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 Shroud of Shame


This week’s blog post is a very difficult one to write. It’s only Tuesday, but after the events of yesterday (the Orlando shootings) I feel as though I’m ready for the weekend and a long lie down in a darkened room.

I should also say that this blog post does contain some content which may upset or unsettle some readers because of the topic I’m discussing. It’s one that I’ve never really blogged about, probably because it’s so personal, and one that many people don’t talk about.

Last night, I took part in a Twitter chat, held by SayftyCom, about child sexual abuse (CSA). The thought of someone harming a child in any way is enough for me to feel physical pain. And that’s just the thought of it happening.

Statistics from the Crimes Against Children Research Centre show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys have been victims of child sexual abuse. In addition to this, an estimated 20% of adult women and 5-10% of adult men recalled an incident where they had experienced sexual abuse as a child.

When I read these statistics, and the stories of other people sharing their own stories of child sexual abuse, it felt like something had hit my heart hard enough to make me cry.

As a journalist, we’re exposed to some pretty horrible things (to put it lightly) and are expected to maintain a sense of professionalism and decorum while reporting or writing about horrific events. But this really got to me because of how close the topic is to me.

The discussion made me think deeply about this issue, and more importantly, how South Asians deal with incidents of child sexual abuse. It’s not something we hear, for rather obvious reasons, let alone discuss things like domestic violence,  in an open manner.

Dealing with something  as sensitive as child sexual abuse is understandably complex. For people who have experienced it, whenever they talk about it or think about it, it’s like reliving the trauma. What makes it even worse is when people don’t believe them, don’t take them seriously or shame them for happened.

And South Asians are notorious when it comes to shoving shame into each other, themselves and their children. Yes, that sounds harsh, but how many of us are overly familiar with the shroud of shame?

It’s one thing to shame someone for leading a double life, or having a secret partner – both of which are not valid reasons to shame someone, but it something quite altogether to shame someone for daring to speak about a trauma they faced as a child.

It is damaging on every level to shame someone  who dares to open their mouth and say: “I was raped as a child” and/or “I was sexually assaulted as a child in my own home by a relative.”

As a woman of South Asian descent, I can just about handle being shamed for not being slim enough, not being fair-skinned enough or having straight hair, but I draw the line at South Asians who shame/mock those who have been sexually abused.

On a superficial level, nearly every single person believes that they would never shame someone who’s experienced this. But shame manifests itself in different forms; some of which we aren’t even aware of. This includes asking why they didn’t fight back, why they didn’t tell someone straight away, not believing the victim, fearing that abused children will become abusers, saying things like: “Oh that sort of thing doesn’t happen in our culture” or asking them what type of clothing they wore when it happened.

When people think of sexual predators, paedophiles and abusers, they generally think of images of mad-eyed men with snarling faces, salivating jaws and deranged facial expressions.

We think of them as monsters; we categorise them as ‘the other’ so that it creates some sort of space between us and them. And we take refuge in that tiny bit of space and we sit in our ivory towers with a sense of smugness about ourselves. They are the monsters; we are the rational human beings.

But the truth is that within our human bodies, we have the choice to become monster, in the same way that we have the choice to listen with empathy  and to not judge to individuals when they speak up about childhood sexual abuse.







The Shame of Desire

This piece follows on from my post last week, where I discussed the history of sex in the sub-continent and how attitudes towards sex have drastically changed in contemporary societies across the Diaspora. I have been hugely surprised, and humbled, at the amount of interest that it has generated. It’s not everyday that I write about a topic, which makes me feel a bit on edge, and receive an overwhelming response. I thank you all for that; it means a lot and I appreciate it more than you can imagine. You can read last week’s post about ‘Sex and Desire in the Diaspora’ here.

This week is more of a contemporary lens on how love, sex and desire are viewed within the South Asian Diaspora. It is somewhat interesting to note that whenever love, sex and relationships are discussed within a South Asian narrative, it’s either saturated with an immediate expectation of marriage or the horrors of forced marriage, loveless arranged marriages, domestic violence, acid attacks and the insidious number of rapes/sexual assaults currently happening in the sub-continent. While it is vital that we continue to keep such contentious issues firmly in the public domain, it is also imperative that we begin to have open conversations about dating, sex and modern relationships in a healthy manner.

For a long time, I’ve often wondered why so many members of the South Asian Diaspora attach elements of shame to feeling sexual desire. In last week’s post, I established that centuries of successive colonialism (Mughals and then British) eroded a form of ancient Indian culture that was extremely comfortable with sex, sexuality and nudity. It is a stark contrast to see contemporary South Asian cultures that are now completely devoid of talking about sex and sexual desire,despite it having been alluded to in a variety of art, texts, poetry, songs and architecture.

The irrational fear (or reluctance) to acknowledge anything involving a human emotion with an energy level, as strong as sexual desire, is immediately stamped out. The end result of this behaviour is the manifestation of a guilt complex that becomes ingrained in people’s psyches. You don’t have to be psychologist to know how guilt has a way of eating away at an individual’s well being and happiness. At present, there already exists a lack of awareness and understanding about mental health problems across the Diaspora, which continues to destroy individuals and families. It makes me wonder why we would uphold attitudes that end up exacerbating people’s suffering instead of alleviating it.

If we delved into our heritages and histories, we would be extremely surprised to see how backward many of our ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ ways of thinking are

In recent years, the idea of having sexual desire has long been associated with demon-like behaviour, evil, impurity, sin and clashes with the dogma that many religious and spiritual leaders dictate to their followers. This is clearly seen in modern depictions of deities; the most enlightened beings are portrayed as having ideal characteristics that we are expected to strive for; fairer skin, inner serenity and being fully detached from emotions like anger, lust and fear. There is nothing wrong with such depictions, because most of it acts as symbolism, which is what the bulk of Asian spirituality/philosophy consists of. However, such symbolism has started to be taken literally, as more and more pockets of South Asian communities clamour to ‘reclaim’ their heritage.

This itself is problematic on so many levels; such ideas do not take into account the fact that constructs of identity and culture are malleable and naturally change over time. Such beliefs result in a static and stubborn definition of what constitutes a particular identity. For example, I remember being at university and being told that I was ‘bad’ because I ate garlic and onions (which allegedly encourage anger and lust in people).This way of thinking often comes at the expense of those who do not adhere to their lifestyles or belief systems – which naturally leads on to other issues which cause fractures within the Diaspora as a collective group.

It is almost like rubbing salt into an open wound; as if it wasn’t bad enough that a significantly large and influential component of cultural heritage was almost wiped out, we suddenly see figures of authority within our very own communities uphold the very same principles that were historically imposed upon our ancestors in the sub-continent centuries ago. I generally have no qualms with people and their belief systems, unless it encroaches on other people’s lives and has the potential to cause harm. In this case, the messages that some figures of authority are sending out, are damaging yet go unquestioned.

In the eight months of conducting research and having various conversation with people of South Asian descent (across generations) only exacerbates how deep feelings of shame run with regards to sex and desire – despite it being a natural and normal human emotion I firmly believe that if more South Asians delved into our heritages and histories, we would be extremely surprised with how backward many of our ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ ways of thinking are, in comparison to what was originally practised by our ancestors.