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.



Kaurs, Kumaris and Kandaan


When I was little girl I used to run in the open fields – my unruly curly hair streaming out behind me as the wind caressed each strand. I would stretch my arms out as wide as they could go and laugh at the world before me. Carpets of fluorescent yellow, green and brown spread out as far as the eye could see as I imperiously surveyed my kingdom. I would smooth back my curls, place my hands on my hips, lift my chin up in defiance and throw my shoulders back as I stood on top of my favourite hill. I would then close my eyes and feel a wave of delirium wash over me as I breathed in the fresh mountainous air. I remember feeling so happy that I thought I’d explode! I would lift my face to the sun, feels its warmth kiss me and whirl around like a dervish without a care in the world.


It’s been many years since I raced to the top of my hill – I’m not sure if it even exists anymore. My life gurgled, ebbed and floated me downstream to another world where there were no hills to run up. I left behind my mother, my father, my brothers and my crown in my small village surrounded by yellow fields and drifted to a land where everything was grey. I arrived with half of my face modestly covered with a beige chunni and stood behind the man who would now commandeer my journey.

Before I left, my Mama and aunties took it upon themselves to turn me into a ‘respectable’ young woman. My curls were slicked down with jasmine oil and pulled back into a tight low bun which hurt every time I turned my neck. My almond shaped eyes were lined with black kohl, which stung and burnt. My face, neck and arms were slathered in a thick turmeric paste and my breasts were flattened as two of my aunties squeezed me into a red blouse. I remember the exchanged looks of admiration and the gasps at my transformation from an unruly child to an elegant young woman. When I looked at myself in the mirror, it felt like a stranger was staring back at me.

But it wasn’t all bad – I had been lucky that my husband never hit me or shouted at me and had come from a relatively liberal family. That was until I gave birth to two girls – it took him a very long time to accept it. I remember the look of white-hot anger that his mother gave me, the way he lowered his head and quietly shuffled out of the hospital ward. It broke my heart to see my husband so deflated; when I called my aunty she said that I had done a terrible thing. That was the last time I ever spoke to her. When we came home, he consigned himself to his room and only came down for meals or to go to work.

This was how it was for a few years; we lived in a small world of three women who comforted, loved and nurtured each other.  As my girls grew older, I saw glimpses of the same unruly child with wild curls in their faces and felt a sense of relief. I wanted them to feel the same wave of delirium that I felt on the top of my hill. I wanted them to feel like the brave queens, whose stories I had grown up listening to. But I painfully realised that times had changed. Queens were not revered in the same way; they would never be able to run through fields, stand atop of hills and whirl around carelessly like I did.