The Politics of Shame

There many things that come with being a person of South Asian descent. The vast majority of us descend from a rich and vibrant heritage, a different personal history, stories of immigration, struggle and eventual success.

There are even more things which link South Asians, regardless off where we originate from. We can all, more or less, relate to having big families, the problems that come with that, an annoying relative who ruins life, delicious food etc. But the one thing which affects and binds South Asians, both in the Diaspora and the sub-continent, is shame.

Shame is a concept which many people of South Asian descent are keen to explore in books, film, documentaries, blogs and everyday conversations.

Shame seems to be a universal factor, which we are able to relate to and understand because we’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives. You only have to look at posts from photo blog, Humans of Bombay, to see what the devastating impact shame and fear of social rejection does to South Asian children and when they become adults.

Shame; a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.

The shame of not marrying the ‘right’ person. The shame of not having lighter skin. The shame of acting upon sexual desire. The shame of being divorced. The shame of rejecting religion. The shame of hiding abuse (in its many forms) and the shame of actually speaking about it. There is even shame in wanting to get help for mental health problems.

Shame manifests itself in so many ways in our lives; it’s gotten to a point where it is now a major cause for concern. The reason why is because silence walks hand-in-hand with shame. That shroud of silence is what makes victims of shame suffer and their perpetrators get away with it.

Think about this. Think about how many instances of shaming have happened in your own family; to your parents, your grandparents, your siblings and cousins. Who spoke out? What happened as a result of that? What we see emerge from this observation is that shame, like abuse, runs in cycles because of the silence which accompanies it.

Silence walks hand-in-hand with shame.

There is an overwhelming reluctance to admit that we have a huge problem when it comes to shaming ourselves and each other. Not only does it erode self-esteem, destroy people and their families, but it also has huge ramifications for how particular ethnic groups view each other and people living within these communities

I often read articles about the rate of suicide increasing in young Indian women, fresh stories of rape occurring, honour based violence, acid attacks and often wonder what is the fuel behind them.

Many of us blame our cultures, South Asian men in general, patriarchy, poverty, socio-economic situations, a lack of education and resources – the list can go on. However, we have not fully realised the impact that shaming men and women from a young age (consistently) has upon the society they live in.

I personally believe that shame is one of the root causes. When we shame someone a series of toxic behaviours emerge. They include: loss of self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, feeling powerless, helpless, insecure, repressed, anger, paranoid and frustrated.

Anger and violence are never the cause but merely the symptom

Frustration is often the very last emotion because it is from this point that we see abusive behaviour start to happen because, subconsciously, people are prepared to do anything to try and regain a sense of power or control in their lives.

The psychology of rapists is an interesting case to look at. Many people believe that South Asian men are repressed because of how high the rate of rape is across the sub-continent.

This is naive because rape is never about fulfilling sexual desire; it is about power and for the rapist to feel a sense of power that they believe was stolen from them. By raping another person, they temporarily regain a sense of sovereignty – which never lasts and they may rape again or become violent/abusive.

The politics of shame is just as damaging because it strips us of self-esteem, confidence in ourselves and others. A loss of self-esteem is particularly important here.

We stay silent because silence is all we have ever known

When we are at this level, we do not know how to respect or value others, let alone ourselves. And this is not helped by the fact that so many men and women have grown up in families, cultures and communities where shaming is considered to be ‘normal.’

It’s no wonder that we are unable to defend ourselves or our loved ones when they are being shamed. We can’t even detect it! We fall silent because silence is all we have ever known, and those who speak out are the ones who get ostracised and shamed even more.

The idea that ‘every generation must be better than the last’ is one so many of us hold dear. We invest our hopes and dreams in the youth because we believe that they will be our redemption.

We believe that they will be confident and braver than us. We believe that they will tackle honour based violence, abuse, forced marriage and cultural practices which stifle us.

We place hope in a generation because deep down we long for a change.

 

 

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.”