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.

 

 

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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.

Louder, Browner and Prouder

Image source from: https://www.theguardian.com

This week’s blog is one which I have been wanting to write for a number of months now. It’s an issue I feel so strongly about, but am painfully aware of the consequences it may have, which is why I so often kept telling myself to not write it.

As a writer, and a journalist, I am bound by something innate to talk about difficult issues and share stories which may unsettle people. I’ve even received death threats and threats to my loved ones for doing this. The reason why I don’t stop, is because it highlights a need for change. If I stop, they win and we don’t see/hear the stories of those who so desperately need to be heard.

It is never easy to criticise one’s culture; especially if you are of South Asian descent as I am. It’s not in our collective mindset to challenge elders, religious leaders, scholars or theology: it’s viewed as a sign of disrespect and those who don’t conform get shamed or ostracised.

I care about the culture that I come from; it’s the fertile soil which has allowed me to thrive in a nation where I am miles away from where my ancestry began.

I care about the culture which runs through my veins, so much so,  that I am prepared to write a blog which could piss a lot of people off. But what I see happening across the quilt of South Asian communities concerns me enough to feel unsettled.

Today’s bunch of South Asians across the world are louder, prouder and browner than ever before.

I feel pride when I see Diasporic Asians – and our girls – use social media to reclaim aspects of their heritages, stand up to racial hatred and to write out their experiences in blogs.

In comparison to older generations, today’s bunch of South Asians across the world are louder, prouder and browner than ever before. But it is naive to think that such gains have not come without a cost. And it’s a cost which none of us have really foreseen.

We are now seeing levels of extremism pop up in the most unlikeliest of communites. I guess I can describe as a quiet hum which is eventually getting louder, as more and more voices join it.

For example, a self-defense programme has been set up in Uttar Pradesh, India by Hindu nationalist group Bajrang Dal for Hindus to participate in. I’m all for self-defense and being able to protect yourself, but when a group states that the purpose of this camp is to ward off ‘the enemy,’ without clearly stating who that enemy is, then we have to start asking questions.

Similarly, the debate which Mehdi Hasan challenged Ram Nadhav (former spokesman for the RSS) about the rise of neo-fascism in India is cause for concern in Diasporic Asians. You can watch it here – it’s from last year, which proves that this discussion is very much needed today.

Some readers may pause and think: “Why has she picked on Hindus? Everyone always picks on Hindus! She must be a Hindu-hater and hate her Indian heritage!” Do you see how we can’t even comment on our cultures and religions without being damned?

During my uni days, I was once called a Sikh-killer in broad daylight by a British Sikh man, because he believed that my non-Sikh family were responsible for the events of 1984. Despite the fact that my entire family have been in East Africa for the last three-four generations!

It broke my heart. To actually experience Asians turning against each other in a heartbeat

The reason why a wave of extremism and right-wing thinking in Diasporic South Asian communities (across all faiths) deeply concerns me, is because we’ve got a shared history where being united has allowed us to thrive and survive in the UK.

There are people out there, who will have you believe that there is greater freedom in being divided. I wish I was joking, but I’m not, because this way of thinking has more or less seeped into many pockets of the wider societies and countries that we live in.

When it comes to addressing extremism in South Asian communities, the first one that we all point to are Muslims. It’s the most obvious point of call and living in a post-9/11 world which is racked with austerity, it’s not a complete surprise to see South Asians keen to separate themselves from the Muslim community and Islamophobic attacks.

The irony here, of course, is that we all are still targeted because of our physical appearances: brown skin, dark hair and ‘funny’ sounding names. Therefore this deliberate act of separation is a waste of time and collective energy. Yet there are still so many South Asians across the Diaspora who partake in this type of behaviour.

Post-Brexit, social media has been flooded with the number of Asians who have been racially abused and attacked. Considering how divided we currently are, I can’t see the former unity and solidarity that Asians showed to one another in the 1970s,80s and 90s making an appearance.

For most Diasporic Asians, we’ve acted like sponges and simply absorbed ways of thinking which do not seek to help us evolve and progress. We have become individualistic and now operate in social silos, without realising that we are all inter-connected. If someone falls, we all tumble down too.

If we are unable to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly in ALL of our cultures, our societies and the state of the countries that we live in, then we have truly failed as human beings. And I’m not one to lose faith or hope so easily in us.