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.






“The Lady From the Sea” – Edvard Munch. Image source:


Silence is gold. It’s not often that I find myself going into a period of silence, but for the last few years it’s something which has gradually happened for a number of reasons.

And in the last few months, it’s intensified (which explains why I haven’t been blogging as regularly as before).

I’ve been blogging about issues that many Asians, born and raised in Western countries, experience such as Islamophobia, colourism, Feminism, hair, culture vs assimilation etc. These are all topics which affect us on a daily basis because it is these experiences which eventually shape who we become, our outlook on the world and where we stand in it as individuals.

But the silence that I’ve been going into comes as a result of the observations that I’ve been making, the conversations I’ve been having with many Asian women and the literature that I’ve been reading.

There’s a lot of Feminist literature on the aspects of womanhood and social conformity which affects white women. And I say that because Feminism has generally been geared to benefit white women and has not always included the voices, stories and experiences that women of colour face.

Many of us turn to blogs, online magazines and conversations that we have with other Asian women to help us

But when it comes to understanding how this impacts Asian women (both in the Diaspora and the motherland) there isn’t much when it comes to academic literature. That itself is another issue altogether. Instead, many of us turn to blogs, online magazines and conversations that we have with other Asian women to help us.

All of which are extremely beneficial, but even then, that doesn’t fully help us. All we get is a temporary sense of relief from whatever it was bothering us. The root is not pulled out and discarded for good.

Last week, a very dear childhood friend of mine got engaged and it was a beautiful event. But all I heard from conversations around the table I was sat at were of worries, fears and concerns over whether or not they wanted to get married, what their families and communities would say etc.

I sat there, too, feeling a sense of worry mixed with shame. My own personal views on marriage are sadly distorted by my parents’ divorce, but I could relate to their worries as an Indian woman.

It added to the silent phase I’ve been in and a question I’ve had on my mind for many years. Why does it feel like Asian women are walking on eggshells all the time? It doesn’t matter whether we’re Diasporic Asians or from the motherland, it’s something which we all seem to have in common.

We’ve lived far too long in social silos and look what it is doing to Asian women.

For the last few years, I’ve increasingly noticed a flicker of self-doubt, a lack of self-belief and shame in the eyes of so many Asian women – regardless of faith, how progressive their families were  or where they were born. And when I hear their stories, it echoes so many that I’ve heard before or directly experienced myself.

Which leads me to repeat my question and ask another. Why does it feel like Asian women are walking on eggshells all the time? Why are always in an uneasy state of flux and tentatively walk through our lives?

We are simply never left to be ourselves, or alone in general. We never really to get to know who we are as an individual. This is essential because it’s about establishing ourselves as a woman before the tags, labels and cultural expectations.

But this doesn’t mean that we want to be abandoned: we just don’t have any space to do the latter physically, emotionally or mentally. It’s crucial to our wellbeing and spending time alone is not bad or something to be frowned upon.

Scores of us grow up seeing our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other female relatives putting up with the most absurd social attitudes that erode their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Why?

Because of dard: fear. Fear of being ostracised. Fear of becoming ‘that woman’ who has no respect for her culture. Fear of becoming unmarriable. Fear of losing the support of your family and loved ones: we’re brought up glued to our families. Fear of being alone. And this fear is not obvious; it’s so discreet and heavily embedded in our subconscious that we don’t even realise it.

To combat this, we come up with pathetic hashtags on social media to try and show a sense of solidarity and unity. None of that translates into real life. We talk about empowering Asian girls and women, without even knowing what empowerment looks like or even being  empowered ourselves.

It is always talk and no action: we do the latter for vanity and don’t realise that there are thousands of Asian women, including me, who can’t cope with these cultural expectations of what it means to be an Asian woman.

It’s us who gets to decide that because we make up our communities and our cultures: not outdated and toxic ways of thinking. And it is us who brings in the next generation. 

Support each other. Love one another and sincerely help each other. Write it out. Draw, paint, kick, cry, scream, listen to each other and – most importantly – listen to yourself. We’ve lived far too long in social silos and look what it is doing to Asian women.

Brown Melancholia

Yesterday, saw Mental Health Awareness Month (16-22 May 2016) kick off in the UK with charities, individuals and organisations holding events to talk about mental health.

When it comes to discussing mental health, there is a collective reluctance for South Asians (both in the Diaspora and the motherland) to have those important conversations with people who live with a mental health illness or those who live with family members suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other illnesses.

It’s a bizarre dichotonomy; on one hand we don’t talk about mental health problems enough yet we don’t even realise the impact it has on people who live with relatives who suffer from a mental health illness.

My father has depression, and has lived with it for many years, so much so that I don’t remember a time when my dad didn’t have depression. I love my dad – he’s been a mother and a father to me due to personal circumstances– and it’s so difficult to see someone I love so much live with a mental health illness that takes over their life.

If I were to describe how it feels, I’d say that it goes like this: my dad, depression and me. In that order. And it’s not his fault that he has bad days and doesn’t feel like he can face the world. I know that my dad is not his depression.

I’ve grown up hearing relatives say that my father ‘is mad’ or they give him a wide berth because they don’t know how to talk to him, they think that he’s an unstable, volatile freak of nature so they end up saying something offensive or backward.

That used to really get to me, but now, I know it’s because that’s all they ever knew about mental health problems and that they’re merely a product bred by the silence we choose to maintain.

With so many resources and tech at our fingertips, we can’t keep relying on the old ‘log kya kahenge

This silence which has permeated generations, and still continues to, is what frightens and angers me. As a collective Diaspora, we are so concerned with what other people will think (“log kya kahenge?”) that we would rather choose silence over losing face in order to save a loved one.


You have no idea how much I hate those three words: log kya kahenge and the untold suffering, melancholy, helplnessness and pain it inflicts upon so many people of South Asian descent.

When it comes to topics, any topic, we all know that silence is complicit yet so many South Asians will choose to stay silent, make ignorant comments or shift uncomfortably in their seats if someone talks about depression, suicide or counselling.

We’ve ended up turning another thing into a stigma because we refuse to let go off our ego, pride and arrogance, which may give us short term social prestige, but it makes our lives a misery.

This in turn makes it very difficult for us to assess how widespread this issue is, given that there already is very little data to help doctors and mental health experts on how to approach South Asians who suffer from mental health problems.

Today, there is not a single valid excuse, for Diasporic Asians to make ignorant statements about mental health given that 1 in 4 people will suffer from/experience a mental health illness at some point in their lifetime.

In the same way that so many of us choose silence over awareness, we can also make the choice to educate ourselves about mental health illlnesses, support those living with one and choose unity over living in our respective ivory towers.


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