On Jan. 29, 23-year-old Andrea Bharatt got into a taxi and never made it home.
The death of Bharatt is just one of many crimes women face in the Caribbean. Kidnapping, rape, and murder are not uncommon. Similarly, 18-year-old Ashanti Riley was found deceased after getting into a taxi and vanishing.
Protests outpoured in Trinidad mourning the lives of these women while demanding justice. The lives of Caribbean women fail to be protected by criminal justice systems that reinforce misogyny and uphold patriarchal ideologies.
These dangerous ideologies are often perpetuated in the homes of Indo-Caribbean families. The four walls of our homes are cemented with patriarchy and decorated with microaggressions. From daughters designated to household chores to sons often seen as messianic children constantly doted over; this upbringing places women as second-class citizens. Daughters are restricted to a curfew and particular dress codes for safety. Yet, sons can embrace nightlife. Indo-Caribbean girls are taught to fear the outside world while Indo-Caribbean boys are rarely taught to see women as equals. And how do Indo-Caribbean women feel about this?
We live in a society that places women in kitchens rather than abusive men in prisons. In a study done by Caribbean Women Count, 44 percent of women in Trinidad and Tobago, 55 percent in Guyana and 48 percent in Suriname experience gender-based violence. What will it take? How many lives will be taken before our community wakes up? Trinidad’s judicial system allows bails for certain accounts of rape and violence. This reinforces the idea that rape is a low-ranking crime. No consequence can make up for the trauma inflicted upon victims of abuse. The catcalling, locker room talk and sexist jokes perpetuate the very violence that women fear. It is our right to live in a world where gender is not a cause for harm.
2. Our Intersectionality as Indo-Caribbean Women Intensifies Discrimination
Indo-Caribbean women face intersectionality of race, culture, gender, economic status, sexuality, etc.
What does this mean? The multiple identities of women subject them to greater accounts of violence as opposed to men or white women. Hailing from the Indian Diaspora, Indo-Caribbean women carry a long history of patriarchy and caste systems. The migration of Indian women to the Caribbean included the fusion of cultures and traditions.
According to Professor Patricia Mohammed of the University of the West Indies, “As soon as communities and institutions such as marriage and religion were re-organized, some of the attitudes and practices towards women were quickly reintroduced by the pundits and panchayats (the latter a council of five men) so that freedoms won were again lost, although not entirely.”
Indo-Caribbean women face intersectionality from South Asian and Caribbean cultures that reproduce oppressive stigmas descended from both cultures.
3. We Need to End Victim-Blaming
Bharatt and Riley did everything women are told. Bharatt went home with a friend and Riley was traveling to her grandma’s home. Being a “good girl” is irrelevant when women are targeted as victims. We often hear:
“If you dress like that, what do you expect?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have gone out at night.”
“You should have known better.”
Nobody expects to be abused or violated. Our dress code is not the crime; it’s the lack of educating boys and men and leaving women to fend for themselves that is problematic.
In 2017, after the murder of Jamilia DeRevauex by her husband, Prime Minister of Trinidad Keith Rowley stated, “You called on the Prime Minister to do something about crime. I am not in your bedroom; I am not in your choice of men.”
Rowley engaged in a form of victim-blaming in which domestic violence is a private matter and the blame falls upon a woman’s choice in men. Instead of addressing the heinous act committed, Rowley chose to show his ‘boys will be boys,’ mindset.
4. It Takes a Village; Here’s How You Can Help
As a society, the responsibility falls upon us to undo the cultural ideologies that harm women. This begins by calling out our friends and family that participate in such behavior. The next time our auntie measures the length of a young girl’s dress or an uncle sexualizes a young girl, we cannot turn a blind eye.
“South Queens Women’s March was heartbroken to learn of the loss of Andrea and Ashanti, knowing that violence against Black and Brown women and girls continues to run rampant across the globe, even in the 21st century. We were founded to address the prevalence of gender-based violence hyper-locally in our South Queens community, which includes a large Indo-Caribbean diaspora, including many who call Trinidad home,” – Aminta-Kilwan Narine, South Queens Women’s March
Feminitt Caribbean and South Queens Women’s March have advocated for gender equity by bringing these issues to light. In Jan. 2021, SQWM chalked up the streets of Lefferts Boulevard and Liberty avenue, the intersection of “Little Guyana.” This intersection has become a site for street harassment and catcalling in the Indo-Caribbean community.
While the global community is outraged by yet another death and the mistreatment of women in Caribbean communities, we must hold individuals and public officials accountable. We must denounce misogynistic ideologies against women. Schools must implement policies that focus on healthy relationships and gender rights. We must believe survivors and begin unpacking the cultural stigmas that endanger us. Bharatt and Riley’s lives were cut short at the hands of gender-based violence. We must create a safer future for girls and women everywhere.
To learn how you can help women like Andrea Bharatt and Ashanti Riley in Trinidad, visit Feminitt Caribbean.
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.
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.
“A weight’s been lifted off my shoulder,” said Shania Bhopa, a graduate student at McMaster University, who took control of the narrative and timeline of her life by freezing her eggs at the age of 25. As a P.h.D candidate in the Global Health Program, her goal is to destigmatize egg freezing among as many young women as possible. Although she was nervous to post the first Tiktok about freezing her eggs, Bhopa knew that her goal was to raise awareness about female fertility using her background in health research at McMaster, and her own experiences. That video went viral with 1.6 million views.
“Knowing the likelihood, especially with my career goals, [that] I can have a happy, healthy baby potentially closer to 35, is very refreshing.”
In the South Asian community, reproductive health and family planning can be sensitive topics. Bhopa wanted to utilize her platform to challenge these traditional opinions about reproductive health. And it’s why Bhopa continues to shine a light on the importance of starting these conversations and destigmatizing egg freezing, primarily within the South Asian community.
So what is the purpose of egg freezing? According to Statistics Canada, in 2021, close to one-quarter of Canadians, aged 15 to 49, changed their fertility plans because of the pandemic.
Egg freezing — which helps to preserve fertility for a later stage in life — continues to serve as a way to give individuals leeway to live life intentionally, without conforming to societal pressures. This is an important consideration, as research shows that by age 35 the chances of conception decline to 66% and continue to decrease as individuals age. What egg freezing provides is a feeling of freedom and liberation for people with a uterus, so that their decisions are not influenced by when they should have children.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into understanding the stigmas that exist, the importance of having these conversations, and the insight gained as individuals like Bhopa take fertility into their own hands:
The journey through fertility
“My purpose of going through fertility treatments at 25 is to buy myself time, to get closer to my purpose in my professional life, so that hopefully one day I can be super intentional with my time as a mom when I’m ready.”
According to Dr. Togas Tulandi, professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at McGill University in Montreal, medication is given to stimulate the ovaries so they produce eggs. The eggs are then removed for freezing and storage. Needless to say, the treatment can be costly. The initial egg freezing procedures typically range from $5,000 to $10,000, while the ongoing storage expenses amount to approximately $300 to $500 per year. Despite the financial commitment, freezing eggs is a valuable investment.
Bhopa documented her 11-day egg freezing journey through a TikTok series on social media. She shared the ups and downs throughout the two-week duration, addressing public queries and comments including those on how this was accepted, given her South Asian background.
Societal expectations, cultural norms, and traditional beliefs often contribute to the apprehension and lack of open dialogue regarding fertility. Breaking through these barriers is essential to empower individuals to make informed decisions about their health care and reproductive journeys.
“My biggest reasons for doing this are both reproductive health and family planning. These are sensitive topics, especially in the South Asian community,” said Bhopa.
They are particularly “sensitive” because in South Asian households, conversations around women’s health, periods, fertility, and related topics, seldom occur openly. Bhopa’s story serves as an example of the power of embracing one’s fertility journey and the liberation it can bring.
Given that Bhopa is a woman in her mid-20s, she sees egg freezing as a way to help her future self. She is calling it a birthday gift for her 25th year. Most of all, she expresses,
“It’s like, you graduate…and then you’re supposed to get married and have kids. But I think it’s important to take control of our own narrative; we don’t need to feel this pressure to have kids when we’re not ready.”
“Why at the young age of 25? What was your parent’s reaction? How was this accepted?” These were just some of the questions that circulated Bhopa’s social media page as she brought awareness to fertility planning.
In order to understand the beneficial impacts that freezing eggs can have on the course of one’s life, we need to first create spaces for people within the South Asian community, and beyond, to feel as though they can prompt these conversations without the resulting stigmas.
All South Asian women should be able to make informed decisions surrounding their fertility journey; whether that is through understanding the options that exist, the associated costs, the procedure, the support that’s available or anything else. To achieve this, we must break down the discomfort within our households surrounding fertility conversations by challenging ourselves to make historically uncomfortable conversations comfortable.