I began my day as I did every school day, awakened by a tap from my aunt urging me to drink my Nestum, then ushered off to the bathroom to bathe and get dressed. It was 6:30 a.m. and the sun was shining through the windows, illuminating every inch of the house. The air was damp and still, and filled with the scent of toasting tennis rolls.
I was in the bathroom washing the soap off my magga little body one cup full of water at a time when I noticed that the usual morning jangle had reached a suspicious quiet. I finished bathing and stepped out of the bathroom and followed the short hall into the kitchen. Standing before me was my father with a strange woman. That woman was my mother and her arrival would change everything I thought I knew about my life.
Just days before my mother’s arrival, I knelt before an image of Christ that hung over my bed and prayed, “God, please sen’ my muddah to me. Everybody else have their muddah, but I don’t have one. Plus, I’m tired of getting holla and beat fuh tings I did’n do. I know my muddah won’ holla on me and beat me. In Jesus name, Amen.” Whether it was prayer, destiny, or sheer randomness, my mother showed up. It was September 17, 1992, and I was six years old.
By August 1994, I would have moved to the United States to live with that strange woman standing in our kitchen. The two years in between our introduction and my immigration marked a period of discovery and change for me. I would come to know this woman and eventually call her mother. And I would discover countenances of my father that I had never before met. I would learn the truth about why my mother left and unlearn the narratives of abandonment and being unwanted that often made me question my worth. My foundation would quake and crack with each passing day, ultimately crumbling to reveal my new life where I walk hand-in-hand with my mother, no longer a stranger but a newfound best friend.
It took time to develop a relationship with my mother. I was so confused about how to feel about her return. I had spent countless hours imagining what she would be like. I watched with envy at other children with their mothers.
I hurt when my cousin and I were picked up from school and she held her mother’s hand, but I had to hold on to an aunt. I wanted to know that feeling. Yet, my mother’s arrival did not feel like a blessing. Her presence came with an ask for love, bonding, relationship, and I didn’t know how to give that. Significantly, that ask felt like a threat to the relationship I already had with my father.
But she persisted, picking me up from school for lunch and having me visit on weekends. I was quiet, withdrawn, sometimes rude. She absorbed every slight and let me have the time and space required to understand that she was not going anywhere. After about six months, my address for her evolved from “’ey” to “Ma,” a sign that there was some trust. From that first “Ma,” our relationship grew quickly and we began to share our stories with each other. She shared about her life with my father and I told her who he was as a father.
My relationship with my father was an unusual one. Where many of my peers saw their fathers as strict disciplinarians to be feared, I was unafraid of mine. “Daddy, I break my lunch kit again,” I would declare, knowing that though it’s a burden to replace it, he would not censure me. He was a loving father who saw me off to school each day, drank tea with me as part of our nightly ritual, and defended my right to wear pants and climb trees “like a boy.” He taught me the alphabet and how to read the standard clock. Ours was a relationship characterized by love, trust and mutual respect. I knew my boundaries, and if I crossed them he would let me know by firmly saying my name, “MARIA!” I apologized immediately, knowing I had done something wrong, and the situation was resolved. He never once raised a hand to me. If there was a violent streak to him, I never saw it.
So, I was very surprised when my mother shared with me that my father used to beat her. I doubted that the man she described was the same man who raised me, but I would meet those traits before migrating to the United States.
In 1994, just after a lengthy custody battle for me, my parents decided to reconcile. For a brief moment, I was not in a single-parent home, but I quickly learned that the two-parent home is not necessarily the best home. One day, while I sat in the living room watching TV, I heard my mother scream. She was in clear distress and there was shouting. I ran into the bedroom to find my mother pinned to the bed by my father’s left hand as his right hand rained down slaps and punches. I don’t remember surveying the situation and making an explicit choice to move. I only know that as soon as I observed the scene I pounced on the bed, coming between them. The sight of me gave my father pause, and in that moment, my mother grabbed his hand to bite in defense. She was not the woman she was before who would just take the beating. This new woman was ready to fight back. I couldn’t bear the thought of her biting him, so I put my hand on his just as she bit down. My scream from the pain broke up the entire situation. That night, I saw my father’s violence and I became a guard between them. It was the singular instance of violence that I witnessed between them, but coupled with my mother’s stories, it would shape my adolescence and early adulthood.
Eventually, custody was awarded to my mother and I moved to the United States with her. Our relationship continued to grow and I came to understand why she left me behind at two months old. The visa was granted and she saw an opportunity to escape the abuse and build something better for us. She trusted that my father would continue to live with her sister and that I would be raised by trusted family members. That would allow her to build capital in the U.S. before coming back for my brother and me. Her expectations were unmet since my father removed me to his sister’s care and I seldom saw my mother’s family. Despite that, he kept me safe, so she was not worried. She knew she would get me back.
The years that followed my immigration were my toughest years. I had to adjust to a new parent, home, family, and history. As my parents’ past became clearer, I struggled with how I positioned myself between them. I started to evaluate who my father was in my life based on who he was in my mother’s life. Knowing that my nurturer was also my mother’s abuser, would I be able to love him and my mother at the same time or are those two things mutually exclusive? What does it mean to have to forgive him for something he did to someone else? Does justice in this situation mean that I turn my back on him and never look back? Do I surrender happy memories of my childhood and replace them with more painful interpretations to justify anger toward my father?
I was also angry at my mother. I wondered why she told me the whole story. What was there to be gained? What did she want me to do about it? Was I supposed to feel responsible for what happened to her? Is his atonement my burden? If not, why tell me of her suffering? I often wondered if ignorance in this situation would have been better for me. Would it have relieved me of the inner turmoil that I endured in my formative years if I had not known of the abuse?
Adding to my strain was my additional role as a guard. The one I adopted the night she bit my finger. I found myself constantly vigilant about her relationship with my father. If he called to speak with me and they ended up talking, I became angry, wondering why she would let herself engage with the man who had done her so much harm. Nothing in me wanted to see them together or even be cordial to one another. I simply wanted them as mom and dad, separate from each other. I felt safer that way. I had strong convictions that she was safer that way. So, I could not bear it when she chose to speak with him and laugh with him, even when she justified it as necessary to co-parent me.
Resolving the anger and all the questions that came from understanding the abuse in my parents’ relationship has been a continuous process that I have revisited over the past two decades.
In the early years, I was in denial. There was no way I could understand my father in that light. By adolescence, I had the evidence and critical thinking to reckon with what I knew and my anger toward my parents—my father for abusing my mother and my mother for allowing herself to be abused for so many years. This stage was marked by rejection — of my father as well. I rarely called him and he rarely called me. Our conversations topped off at 30 seconds after each “Happy Birthday!” or “Merry Christmas!” was articulated. We had no relationship anymore. I found myself now in a position I knew well: yearning for a parent I didn’t have, except this time it was my father who was missing.
The rejection of my father in this stage was driven by a rejection of myself. I realized that I was the product of an abuser and an abused woman, and which one of those identities was most reflected in me was a question I struggled with.
I felt certain that I would never “let” myself live under the circumstances my mother endured with my father. “If a man raise ‘e han’ at me, either me or he going out in a coffin. Because I ain’t going to let no man do to me what Daddy do to you, Ma,” I would exclaim, not realizing how judgmental the statement was. But if I surely wouldn’t be abused, did that mean I would be the abuser? Would I be the one to inflict pain on another? To bruise their body, to break their mind, to cause them to be numb, to incite fear? Do I have such tendencies? Knowing what had transpired between my parents had maimed my sense of self. I sometimes struggled to see myself beyond that dichotomy, and to overcome that, I had to start to see my parents as wholes, more than their experiences with each other. My own healing began with healing my relationships with them.
The final stage started with a thought: I could love my father as the father he is and know that he has abused my mother. This is the stage of acceptance and reconciliation. The thought initially appeared when I was about twelve years old, but the anger was too present then for it to take root. It has come back to me repeatedly through the years and eventually led me to forgive and re-establish my relationship with my father. I spent years rejecting him, struggling to understand him in the context of my mother’s life and mine—who is he, abuser or father? What does it say to my mother if I hugged my father with love and compassion? Would she think that I did not hear her experience? My mother never once discouraged a relationship with my father or nurtured any anger I had toward him. Quite the opposite, she nurtured my love for him and encouraged me to keep in touch. “Yuh only geh one fadah,” she would say.
The fears I had about how she would feel were my own anxieties rooted in my need to guard and protect her from him. With her support, the first plane ticket I bought when I landed a full-time job after college was to Guyana to visit my father. I hugged him like the little girl who had never known anything about his violence. I took him in and held him as a whole person, as the man that perpetrated horrible beatings upon my mother and the father who dressed my wounds in my wild and clumsy childhood days.
I have also forgiven my mother for sharing her story with me. It may have protected me to not know the truth, but the truth has shaped me in important ways. I cannot deny its value. By wrestling with that truth, I have come to understand myself as a survivor. I am not merely the product of abuser and abused, but born of survival and redeemed by my mother’s will to survive.
This acceptance and reconciliation has liberated me from my fears of what lies within. I am not stifling myself anymore, anxious about what may surface if I loosen up too much. I know that being my father’s daughter is not the same as being my father.
I fear what my parents will think as they read this story airing the details of their lives for an audience wider than either would wish to share it with. But I think it is important to share it because this story is not just ours—it’s the story of many Indo-Caribbean families.
Generations of women have survived abuse at the hands of men who purport to love them. Many daughters grow up seeing their mothers beaten by their fathers and being affected by that tragedy we are often confused about who we are, how we relate to our parents, our role in our own relationships.
We learn early that abuse is just part of marriage, that jealousy is a substitute for love, that we are to respect our husbands and put the marriage before our safety. When my mother left, she broke that narrative and communicated to me that I don’t ever have to stay. That has been crucial in my healing.
The next step in my recovery is to share this story in support of all the other women who need to know that they are not alone.
Working with Jahajee Sisters, a group of women building a movement to end domestic violence in Indo-Caribbean communities, I use my truth to build sisterhood and uphold those of us who have survived. We are coming together and changing the future so that we can all have the promise of safety and freedom in our partnerships. We are re-positioning women in our community. I hope that my parents do not despise my choice to share this story, understanding that I did so with compassion and courage, hoping that my story would touch someone and advance our cause by illuminating the impact of domestic violence.
On September 17, 2017, 25 years after that first meeting with my mother, I stood on the landing of my father’s house in Guyana, looking out at the trees that fill his backyard and the cane fields out in the distance. I reflected on that meeting 25 years earlier and all my uncertainty about that woman. I was filled with gratitude for her return and everything that has followed.
[su_divider] Lisa Ramadhar is a Guyanese immigrant who resides in New York with her mother and partner. She has been writing for herself since she was 12 years old and is building the courage to publish a novel. On Thursday nights, she can be found on her couch indulging in “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder”, which she analyzes with peers who share her passion for the shows.
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.
Both of my parents were born and raised in Bihar, India. They dated for a few years before getting married and moving to the United States, where they had me and my two older brothers. To our house in the States, they brought some remnants of home with them: old filmy Hindi music that always echoed in the background, my mom’s masala chai recipe that still entrances anyone who catches even a whiff of it, and a love for dance in any and every form.
They tried their best to fill our lives with as much cultural celebration and ritual as they could, but despite their genuine attempts to keep us rooted, being a product of the South Asian diaspora was complicated.
Growing up, my relationship with my culture looked very different throughout distinct stages of my life. Despite being a diaspora kid, I had a unique experience in that when I was four years old, my family packed up our lives in California and moved to my parent’s hometown in Bihar. We lived there for almost three years, and for each of those three years, I absorbed every ounce of India like a sponge. I learned how to speak Hindi fluently (along with some cuss words). I tried the classic Bihari street food — litti chokha — and watched how it was masterfully made over hot charcoal. I observed Chhathpooja, a Hindu festival dedicated to the solar deity, unique to the northeastern region of India. I developed an unhealthy addiction to chocolate Horlicks and Parle-G biscuits. I even tried, but ultimately failed, to master cricket. But sadly, all of that cultural immersion was short-lived and eventually came to an end. When I was seven, my family moved back to California.
Working with the cards we were dealt, my family still tried to stay connected to our heritage in whichever way we could. Our weekends were filled with trips to the mandir and Nina’s Indian Groceries. Festivals like Diwali and Holi were always embraced with parties and poojas. During Navratri season especially, my best friend Camy and I would dress up in matching lehengas and dance with dandiya sticks so forcefully that they would literally break in half.
Within our microcosm of a world, I never once paused to think about how I would carry these traditions forward.
It wasn’t until college, when I was trying to navigate who I was outside of my family unit for the first time, that I began to ruminate on my independent relationship with my culture. I didn’t have the structure of my family and childhood home to reiterate and reverberate Bihari traditions, Hindu customs, the Hindi language, or my family history. How would I embody them henceforth? Would I be able to make my ancestors proud?
My college roommates and I used to joke that despite us all being Indian Americans, we all spoke different mother tongues: Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, and Telugu. This obviously made it tough to engage with our languages, even though we still made our best attempts. I learned how to read and write in Hindi during my senior year of college, but my skills are still rusty and elementary at best. Without continuous exposure and practice, I’m scared that one day I’ll lose the ability entirely.
As a child of immigrants, out of the context of my motherland, I find myself grappling with guilt or fear of losing touch with my roots. It can feel that with every passing generation, pieces of my culture may slowly diminish or get lost in translation. Bits of wisdom that are so niche and particular that, once I forget them, who will be there to remind me?
As I’m scouring the web for hair rejuvenation remedies and get overwhelmed by the surplus of opinions, I get frustrated that I can’t remember which ayurvedic oil is better for hair regeneration: Amla or coconut? If I catch a cold and need to make my nani’s cure-all tulsi chai recipe, I cross my fingers and hope that I’ve gotten all of the ingredients and measurements right. When I seem to be trapped in a continuous cycle of ebbs and want to consult my Vedic astrological chart for some insight, I find myself lost trying to navigate the implications of Shani and the meaning behind my houses.
It took a lot of time and reflection to let go of feelings of guilt attached to this notion of preservation. This isn’t to say that this process isn’t continuously ongoing. But, what I’ve ultimately reconciled, is that as a diaspora kid, I’m creating something that is true and unique to my nuanced experience as an Indian American.
Usha Jey, a South Asian-born and raised in Paris, recently fused urban and Bharatnatyam dance forms to create “Hybrid Bharatnatyam.” This dance form so perfectly encapsulates the blending of culture. As a dancer who grew up performing urban choreo with a mix of Bollywood, this fusion of East and West was such a validating thing to see. Dance has always been a medium through which I’ve been able to connect with my American and Indian identities. A lot of my childhood was spent performing Bollywood routines at temple events or Neema Sari showcases. In high school, I was introduced to competitive urban dance and fell in love. Excited to give my teammates a peek into my culture, I choreographed and taught an urban-Bollywood piece to the classic “Sheila ki Jawani” that we ended up performing at our annual showcase. Similarly, artists like MEMBA and Abhi the Nomad subtly weave nostalgic Indian sounds into their electronic and hip-hop music to create something entirely unique. As someone navigating both of these worlds, their music tugs at my duality. When I lived in San Francisco, during the festival of Diwali, I would cook up a feast and host all of my friends from diverse cultures and backgrounds to eat, do rangoli on the roof, and light sparklers. While that may not have been a traditional celebration, it was my cliff notes version of Diwali that I was giddy to share with my community.
Historically speaking, in any culture, there are traditions and customs that will be safeguarded until the end of time, but on that same note, there will be so much of culture that will evolve and soon look different. And maybe embracing that is something beautiful in and of itself.
While I’m still navigating my connection to my motherland, heritage, and roots, I’m allowing myself the grace to see that elements of them may manifest themselves differently in my life and the community of culture surrounding me. And while I may be creating something unique to my own identity, I still hope to honor the traditions and customs of those who came before me.
I was taken aback when my late cousin shared this with me on the cusp of our twenties.
As a fairly modest Indo Guyanese girl raised in the Connecticut suburbs, the thought of discussing a stranger’s love life seemed not only foreign but shocking to me. Nevertheless, my cousin was always bold in this way. She took pride in the more daring aspects of our Caribbean culture with natural confidence. It was one of the things I loved and now miss most about her.
Admittedly however, it was over a decade before I started to understand some of her deeper curiosity in love, sexuality and mental health. This awakening was thanks greatly to Dr. Samosa.
In early 2020, Dr. Sarika Persaud, a New-York based, Indo Guyanese psychologist specializing in relationships, sexuality and complex trauma, took to Instagram as “Dr. Samosa,” an alias inspired by her favorite South Asian snack — and one she feels is a common thread for brown girls.
The platform became a safe space for brown girls to connect on topics like mental health, psychoanalysis, sexuality and relationships. From discussing sexual empowerment to building a strong sense of self, Dr. Persaud quietly became a confidant for those craving practical and candid insights the community shied away from.
Dr. Persaud and I sat down to talk about her journey and breaking these taboos in the South Asian society.
Her interest in psychology started as a journey of self-discovery as a pre-teen.
“I think I experienced myself as different from my peers,” she explained during our interview.
She didn’t get caught up in teenage drama and avoided certain types of relationships and people. Meanwhile, the friends she did make saw her in “this sort of teacher role.”
“I became curious about that about myself — how, in some ways, I found it beneficial to feel my feelings and have a depth people were drawn to, but also use it in ways to isolate myself,” Dr. Persaud said.
She was also beginning to identify as bisexual.
She shared, “I think I was avoiding my sexuality in some ways and psychology became a way for me to understand myself more. It’s always been this confluence of philosophy and science and even art for me.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Dr. Persaud saw fellow Indo Caribbean women at a “very specific intersection of religion and culture.” It was the nexus of Caribbean values which welcomed sexuality and more modest Indian traditions. Caribbean influence seemed to “remove a boundary” on how Indo Caribbean women felt permitted to present themselves sexually, she explained. On one hand, after her Bharatanatyam dance classes, she saw her didis (the older girls) leave their classical moves behind for sexy Bollywood choreography and dancehall songs.
“It was exciting, like they were just beginning to find ways to express their sexuality,” she reflected. Then, around the same time, Dr. Persaud discovered a copy of the “Kama Sutra” at home and her mother was appalled. “What’s wrong with your daughter?” aunties asked.
Confused, Dr. Persaud thought “You own this. This is from our culture and it’s a Sanskrit text. It’s literally a religious text. It all seemed so powerful — and yet so many people were afraid of it.”
Something didn’t add up.
In 2013, she started a blog to bring a voice to topics like these. As word of her content spread, Dr. Persaud was met with backlash from her temple. Leaders said her blog was inappropriate and dishonorable to her community, but she stuck with it and her family stuck by her.
A few years later, when she launched Dr. Samosa to share her research and insights with a wider audience, sexuality came front and center.
“Sexuality — how you understand and honor what you want and like, and the ways you let yourself experience that pleasure — is intrinsically connected to how deserving you feel in the world,” she explained.
For example, if you think you’re worthy of a raise at work, a partner who desires you, or a family that listens to you — all can be linked back to a block in your relationship with yourself as a sexual being.
However, if you can feel confident in something as “primal, instinctual, and personal” as your sexuality, Dr. Persaud argues you lay the foundation for confidence in these other areas of your life.
Dr. Persaud says the fear of sexuality comes into play for South Asians.
“Being comfortable with your sexuality means being comfortable with your power,” she explained. “If everyone felt empowered and had a healthy relationship with themselves sexually, a lot of our relationships and hierarchies in society would change. And there are just so many people who benefit from women and marginalized communities (like LGBTQ+ and those with chronic illnesses) being disempowered,” Dr. Persaud said.
Throughout her work, Dr. Persaud has found it’s especially difficult for South Asian women to feel pride in themselves as sexual beings.
“There’s so much shame about the self and the body. Women especially are held to a double standard and it’s so confusing. If you look one way, you won’t get a husband. If you look sexual, no one will want to hire you for a job. Regardless of the South Asian ethnic group, there’s the same shame and belief that your body has to look a certain way, and if it doesn’t, you’re not desirable. Everything gets tied up in sexual shame.”
It’s undeniable that Bollywood movies have also heavily impacted many of our views on love and sex, but Dr. Persaud didn’t condemn this.
She says, “People need to realize Bollywood started from a tradition of classical drama and dance from ancient India. Those dances were meant to be explorations of dreams and mythical and philosophical ideas. Bollywood is just a continuation of that. It’s meant to be a break from reality.”
Real relationships are much more fraught and complicated than in films, but that doesn’t mean you should be ashamed of looking to Bollywood as a way to be in touch with romance and love in your life.
“They’re a fantasy,” Dr. Persaud added.
She also argued Bollywood isn’t necessarily as “censored” as many claim.
“People don’t have to watch others physically have sex or kiss to be in touch with their sensuality,” she noted. “It can be much more nuanced to see two people just embracing in a way that stirs up feelings. Like, how does it feel to have your lover’s head against your chest? Culturally, we just explore and express sexuality differently than the West.”
When it comes to becoming more comfortable with our bodies and sexual health, Dr. Persaud says it starts with self-reflection.
“Ask yourself why you’re afraid of being sexy or seen as sexual. Are you afraid your family will reject you? That you’ll be thrown out of your home? We all have different triggers, and once you identify yours, you can get to the issue underneath it all.”
Dr. Persaud encourages women to ask themselves important questions.
“If you’re afraid that if you assert your sexuality, your family will reject or not support you, how can you be more financially independent? How can you find pride in being able to take care of yourself?” She urges women to take inventory of what they like. “Look at books and movies and what you see in the world and consciously take note of what you react to. This puts you more in touch with yourself.”
When it comes to fostering open conversations with others, Dr. Persaud says to lead with vulnerability and clarity.
“If you wonder whether your friends have had sex yet and are embarrassed to ask, voice that concern. Share how you’re feeling or ask yourself why. Leading conversations with vulnerability allows people to connect a little bit more; to feel safer to share.”
“If you’re uncomfortable with something your partner does or want more of something else, talk about what you want to change and why it’s important to you. It’s not a shortcoming on their part, but rather you saying ‘this is what I need for myself. Is this something we can talk about and work on together?’”
With South Asian families, especially older relatives, things can get a bit more complex. Boundary setting is important as the family can bring out your biggest triggers.
“You need to be at a point where you own yourself,” Dr. Persaud explained. For example, if your mom finds out you were out with someone and questions you about it — “A bai? A boy?!” — you should be able to say confidently, ‘Yeah I was on a date,’ and also not feel obligated to give more details. Of course, that may not always be safe for someone younger, but at a certain age, it is OK to be private, to have that shield to protect and develop yourself and your confidence,” Dr. Persaud says.
Dr. Persaud also reinforces the importance of knowing your boundaries when reflecting on “coming out” to parents. She wanted to be open about her bi-sexuality with her parents; that she was dating — but not just men. She stresses however, one does not need to be excessively open.
“Not everyone has to come out and not everyone has to come out to everyone. You’re likely not facing anything new from your parents when coming out. If they are critical and judgmental generally in life, they’re probably going to be like that again. South Asian dads can really just be like, ‘Okay, don’t tell me you’re a sexual being,’” she laughed.
While Dr. Persaud is thankful for her parents’ acceptance, there are members of her family who’ve been less than supportive. She credits her confidence and sense of self for drowning them out.
“I’ve found the more I become comfortable with myself, the more I have this sexual energy that I can use creatively and in other good ways. If my dad rejects me, it doesn’t change that I am bisexual. Or if my mom rejects me, it’s not going to change this thing I know so deeply about myself. I’m just sharing something true. I can’t change it.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I shared with Dr. Persaud that I wondered how my own family would react to this article. I felt a bit of shame.
But she reminded me, “You can also find pride in it — ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of the fact that I’m one of the people breaking the stigma. I’m talking about something important to people’s health.’”
And she’s right, as was my dear cousin in her early ambitions. These conversations are never easy, but walking in curiosity, confidence and pride can help us find our power as South Asian women. It can help break the stigma surrounding love, sexuality and relationships in our community and their roles in our greater health.
In so many ways, sexual health and mental health are not only connected but interdependent. In fact, Dr. Persaud believes the more confident people are in their bodies and identities, the more confident they are as a whole — and the more attractive they are.
“Sexual attraction and energy comes from people being competent and peaceful and calm with themselves; knowing who they are,” she said, and the more we learn to embrace this and speak about it openly, the more we can not only grow but thrive.
For more on Dr. Sarika Persaud’s (aka Dr. Samosa) doctoral work and writing, visit her website or Instagram @doctor.samosa. For more on how to talk to your family or children about sexual health, visit sexpositivefamilies.com.