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.

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She

From her Kings are born. From woman, woman is born, without woman, there would be no one at all.

With long flowing dark hair, regal eyes and nut brown skin, She rose from the earth and the scent of jasmine lingered in the air from where She had been. From Her fingers sprung saplings, a strange, golden light emitted from Her palms and from Her feet grew long, dark, tightly knotted vines.

Plump and soft with bountiful breasts or tall and slender with a flash of anger in Her eyes, She came in many names, shapes and forms. Leaves, thorns, berries delicately adorned Her hair as She trod on soil, foliage, fire, clay, mud or rock.

She made the land fertile, brought light where there had only been darkness, hope where despair existed and water gushed where only ash had lain before. The desert bloomed and the scars of many disappeared as they began to thrive.

“Never leave us,” people pleaded when they saw Her. “We cannot imagine our world without you.”

To this She would gently smile and reply, “I am everywhere and always among you. How could I ever leave?”

The people breathed a sigh of relief and rejoiced: their world had become brighter, more beautiful and meaningful than before. They made oaths and took solemn vows that they would defend, cherish and protect the ones who gave life. They were convinced that nothing, or no one, could destroy their happiness.

***

It began gradually with a chill. It had accompanied a group of merchants after they had returned from six months of trading goods. They had come back with a strange glaze in their eyes and an air of malice hovered around their lips.

They looked upon the softness of their world  with disgust and the piety of its people with disdain. Everywhere they looked they saw a way of life that was backwards, hindered progress and left them open to being attacked.

Their brows furrowed with mirth and  tightened with repulsion at the adoration She received. White-hot anger surged through their veins and turned their hearts into molten rock, their eyes blazed with fury and any shred of compassion that they had dried up.

They had found the source of their fury, but knew that they couldn’t achieve their hearts’ selfish desires by themselves.

Their poison eventually seeped into the land, hearts and minds of the people as they turned on each other and slaughtered those who gave life.

The scent of jasmine no longer floated in the air. Instead it became so heavy and thick that it clung to people’s chests and burned their skin. Where water once ebbed and flowed, stood skeletal stems, dead foliage and deep grooves now slashed their way through the once lush riverbed.

It didn’t take long for Her to see what had happened to a land and a group of people She had fervently loved, nourished and protected. They came for Her with fire, weapons and blind fury.

It was Her fault. She was responsible for their plight. She had betrayed them and had to pay with Her blood. They vowed to destroy Her for causing them this pain and they didn’t care how long it would take. They vowed to forget that She ever existed and burned every single effigy that they had of Her.

She ran from the mobs. She ran from the fire. She ran from the earth that had given Her life. She ran from the light that had guided them. She ripped the saplings from her fingers, the vines that gripped her ankles and cast them aside. She ran headfirst into the darkness and  vowed to never return.

 

The Terms and Conditions of Love

The hypocrisy of unconditional love is one which has always confused me. There are many different forms of love such as: platonic love, familial love, maternal love, unrequited love, lust, romantic love which have been long documented in the arts, music and literature. Yet the purity and sanctity which has always surrounded unconditional love, is one which has always managed to unsettle my thoughts.

They say that when a baby is born, the mother feels a rush of love towards that child. I wouldn’t know, as I don’t have children, but a part of me questions the sincerity of this, particularly as the child grows up and leads a life that its parents do not necessarily agree with or is born a girl.

It interesting to note how quickly some families will disown their child for ‘marrying out,’ coming out as gay or choose a career which goes against the norm. When I see such things happen, the whole concept of unconditional love seems to go out of the window.

Conditional love for girls: 

This is an aspect which is all too familiar for so many young girls and women of South Asian heritage. Writing this emotionally hurts me because I wish that so many of us still didn’t have to go experience the full throttle of backward thinking.

It starts early; so much so that many of us probably don’t even remember an exact point where conditions of love were placed upon us. They are so expansive in the sense that it ranges from our skin tone, our body shape to intellect and who we get married to. Such conditions have managed to infiltrate every aspect of what it means to be a woman of South Asian descent, that instead of enforcing us it has debilitated us and hindered us from confidently moving forward to create change.

The twist with such conditions is that they’re usually never verbally mentioned unless we break them. To this day I can safely say that there are many South Asian women – of different generations – who have grown up thinking: ‘it’s all in my head.’  This sense of confusion and helplessness is exacerbated when (or if) we mention it to our mothers, grandmothers and aunts who usually deny it or tell us not to take it so personally.

The Conditions:

Growing up I remember hearing about ‘those girls’ who went against their families’ and cultural beliefs to satisfy their own selfish needs. I remember the venomous tone that was used by various members of my family, the cruel squinting of their eyes, knitted eyebrows and pursed up lips: it was as though their entire  bodies were physically rejecting ‘those girls.’

These were girls who had started dating boys during their teens, having sex outside of marriage, drinking, smoking, secretly going to parties, coming out as gay or lesbian, having relationships with boys who weren’t Asian, leaving the family home to live independently, renouncing their faith, putting their career over getting married and having children.

The ‘good girls’ didn’t do any of the above. They were quiet, studious, obedient, religious, timid, shy and didn’t go out – let alone socialise with boys or party!

Even while writing these lines, I can’t help but laugh, because these are all hallmarks of experimentation during adolescence and a natural part of growing up. Yet these conditions are often the deciding factor

Just from that, I recall an inner panic and promised my young self that I would never become one of ‘those girls’ and dishonour my family. After all, nearly all of us are brought up being extremely dependent on our families (and not just financially). The thought of losing our families’ love and support is one which fills us with a paralysing sense of fear.

I used to be numb with that fear, but what I didn’t know then, was the other side of the story. The story that belonged to ‘those girls.’

In addition, what I didn’t bank on was my parents getting divorced. Then suddenly I became one of ‘those girls’ despite having done nothing wrong. That experience, along with the treatment that my siblings and I received, made me discard these futile conditions that we place on South Asian girls.

My aunt marrying a Nigerian man pretty much epitomises the conditions of love that are placed on us from a very young age. Although she is older than me, I remember growing up and hearing everybody praise her for being fair skinned, intelligent, having a Ph.D, a credit to her father and our family. But the second she got married, it was (and is) alarming to see how quickly my relatives have retracted the love that they once had for her.

People-pleasing comes at a cost. Our own: 

How many of us feebly agree with our elders when they openly insult homosexuals, families with daughters, women and people of other ethnic groups, religions, and/or races?

There are two main reasons as to why we stay quiet when they begin such tirades. Firstly, it is easier to agree with them than disagree. Secondly, we have a fear of disrespecting our elders. Heaven forbid if we were to call an aunt or uncle out on their bad behaviour – it’s probably worse to do that than serve a poorly made cup of chai. Therefore it has been deemed socially acceptable – for an uncomfortably long time – to dully agree with whatever is coming out of their mouths. Even if it makes us cry, causes distress or creates family feuds.

The vast majority of individuals who have grown up in a South Asian setting have been told that we must ‘respect our elders at all times’ regardless of what they say, because they are old. South Asian culture has a long standing tradition of esteeming our grandparents, and elderly people in general, which is not a bad thing.

But what I have seen happen, time and time again, is an overwhelmingly large number of these elders taking advantage of the fact that people will silently accept their rantings and ravings without question.  The part where it becomes increasingly strained is when such generations take advantage of this respect and misconstrue it as a sign that whatever they say is correct. So when they are called out on their disgusting views, they become defensive and immediately hit us with: “You are so disrespectful!”

I remember telling an uncle of mine that his views on homosexuality were outdated and the first thing I heard fly from his lips was: “You are a disrespectful girl!” You’d think that I had slapped him across the face and waterboarded him in front of my entire family, yet all I had done was say that his attitude towards gay men was unacceptable.

How are we supposed to address taboo subjects such as homosexuality, interfaith/racial marriages or attitudes towards femicide when we are not encouraged to question aspects of cultural thoughts and beliefs?