Tag Archives: #taboo

“Beti Bachao!” Ask South Asian American Women

Trigger Warning: this article discusses sexual assault, rape, and trauma. 

When 29-year-old Srishti Prabha said she was sexually assaulted by her boss at her first job, she said she did not file a complaint with human resources. She did not find a lawyer and contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were no courtroom dramas or scalding accusations.

Why? Because the only story that Prabha, like many other Indian American women who say they’ve suffered sexual harassment, can tell is a story of silence.

“I had to run. I didn’t understand that I could say something. I was uncomfortable,” said Srishti Prabha, Assistant Editor for India Currents, a community news website based in the Bay Area.

“Our generation didn’t have the language. Growing up, my parents didn’t understand the culture, so I had to understand these boundaries by myself,” Prabha said.

Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has provided survivors of sexual harassment and abuse with a platform to hold their abusers accountable. What began as a grassroots social media movement has brought thousands of sexual assault cases to light, penetrating nearly every sphere of public life.

Within the South Asian community in the U.S., however, women and activists say the #MeToo movement has a long way to go.

Childhood and Cultural Taboos 

Prabha traced her silence about sexual harassment in the workplace to the cultural taboos she encountered as a child. According to Prabha, topics like sexual assault and domestic violence were left unaddressed.

“Indian culture sometimes doesn’t permit …flaws. It’s a culture that wants you to have the perception that everything is perfect, your house is perfect, your children are perfect, to give the perception of prosperity as opposed to honesty,” Prabha said. “Growing up, I didn’t understand what was going on…I didn’t know if someone’s mom was being abused. It was never a topic of conversation.”

Sex is still an unspoken and taboo subject in many Indian American households, agrees Pramila Venkateswaran, a women’s studies professor at Nassau Community College in East Garden City, New York.

“Indian Americans don’t even want to address anything sexuality-related. It’s a sort of a fear,” she said in a Zoom interview. “It’s a taboo they carry from their socialization that they bring here, and that refusal to discuss sexuality is to protect and barricade the family.”

Prabha’s personal experiences point to broader issues within the South Asian community. When dialogue about sexual assault is stifled across gendered and generational boundaries, survivors can become isolated.

“Women often carry the burden of unpacking their traumas alone,” Prabha said.

Public Speech and Private Pain

Unfortunately, laws and public pronouncements often haven’t supported those who’ve taken a stand against sexual abuse.

At a candlelight vigil in Chennai, India, a young girl mourns the death of Jyothi Singh, who was gang-raped and tortured on a private bus in Delhi.

The harrowing 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter,” a response to the infamous 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, was banned by the Indian government for fear of provoking “public disorder.” When that same rape case incited protests across the country, politician Abhijit Mukherjee called the women participating in candlelight vigils “highly painted and dented, no longer students” (“painted” denotes a woman who is sexually promiscuous). His sweeping generalizations about the protestors undermined their outcry against sexual assault.

Meanwhile, producers of the Bollywood film “PINK, which was designed to raise awareness of sexual assault, grappled with India’s Central Board of Film Certification before its release.  This movie’s arguably most pivotal scene, which discusses the kind of language that runs rampant in public discourse about rape, received multiple verbal cuts to block “abusive language against women.”

Although the film was permitted to release with a UA certificate, which means that children ages 12 and below can see the movie with parental permission, Bollywood critics found that the censorship removed impact from a movie dependent on its realism.

“The community feels more progressive than they actually are at times,” Prabha said. “They’ll say something, but their ideologies don’t match the words they speak.”

The Indian community’s reticence on sex reflects India’s inadequate, underfunded sex education curriculum. According to a 2015 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, sex education is banned in six major states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka for fear of aggrieving Indian values. A 2013 study published by the National Library of Medicine reported that less than half of students from Mumbai colleges received sex education from schools or parents.

Unfortunately, lack of education and information leaves room for rampant misinformation about sexual health, reproductive rights, and most notably, consent. Rather than shielding the younger generation from talking about, thinking about, and having sex, these restrictions only reinforce rape culture within the Indian community and its diaspora.

What Works — And How

So what does work to help women?

New York-based nonprofit Sakhi for South Asian Women, which assists South Asian immigrant victims of violence, aims to convert #MeToo outrage into constructive change.

According to Anusha Goossens, Sakhi’s sexual assault program manager, education and intergenerational dialogue are a crucial part of the solution. As someone who works with Indian American survivors on a daily basis, Goossens says abusers use a “lack of knowledge” to gain control over women.

“It’s not something we talk about with our children,” Goossens said. “Without discussing or learning about healthy relationships, these women become vulnerable to sexual assault and ongoing abuse.”

Sakhi offers a 24-hour confidential helpline, where a trained professional can listen to and record their experience. To prevent the continuation of this cycle of abuse, Sakhi crafts a detailed safety plan and connects its clients with external services, such as defense lawyers, financial support, and mental health counselors.

Following #MeToo’s explosion on social media, Sakhi has seen a “modest increase” in the number of sexual assault survivors contacting its hotline. While Goossens conceded that a majority of Sakhi’s clients are newer immigrants who are less aware of the movement, she pointed to what one writer called a “wave” of #MeToo second-generation Indian and Bangladeshi survivors in New York who are discussing rape culture:

In response to the movement, Sakhi is actively working on youth outreach, even creating a text hotline to make young people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. The text line was positively received by the nonprofit’s clientele and provided a necessary doorway toward intergenerational support –– the kind of support that was not available to Srishti Prabha almost 10 years ago.

The grassroots #MeToo movement has played a major role in dismantling a  power dynamic that protects rapists. Though it can be difficult to use given cultural differences, it’s a platform that allows South Asian American survivors to discuss their experiences and educate the public, a remarkable change.

Recently, the @AdivasiLivesMatter handle used #MeToo to discuss the marginalization and abuse of tribal women, including the suspension of a case of a 13-year-old girl who was reportedly raped by police after she became lost while attending a fair in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.

“(As) someone who works with feminist advocacy groups, I was pretty happy when the #Metoo movement happened,” Venkateswaran said. “It disrupts fear. It disrupts shame. That’s the kind of thing that has to happen all over.”

But #MeToo doesn’t necessarily protect Indian American women after they expose their abusers. When actress Tanushree Dutta accused film veteran Ganesh Acharya of abuse and sexual harassment, she was reportedly blacklisted in the industry, while Acharya continued to produce blockbusters and engage with the Bollywood fraternity.

And Dutta is certainly not alone. In the South Asian community, women are frequently blamed and ostracized for being honest about their experiences.

“What is not happening in (South Asia) is laws that actually help these women,” Venkateswaran said. “If some middle-class woman comes and outs her abuser, she will just be replaced. She becomes dispensable. Does she have a union protecting her? Does she have a support system that holds her job?”

But Prabha sees progress.

“I’m happy that the next generation is so much better off than I am,” Prabha said. “I’m always learning from the people younger than me. Maybe they’ll have the tools to address this. We’re late, but I think we’re really changing for the better.

If you’re struggling with sexual harassment, abuse or violence, please contact:

The Domestic Violence Hotline:                                                                                                                                 Hotline: 1-800-799-7233                                                                                                                                                Website:  https://www.thehotline.org/help/

Sakhi For South Asian Women:                                                                                                                                   Helpline: 1 (212).868.6741 or text 1 (305) 697-2544                                                                                                      Email: advocate@sakhi.org                                                                                                                                            Website: https://www.sakhi.org/ 

Maitri:                                                                                                                                                                                Helpline: 1-888-8MAITRI or 1-888-862-4874                                                                                                              Email: maitri@maitri.org                                                                                                                www.facebook.com/maitribayarea                                                                                                                                   Languages: English, South Asian languages (countries: Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Fiji Islands, amongst others)

 


Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. This year, Kanchan was selected as a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program. 

The piece was first published here.

Featured Image: Y2krohit / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Photo 1:  Archer Ztudios / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let Us Talk About Our Periods

In light of the World Menstrual Health and Hygiene Day observed recently (28th May), I won’t pad how I feel about the stigma and taboo around periods.

We all came into this world from the same place – the uterus. A concept that apparently requires reminding. The same process that is essential for bringing life on earth is associated with shame, humiliation, and even disgust in many parts of the world. 

My father is a doctor, so menstrual health was treated as just another health issue in my household. Despite growing up in a small non-city (district) in the state of Bihar in India, I was fortunate enough that my home was a safe space where there was no disgust associated with this topic. I was allowed to sit in all poojas and welcome to whine about my horrible cramps. But, outside the house, things were different. Friends and even aunties had strange names for the monthly cycle – from “Aunty flow” to “being down”. 

Fifteen years later, telling the same people that I am writing an article on menstrual health and hygiene was in itself a great litmus test for the taboo and stigma around this topic even now. No one said that they were disgusted by the notion to my face but I got a lot of uncomfortable nods and grunts.

This is a matter of health

People need to understand that menstrual pain is a medical condition (and unbearable one at that) and we need to talk about it – create awareness and bust myths.

According to a study, at least one in four women experiences distressing menstrual pain characterized by a need for medication and absenteeism from study or social activities. Period cramps (also known as dysmenorrhea), are mostly caused by a hormonal imbalance, which can start before the period commences and last for several days.

And right now, amidst lockdowns and increased isolation due to COVID-19 all over the world, there have been reports of increasing “period stress” that is affecting women’s cycles and overall menstrual health. According to a study by Mayo Clinic, stress can not only cause increased menstrual pain but it can also delay the periods or cause Amenorrhea or the absence of menstruation. 

So, instead of disguising this very natural and normal occurrence as a matter of shame, disgust, and humiliation, we need to de-stigmatize it and create conversations around this topic.

Some natural remedies that have worked wonders for me

Period cramps can be horrible and many women go through this pain every month. To mitigate it, here are a few easy, reliable, tested, and tried natural remedies for better menstrual health.

When it comes to cramps, I try not to pop painkillers (anymore). Full disclosure: I used to pop 3-4 Ibuprofen tablets during one cycle when I was younger but now that I am 30 and probably a bit wiser, I find myself more inclined towards natural remedies. 

Herbs like chasteberry and wild yam have been used for thousands of years for treating menstrual pain and boosting women’s health.

I recently discovered and subscribed to The Scarlet Company’s Scarlet – a natural tonic that contains both these super herbs and more, and it has helped me a lot with my cramps and flow.

Another thing that never fails to work, is a hot water bag. I swear by hot water bags and cannot go without them during my periods. They not only help with cramps but also ease the flow.

Yoga also helps a lot. Just 20 minutes of sun salutation every day can make those horrible back pains go away.

This is 2020

The world is getting crazier, stranger, and scarier every day. When one girl comes out of the “period-shaming” closet, she voices the pain and struggles of many others who might be still stuck inside. As a society, we need to do better. And, creating unnecessary sensationalism, stigma or taboo around serious health concerns and issues is not doing anyone any good. Can I get an Amen?

Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore.