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 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.




*Images sourced from* 

There’s nothing more that irks me when I hear someone say: “she’s a slag.” The word itself sounds abrupt, harsh to the ear and immediately conjures up a mental image of the disgusted face that you pull when you’ve accidentally stepped in dog excrement.

Slag. It’s one of those words which is so easily thrown about and aimlessly fired at people without thinking about how it might affect them.

The other evening, I had a conversation with a very good friend about South Asian women being called slags. The cruel thing that we realised was that we’ve probably been called a slag at some point in our life. She then suggested that we reclaim the word and make it work for South Asian women as: “Sexually Liberated Asian Girl.” It sounds a bit out there, but, I think it might have some potential!

I’ve never quite understood why so many people feel the need to judge or condemn women who are sexually active and assert autonomy over their bodies, sexuality and sexual health. It’s always felt quite old-fashioned and the stigma which surrounds South Asian women using birth control is one which particularly stings.

The sucker punch (so to speak) comes in when people accuse South Asian women of deviating away from and distorting their culture because their actions are reminiscent of ‘Western culture.’ Personally, I’ve always considered it to be a good thing , if a woman is taking precautions with her sexual health and uses birth control. To me it means that she is being safe and smart about her health.

“We end up becoming un-appointed ambassadors for our families, communities and ethnic groups.”

Growing up, I was often reminded that girls who were not ‘pure’ were ‘bad’ and that they were a bad influence. When someone refers to another woman’s body or existence as a source of family honour or pride, it’s hard to not feel a sense of helplessness. Naturally, as a woman, you feel as though such attitudes are indirectly aimed at you – even if it is not explicitly said. You feel like your body doesn’t really belong to you because it is constantly under the scrutiny of others.

In hindsight, not only is this belief highly impractical, but it is also incredibly damaging. It vilifies women who are sexually active, have some sort of autonomy over their bodies and exercise it.  By condemning such women, we are inadvertently creating a subconscious anxiety within women and their bodies, which is entirely unnecessary,

The anxiety, which is created, is one rooted in shame. We feel a subconscious sense of embarrassment towards our bodies and feel the need to either constantly apologise for how they look or what they do. We don’t stop to think how incredible the human body is: it can build so much muscle, your skin can stretch so much without ripping apart, it can house life and repair itself.

Instead we find ourselves nitpicking at our bodies: ‘too dark, too fair, too thin, too fat, too tall, too short’ the list is endless and every time we remind ourselves of these ‘flaws,’ we move further and further away from regaining autonomy over our bodies.

“Women need to treat ourselves as well as we treat others” ~ Gloria Steinem

However, the concept of modesty is one which is slightly more complicated. On one hand, it is fair to argue that the vast majority of cultures across the sub-continent, advocate modesty in women because such beliefs have been upheld for so many years. But on the other hand, women did not cover their breasts in ancient Indian society, sex and sexual freedoms were considered to be the norm. Hence why sex (and tantric sex) was – and are – considered to be a spiritual experience. I believe that modesty should be left up to individual women: if one is comfortable not covering up,  they should be given the same level of respect that women who do cover up receive.

An example is Sunny Leone; an adult actress of Indian heritage. She is generally shamed because of her work. The reasons behind this vary; firstly because the issue of pornography comes with its own set of challenges with regards to the treatment of women. Secondly, many people have suggested that Leone is a ‘disgrace’ to South Asians because of her profession. The irony here is that it is those who believe and vocally express such sentiments, are more than likely to be the ones who are watching the videos that she appears in.

It churns my stomach that archaic practices, such as the ‘two finger test’ to prove that a woman’s virginity is still intact and laws which deny and/or restrict women from accessing birth control or placing taxes on women’s hygiene products exist in this day and age.

The concept of having ‘pure’ girls and women is flawed, heavily idealised and problematic because it firstly presents an unrealistic image of how women should be – both to men and themselves. Secondly, such idealisations don’t address issues of rape and sexual abuse – this often has harrowing consequences for those who have experienced the latter because of its stigmatised nature.

Beliefs such as izzat and pushing South Asian women to become unappointed ambassadors for their families, communities and ethnic groups continue to strip us off any control that we might be able to wield over our bodies.

It is merely another way of policing women’s bodies and taking away any sense of autonomy that they could possibly have. In this day and age, I can’t help but think, that we need autonomy over our bodies now more than ever.