I have many happy memories of celebrating Diwali as a child in suburban Mumbai. Looking back though, I realise that my favourite festival stands on the foundations of patriarchy. At home, all the labour that went into making Diwali special was borne by my mother. She’d wake up early for weeks to clean the house, mop the floors, make the sweets and clean the diyas. In every household, it was always the women who did all the cleaning, cooking, shopping, prepping — so that their families could have the most amazing Diwali.
I’m single, a feminist and the founder of Masala Podcast — tackling those taboo subjects South Asians shy away from. I chose not to follow the traditional Indian path of getting married and having kids. This means that Diwali, with its usual traditions, can be a tough time for me. Because if you don’t meet the quintessential South Asian expectations of having a husband, kids and extended family, it is assumed that you’ll miss out on all the Diwali magic. Who do you burn firecrackers with when you don’t have kids? Who’s going to make all the Diwali sweets when you have a busy career and social life? Who’s going to fight you for the last chakli in the Diwali tin if you’re not that connected with your siblings?
Obviously, this made me a bit sad. So I sat down and thought about all the Diwali traditions I loved and just tweaked them to fit my single, feminist life. If like me, you don’t fit into the mould of a “traditional South Asian woman”, I hope you find my “Feminist Diwali traditions” guide useful.
Show your space some love for Diwali
I was taught as a child, that goddess Laxmi wouldn’t come into a filthy house. But whether you believe this or not, give your space a nice, clean scrub. For me, this literally gets me into a clearer space of mind. Whether you live in a little studio or a large house, I do believe that when you create space in your home (and in your mind!) good things come into that space. So go grab that dustpan!
Light up your world with diyas
The sight of glowing diyas (candles) on a dark night is incredibly beautiful. Make your home as bright and beautiful as you can by lighting as many diyas as you can. I literally have around fifty diyas lighting up every corner of my flat. It makes me feel sort of “lit up” from within. Because we want the power of light over darkness, in every area of our lives. And yes, that includes our work lives as well as our love lives.
Create your own kind of rangoli
Rangoli is traditionally used to decorate homes, usually made of intricate patterns using a variety of powdered colours. No rangoli powder? No problem. Just grab whatever you have at hand — from flower petals to beads to marker pens — and make your own version of a rangoli. If you’re using marker pens, you might want to do your rangoli on a sheet of paper or plastic though. Just have fun creating your own kind of rangoli, be it traditional or alternative.
Give yourself a warm oil bath on Diwali morning
I love this Diwali ritual. I’m a South Indian, so growing up my mother would wake me up bright and early on Diwali mornings and give me an oil massage, gently rubbing warm oil all over my body. Then she’d send me off to have a hot shower or bath. I now try and re-create that sense of love for my body by warming up sesame seed oil (you can choose any oil you like!). I light a few diyas, turn up the heaters and give myself a beautiful oil massage, taking my time to care for every part of my body. It feels nurturing; it feels loving to myself. As a woman in the world today, we need all the self-love we can get.
Dress up to ‘Diwali Dazzle’
I love Indian clothes — the dazzle and the shine of it all. Depending on my mood, I might wear a shimmering sari on Diwali day; I love how sexy saris make me feel, how they “fit” my body in a way other clothes don’t. If I want something easy, I wear a glittering salwar kameez. I also like to mix things up. One of my favourite outfits is a business suit made with Indian brocade fabric and I wear this with a gorgeous bright fuchsia top. So pick whatever suits your Diwali mood. And wear it your way!
The smell of ghee in the air is one of my favourite smells during Diwali. I don’t have the time or the skills to make traditional Diwali sweets. But I live in a cosmopolitan city, so I head to a fabulous Indian sweet shop nearby and stock up on all the Diwali treats. I do however, cook one tasty Diwali meal and invite other women friends to join in. This year, I’m in New York during Diwali. And I’ve literally just invited a few amazing women I met last week. I plan to make a simple yet delicious Diwali lunch for them. I do have to go hunting for ingredients and diyas in New York, and I’m sure that’s not too hard; us desis are everywhere! But I’m excited about sharing my Diwali tradition with a bunch of new women friends in a brand new city.
Give yourself a Diwali gift because you are worth it
Traditionally family and friends visit each other and exchange gifts during Diwali. Now I don’t have a big South Asian network or an extended family, but I still treat myself to that Diwali gift. I buy myself something nice. Something luxurious that I’ve saved up for, something that gives me joy. After all, that Diwali gesture of love and goodwill applies to me as much as to anyone else.
Have a chit chat with goddess Laxmi
I don’t usually go to temples or do religious rituals. However, over the past few years, I’ve found a little murti of goddess Laxmi that I love. So I light lots of lamps in front of her, play music that I connect to from the heart, and then just, you know, chat to her. Prayer is a conversation, after all. Goddess Laxmi and I, we usually have a good old chat on Diwali mornings. I might tell her about technical problems with my podcast or moan about relationship issues. She is a great listener. This Diwali, I might even ask her for that holy grail — happiness. Or a gorgeous silk negligee if I’m feeling sexy!
Make this Diwali your own kind of Diwali
Through my podcast, and my feminist platform Soul Sutras, I’ve spent the last five years asking South Asian women to challenge patriarchal systems within our culture. As well as inspiring them to own the most beautiful parts of our culture. Whether that’s our ancient erotic arts like the “Kamasutra” or “Tantra”, or our beautiful festivals like Diwali.
Search “why don’t Indians smile in photos?” on Google and you’ll find an astounding 6,760,000 results trying to get to the bottom of this age-old question.
Despite having rich, celebratory cultures, it’s no secret that South Asians and the diaspora alike are known for being reserved with their emotions. Expressing ourselves — crying, smiling, laughing, even speaking — out of place is often looked down upon. And Indian-born comedian Zarna Garg has had enough of it.
“Culturally, we’ve been told ‘keep your gaze low. Don’t look people in the eye, all in the name of respect,’” Garg pointed out, with her signature fervor, as we chatted.
“And laughing? Forget that. Don’t smile, nothing. Don’t show any indication of joy. And it’s absolutely outrageous!”
A former lawyer, and mother of three living in New York, Garg has been taking the American comedy scene by storm with her unique voice and brand of humor. She believes that brown people, and especially brown women, “have a right to laugh,” and she’s on a mission to make sure they do.
Though it’s only been four years since Garg took the stage, she’s already entertained millions of people across the country, and beyond, through social media, sold out shows, and her critically-acclaimed Amazon special,“One in a Billion.”
But what the comedian really wants is to get people talking, and not just about herself. On her new podcast, aptly named “The Zarna Garg Show,” Garg sits down with her family twice a month to get comfortable with the uncomfortable — discussing, and even laughing, at topics that brown families tend to avoid such as sexuality and parenting styles.
We at Brown Girl Magazine sat down with Garg to dive deeper into this project, her journey, as well as the impact she hopes to make with it all.
Space for a “happy brown woman”
After being a lawyer and then a stay-at-home mom for 16 years, Garg found herself in search of new opportunities. She said she made several failed attempts as an entrepreneur and felt stuck.
“I thought that my time was best spent doing something that no one else was doing; something where I could have a real, unique touch,” she shared.
However, despite always being a strong writer — she wrote an award-winning screenplay — a creative career never seemed like a viable option.
“First of all, when you’re a mom, whatever your kid tells you is wrong,” she joked, recalling how her daughter was the first to encourage her to try stand-up comedy.
She scoffed at the suggestion, not understanding how telling jokes could be a real career that made money. It wasn’t until she actually set foot in a comedy club that she began to see the possibilities.
“That first day changed my life,” Garg continued. “I was like, what? This is an art form? I realized there was a space for a ‘happy brown woman’ telling stories. Not heavy-sad stories, but just goofy stories, stupid stories, sexy stories, regular women’s stories about our lives — not the stuff Hollywood loves to make about our people.”
Garg also realized there wasn’t really anyone else like her in the space. No one was talking about, not just Indian culture, but being a mom, wife and immigrant in a lighthearted way that people could relate with.
“When I started looking around, I was like, ‘No one’s doing this. Why isn’t anybody doing this?’ That set me on a journey of thinking even deeper and harder about our culture; the things we are okay talking about and those we shy away from.”
The taboos Garg uncovered became the foundation of her material. She jokes about marriage, motherhood, in-laws and Indian stereotypes — but not to everyone’s delight.
The comedian frequently shares some of the critical direct messages she receives on Instagram.
And she welcomes these individuals with a smile, saying “Namaste haters.”
“I invite my haters to my comment section to get involved and hear the other side. Listen, you might change your mind. You might just see why everybody is getting on board the Auntie Z train.”
Garg also reflected on the supportive, yet enraging, messages she’s received from South Asian women abroad who watch her videos in secret.
She explained, “There are people who find my videos funny but don’t openly acknowledge it. They’re so scared that if their husband finds out that they like a mother-in-law joke or something like that, they’ll get in trouble, and it’s completely preposterous.”
Garg wants to use her platform to raise awareness and start conversations about these issues. She discussed how brown women are often taught to be obedient and respectful to the point where they tolerate abuse, and how the policing of her comedy is merely a small example of these bigger problems.
“Mother-in-law humor, family humor is older than the hills,” she continued. “But, as brown women, we are expected to be the culture police. It’s like if your mother-in-law is pouring gasoline over you and lighting you on fire, you’re supposed to say ‘thank you, thank you mummy ji.’ What are you, nuts? When I point these things out, I get trolled, but then, every few months, something really bad happens in India or elsewhere.”
Garg considers herself extremely lucky to live in a place where she has the freedom to do and speak as she wants.
“I’m not speaking about you or me. I’m not worried about me. I’m speaking out about all of us — my sisters, my in-laws, the extended family of brown women that we are part of.”
And her voice doesn’t stop at just women’s issues. Garg’s podcast is her latest effort to push the envelope and spark important conversations brown families should be having.
“I asked myself ‘If I’m in a position to open conversations that otherwise have been taboo, how best can I use that power and broadly reach people?’ That’s what inspired the podcast. I feel like the time has definitely come when [brown people] have to join the rest of the world and have these conversations. Our kids are out there living life. It’s not okay for them to be completely unaware and drifting into social situations with no idea what they’re talking about. I wanted to come to our community and to our world with the authentic truth.”
In the premiere episode, you get just that.
Garg’s children open up about sex, its role in their individual social circles and age groups, and how they felt their parents handled the topic at home. The discussion is full of bold moments, but also plenty of laughs as is Garg’s modus operandi.
On Labor Day weekend, she even hosted live recordings of the podcast in New York City where fans could attend with their loved ones, have a Q&A with the Gargs, and play some games. The event will return in November during the New York Comedy Festival.
The comedian hopes that her playful approach shows people that having a conversation doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating.
“People often misunderstand my videos and stuff. It could look like I’m seriously reprimanding my daughter. I get it! But even that right there generates a first conversation. Even when you fully understand what I’m doing, it’s enough to open the door.”
People reach out to Garg regularly telling her how one of her videos or tweets encouraged them to call their children or parents to have a conversation and she couldn’t be happier.
More than meets the eye
“I’m as Indian as they come.”
Garg joked describing herself, and she is, but there’s also much more to her than meets the eye. While, on the surface, her proudly-worn bindi and modest style may have some thinking she’s just another “Indian auntie,” it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Garg left India at the age of 16 to escape an arranged marriage. She met her husband, Shalabh, in 1997 through Internet dating. She left behind a law career to take a chance on a creative endeavor that was completely unknown to her and she wants to see more people do the same.
“Comedy is a young person’s game and I really wish I started at least 10 years before I did. Now, I tell my own kids, and I’m saying this to all [readers]: ‘there has never been a better time to take a chance at something new. Do it as a side hustle. Do it as a hobby. Do it as a weekend thing. Whatever it is, just get going. You owe it to yourself to take that shot and see if it’s gonna work. Don’t be worried about failure, be worried about not trying.”
Garg is challenging every brown norm and stereotype, and that includes helping Indians smile.
“We’re very stressed out people. We love stress. I feel honored and blessed to be a catalyst in our community who is bringing joy and openness of culture. I’m not a movie star or anything, but there are times when people see me from a distance and I see a smile on their face. People associate me with humor and joy and I’m so grateful for that.”
You can learn more about Zarna Garg’s upcoming shows and projects on her website, or follow her on Instagram and TikTok to get involved in the conversation. “The Zarna Garg Show” podcast releases new episodes on the 1st and 15th of every month and is available on YouTube, Spotify, and all other major streaming platforms.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
In July 2022, Sania Khan’s life was ruthlessly taken from her by her ex-husband. Sania was a young, vibrant South Asian woman – a creator and photographer who had the courage to step out of an abusive marriage, even in the face of community norms that discourage women from speaking out. While this tragedy seemed to stir a consciousness in the South Asian diaspora that we can no longer justify the status quo, it is far from the only such incident. Just months later in December of 2022, Harpreet Kaur Gill was stabbed to death by her husband in Vancouver. While the most extreme cases like those of Sania Khan and Harpreet Kaur Gill are highlighted by mainstream media, a small body of research provides evidence that intimate partner violence experiences are equally, if not more, prevalent in South Asian communities than the general population in the US or Canada. That’s why we need to do more as a community and throw light South Asians and intimate partner violence.
Despite the identification and investigation of these norms in South Asia, there’s so much we still don’t know about diaspora communities, especially in relation to South Asians and intimate partner violence. In the US, South Asians have become one of the fastest-growing populations, but we remain unaware of how the stresses of raising a family in a different culture, and the weight of growing up between two worlds, affect these norms, expectations, and experiences among South Asian immigrants, the second generation and beyond.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how these norms are enacted to influence intimate relationship dynamics, discuss the recent rise in intimate partner violence, and explore the work that researchers, policymakers, and program implementers can do to address violence in South Asian diaspora communities.
Social Norms and Violence in South Asian Diaspora Communities
Why does it take catastrophic events to serve as a call to action? For one, the “model minority myth” continues to portray South Asians in America (who originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) as a healthy and wealthy group. As a child of Indian immigrants, I always thought this was just a frustrating trope that lived rent-free in my head next to the eternal question, “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?) However, I have realized that this constant worry is not just an innocent preoccupation. It’s the result of a dangerous spiral beginning with the portrayal of South Asians as a model minority and the need to maintain that well-to-do image. This only reinforces the traditional gender norms that overlook men’s perpetration of violence and encourage women’s silence, crippling any efforts to understand the scope of the problem and draw attention and resources to address it.
The Impacts of COVID-19 on Intimate Partner Violence
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequently-uttered phrase among researchers, practitioners, and advocates alike was “one in three” — one in three women ages 15-49 experiences physical and/or sexual violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic however, rates of violence against women rose dramatically, prompting UN Women to call for recognition of this “Shadow Pandemic.” During the height of the pandemic, the social isolation that came with lockdowns and quarantine procedures to curb the spread of disease made home a more dangerous place for an increasing number of women. As communities seek to rebuild, the inequities in access to and use of potentially lifesaving services have deepened. Now more than ever, it is critical that we shine a light on the many intersections of our society to prevent South Asian women’s experiences of intimate partner violence from being pushed even further into the shadows.
First and foremost, to better understand South Asians and intimate partner violence, we need better data disaggregated by racial/ethnic group. Since the 1980 Census, only those of Indian origin have had a fill-in bubble.All other South Asian groups have to write something in, decreasing their participation. South Asian communities in the US are not a monolith and they are certainly not all of Indian origin. This perception, fed by our lack of data, likely privileges the Indian community in America and limits the visibility of other South Asian communities.
More accurate information will help us better understand where the need is greatest. We can make a stronger case for more equitable resource allocation, improve South Asian language materials for survivors, and enhance provider training programs, accounting for the specific cultural implications of disclosing and seeking treatment for violence in South Asian communities. Public health researchers should increase efforts to understand the prevalence of experiences of violence, the environmental factors that make South Asian women in America vulnerable to experiences of intimate partner violence, and how it impacts their health.
While outstanding organizations such as Narika in California and Sakhi in New York are leading the charge in raising awareness, running active helplines, and providing support, they cannot be the sole safe space for survivors. While the system’s failure to protect Sania is not an isolated incident, it has served as a wake-up call.
All South Asian women in America should be able to be healthy and safe and lead lives free from violence, coercion, or abandonment. To achieve this, we need better data, more research, culturally-tailored resources, and appropriate legislative action that will allow for prevention, screening, and treatment efforts to finally take root.