someone once made a joke in Panjabi, and I bantered back at them in the same language and receiving looks of shock. Then came the comments: “Oh! I thought you were a coconut!” “How did you learn Panjabi while growing up in south London?”

It was bizarre beyond belief and as though they believed that South Asian cultures couldn’t thrive in areas where they’re a minority. This itself is a hypocritical way of thinking: we all know that culture, as a concept, is capable of surviving and thriving in areas where it is not immediately visible.

The core components of what makes a culture thrive is unity, accepting that it will change and adapt with time, understanding that it is multi-faceted and relies on a number of factors which are not dependent on which part of London/the UK you have grown up in and deem to be an ‘authentic British Asian experience.’

 

You are Beautiful

 

Image sourced from https://www.womenskorner.com

Beauty. I find it amazing how one word is enough to send scores of women around the world into a flurry of anxiety, open up the floodgates to insecurities and be willing to do anything to be considered ‘beautiful.’

Our collective desire to look and be considered as ‘beautiful’is one which transcends labels such as race, background, ethnicity and nationality. Everyone everywhere wants to be ‘beautiful’ yet we don’t even have a solid definition of who/what is considered to be ‘beautiful.’

So if looks fade eventually and all we’re left with is our soul, our character and our personality, why do we place such an emphasis on something which is as interchangeable as the leaves on the ground in Autumn?

As a South Asian woman I, like many others, grew up with two  views on what is considered to be ‘beautiful.’ The first is a South Asian (in particular Panjabi) lens on beauty and the second is a more Eurocentric view which I’ve grown up in.

However, I don’t believe that the two views are necessarily in conflict with each other. I believe that it’s the merge of both views which is producing conflict in many South Asian women.

Pick between the two: one which doesn’t exist anymore/isn’t as strong or one which you are surrounded by.

South Asian beauty varies, depending on what region you’re from. So for example what is considered to be beautiful in northern states (such Panjab) is  probably very different to other regions.

Yet there are some defining commonalities that exist across the board: fair skin, large brown (or lightly coloured) eyes, full lips, long, thick dark hair, full eyebrows and a slim or shapely physique.

Now, there’s a far more stronger European influence as to what constitutes a South Asian woman who is ‘beautiful’ – hence the use of skin bleaching products, lightening your hair and physically altering facial features (such as Roman noses seen in Panjab and sculpting jawlines).

It’s the merge of both views which is producing conflict in many South Asian women.

I’ve seen – and certainly felt – the effects of South Asians moving from wanting to be ‘beautiful’ by their own ethnic groups’ standards to now wanting to be considered as universally ‘beautiful’ by all standards. This impossible to achieve because it’s also where this inner awful conflict begins.

A new fear rises up: I want to be universally ‘beautiful’ but I don’t know where to begin or what to do. Many South Asian women feel as though they’ve been put in a precarious position where they neither fit into a traditional lens of South Asian beauty, which they used to fall back on, yet they do not adhere to this new universal idea of being ‘beautiful’ for which there is no social safety net for them to fall into.

So many find themselves pushed to pick between the two: one which doesn’t exist anymore/isn’t as strong or one which you are surrounded by. And it’s pretty obvious which one they will prefer  – yet there has been a recent revival to components of South Asian cultures (including beauty) which have been cast aside in favour of a Eurocentric look.

Granted, when it comes to discussing ideas of racial identiy crises or the remnants of colonial thought rearing its ugly head, this new blurred merge of Eurocentric and South Asian beauty standards isn’t the first thing which springs to mind.

However, I believe that it is a reality which we aren’t paying enough attention to.

It is coming at the cost of thousands of South Asian women’s self-esteem, self-confidence, self-belief and erodes at the value they once instilled in how they view themselves as South Asian women living in a Western society.