Desire in the Diaspora


Apsara statues in Ranakpur. Image sourced from https://www.cascoly.com

As of late, I have found myself feeling increasingly drawn back to my roots, history and how ancient Asian history, culture and societal values impact the lives of those living in the South Asian Diaspora.

Granted it’s quite confusing, challenging and incredibly disorientating because of the seemingly contradictory attitudes, statements and texts that I am coming across, as well as, having to unlearn a lot of Asian cultural ideas/practices that I’ve been brought up with. Nevertheless, it’s given me plenty to think about and discuss; I believe that history plays a very strong role in defining our present lives and attitude towards the construct of ethnic/racial identities.

Last week, I blogged about a collective reluctance to openly discuss South Asian women’s bodies, welfare and aspects of womanhood that are all too often swept under the carpet or wholly ignored – which you can read here. In conjunction with my current project, I realised that this unwillingness to talk about women’s bodies in South Asian cultures has had a serious effect on the way that Asian men and women view things like sex, love, relationships, menstruation, body confidence, self-esteem etc. It’s led me to think about the way that South Asian cultures, today, regard desire and sex.

In a nation with a rich history of celebrating sex – when, where and how did it all change so drastically?

Whenever an explicit sex scene (or if anyone kissed each other) came on TV or unexpectedly in a film it would always be awkward – especially if an older relative was in the room. I remember people clicking their tongues in disapproval, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs, rolling their eyes or purposefully looking anywhere but at the TV screen. Such scenes and any mention of desire are usually regarded as being dirty, sinful or only reserved for married couples. In all honesty this approach to sex and desire doesn’t work; it only makes it more taboo.

For many South Asian women to simply talk about sex, sexuality and/or desire are topics which are difficult to discuss. Even as I write today’s post, I feel like I’m walking on eggshells and having to be overly cautious with what I want to say – which says a lot if you think about it. I find this deeply ironic because we have Vedic texts such as The Kama Sutra (whose original message has been severely distorted by the way) which shows us that sex was considered to be a form of art. But you’d have never thought it when considering how sex is discussed and regarded in South Asian cultures. If you contrast that idea of sex as an art form to our lives on a daily basis, the tensions are clear to see: a shroud of shame surrounding sex addiction, sex outside of marriage, abortion, STIs as well as a general lack of sexual awareness. There is an emphasis placed on women demanding them to be modest, sexually naive or self sacrificing. I’ve seen many South Asian women who feel compelled to maintain an idyllic cultural identity, that often comes at the expense of desire, in order to keep up appearances. I’m sure that this social norm probably affects South Asian men as well, however, I can’t speak on behalf of them because I can only draw on my own experiences as a South Asian woman.

If you combine a reluctance to discuss Asian women’s bodies with a sense of shame surrounding sex, the result is inevitably not going to be very good for anybody. There’s nothing wrong if one chooses to dress or conduct themselves modestly, in the same way, that there’s nothing wrong if one chooses to dress in a manner that they are comfortable with. It comes down to perspective and it’s about having respect for everyone and their lifestyle choices regardless of whether you agree with/believe in it or not.

Earlier this year, the Indian government attempted to ban pornographic websites, in a haphazard bid to try and protect people from their base urges.

“Nothing can more efficiently destroy a person, fizzle their mind, evaporate their future, eliminate their potential or destroy society like pornography…” ~ Kamlesh Vaswani

Those are the exact words that Vaswani used by the way. Vaswani had a point as porn certainly does create problems with regards to things like self-esteem, expectations of sex, misogyny and how it degrades women. However, I’m not so sure that he took the latter fully into account when putting his argument forward. Even when I think about the failed ban, I have a feeling that it was being put forward to try to reduce the number of rapes and sexual assaults which occur in India. A mere ban on porn will not see statistics decline or drop altogether. The reasons behind rape and sexual assault go deep; it’s a societal problem of patriarchy which affects how both genders regard and respect women’s bodies. We are led to believe that rapists are wild eyed, salivating lust driven monsters when the fact is that they are normal, uninspiring, ordinary people that we probably wouldn’t even notice.

Of course the proposed ban ended up leaving the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rather red-faced when a court later declined their notion. Not only was the ban highly impossible to implement but it also encroached on personal behaviour in private spheres (the home). The failed ban has become a source of ridicule – and hypocrisy – as various sources revealed that there were several politicians from the BJP watching porn on their mobile phones during state assemblies. It’s interesting to note that, here in the UK, there were nearly 800 attempts to access porn from Parliament on a daily basis.

“However far the stream flows, it never forgets its source” ~ Nigerian proverb

This contradiction was initially confusing; why would a country like India decide to ban porn, uphold unhealthily backward attitudes towards sex in the motherland and Diaspora when it has a rich history of celebrating sex? There are numerous temples in southern India of statues in erotic poses, literature and art as well as The Kama Sutra which openly acknowledge sex as a natural and normal thing. If this was the case, thousands of years ago, where, when and how did it all change so drastically?

With regards to history, I’m not too sure when an exact turning point occurred for Asian attitudes towards sex to swing in the opposite direction. Was it the strict Victorian values that the British imported to India during the Empire? It certainly would appear to be that the British Empire had a significant impact on India in almost every area as a nation. In addition, it is also worth noting that certain attitudes toward sex and sexuality (homophobia, promiscuity, ideas of female modesty and purity etc) in contemporary Indian society – and in parts of the Diaspora – also exist in Victorian beliefs about desire and sex. Did Indians, during the Empire, feel as though they had to discard specific attitudes, practices and principles in order to gain approval from their colonial masters and show that they were not ‘heathens?’ Or does it go further back to the times when the Mughals were present in the sub-continent?

It has been notoriously difficult to create an accurate portrayal of life pre-colonialism in the sub-continent and if anyone has information or resources about ancient India, I welcome you to get in contact with me.

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4 thoughts on “Desire in the Diaspora

    • Hello – I’m so sorry that I’m replying to your comment late. I didn’t receive a notification.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting – I’m very happy to hear you enjoyed reading this post. It was really fascinating to research on (eight months into ancient Indian history and culture which has formed the basis for future posts) and write about a topic I’ve been wanting to discuss for a while now.
      Thank you for pin pointing me to this group; I’ll definitely join and have a look at what’s being posted on it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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