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.




It’s All in Your Head!

“I held my grandma’s hand as I clumsily toddled through the brightly lit corridors. I felt my grandma pick me up and I placed my chubby hand on her shoulder as I curiously looked around. Greeted by a curious metallic beeping, faint red light winking and another green light blinking at the foot of a bed, I saw a sleeping man, tucked up in a bed, with pipes and wires coming out of him. I wriggled my way out of my grandma’s arms to get a closer look. His eyes were closed. His beautiful dark hair had become tangled as he slowly breathed into a pipe. I looked at his hands and saw patches, tubes full of red stuff that wound their way to a metal box with squiggles on it. I reached out and stroked the back of his hand as I looked at my grandma with tears in my eyes.”


This is one of my earliest memories and it’s the first time I’ve spoken about it to anyone. I was around 5-6 years old and I remember feeling confused and very upset upon seeing the man in the hospital bed. He was my dad but he didn’t look like my dad. My dad was a smiling, happy, hardworking man who was the life and soul of every party. Him and my uncle – his younger brother – would be at the heart of it all cracking jokes and making everyone laugh til their sides hurt. The man in the hospital bed was a million miles away from the man with a ready smile and a bank full of jokes.

Depression is what many call a “silent killer” – in my opinion it is the worst disease because it is so difficult to diagnose, treat and cure. It is a well known fact that 1 in 4 of us in the UK, will at some point in their life, experience a mental health illness. Depression is a disease that doesn’t discriminate yet many are reluctant to talk about it, let alone acknowledge it. My dad’s struggle with depression resulted in two nervous breakdowns, yet it wasn’t until I saw him in the hospital as a kid with tubes coming out of him, that I began to understand my dad’s inner pain. I remember insensitive relatives sneering at him: “It’s all in your head!” and “You’re mad, you’re stupid and stop being so attention seeking” to “You’re a man; act like one!”

I hated them and their poisonous words. I wish I could have protected him but I couldn’t. Sadly it sent my dad down a deeper, darker and toxic spiral, which we all saw and felt, and it took him a very long time to come out of a severe depressive state to one that is now managed by anti-depressants. If you saw him and spoke to him, you would never ever guess that my dad suffers with depression.

Depression and mental health illnesses are largely misunderstood by the South Asian community; it is still seen as a taboo with many families hiding and viewing it as something to be ashamed of. There’s the prejudice of: “It only happens to white people” to “Oh he/she is so weak. They can’t cope with life” to the devastating: “It’s all in your head!”  which is what tips depression sufferers over the edge. The isolation, the judgement and vehement denial of mental health illnesses results in  many sadly taking their own life or resorting to substance abuse in a bid to get through each moment in a day. Such remarks are as helpful as standing in the middle of a drought, looking up to the sky and screaming: “Rain!”

Monsters are real, ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win ~ Stephen King

Whilst mental health illnesses are largely swept under the carpet by the South Asian community, there is a glimmer of hope as more and more scientists hope to break down such barriers. But I worry that reports and statistics won’t be enough to change such ingrained ways of thinking. In order to fully destroy this taboo we have to go down to the root of it all and change the very way people view themselves in order to create a complete shift in attitude. This comprehensive report shows that mental health illnesses in the South Asian community are beginning to be understood and acknowledged.

The recent and deeply sad death of Robin Williams has shocked us all. One of the world’s greatest comic geniuses who made millions laugh yet his death and struggle depicted a very different man from what the media showed us. Similarly, those who struggle with depression and other mental health illnesses are the ones that we would have never guessed.


I find that I increasingly strive to keep myself busy to prevent niggling, destructive thoughts getting the better of me. I pretty much do anything to not have to face them: even if it means disrupting my sleep pattern. Of course, this only works for a certain amount of time before the thoughts sharpen their claws and rip through that membrane of separation only to wreak havoc. I find that when the day’s events come to an end, when the dust settles and silence kicks in, that these thoughts come crashing down upon me with the ferocity of Niagara Falls.

It is a difficult thing; facing such issues and accepting that they exist. I suppose that recognition is the first and most important step. I faced one set of demons and after many years managed to overcome them – I got my peace after a long time and thought that it would be plain sailing from there. I was wrong. As we grow older, we overcome old problems, briefly celebrate our victory, only to be faced with new ones watching and waiting. They say that music can alter moods and that writing can take you to a different place. Although you almost always end up back in the same place you started out in, you return to it feeling invigorated and slightly less burdened than before.

“I am my worst critic. My biggest enemy, but I am also my strongest healer. And I cannot run and hide from or separate the two.”

I imagine that we are all covered in scars and scurrying through life under layers of make up, self assurance, egos and denial in a sea of roses, thorns and whips. I listen to the conversations that we have with each other and can only imagine the ones that we have with ourselves when we are alone. And I often wonder to myself: how many of us have a moment to just stop, to take a break, think about where we are right now, to re-energise ourselves and look around. My desire to be busy enough to shut out my inner destruction from taking place, comes at the cost of being burnt out, emotionally dead  and with a sense of inner emptiness. This isn’t how I want to live. This isn’t the person who I am or want to be. Old habits die hard but in order to be the best version of ourselves, we have to let them go. I can sit, cry and blame a lot of people and situations, but the reality is that the biggest thing holding us back is usually ourselves.