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.

The Strength in a Woman

This week, I’m feeling a mix of apathy and irritation. I’ve actually been feeling like this since I watched the interview between former adult actress, Sunny Leone, by Indian journalist Bhupendra Chaubey.

I have to say that, this was not the best PR moment for backward South Asian attitudes towards women to rear its ugly head. It showcased the very best of misogyny and was a glorious moment for shaming female sexuality.

While many will say that: “Well it’s not an attitude exclusively aimed at South Asian women, it happens to women of all colours and backgrounds” I firmly stand by what I’m about to say.

The interview, and Chaubey’s attitude, is just the tip of the iceberg, in how many South Asian communities attempt to morally dismember women who are independent and express themselves without feeling a sense of regret over their actions.

‘Every girl feels a sense of regret, no matter how modern she is.’

It also revealed how deeply ingrained ideas of shame are when it comes to South Asian women in the Diaspora and the motherland. There is the expectation that we must always feel a sense of shame if we express things such as sexual desire, behave, live or speak out of term.

I wholeheartedly admire the unapologetic attitude that Sunny displayed throughout the interview; she doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. What did strike me was the insistent attempt made to reinforce an antediluvian view of how ‘every girl feels a sense of regret, no matter how modern she is.’

We see the dichotomy of women being defined as virginal Madonnas or sinful whores whose behaviour is held up as being responsible for the moral state of society that they are supposed to represent.

At one point, I remember thinking: “I didn’t realise that all South Asian women – regardless of where we are born and how we grow up – are indirect ambassadors of India and Indian society.”

The attempt of blaming Sunny Leone for the rapes and sexual assaults in India was simply ludicrous – the root behind that widespread behaviour is one which goes beyond the actions of a former adult actress. Ironically, the root is more or less quite similar, but not in the way that you would initially think.

We should never feel a sense of regret about how we choose to live our own lives.

Rape and sexual assaults are actions which are not committed to experience sexual gratification or pleasure. It is about power and exerting that power over someone (the victim) helpless.

Throughout the interview, the evidence of power play that Chaubey was trying to exercise was as clear as day. It probably isn’t the same level of power that rapists exercise over their victims,  but it is a point worth considering. He may have only been doing his job – to get the goss – but he accidentally revealed his own attitude towards Leone in the process.

There is a sense of power one feels when the person that they are talking to admits a shortcoming. It places that person in the stocks – morally speaking – and the other up in their ivory tower of self righteousness.

It would have proved that despite being born and raised in the Diaspora, she still felt the sting of South Asian female shame that we have felt at some point in our respective lives.

It would have shown that she compromises her own sense of self-worth, happiness and self expression at the expense of appeasing what ‘the community thinks’ in the same way that thousands of South Asian women do in the Diaspora and the motherland.

It would have shown that she is still a ‘good, Indian girl’ whose sense of regret immediately roots her in an image of a South Asian woman that is recognisable in terms of behaviour.

But her answer proved to herself, and to South Asian women across the world, that we should never feel a sense of regret about how we choose to live our own lives.

 

 

The New Woman: Desi Edition

Indian female scientists celebrating their successful mission to Mars. Photo sourced from https://www.newsweek.com

In the 1920s, a New Woman emerged into Western society and had such a profound influence that it affects every single woman in the Western world to this very day.

While South Asian women have historically never been considered to be a part of this social shift, in the Western world, we have had our very own trailblazers (Rani ki Jhansi, Malalai of Maiwand, Mai Bhago, Rani Padmini, Abbakka Rani, Chand Bibi to name just a few!) who are relatively forgotten in the minds of contemporary South Asians.

More and more affluent, Feminist, well-educated and independent South Asian women are on the rise. It’s safe to say that a new type of Desi woman has well and truly risen to meet our modern world, its demands and what it has to offer us. We might not all be sword wielding Jhansi Ki Ranis, but as South Asian women rise, we are slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with as we are exposed to more and more opportunities to better ourselves.

I remember once having a conversation with my grandmother about Feminism and why I call myself a Feminist. She crinkled up her nose and said: “Women aren’t oppressed; you don’t need something which is going to take you away from your culture.”

I love my grandmother very much, but this contention really struck a chord with me, especially because she openly tells me to be financially independent, as educated as possible and to be the strongest that I can be, so that my life is better than hers. The irony here is that these are all traits associated with Feminism, but clash with the cultural ideas that my grandmother was brought up in and still believes in – it’s not even her fault because, along with thousands of other older South Asian women, it’s all that she knows.

Let’s put ethnicity and religious backgrounds to one side: women who display traits which go against their own social norms (aka ‘masculine’ traits) generally get stick for it. Before I even continue, I’d love to know who actually defines what masculinity and femininity actually are, because our current definitions of both are inflicting a serious amount of damage to everyone.

So what do we define ‘masculine’ traits as? Having apathy? Being single minded? Assertive? Ambitious? Focused? Strong minded? Having conviction and full faith in decisions made?

From a South Asian female perspective, we face this issue on both fronts, in the mainstream and our own communities. For a woman of South Asian descent to display ‘masculine’ traits is far from ideal, because it is still a relatively new concept to see independent (and/or unmarried) South Asian women living life on their own terms. Here we hear the cries of exasperated mothers, grandmother, aunties, busybodies and general gossip folk: “Oh no one will marry you!” and “How will you be a good <insert ethnic background> wife?”

As a result of this concept’s newness, we end up rejecting and slating such women by saying that they are too ‘aggressive,’ ‘selfish’ and ‘unladylike’ because they are alien to what we, and previous generations, are ‘used to.’

What, personally, hurts me more is when I see and experience other South Asian women openly putting each other down because they do not know how to accept/welcome those who are different.

It’s bad enough that there are still scores of South Asian men who point blank refuse to support South Asian women, or pretend to, or openly state they are proud of strong South Asian women until they meet one and begin to chip away at her spirit.

This is not me being pedantic or underhand; it’s a very real observation that I have seen in my family, my friends’ families and to women of different ethnic groups in the South Asian Diaspora. Therefore it is disheartening, exhausting and ridiculous to see us putting each other down – despite us individually knowing how taxing our journeys are.

It feels as though there’s a generation of South Asian women who are being brought up in cultures and various communities where South Asian men haven’t gotten the memo about this relatively new collective shift in how South Asian women decide to identify themselves, their cultures and their lives.

As a result, it’s not a surprise (but still a massive disappointment) that South Asian women still don’t receive the support that we need from our communities, men and peers. Of course, there are South Asian men who back us and want us to do well and succeed, but they are few and far between.

However, a solid support system and unity, will ultimately drive an overall change in ensuring that any backward and outdated traditions which pit South Asians (regardless of gender, ethnic group etc) against one another.

We can’t ever hope to achieve this with only 50% (or less) of our team on board. The usual solutions to this issue would be to educate ourselves and raise our children to be respectful, supportive and more open-minded of each others’ ambitions.

But I ask this: how viable is such a solution? Whenever I see people spout such answers, I can’t help but think that it’s a cop out answer. It’s all very well and good to say that we need to ‘raise the next generation right’ but how can we achieve this if we (their foundation) is cracked? Anyone, and their mum, can say this as a solution because it’s passive, it’s long term and subconsciously shifts our responsibility onto a generation which hasn’t even been conceived.

It’s time to stop passing the buck onto a group of unborn South Asian children (who don’t have a say in this matter because they don’t exist). We need to do some serious soul searching and start to re-evaluate the way that we treat South Asian women who do not conform to cultural standards, our own personal ideas of how a South Asian woman should be/behave/look like before we bring in another generation of South Asian girls who will go through the same things that we have experienced.