The Monster Within

This week my heart feels heavy. My heart aches, it screams in anger and it cries out in pain as to what has happened.

The murder of Qandeel Baloch is one which has shaken people to the core – especially South Asian women and girls who were born and/or live in the Diaspora.

It is an aspect of South Asian cultures and societies that the Western world knows about, judges all South Asians against, but doesn’t fully understand. I say all South Asians, because this issue is not exclusive to Pakistanis or the South Asian Muslim community. This is not an excuse to bash Pakistanis for their culture, to say that your faith or your culture is better than theirs or say that this kind of behaviour only happens in Muslim communities.

I say this because 94% of Indian women don’t feel safe travelling alone, because dozens of South Asian women (of all faiths) I personally know have experienced childhood sexual abuse and because British Asian women are three times more likely to commit suicide than a white woman – regardless of their faith. The latter is from seven years ago: I shudder to think what it’s like now.

Qandeel’s murder (yes I’m calling it for what it is: murder) has affected every single one of us because it is a reminder of what each and every one of us is up against and has been from the time that we were born. It’s also a reminder of the price we could potentially pay for wanting to live life on our own terms.

There are hundreds of South Asian women who blog. These are women of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities, ethnic groups and religions. I know some of them personally and we all have a mutual understanding as to why we blog and express ourselves online for a myriad of reasons. But one stands out because of how common it is.

Last year, I spoke at a Bloggers Conference which was open to South Asian bloggers in London. There weren’t any requirements: you just had to be South Asian, have a blog or be interested in blogging. That day the entire room was full of South Asian women of all ages: particularly older women. There wasn’t a single South Asian man in sight.

One of the guest speakers, a South Asian man, commented: “There’s so many women here: I don’t understand why.”

His words hit me that day: so much so that I still remember them and who he is. I remember them because of the rush of anger, the shock and the frustration I felt inside when he said those words. Because I, like so many other South Asian women, know why.

It’s because, deep down, many of us know that whatever we blog about is stuff we can’t say without being judged, ostracised, threatened or told that we are bringing shame on ourselves and our families.

We worry about losing our families, our home and the safety net of our cultures because it is all that we have known and we blindly accepted it thinking that we were nothing without it. We have never been taught to be alone, to be our own person, to have our own individual identity, to fully believe in ourselves and to not care what people will say about us.

This isn’t our fault: it’s probably the only model of communal values and living that we know. The very thought of going against these things, is enough to silence many of us. It silenced our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-aunts and countless women before them.

But this generation of South Asian women refuse to stay silent and for that we get labelled as being too curt, too outspoken and too opinionated. We are told that no man will marry us because we are not ‘good, simple’ girls, AKA, easy to control and manipulate.

We are shamed for wanting to live life on our own terms and for wanting to experience it. We are born into societies and a mesh of cultures which shames us, calls us burdens upon our families yet we are constantly told that we hold the family honour. How can someone who is degraded and viewed with disdain be a vessel of family honour?

When a woman is murdered for ‘bringing shame’ upon the family we feel shock, sadness and anger. But then we blame society, we blame religion and we blame our culture. The reality is that we should be blaming each other because we make up our societies and we make up the ideas which form our cultures. If we don’t stand up against micro-aggressions towards South Asian women, we do not stand a chance of combating domestic violence, rape, sexual assaults and feticide which happens across the sub-continent and the Diaspora.

So many South Asian cultures, despite having a strong history of powerful women, have an overwhelming patriarchy and it destroys the spirit of South Asian women everywhere.

It almost feels like South Asian men, subconsciously, are prepared to do anything to keep them in line and under their control: even if it means raping them or murdering them to maintain ‘family honour.’ This blog, by Saurav Dutt, explains this concept beautifully.

Violence against women happens anywhere; regardless of your faith, your culture, your ethnic background or the amount of money you have in the bank. This is a problem; a huge social problem which we are all responsible for because we still can’t even talk about it honestly. And the fact that our collective way of thinking still results in the lives of women being taken before their time makes me sick to my soul. Shame and dishonour don’t kill our girls. We do. We are the monsters within who destroy our girls.

Indians are black too.

Whenever I suggest this I’m often met with looks of confusion and I’m generally not taken very seriously, cue the question: “How can Indians be black? We’re brown.”

For a long time, I wasn’t aware that anyone who isn’t white is automatically classed as black – politically speaking. This includes south Asians, east Asians, south Americans, native Americans, Africans, Caribbeans, people of mixed heritage etc. It’s a large and problematic umbrella term, especially when people are trying to balance an ethnic heritage with a national identity. 

“Why does this even matter to us in this day and age? Things aren’t as bad as they were when the first bunch of immigrants came over and made a life for themselves! Be glad you’re here, because back in your motherland things are so much more worse.” These are just a few of the blindingly ignorant statements that I hear whenever I try to discuss my ethnic heritage in a British space – it’s dismissed and not taken into account. For a long time I thought that I was the only person who thought about this sort of thing, but thanks to the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick I soon discovered that there were millions of Asians around the world who felt the same way that I do and have done for many years. 

Last month I wrote a post about where I’m from and how much of an impact it had on how I view myself today. I was one of a handful of south Asian girls in my secondary school; it got quite lonely sometimes and I didn’t really fit in anywhere. Whenever a teacher mentioned something about “Hindoooism” or “Indiaaa” (yes that’s how they pronounced it) I was met with a sea of ignorant eyes expecting me to come out with richly embroidered tales of how my family rode elephants in India, a never ending plethora of knowledge about India and Indian culture. They’d ask me if I knew the waiters at their local Indian restaurant, if I could speak “Indian” to them and if I preferred India to Britain – despite the fact that I’m British, have never been to India and have  3-4 generations of my family in East Africa.

But the icing on the cake was when Black History Month (BHM) rolled around. Every October, for a month, we learnt and celebrated the achievements of notable black people who’d made a difference in the world. Or perhaps I should say, the white world. I find BHM slightly problematic: on one hand it’s great to see the achievements of black people being celebrated and recognised. However, one month a year is pathetic considering Britain’s history and relationship with many previously colonised nations. Photos of Nelson Mandela, Dr Martin L King, Rosa Parks, Mary Seacole and Malcolm X were splashed out on display boards with their inspiring actions in captions underneath for all to read. So far so good, these are people that I personally look to for inspiration, but I couldn’t see anyone whom I could relate to. Was I not a part of BHM because I wasn’t African or Caribbean? I definitely wasn’t white so where did I fit in? I didn’t understand why there weren’t any Asians being featured in BHM – should there have been an Asian History Month?

I didn’t get it for a long time, my roots hail from the Punjab and Punjabis are fiercely proud of their history and heritage. I grew up on stories about the bravery of Mai Bhago, the strength of Bhagat Singh and seeing countless images of women being empowered in my religion. Yet no one else seemed to realise this; to the outsider we were just a group of people who stood in a quiet limbo, wanting to get on with our lives and put up with everyday discrimination. 

It wasn’t until my final year of university where I studied modules that focused on literature written by black British writers that things suddenly began to make sense. It was like I’d found a missing jigsaw piece and something had clicked. Indians are black, at least in accordance to the political definition at the start of this post. At one point we were even called “niggers” and “coons” because they had lumped non-whites into the same group. Obviously nowadays, there are options for you to pick with regards to your ethnic heritage. 

Asians deserve to have their achievements, their heritage, their history and their culture celebrated in the same way that we revere the actions of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Dr ML King etc. Asian history, heritage and culture matters just as much as any other culture in the world because it is about people and how humans choose to record their experiences of life. We are a part of post-colonialism’s continuing story and a big part of that is acknowledging different histories, groups of people, their cultures and what they have to offer to the world.