At the start of November, just days after Halloween horrors had come to an end, a nightmare rose to life in Queens. Tragedy rocked the tight-knit community of Bangladeshis in Jackson Heights in the form of suicide.
Twenty-three-year-old Samiha Khan jumped into the path of an oncoming train to her death. Friends of Khan attested that she had suffered from symptoms of anxiety and depression. Those close to her were devastated by the news—however, details of her suffering surfaced when a friend published an anecdote online revealing a horrific insight: Khan was the victim of ongoing sexual abuse by a close family member.
While there is no way to confirm the validity of these claims at this point, a dismal event followed Khan’s death: a weekly newspaper named Thikana, circulating among the metropolitan Bangladeshi community, published a story regarding her death.
The story was a display of unprofessional journalism at its finest. The author, having a significant readership at their hands, chose to embellish gruesome details of Khan’s death and spread misinformation instead of publishing a respectful obituary. He or she quoted Khan’s family as stating that her death could have been avoided had they instilled cultural and religious values at an earlier time, and that she had suffered as a result of being misguided. Upon briefly mentioning the anecdote Khan’s friend had written, the author completely dismissed the accusations as false without actually mentioning the alleged abuse.
Though I sent the Thikana a heated response to their published story, the piece provided ample opportunity to spark a much-needed conversation that is often deemed too sensitive and controversial in the Bangladeshi and greater South Asian communities: mental illness.
Let’s make this clear: mental illness is completely and irrevocably real. The mind is complex and fragile, and is entirely capable of turning itself on and off. It does no one any favors to deny the existence of mental illness. It does not make an individual weak or any less than another. This stigma can be found on a global scale. That being said, an alarming number of South Asians of all ages suffer silently due to a number of problems that prevail among the community. Several of these issues so often locked behind closed doors actually require immediate addressing and discussion.
For adolescents and young adults, there is a constant and overwhelming pressure to succeed. Now, ambition and the desire to flourish in whatever field a person chooses to pursue is innate in many of us. First generation youths are well acquainted with the sacrifices of their parents; the plentiful stories of escaping war, poverty and tough upbringings are more than enough to keep us on our toes and offer up a steady stream of good grades for parental pleasure.
However, there are a significant number of adolescents who don’t fit the immigrant children status quo: work hard, succeed in any of the predetermined limited career options, never question your parents, so on. This may require indulging in generalizations, but, hopefully, the bigger picture is clear. What of those who love and respect their parents but cherish other pursuits?
There is a nearly palpable hostility that can grow between parent and child, rooted in a cultural gap that persists in any diaspora. Straying from the path of being “good children” has a history of leading to weakening relationships or even a complete rejection of children by their parents. This can be attributed to the children being declared disobedient, or “too American.”
The experience can be agony on both ends. Because there is a wide disparity in understanding, children often do not turn to their parents for help or advice in personal problems. The two roads that many are faced with are to either continue to pursue the dream that makes you happy, be it artsy or off the beaten road–or continue to educate yourself further based on your parent’s wishes, and risk feeling unfulfilled in the future.
For some, that last feeling leaves scars.
For married women, crises in marriage mean a heavy burden to maintain civility despite an undeniable friction with their spouse prevails relationships. Arranged marriages are common in South Asia; the practice has been carried over to the West and is not uncommon here. Strong ties with one’s faith and culture, as well as a real fear of being the center of community gossip, has a tendency to impact a woman’s decision to stay in a broken marriage.
Do arranged marriages work? I can only offer personal anecdotes on the contrary, though I am aware of many which have been blissful. However, the reality is that many women choose to stay in unhappy, and in an alarming number of abusive, relationships because of cultural norms and expectations—even if it means stewing in their own suffering.
[Read Related: Islamophobia Damages the Mental Health of Young South Asians – Here’s What We Can Do]
Sexual abuse lies at the heart of Khan’s trauma and it is the issue which is long overdue for being addressed. Sex is considered extremely taboo in South Asian culture; the idea of a “birds and the bees” talk between parents and children is laughable.
There is no discussion on birth control with our daughters or how to obtain consent with our sons. The very notion of Khan being abused by none other than a family member is sure to scandalize anyone whose ears it reaches. This makes it that much worse when Thikana, despite mentioning the allegation in the vaguest terms possible, failed to bring justice to light by not exploring the alleged slander.
Abuse at the hands of family is not unheard of. Sexual abuse is even more common: it is a terrible practice that is often ignored for fear of shaming the family while completely disregarding the victim’s mental state later on. Religious clergymen, family friends or even a victim’s own friends have been found to be guilty of such actions.
The frightening part is what tends to follow, a response that is common on a global scale: victim blaming. Young women and men who find the courage to open up to someone they trust with such a terrible secret are then found guilty of the sin committed upon them.
Take the infamous case of Jyoti Singh. A young Indian woman in her early twenties, Singh was an aspiring doctor whose dreams were cut short in a brutal manner. She was gang raped by several men on a bus and eviscerated to her death. The events of her death left the world horrorstruck, but a BBC documentary which followed raised hell.
Many people—men and women alike—government officials and the murderers themselves, believed that Singh was to blame for what happened to her. She was a woman who was out after dark, accompanied by a man who she was not married to, and had gotten on a bus alone with him. Surely, she deserved her fate.
Our culture’s tendency to routinely protect the offender and hurt the victim results in a vicious cycle. It is precisely this sort of response Thikana enacted, even in 2016, which prevents victims from speaking up or reaching out for help when such a crime occurs. We impose such shame on our women, from our choice of attire to our choice of words, that it can completely destroy a person’s spirit.
Our community does not, generally speaking, support empowered and vocal women who defy cultural norms out of fear of change. We immediately reject the phenomenon. There is a bright side to this situation, however. This sort of perspective is carried over from old fashioned, conservative values from the old country. It is up to this generation and beyond to carve this negative aspect out of our backgrounds for good.
[Read Related: What Bollywood Films Mean to a South Asian Queer Woman Dealing With Mental Health Issues]
The case with the LGBTQ community is a tough one. As with victim blaming, a harsh stigma against this demographic is not unique to South Asians. Even in the United States, a country that prides itself on free thinking and liberal ways, gay marriage was only nationally recognized a year ago.
But before that, there were many American cities and states in which homosexuality was widely embraced. Among Bangladeshis, Indians and other South Asians, however, being openly gay is unheard of. In fact, I don’t think there is a direct translation for the word in Bengali. If being different or going against the norm is a sin in our culture, this one takes the cake.
Queerness is similar to sex in the sense that in our culture, it is of utmost importance to speak about such things. Speaking of taboo concepts aloud brings them to life and thus normalizes them. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24, and of those, the rate is four times higher for young people identifying as gay. If we steadfastly continue this habit of ignoring these blatant concerns, we collectively suffer.
Khan was not a weak individual. She was not guilty of a crime, nor was she at fault for the heinous acts committed against her. Khan was the product of a society deeply entrenched in nonsensical cultural norms; a society that permanently stole her voice away. Despite what may have occurred in her personal life, she showed the world only the smile on her face. One of her final social media posts serves as a beacon of hope for us all. Her story is provocative, and it is truthful. To deny the truth or disguise it as Thikana did is a disservice to her memory and to the many victims out there suffering in their own ways.
“I never speak publicly about this, but recently my anxiety and depression has gotten worse. some days are better than others. i was supposed to go out earlier today but ended up feeling like absolute shit, crying, and ruining my makeup. but i feel a lot better now after crying! i just want to remind everyone – especially those with mental illness – that it’s okay to let yourself cry, get sad about things, and feel things intensely. it doesn’t make you weak or pathetic and letting it all out helps you keep on keepin’ on. it’s okay to not want to get out of bed or socialize if you don’t feel well. i also want to remind everyone to be more understanding of those with mental illness. herbal tea and saying others have it worse doesn’t fix anything. and just because you can’t see the pain, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. everyone experiences it differently and the way we talk about it can have a significant effect on someone’s well being. so always be kind and empathetic. #personal” (from Samiha’s Instagram)
Speak up, speak loud and speak on. Give your voice to the voiceless, and build the much-needed platform where no story is taboo. Pave the way for a hopeful future in which nobody feels alone in their suffering.
Rest in peace, Samiha.
U.S. Mental Health Resources
Common Ground | Call: 1-800-231-1127 | Web Chat
(Monday to Friday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST)
Mental health services for youth offering phone & web crisis lines – help with suicide, bullying, depression, anxiety, and other issues.
Runaways, Homeless, and At-Risk Youth
National Runaway Safeline | Call 1-800-786-2929 (24/7) | Live Chat (7 days/week, 4:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. CST)
Home Free | Family reunification program provides free bus tickets to eligible runaway and homeless youth.
Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) | Call: (718) 205-3036| Fax: (718) 205-3037 | 72-18 Roosevelt Avenue Jackson Heights, NY 1137