The Shroud of Shame

 

This week’s blog post is a very difficult one to write. It’s only Tuesday, but after the events of yesterday (the Orlando shootings) I feel as though I’m ready for the weekend and a long lie down in a darkened room.

I should also say that this blog post does contain some content which may upset or unsettle some readers because of the topic I’m discussing. It’s one that I’ve never really blogged about, probably because it’s so personal, and one that many people don’t talk about.

Last night, I took part in a Twitter chat, held by SayftyCom, about child sexual abuse (CSA). The thought of someone harming a child in any way is enough for me to feel physical pain. And that’s just the thought of it happening.

Statistics from the Crimes Against Children Research Centre show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys have been victims of child sexual abuse. In addition to this, an estimated 20% of adult women and 5-10% of adult men recalled an incident where they had experienced sexual abuse as a child.

When I read these statistics, and the stories of other people sharing their own stories of child sexual abuse, it felt like something had hit my heart hard enough to make me cry.

As a journalist, we’re exposed to some pretty horrible things (to put it lightly) and are expected to maintain a sense of professionalism and decorum while reporting or writing about horrific events. But this really got to me because of how close the topic is to me.

The discussion made me think deeply about this issue, and more importantly, how South Asians deal with incidents of child sexual abuse. It’s not something we hear, for rather obvious reasons, let alone discuss things like domestic violence,  in an open manner.

Dealing with something  as sensitive as child sexual abuse is understandably complex. For people who have experienced it, whenever they talk about it or think about it, it’s like reliving the trauma. What makes it even worse is when people don’t believe them, don’t take them seriously or shame them for happened.

And South Asians are notorious when it comes to shoving shame into each other, themselves and their children. Yes, that sounds harsh, but how many of us are overly familiar with the shroud of shame?

It’s one thing to shame someone for leading a double life, or having a secret partner – both of which are not valid reasons to shame someone, but it something quite altogether to shame someone for daring to speak about a trauma they faced as a child.

It is damaging on every level to shame someone  who dares to open their mouth and say: “I was raped as a child” and/or “I was sexually assaulted as a child in my own home by a relative.”

As a woman of South Asian descent, I can just about handle being shamed for not being slim enough, not being fair-skinned enough or having straight hair, but I draw the line at South Asians who shame/mock those who have been sexually abused.

On a superficial level, nearly every single person believes that they would never shame someone who’s experienced this. But shame manifests itself in different forms; some of which we aren’t even aware of. This includes asking why they didn’t fight back, why they didn’t tell someone straight away, not believing the victim, fearing that abused children will become abusers, saying things like: “Oh that sort of thing doesn’t happen in our culture” or asking them what type of clothing they wore when it happened.

When people think of sexual predators, paedophiles and abusers, they generally think of images of mad-eyed men with snarling faces, salivating jaws and deranged facial expressions.

We think of them as monsters; we categorise them as ‘the other’ so that it creates some sort of space between us and them. And we take refuge in that tiny bit of space and we sit in our ivory towers with a sense of smugness about ourselves. They are the monsters; we are the rational human beings.

But the truth is that within our human bodies, we have the choice to become monster, in the same way that we have the choice to listen with empathy  and to not judge to individuals when they speak up about childhood sexual abuse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Brown Melancholia

Yesterday, saw Mental Health Awareness Month (16-22 May 2016) kick off in the UK with charities, individuals and organisations holding events to talk about mental health.

When it comes to discussing mental health, there is a collective reluctance for South Asians (both in the Diaspora and the motherland) to have those important conversations with people who live with a mental health illness or those who live with family members suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other illnesses.

It’s a bizarre dichotonomy; on one hand we don’t talk about mental health problems enough yet we don’t even realise the impact it has on people who live with relatives who suffer from a mental health illness.

My father has depression, and has lived with it for many years, so much so that I don’t remember a time when my dad didn’t have depression. I love my dad – he’s been a mother and a father to me due to personal circumstances– and it’s so difficult to see someone I love so much live with a mental health illness that takes over their life.

If I were to describe how it feels, I’d say that it goes like this: my dad, depression and me. In that order. And it’s not his fault that he has bad days and doesn’t feel like he can face the world. I know that my dad is not his depression.

I’ve grown up hearing relatives say that my father ‘is mad’ or they give him a wide berth because they don’t know how to talk to him, they think that he’s an unstable, volatile freak of nature so they end up saying something offensive or backward.

That used to really get to me, but now, I know it’s because that’s all they ever knew about mental health problems and that they’re merely a product bred by the silence we choose to maintain.

With so many resources and tech at our fingertips, we can’t keep relying on the old ‘log kya kahenge

This silence which has permeated generations, and still continues to, is what frightens and angers me. As a collective Diaspora, we are so concerned with what other people will think (“log kya kahenge?”) that we would rather choose silence over losing face in order to save a loved one.

 

You have no idea how much I hate those three words: log kya kahenge and the untold suffering, melancholy, helplnessness and pain it inflicts upon so many people of South Asian descent.

When it comes to topics, any topic, we all know that silence is complicit yet so many South Asians will choose to stay silent, make ignorant comments or shift uncomfortably in their seats if someone talks about depression, suicide or counselling.

We’ve ended up turning another thing into a stigma because we refuse to let go off our ego, pride and arrogance, which may give us short term social prestige, but it makes our lives a misery.

This in turn makes it very difficult for us to assess how widespread this issue is, given that there already is very little data to help doctors and mental health experts on how to approach South Asians who suffer from mental health problems.

Today, there is not a single valid excuse, for Diasporic Asians to make ignorant statements about mental health given that 1 in 4 people will suffer from/experience a mental health illness at some point in their lifetime.

In the same way that so many of us choose silence over awareness, we can also make the choice to educate ourselves about mental health illlnesses, support those living with one and choose unity over living in our respective ivory towers.

 

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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.”