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 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.

Dard:Fear

 

“The Lady From the Sea” – Edvard Munch. Image source: http://www.en.wahooart.com

 

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.