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.

 

 

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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.

Herd

This photo story is from Humans of New York, whose creator Brandon Stanton, is currently in Hunza Valley, Pakistan. I’ve followed his photo project for a very long time – with keen interest – but this one has particularly struck a sensitive point. So much so that I had tears in my eyes and felt moved to write tonight’s post about this.

What resonated with me was that the way this young woman feels, is exactly what thousands of people from BAME backgrounds often experience and feel (including myself). This feeling is not just exclusive to immigrants; it can even extend to those who have been born, raised and live in a particular country or from a particular ethnicity.

Sometimes, when I look around at the current state of things, I feel a sense of despair mixed with sadness. Sometimes I think, ‘when did it get so bad?’ or more recently ‘when did being intolerant become so fashionable?’ I find it increasingly difficult, to remember that there is always more good in the world than bad, which is why I love what Humans of New York champions. Throughout Avid Scribbler I have discussed the issues of growing up Asian in contemporary Britain as a woman, as first-generation, as an identity, as well as exploring the social and psychological difficulties of being brown in a post 9-11 world. But what I haven’t blogged about, is the ever widening gaps appearing between various South Asian communities, which is causing us to unravel.

It is too easy to hate someone, something or a particular culture

I’m of Panjabi heritage and my family came to the UK via East Africa after the Empire collapsed. It’s how so many stories of South Asians, who live and work in Britain today, began. Due to the political and social climate back then, Indians were forced to live in townships along with other Asians, regardless of background, religion and culture. I always recall the stories that my grandmother tells me about how everyone got on well enough  to celebrate each other’s festivals and weddings. There was so much social cohesion, that they even spoke and understood each other’s languages. Now,  contrast that situation with the scores of individuals, who feel it appropriate to disrupt interfaith marriages happening in various places of worship. We can further juxtapose this, with the various tensions that South Asians create with other South Asians because they hail from a different region, speak a different dialect of the same language or are from a community who have a few trouble-makers. This is all happening and is very real.

I have always maintained the belief that it is too easy to hate someone, something or a particular culture. It is too easy to blindly join a witch hunt or follow a particular belief system which demonises a group of people. I grew up in an ethnic community, which has had a notorious sense of hatred for Pakistanis and Muslims, for centuries. This animosity has been heightened since Partition and saw various wars happen between India and Pakistan, the influx of drugs flowing into Panjab and a reluctance for both sides to call it a day. Let’s not be naive about this; historically some pretty bad atrocities have been committed by both and I can understand why it is difficult for certain generations to be forgiving. For many years, I struggled to understand why that hatred has seeped into my generation and for future generations to come.

We, somehow, ended up becoming unappointed ambassadors for a crassly-packaged label

Following 9-11, myself (and probably thousands of people) felt like we had to constantly justify our religions, ethnicities, firmly state that we were not Muslim and apologise for the actions that a few senseless individuals would commit.

We, somehow, ended up becoming unappointed ambassadors for a crassly-packaged label of ‘brown-people-who-could-be-terrorists-but-we’re-not-really-sure.’ We end up apologising for idiots we don’t even know, we tip-toe around in the hope of not rousing suspicion, we make an extra effort to appear as Westernised as possible and go as far as backstabbing/turning on each other. Not only has this created an obvious friction between ethnic minorities and mainstream society, but it has once again reignited that age-old hatred from my grandparents’ generation.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” ~ Martin Niemöller

The major difference here, is that this revived animosity, can have horrific consequences because contempt, ignorance and intolerance of anyone with brown skin is now so widespread, and the concerning part is that it is not as explicit as it used to be. My grandparents’ generation stemmed their animosity based on what they experienced and what Panjabi history had told them. Their disdain was sustained for years (like a toxic time capsule) because they knew who was a Muslim, who was a Hindu and who was a Sikh. Today’s herd of ignorant people do not know the difference, which is why it is so dangerous to sustain such animosities, because they will attack regardless. This is why I am vehemently against my generation from upholding such beliefs; we are all extremely vulnerable to this. What is the use of turning a blind eye to a woman in a hijab being harassed because she’s not of the same faith? What is the point in brushing off the attacks that happen to young men with brown skin and beards because they’re not from your ethnic community? Yes, we have different cultures, religions and our histories are sadly intertwined with bloodshed and violence, but we must accept these differences and start to properly help each other, before we fully unravel.