I’m a South Asian Guy in Therapy: Here’s What Happened After 12 Sessions

south asian therapy

by Steven Jacob

“Why do you need therapy? It’s not like you’re not depressed or anything,” my friend said casually after taking a sip of his coffee.

“I’m not good,” I responded. “I haven’t felt fine in a long time, and I need to see someone to make sense of it all.”

“You’re fine, bro,” he insisted. “Like, honestly, you’re just stressed and probably in need of a vacation.”

I looked at him for a moment. I was gathering my thoughts, wondering how to articulate the feelings that I had been suppressing for the past three years.

“I don’t feel fine at all. I haven’t slept well in months, and I feel anxious all the time. Sometimes, I don’t even want to leave the house, and I don’t feel at peace with myself.”

I felt a sense of relief to say those words out loud to someone finally.

Earlier that day, I had scheduled an initial consult with a therapist, Zarna Shah, who was referred to me by another friend. It wasn’t a decision I made easily. It had taken me some time to become comfortable with the idea that maybe I should see a professional. What kind of criticism would I have to endure? I worried. But despite my fears, I was desperate to get my life back on track. So, I made the call.

A week later, the day had arrived—my first session. I got to the office 45 minutes early. I was nervous. Heart racing, palms sweaty, I began filling out a brief questionnaire. I didn’t know what to expect, but I took a deep breath to keep myself calm. After about 40 minutes, my therapist called me in.

Week 1: What Brings You Here?

I walked into the office and was invited to sit on a plush fabric couch. The lighting was warm, and there was a subtle smell of incense. I felt my nerves starting to settle. I took off my coat and laid back on the couch.

“Before we begin, I want you to know that whatever you say in this room is confidential. I’m here to help you and whatever we discuss here is between us. So, what brings you in today?” Zarna asked.

“I haven’t felt like myself in quite a while, and I don’t know what’s wrong.”

We began to unpack my statement. I opened up about how I felt lost, anxious and depressed about the direction my life was heading. I felt encouraged when Zarna ensured me that receiving help was not a sign of weakness. She was empathetic, and I felt comfortable talking to her. It was a good start.

When my first session concluded, Zarna gave me a homework assignment: Bring in a list of my strengths and weaknesses next time.

Week 2: Strengths and Weaknesses

I spent the week adding and revising my list on my phone. Admittedly, it didn’t have that many strengths. My weaknesses, on the other hand, I identified quickly. With the first session in the past, I arrived to my second appointment more comfortable and prepared.

“You are your own harshest critic, and you’ll recognize your flaws first,” Zarna iterated plainly after we reviewed my list.

Growing up in a South Asian household, no achievement ever felt good enough. I spent a majority of my life in competition with my peers, so it was only natural that I would find points to nitpick about myself.

[READ RELATED: Why The South Asian Perception of Mental Illness Needs to Stop]

We spent the rest of the session doing an exercise called cognitive reframing. For every negative and irrational thought I had, I was challenged to find a more positive point of view. Though it would be an ongoing practice, I noticed quickly how it began to help me establish a new self-perception. In time, cognitive reframing allowed me to focus on bettering myself every day, and I began to recognize my own strength.

Weeks 3 & 4: Family Interactions, Parental Expectations

After discussing how my upbringing played a large role in skewing my self-perception and self-esteem, I felt I had laid a substantial foundation to begin the rebuilding process for myself in the last session.

Zarna asked me if my parents knew I was seeing a therapist, to which I quickly replied, “No.” She wanted to know more about how I interacted with my family members.

So began the journey down that rabbit hole.

I felt closed off from my parents because I felt they couldn’t relate to the issues I was trying to tackle, I explained. I had gone against their wishes by not pursuing medicine and going into the field of social work. I thought if I told my parents that I was seeking professional help, they’d only be more disappointed. We never talked about how I felt, but internalizing my emotions only seemed to cause a bigger wedge between my parents and me.

[READ RELATED: Stories of Stigma: Three Generations of Generalized Anxiety Disorder]

Zarna and I explored my lack of communication with my parents in depth. I knew they were proud and loved me, but I couldn’t help but project my insecurities onto them. I had come to realize that what my parents were seeking for me was stability and security. They saw medicine as a gateway for me to have the success they worked for decades to obtain. Above all else, my parents just wanted to make sure that I was taking care of myself. As worried as I was about their reactions, I knew I had to learn how to effectively communicate and help them understand that I was in control of my life’s trajectory.

After my fourth session ended, I went home that night and told my parents that I was seeing a therapist. Their reaction surprised me. Rather than dismissing me, they encouraged me to pursue wellness. From that point forward, my parents were very supportive of my decision, and it was a start to establish a deeper connection with them.

Week 5 & 6: Loneliness, Vulnerability, Inadequacy

Zarna and I spent the next two sessions exploring my anxieties of being vulnerable and learning how to embrace my shortcomings.

As a South Asian male, there’s often a fear of vulnerability, which stems from importance we place on “being masculine.” I admitted to Zarna that even though I knew my friends had my back, I rarely opened up to them. I never wanted to burden those around me. But this often left me feeling alone and isolated.

I learned in these sessions that I was often running from the feelings of discomfort, desperately trying to mask my vulnerabilities. I recognized in these sessions that part of being human is embracing our imperfections and learning to live unapologetically. The goal is to not run from your problems but to find the strength that ultimately creates solutions. And some issues just don’t have answers, but you learn to cope in the best way possible. How I react to my circumstances, I learned, is completely up to me.

I was slowly learning to embrace my truth and myself and showing my loved ones the real Steven.

[READ RELATED: With My Mental Illnesses, One Thing Led to Another]

Weeks 7 & 8: Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself

After six weeks of therapy, I began to see concrete improvement in my life. My relationships, my professional life, and my physical health were all on the uptick. But I still struggled with battling anxious thoughts and comparing myself to my peers.

“You are your own harshest critic,” Zarna would say again.

I remembered in my earlier sessions when all I could identify were my weaknesses, dwelling on them to the point of paralysis.

Despite our criticisms, the one thing we rarely give ourselves is credit. I recognized how much time I spent feeling defeated and dismissing the small victories in my life. My therapy sessions helped me to remember that patience is critical when in pursuit of significant milestones. What I was slowly accepting was that someone else’s success was not a detriment to my well-being. Is this what self-love really meant?

Weeks 9 & 10: Romantic Relationships

I had come out of a long-term relationship some time before I began therapy. But having made so much progress, I felt it might time to get back out there explore the possibility of love again. Zarna and I explored my dating anxieties and feelings of self-doubt in these sessions. From examining communication styles in relationships to understanding what I valued in a relationship, I felt my worries start to lessen.

Sometimes we impose our timelines onto the people we’re dating. I learned that that the important thing is to let a relationship flourish organically and to be patient, especially in the early stages of a relationship.

[READ RELATED: Stay True to Yourself—Discussing Mental Health While Looking for Love]

Weeks 11 & 12: Reflections

I arrived at my 11th session eager to tell Zarna how much more positive I had felt since that first appointment. She told me the strides I had made were my my own and that she had only been there to help facilitate my journey.

We discussed how important it was for me to maintain a self-care routine, especially in stressful times. Self-care takes on many forms. For me, it meant doing something I really enjoyed at least two or three times per week to destress.

It was only the beginning of my journey to wellness, but I was willing to do the work for better mental health. One of my biggest learnings in the past 12 weeks was that when I couldn’t control my circumstances, I could always control how I reacted to them. If I allowed my mind to internalize the negative emotions and situations that didn’t go as planned, I’d be miserable. I learned not only how to cope but how to make the best of adverse situations, as well.

[READ RELATED: A Spiritual Evening With Eckhart Tolle: 5 Quotes That’ll Leave You Woke]


I met up with my friend for coffee again some weeks after my first session. He was quick to point out that he not only sensed more self-confidence in me, but also that I seemed more at peace with myself. He was right. It felt great to know that my progress was obvious, particularly to a person who once saw me as “fine.”

It’s been more than a year and a half since I began seeing my therapist, and I can confidently say I’m a different person today. I’ve learned to be more compassionate and patient with myself, two things that I struggled with in the earlier parts of my life. I have more fulfillment in my life and enjoy more meaningful relationships with the people around me. But the epiphanies and insights didn’t come overnight. Therapy is a process, and with any lifestyle change, it’s all about what you put into it. I still have anxious thoughts every now and again. But therapy taught me practical strategies to cope with my stress and find true inner joy.

If you’re considering seeing a mental health professional, I highly encourage it. Whether you feel “fine” or you’re at the end of the rope, therapy is for everyone. Finding a counselor with whom you can establish a therapeutic relationship might require a little research, but you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace the discomfort because the strides that you’ll make are worth it. You’ll wonder why you didn’t start this sooner.

For more information on mental health in the South Asian community, check out MannMukti —ending the mental health stigma, one story at a time.

stevenjacobSteven Jacob hopes to help others gain insight by starting a dialogue on the issues that affect millennials. His writing is inspired by his daily interactions, personal observations, faith, cultural upbringing, music and experience as a social worker in the field of mental health. Steven is an avid lover of hip-hop, philosophy and spicy foods. He stays active with regular hikes with his dogs. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @stevenvjacob.
By Steven Jacob

Steven Jacob hopes to help others gain insight by starting a dialogue on the issues that affect millennials. His writing … Read more ›

South Asian Masculinity and Mental Health: Can we Find a new way Forward?

toxic masculinity

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.

[Read Related: Brown Boys Do Cry: How Toxic Masculinity Screws With Us, Too]

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.

[Read Related: These 5 South Asian Men Are Opening up About Their Mental Health and Toxic Masculinity]

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.

If you need additional resources, please visit:

Photo: Shutterstock/Roxanne 134

paritosh joshi
By Paritosh Joshi

Paritosh Joshi is a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. His background includes a Master of … Read more ›

Dr. Samosa on Sex, Love and Coming out — the Ultimate Taboos in South Asian Households

Dr. Samosa
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Samosa | Photographed by Farzana Chowdhury

I’m going to be a sex therapist. 

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. 

[Read Related: 3 Indo-Caribbean Mental Health Counselors Talk About Community’s Stigma]

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. 


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A post shared by Dr. Samosa (@doctor.samosa)

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.”

Dr. Samosa
Dr. Samosa photographed by Nushie Choudhury

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.  


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A post shared by Dr. Samosa (@doctor.samosa)

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.” 

[Read Related: What South Asian Parents Won’t Tell You About the “Birds and the Bees” and… Vaginismus]?

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.” 


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A post shared by Dr. Samosa (@doctor.samosa)

“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.

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By Ramona Sukhraj

With a B.S. in Marketing from the UCONN School of Business, Ramona has made a name for herself publishing over … Read more ›

Shedding Light on South Asians and Intimate Partner Violence


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.

[Read Related: A South Asian Daughter of Divorced Parents Speaks up After the Tragic Death of Pakistani-American Photographer Sania Khan]

Violence prevention researchers have long used traditional gender roles to explain intimate partner violence in South Asian countries. These norms are deeply entrenched beliefs in society about appropriate roles for people based on their gender. In South Asian communities, these norms typically privilege men in intimate relationships. These beliefs are further perpetuated by mainstream media. For example, despite historic criticism for its depiction of harassment as “romance” or abuse as “lovers’ quarrels,” Indian cinema has only normalized toxic masculinity and violence as a form of conflict resolution with its hundreds of millions of viewers.

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.

[Read Related: On Domestic Violence: Model Minority, Private Pain]

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. 

[Read Related: How to Talk to Your Child About Domestic Violence: 5 Tips for Parents]

Addressing the “Shadow Pandemic”

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.

 Intimate Partner Violence Resources:

  1.     National Domestic Violence Hotline Call: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224; Text: “START” to 8878
  1.     National Dating Abuse Helpline Call: 1-866-331-9474
  1.     National Sexual Assault Hotline Call: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
By Sneha Challa

Sneha holds a PhD in Global Health and is currently a researcher at the University of California San Francisco working … Read more ›