February 2, 2015May 9, 2020 5min readBy Marina Ali
If you are a sucker for Vice News documentaries and videos, then you have got to see the work of Tania Rashid, the journalist behind the documentary “A Crime Unpunished: Bangladeshi Gang Rape.“ In this interview, she gives us a glimpse into her career, the pivotal stories that she has covered and her thoughts on the gang rape issue in Bangladesh.
Born to Be a Story Teller
Rashid, born in Saudi Arabia, moved to the rugged mountains of Utah when she was seven-years-old. While she was raised in a Mormon atmosphere, she experienced the all too familiar feeling of being the only South Asian, let alone Bengali, in her community. She learned to adapt, and eventually made the rite of passage that we all undertake: Studying and chasing dreams in the big city.
Rashid’s journey led her to Columbia University, the rustic academic institution in the middle of the bustling metropolis of New York City, to study documentary journalism. Interestingly enough, she said she “accidentally landed in journalism.”
She wanted to follow in the footsteps of other great women like Christiane Amanpour. Rashid knew she was destined for a career in foreign correspondence. To her, it is like “digging for a truth in places where nobody wants to go.”
When she got into the field, however, Rashid learned how unglamorous of a life it was. Foreign correspondence involved more than what she originally thought, but like the strong brown girls before her, she never let hard work get in the way of success. She started her career as an intern at ABC’s “Nightline” and then moved on to Al-Jazeera, as a correspondent for Bangladesh.
[Gang rape victim Rohima and her family.|Photo Credit: Phil Caller]
An Open Secret
For Rashid, the perfect topic to report is the one that is, “not being reported enough.” One such topic that particularly struck Rashid was the issue of gang rape, inspired by her previous reporting experience in Bangladesh. In November, Tania wrote the following in a Vice News piece:
“Bangladesh has a troubling history of rape. More than 200,000 Bengali women were raped during the country’s liberation war in 1971. To this day, many of the victims are afraid to tell their stories because of the social stigma they faced after the war.”
According to the Vice News YouTube channel, the documentary, “A Crime Unpunished: Bangladeshi Gang Rape” is based on a UN report that revealed one in eight men in rural Bangladesh admits to committing rape. Although it is a crime punishable by death, there are no accurate government figures for rape in Bangladesh, largely due to social stigma and a failure by local authorities to investigate alleged crimes. With this information on-hand, Rashid traveled to Sylhet and met with both perpetrators and victims of rape as well as local police to find out what is driving Bangladeshi men to rape and abuse women, and what steps the authorities are taking to put an end to it.
There, she spoke to community leaders, victims and activists who had one common answer in mind. Shipra Goswami, one of the few lawyers for women in the region, gave Rashid the following statement in Sylhet:
“Women and young girls are frequent victims in their villages, but when it happens, we don’t know anything about it. The victims are shunned and are told, ‘No, don’t speak out.’ If the victim reveals that she has been raped, the parents fear they won’t be able to marry the girl off in the future. They fear the girl’s future will be ruined.”
Courage in the Face of Fear
As for excelling at challenging projects like the gang rape documentary, it was crucial for Rashid to exude the confidence to ask hard questions to people who experience little to no dissent in the matter. Especially when speaking with the imam and the police chief, she said she took in their sexist, misogynistic comments with grace and professionalism.
“I had to carry myself in a way where they couldn’t cross me or belittle me. I tried to come as being androgynous… not man or woman, just here to get your answers.”
[Two men who admit to gang rape.|Photo Credit: Phil Caller]
Rashid said she believes that the dismissive attitude towards gang rape comes from the cultural psyche of Bangladesh. She points out that this issue is also prevalent in India, which has a strong Hindu population. So, the misogyny does not come from religion.
Yet, she is quick to point out: “it’s not like things are hunky-dory here [America]. We just have more groups and organizations that support women. But I believe women are much more vulnerable there [Bangladesh] because they don’t have the access that women have here.”
When assessing solutions to the problem of gang rape, Rashid asserts that Bengali men have to start taking accountability for their actions. They have to realize that they too are a part of the problem and until they can change their mindsets, gang rape and sexual harassment will continue to be seen as a normal occurrence.
Additionally, the government has to step in and admit its mismanagement. She states:
“I have not seen any action, and it trickles down to police officers who just don’t do anything”
Even though, the gang rape epidemic in Bangladesh cannot be fixed from solving only one facet of the issue or through this documentary alone, Rashid highlights an issue that will take a new understanding of gender, religion and government oversight to bring long-term goals into fruition.
Not Her First Rodeo
In addition to covering gang rape stories, it was her passion for news about her native country that guided her when she was covering theRana Plaza factory collapse. As it was happening, Rashid said, “it felt like I was in a horror movie.” She recalled horrible sights like blood pouring through gutters, however, not everything was grim, as she saw many great acts of kindness that day as well.
“It was amazing because this was the first time I saw such an effort, a humanitarian effort. You know, you saw people from all walks of life jumping in and helping out. It wasn’t like there wasn’t enough professional help there. They were getting scissors from people’s houses and getting tape and taking off their shirts to build a makeshift rope.”
Her life-changing experiences at Rana Plaza made her even more passionate about writing and reporting. In a way, it has led her to become more engrossed in the political and social affairs of Bangladesh and other countries that do not get a huge spotlight on major news networks.
Mental health in the South Asian community has long been stigmatized, and South Asian individuals who experience psychological issues might feel hesitant to express their concerns due to the shame they may encounter. Nevertheless, while there has been progress made in studying and openly discussing South Asian mental health, several topics remain in need of further examination; these include studying the relationship between mental health and gender, specifically the role of masculinity on mental health outcomes.
What is South Asian masculinity?
Masculinity and mental health have come under greater scrutiny by researchers, particularly as traditional masculinity is often cited as the reason why men are less willing to reach out for support regarding psychological issues. However, the influence of masculine norms on well-being has been insufficiently viewed through an intersectional lens and is understudied within South Asian mental health. From a South Asian context, traditional masculinity can include focusing on material success while displaying suppressed emotionality, which can be manifested through anger or practicing other harmful behaviors.
In order to understand its influence, it is critical to examine the impact of traditional paradigms of masculinity across the diaspora. For instance, some traits associated with traditional masculinity among South Asian men include displaying control over others. A Sri-Lanka-based study found that most male participants “associated manhood with dominance…” A Forbes India article asserted how boys in India are “taught to … apply themselves to the task of growing up to be a strong, unwavering support system for their families,” which in turn forces them to be silent about topics that may make them seem weak. This pattern of behavior becomes manifested in a particularly harmful way because boys grow up with the inability to handle their emotions or formulate healthy coping strategies during challenging circumstances.
These norms can have drastic implications and harm other community members. For instance, a focus group conducted among Nepali men found that failure to deliver for their household economically as breadwinners eventually resulted in heated disputes, which escalated and led them to engage in domestic violence. The presence of domestic violence can also be observed through media stories on the pervasiveness of gender-based harm within South Asian communities, as seen in the murder of Sania Khan.
Traditional masculinity also hides the wounds that South Asian men may be battling within themselves. One paper asserts that for a sizable number of Indian men, “…sadness and despair find a distorted manifestation in destructive behaviors that deny their emotional pain to themselves and to others.” Thus, performing conventionally masculine behaviors can mask deeper mental health issues.
Repercussions of South Asian masculinity on mental health
Because of the pressure to adhere to such strict standards of conduct, traditional masculinity has significant, greater repercussions for mental health and well-being. For instance, because of the narrow ability of men to compartmentalize their feelings, this restrictive emotionality can result in an inability for others to recognize their mental health issues, thus failing to target the deeper causes of men’s behavior. Furthermore, men themselves might engage in fewer help-seeking behaviors. This is also further complicated due to gaps in culturally competent services that can serve South Asian men when they do utilize support systems.
Additional social forces experienced by South Asian men might explain mental health outcomes, particularly when considering the role of immigration. Among South Asian American men in the United States, one study noted that “a lower social position” within their community was linked to higher distress, indicating how critical it was for first-generation men to be leaders and actively participate in their ethnic community’s organizations. Thus, social expectations of men within South Asian communities influenced their well-being, as did their social status and relative power.
What we can do to change the status quo on South Asian masculinity and mental health
In order to ensure that men in South Asian cultures can embrace their mental health, it is important to formulate a prudent, welcoming paradigm that encourages greater help-seeking behaviors. Greater attention to this topic can also contribute to theories on feminist and sociocultural therapeutic frameworks, which both offer the following includes suggested remedies:
Challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging mental health care as a means to discuss issues about well-being
It is imperative to encourage South Asian men to show more emotion, thus changing the existing narrative and social pressure they face to limit the expression of their feelings. Fortunately, there is a platform, known as @BrownManTherapy, that posts content about the struggles South Asian men experience. Furthermore, therapy ought to be recommended as a means to deal with mental health concerns, which should be combined with support from the community.
More South Asian male clinicians
In addition to instituting changes in community norms, there needs to be more diverse representation in the mental health field. In doing so, there will be greater platforms to have conversations about the negative repercussions of traditional masculinity that are unique to South Asian men. Furthermore, it is critical to challenge the social stigma that mental health is a female-dominated profession or that seeking therapy is emasculating.
More research studies examining cross-cultural differences in masculinity across South Asian cultures
The connection between masculinity and mental health ought to be investigated much further. Studies should particularly assess masculinity within non-white contexts in order to examine the standards of manhood across several communities and truly understand the unique stressors men face across different cultural backgrounds.
While the connection between South Asian masculinity and mental health is not discussed among psychology professionals, it is critical to study the association since it plays a role in South Asian gender inequities and in mental health behaviors among South Asian men. More broadly, given the prevalence of intimate partner violence within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and the role of patriarchal norms in inflicting this harm, it is now more important than ever to reimagine expectations surrounding men’s behavior.
By further examining the problems caused by adherence to traditionally masculine norms and implementing certain solutions, these ideas can be challenged and dismantled to create a progressive and more inclusive model of manhood. Above all, identifying and eradicating toxic ideas rooted in traditional South Asian masculinity will lead to liberation for all people.
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.