As a woman of Muslim, Hindu, South East Asian and Central Asian background–the question of modesty has always been a confusing one.
I come from an environment that allows me to show my arms and midriff in religious Muslim households. I come from a background that sees nothing immoral about showing hair while praying. And my background often sees alcohol as a way of heightening a religious experience.
I recently Tweeted that I wanted to crush the notion of modesty–a statement that was met with much backlash, and for that reason, the I deleted the Tweet. But I wanted to expand on my Tweet and my opinion on modesty. Before we delve into the actual discussion on the word modesty and its functions, I want to set the parameters for this discussion.
I take the hermeneutics of suspicion very seriously; hence, why I’m questioning the rhetoric itself beyond just the system. Also, why I argue that to only question the system isn’t going far enough.
I am operating off a Utilitarian ideal (see John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism”) in which we accept that the ethical majority decides what society deems as a utility (i.e. pleasurable, good, acceptable). The reason I say this is because I’m about to focus on the oppressive interpretation behind the concept of modesty- not the individual act of being modest. I accept the fact of it as a personal choice, but I reject the system in which it operates. What I don’t want is for the extension/contention to be made that we could apply the same logic to systems like sadism/racism/sexism etc. As to say racism is okay as a personal choice but the system is the issue. Speaking in the vein of Mill’s ideals, we in this “Twitter society” have decided that the above “isms” are not utility, so they do not apply to the situation. We have decided Sadism isn’t pleasurable for EVERYONE hence it isn’t a utilitarian system. Yet, we haven’t decided this for modesty, hence this discussion.
I want to make it apparent that I when I Tweeted the photo of my body hair, I wanted to crush the “notion” of modesty. I never said I wanted to crush the modest person.
We can relate this to any other ism if you please. We want to crush racism, not the racist person. If we crushed the racist person we’d be physically hurting them, and the system still lives. When I say I want to crush modesty, I do not mean I want to take away the individual right of a person to be modest. The same is paralleled to racism. When we Tweet about ending racism, we tweet about ending the overarching system at play. We don’t mean we want to take away the right for someone to be racist. What we want is for the system to dissolve, so that the option isn’t there.
This semantic argument is difficult for “modesty” in a rhetorical vein. The word means different things to literally everyone. The Muslim woman of the eigth century did not use it as the Muslim woman of today. Extend this to every culture, creed, and time period in history and we’ve never had a solid definition.
This brings me to my first parameter. I said I am ultimately suspicious of how we interpret rhetoric, so when given such a powerful word like modesty, it’s important that we pick it apart. Since we have never had a solid definition of a word that contributes to rape culture, religious fervor, and sexism, I highly suspect that the word itself is obsolete. Hence, why I said I want to crush the notion of it.
Since I’ve been using racism as my parallel, we can see that the same argument can’t be made here. Even though racism has existed differently in different times, we can see a clear subjugation of one party at the will of another in every single example. This does not work for modesty because the relationship of what is modest and what isn’t cannot be polarized like racist systems are. In a racist system, a sexist system, even a sadist system, there is one party being afflicted by the other. But when it comes to the overarching system of modesty, the idea of what is modest versus what isn’t cannot be polarized since its fundamentally based on personal taste.
Everyone in a room has a different idea of what is personally modest to them regardless of what that society deems as modest externally. The word proves to be a futile attempt to describe a way of life. The fact that we have an external super ego view on what it means to be modest is the issue. That system is obsolete to the point of oppression in my eyes.
To me, the overarching system of modesty causes the issues we see in rape culture and sexism. We are trying to make people conform to taste, which causes conflict. Now this is very different than someone choosing to be modest, abstinent, docile etc. Any personal choice that operates in utility is a fine one. Obviously. And the personal choice of being “modest” is one that is utilitarian. The overarching system of “modesty” is not utilitarian to me. The overarching system of “modesty” is the one that leaves cis-women assaulted at parties since they were wearing a skirt too short. The overarching system of “modesty” is the reason men yelled at me over the Internet to put clothes on. To me, the photos were “modest” because that is my personal taste. But to the overarching system that doesn’t equate, hence the conflict.
Now moving on to the idea of modesty in Islam, or modesty as a doctrine, I challenge all of us to reevaluate whether the term modesty is the right one. I already stated I believe the term is obsolete. Being suspicious of rhetoric, I would attest that maybe a hijab isn’t “modest” at all. I attest that the way thousands of Muslim women live their lives should not be grouped under a dynamically infuriating word like “modesty.” Muslim women have varying levels of piety, covering up, personality and familial obligations. As I’ve stated, polarizing the situation to what is “modest” and what isn’t seems futile to me. I would also like to point out that the idea of it being ordained by Allah that we must be modest/said in the hadith that we must be modest is also suspicious. The word “modest” is a translation of what we are reading in another language. So I also think religiously sourcing the claim that “modest” is the right word is ignoring the fact that maybe we just translated wrong.
To conclude, I want the word “modesty” and the system to disappear. The actual acts of utility we connect to modesty are personal choices and completely fine. I want people to live their lives making utilitarian personal choices regardless of the external super ego of society. And that is why I want the overarching system of modesty (along with the rhetorical weight of the word) to be “smashed.”
The personal choices we make shouldn’t have to connect to any word or system for them to ordain as a utility, they should just be the choices we willingly make.
Suraiya Ali is a student currently living in Dallas, Texas. Her interests include feminist theology, mystic poetry, and the pursuit of the perfect matte lipstick. She wants to eventually couple a business degree with one in linguistics and theology.
In an age where algorithms dictate viewership, Nancy Jay uses her love of dance to propel herself onto TikTok’s “for you” pages. Jay is an Indo Guyanese, Bronx native who began dancing at the age of three. As an influencer and content creator, she amassed a social media following of more than 500,000. Versed in many styles of dancing including Caribbean, Bollywood, urban and Latin, Jay can be spotted in soca music videos such as Linky First’s “Rock and Come in” and “Jeune Femme,” Adrian Dutchin’s “Roll” and by soca king Machel Montano’s “Mami Lo Tiene.”
Many content creators are typecast into the niche but Jay has defied this norm and proclaims she is more than just a dancer.
“I dance, travel, post lifestyle and beauty content. I’m an Indo Caribbean woman who enjoys being myself and promoting my culture. I like showing viewers it is okay to be who they are and embrace what they look like, despite what they see on social media. I did not plan on being a TikToker. As I started posting videos, the love and support I received from viewers was amazing. I have never experienced anything like that before on Instagram, where I started my content journey,” Jay said.
In conversation with Jay, the following answers have been condensed for concision and clarity.
Why is it important for you to create content related to your Indo Caribbean roots?
Growing up, I never felt represented as an Indo Caribbean on television, in movies, social media or anywhere else. My goal as a content creator is to promote the Indo Caribbean culture through my content and be the representation the Indo Caribbean community needs.
Are there unspoken rules about being a content creator or an Indo Caribbean woman on the platform?
Being an Indo Caribbean woman on TikTok can be challenging when you are trying to find your identity and do not feel represented.
Jay explains her frustration with the lack of Caribbean representation and acknowledgment from platforms, as well as her goals as a content creator in this video.
Do you ever experience a block, similar to writer’s block, when it comes to creating content? How do you overcome that?
I have yet to experience a block. However, I do have days where I want to take a break and just relax instead of filming. As a content creator, it is important to take breaks and schedule days to just relax because being a full-time content creator is a 24/7 business. It can be draining and you may lose your sense of reality when you have the mindset that everything is content. I enjoy taking a day or half a day to cook, watch TV or go shopping with my partner without the worry of filming any of it.
How has your social media presence changed your daily life?
When I am in public, supporters approach me to express their love for my content and sometimes ask for a selfie. When I find people staring at me in public now, it’s most likely because they recognize me from social media and not because I look funny.
In May of 2021, I used my platform to reach out to brands and ask for their support in a project I named ‘Nancy Jay Gives Back.’ I put together care packages, using products donated by brands, and drove around the Bronx sharing them with people experiencing homelessness or those in need. Seeing the happiness on their faces upon receiving these bags was priceless. Additionally, I spread some extra joy through dance. I remember one lady telling me she’d never been to a club or party so I told her I’ve brought the party to her and we danced to her favorite genre of music right there on the street.
Jay plans on continuing this project as her social media presence has grown.
How has your family reacted to your social presence?
My family has always been supportive of my talents and the path I have chosen. My first public dance performance was at the age of 12. I performed a fusion of Bollywood and chutney music at middle school events. When I got to high school, I participated in our talent show to a fusion of Bollywood, chutney, soca and top 40. I won the talent show three or four times. I also performed for fundraisers organized by mandirs in Queens, the Bronx, weddings, sweet sixteens and other social events.
My family always came out to support me. They love seeing my content and always encourage me to film and create. My mom in particular tells everyone about my TikTok videos.
While enrolled at John Jay College, Jay founded the first West Indian student organization called “West Indies Massive.” She captained the dance team, taught dance classes and won the talent show multiple times while pursuing her Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice with a minor in law and police studies.
Any advice for creators who may not have the support of family?
Do not let this discourage you. If content creation is something you truly want to do, stay consistent and eventually your family will support you for doing what you love. Social media is still new to some and the idea of it being someone’s career or business is new as well. I say be patient. Also, talk to them about your social media goals, as perhaps they do not understand the full picture.
What is your dream partnership and why?
My dream partnership would involve acting. I’ve always wanted to be an actress, preferably a Bollywood actress because I know I would kill those dance numbers (haha!). Also, I would love to partner with Sandals Resorts and bring that Caribbean flavor they should be promoting.
Jay has collaborated with major brands like Samsung Mobile, Norwegian Cruise Line, AC Hotels, Disney Music Group, and Dunkin which is paramount for the Indo Caribbean community.
“I am the first Indo Caribbean woman to work with Norwegian Cruise Line as a content creator. Cruise travel is a huge part of my content journey. I love cruising and creating unique experiences and content. While cruising, I connected with the crew while most people typically do not. I treat everyone with respect,” Jay said
“I started a fun series called ‘Cruise Dances with the Crew’ back in August of 2021. There’s a playlist on TikTok with all of the fun dances. Prior to my first video, I had not seen anyone dancing on cruise ships with the crew. I guess you could say I started that trend.”
Nancy intertwined this partnership with her content and further put herself on the map.
Another pivotal partnership for Jay occurred in March 2021 when Dunkin chose her as one of 10 from a nationwide competition to feature her signature drink on the local menu.
How has content creation changed in the past two years?
Within the past two years, my content and style has grown tremendously. My gear list has also grown tremendously. I’ve been a content creator full time for a little over a year now. I have had more time to focus on the presentation and editing of my content.
What else do you want your viewers to not know about you or your work?
I stay true to who I am. Supporters who I’ve met in person can attest that I am the same, in-person and online. I like to keep things relatable, fun and authentic. I am working with a lot of big brands. I try to incorporate dance in all my content to capture my passion, diversity and culture.
I started teaching Caribbean Dance Fitness classes and private dance lessons officially in 2016. Since Covid, I moved everything online. Not only have I helped many learn how to dance but I have also helped build their confidence through dance and expression.
Lastly, I love traveling and encouraging others to live their best life.
Jay is more than a dancer; she is unapologetically herself. She maximizes opportunities and is building a brand that highlights her Indo Caribbean roots – a culture often not highlighted in mainstream media.
In honor of women’s history month and Ramadan, we are publishing this short story by award-winning author Adiba Jaigirdar. We had the pleasure of interviewing and connecting with Adiba in the midst of the pandemic, and she has remained a supporter and a friend of the literary vertical and Brown Girl Magazine. This short story by Adiba encapsulates the spirit of friendship and community in a time of celebration. Adiba’s next book ‘Do and Donuts of Love’ will be out on June 6, 2023.
It’s not Ammu yelling my name over and over that wakes me up on Eid morning, it’s the sweet aroma of payesh, floating up from the kitchen, through the floorboards, and making my mouth water.
It only takes me a few minutes to roll out of bed and down the stairs, peering at the massive dish of payesh right in the middle of the kitchen table. It’s what I’ve been looking forward to for all of Ramadan — Ammu’s famous payesh recipe.
“Safa, don’t you dare touch that,” Ammu calls from where she’s standing, by the stove, making a fresh batch of porotas for our Eid breakfast.
“But it’s been so long since…” I start to plead, but Ammu cuts me off.
“Get dressed, get ready, and after Eid prayer, we can have some payesh,” she says, though her voice has already lost some of its fervour. When I glance at Ammu, she has that familiar look of nostalgia. Unfortunately, I know exactly what she’s remembering. “If only it was the payesh that your Nanu used to make…” she says softly.
I heave a sigh, and say, “okay, I’m going to get dressed,” before slipping out of the kitchen as fast as I can. In our house, you can’t really talk about payesh without Ammu’s long-winded story. It always starts with how she wishes we had the ‘real’ payesh recipe that our family — the Jahangirs — have been known for around Bangladesh, since the Mughal era. It’s the recipe that’s been passed down for generations in our family. That is until, after our Nanu unexpectedly passed away two years ago, the recipe seemed to disappear.
This is where Ammu’s long-winded story ends: her bitterness that her older sister has the recipe but refuses to share it with Ammu.
Now, we can only have Ammu’s payesh. Even though she has spent the past two years trying to recreate our family recipe, she insists that there’s something missing. A key ingredient that made our Mughal-descended recipe famous around all of Bangladesh. So, Ammu’s payesh comes with a bitter footnote — a strange kind of loss that people outside of our family would probably never understand.
Back in my room, I shut the door and take a deep breath. Because today isn’t just any ordinary Eid. Today is the day that I reunite my family.
But Ammu doesn’t know that yet.
I fling open my wardrobe and pull out the dress that I had bought online weeks ago. It’s a long violet kameez with floral stitching running down its length. Silver embroidery lines the cuffs of the sleeves, and the ends of the dress; making it sparkle when it catches the light. It’s perfect.
Better yet, it’s part of a matching set.
My phone pings just at that moment. As if, my partner in crime can read my mind.
“Ready for today?” Marwa’s text reads.
My hands hover over the keyboard for a moment. And even though my heart is beating a little too fast in my chest, I type back “totally ready,” and put the phone back on my bedside table. I’m hoping that acting like I’m totally confident in our plan will actually make our plan 100% successful. But truthfully, I’m not sure how Ammu will react once everything is in motion. And I’m not sure if I’m a good enough liar to convince her.
But if all goes to plan, by the end of this Eid day, Ammu’s payesh story is going to get a lot shorter. And Marwa and I won’t have to hide our friendship any longer.
With that thought in mind, I change into my Eid dress.
“I don’t understand this Eid party business,” Ammu complains during the drive from the mosque to the community center, where the bi-annual Bangladeshi Eid party always takes place. “In Bangladesh, there aren’t any Eid parties. It’s just visiting your family and friends; not this ‘party purty’ with virtual strangers.”
“Yes, Ammu, I know,” I groan, glancing out the window and trying not to roll my eyes. I know that will lead to an entire lecture about not being respectful to my parents. “If you made up with Khala then we could…”
Ammu cuts me off by glancing back at me with a stone-cold glare that I’m pretty sure has the ability to kill. It’s the same glare she sends my way every time I even mention that she has a sister. That I have a khala. That these people exist and live in the same city as us. That we could be celebrating together, but the years-long feud between our families has kept us apart.
“No more talking,” Ammu declares, staring straight ahead. She’s clutching the dish of payesh to her chest now as if it’s her lifeline. Considering how much she has sacrificed for her payesh, I guess it kind of is her lifeline.
But, as I glance out the window at the rush of trees and cars and buildings zooming by, I can’t help but think about what our Eid celebrations used to be like. And wonder how Ammu is so okay with letting all of that slip through her fingers.
The buzz of my phone distracts me from my thoughts.
“We’re here!” The text from Marwa reads.
“We’re five mins away,” I text back quickly, before glancing at Ammu. She has her lips pursed — obviously still annoyed that I dared to bring up Khala on a day as special as this. My heart beats a little faster at the thought of what she’ll say when she spots Khala at the party. She hasn’t come to one of these parties in the two years since their fall out, and it’s thanks to Marwa’s spectacular lies that she’s there now. Not knowing exactly what’s waiting for her.
I can tell the party is already in full bloom as soon as we pull into the parking lot. There are barely any spaces left. And the inside of the community centre is like a burst of colour. Whoever decorated the place for our Eid party did a marvelous job. There are multicoloured balloons and streamers hung up around the room. A giant banner on one wall reads ‘EID MUBARAK!’ and the other side of the room is filled up with kids’ drawings from the annual Eid art competition.
“Too many balloons,” is Ammu’s only observation as she shoves one of them aside in order to place her payesh on the large table, in the middle of the room. It’s already filled with different dishes — but I know everyone’s dying for Ammu’s payesh specifically.
I heave a sigh and glance around the party. Through the throngs of people hugging and cheering and laughing, it’s not easy to spot two people. But I do. In one corner, closed off from everyone else, stand Marwa and her mom. Khala doesn’t look happy at all, though she’s wearing an expensive-looking sari and a full face of makeup. And Marwa is looking around impatiently. She’s wearing a salwar kameez that matches mine perfectly — except instead of violet and silver, her outfit is blue and gold, perfectly complementing her bronze skin.
When Ammu’s back is turned, I wave to Marwa. Her face breaks out into a grin as soon as she sees me. She waves back, before motioning to her phone. My own phone vibrates with a text.
Marwa: “Meet me by the bathrooms in two minutes.”
“Ammu, I…have to pee,” I say.
“You couldn’t have gone before we came here?” Ammu says with a sigh. “Okay, go.” She waves me off. But just as I’m leaving, I notice that she’s already trying to push her bowl of payesh on our Bangladeshi neighbours. Not that the payesh needs much pushing. It may not be the recipe descended from the Mughals — but it’s still pretty damn good.
“You’re late!” Marwa says as soon as I’m in her earshot. She pulls me to the little corner just by the bathrooms — almost completely out of sight.
“Ammu wanted to talk to way too many people after the Eid prayers,” I say. “I tried to stop her, but you know what she’s like.”
“Stubborn,” Marwa mumbles under her breath. We both know all too well about that. “Did she bring the payesh?”
“Would it be an Eid party without it?”
She smiles, even though I can tell her heart’s not quite in it. Just like me, she’s nervous about the plan. About how both our mothers will react — after declaring each other enemies years ago and refusing to even be in the same room together. All because of a dessert recipe.
“What if this doesn’t work?” Marwa asks the question that we’re both thinking about. After all, convincing both of our moms to bring their payesh to the same Eid party so that people can taste them both and show our mothers how it doesn’t matter who has the family recipe or not, seems like a good idea — in concept. In execution, it has way too many chances of falling apart. There are so many factors that Marwa and I just can’t control.
But after months and months of trying to come up with some way to get our moms to reconcile, this was all we came up with. Once upon a time, our moms were so close that they named their two daughters — born within months of each other — after the two hills in Mecca. For years, we grew up side-by-side, like sisters more than cousins. Until our parents decided they would ruin all that. Over a dessert that non-Bengalis think is as simple as rice pudding.
“It has to work,” I say, with more conviction than I’m feeling. Marwa nods in agreement.
“Was she suspicious?” I ask.
“Not even a little bit. Once I convinced her that Khala had gone back to Bangladesh to celebrate Eid and that she had the chance to showcase her payesh recipe, it was easy. She wanted to get here early to scope out the best spot for her payesh,” Marwa says, rolling her eyes, but I smile. Because that’s exactly the kind of thing Ammu would do too. The two of them are so alike — and that’s exactly why this feud has kept up for so long.
“Even if this doesn’t work,” I say slowly after a moment. “We’re not going back to being friends in secret.” It’s been too many months of secret phone conversations and text messages. Too many days where I’ve lied to Ammu about meeting a friend from school, just so I can see my cousin. When before, it was sleepovers every week and seeing each other every day. A friendship that seemed boundless.
“We’re old enough to fight them back on it,” Marwa says, not sounding convinced at all. Bangladeshis don’t talk back to their parents…but ours are being ridiculous. They have been for too long now.
So, I gave a determined nod, and the two of us step away from our corner, and back to the main room in the community centre. Where all hell broke loose.
In the middle of the room stand our two mothers — both wearing their new Eid sarees that are now in disarray. They’re in the middle of a screaming match, either unaware — or uncaring — that everybody in the room, around them, is watching them with wide eyes. This is definitely going to be the gossip topic of the year, doing the rounds on all the ‘Auntie/Uncle’ WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
“Ammu!” Marwa calls rushing up to her mom, while I make my way over to mine. “Stop! Everybody’s watching!”
“You told me that she wasn’t going to be here. You lied!” Khala says, sending such a powerful glare toward Ammu that I’m surprised she doesn’t wither away.
“Yes,” Marwa says, even though I’m shaking my head at her vigorously. “Safa and I planned to bring you both here, so you could see how ridiculous you’re being. Right, Safa?”
Everybody’s staring at me now. Except for Ammu, who has taken all the power of Khala’s glare and turned it towards me.
I shift uncomfortably from foot to foot for a second before slowly nodding my head. “Yes…Marwa and I planned it. You both brought your payesh, you can see how it doesn’t matter. People are going to love both of them. They’re…”
“You brought payesh?” Ammu’s voice is a whisper, but somehow it seems to envelop the whole room.
“Of course, I brought my payesh,” Khala says, propping her chin up defiantly.
Ammu turns to the table where all the snacks and desserts brought in by various people are laid out. There’s a bowl of chotpoti, plates of shingara and shomucha, boxes of roshogolla and kalojam. But right on the edge is a dish filled with payesh that is definitely not ours.
“Ammu, no…” but I’m too late. Before I know it, Ammu is striding towards the payesh faster than she’s ever walked before. She grabs hold of the dish, and it’s almost like the entire room is collectively holding its breath.
She glances over at Khala, but there’s no wicked grin on her lips, no evil glint in her eyes. She almost looks…sad.
“You should have given me the recipe,” she says, her voice so low it’s a surprise we hear her. “I deserved it as much as you did.”
Khala frowns, stepping a little closer to Ammu. “I should have given it to you?” she asks. “You’re the one who kept it from me.”
“What are you talking about?” Ammu asks. “Ma told me that she gave you the recipe years ago. And after she passed, I asked you for it. You said you wouldn’t give it to me.”
“I said I couldn’t give it to you!” Khala cries. “Because you were rubbing it in my face. You were the one Ma gave it to. She told me so.”
“Wait!” I exclaimed, stepping forward. Normally, I would never raise my voice like that to Ammu, but this definitely doesn’t count as a normal situation. “You mean neither of you ever had the recipe?”
“She did!” Ammu and Khala say at the same time.
“Nanu lied to you both!” Marwa chimes in.
“Why would she lie?” Ammu asks.
“Why would I lie?” Khala asks. “And why would I keep the recipe from you?”
Marwa and I exchange a glance. All of these years, our moms had been fighting a feud that they shouldn’t have been. But Ammu is right. What reason would my grandmother have for lying to them both? For pitting them against each other?
“Do you think Nanu lost it?” Marwa asks. “Or…maybe that the payesh recipe descended from the Mughals is just a story.”
“It’s not just a story,” Ammu protests, shaking her head stubbornly. “The Jahangirs are descended from the Mughals.”
“But did the Mughals make payesh, or even eat payesh?” I ask.
“I don’t remember seeing any payesh in Jodha Akbar,” says Marwa, like a Bollywood movie is the best factual reference for our family history.
“If you never had the payesh recipe…what is this?” Ammu asks, glancing down at the bowl she’s holding.
“It’s my own payesh recipe…I made it in memory of the one that Ma made.”
“I made mine in memory of the one that Ma made too,” Ammu says softly. “But…I don’t understand.” She shakes her head, glancing down at the ground like that will have all her answers. “Why did Ma lie to us? Why would she lie to us?”
Khala’s eyebrows scrunch up like she’s deep in thought. But for just a moment. “Do you remember when we were kids?” she asked slowly. “And our Nanu used to make the payesh, before Ma ever did?”
“I remember,” Ammu says with a nod.
“When I used to think of Nanu, I used to think of the smell of cinnamon,” Khala says. “Because…”
“That’s what her payesh used to smell like,” Ammu finishes off, glancing up to meet Khala’s eyes. “But Ma never put cinnamon in her recipe.”
I’m not sure what transpires between them in that moment, but it’s like all the years of enmity that didn’t need to exist vanishes just like that.
“So there was no payesh recipe?” Marwa asks, glancing between our two moms, looking a little distraught. I can’t blame her. To think that we’ve built our entire family identity around this and our pride for this famous payesh recipe that goes back generations.
“Maybe once upon a time,” Khala says. “But…I don’t know when it got lost. Maybe it was our Nanu who lost the original recipe.”
“Or…maybe it was Ma,” Ammu says. “And that’s why she lied to us.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure,” Khala says.
“But…now we have these two payesh recipes,” Ammu glances down at the dish still in her hands. But instead of looking sad or even angry, she looks happy. Happier than I’d seen her in a long time. “Do you want to trade our recipes?”
“Yes!” Khala exclaims excitedly.
And I watch as Ammu and Khala saunter off arm-in-arm to celebrate Eid, catch up on their lost years and — most importantly — trade their payesh recipes.
“I can’t believe our plan worked!” Marwa says, coming up to me with a glint in her eyes.
“Our plan didn’t work,” I point out. “Our plan didn’t even start before Ammu and Khala started going at each other’s throats.”
“Yeah, but…they would have never had that conversation if we hadn’t tricked them into the same room, right?” Marwa shrugs her shoulder.
“I guess. I think we can take credit for this. We’ve earned it.” It definitely feels like our victory watching Ammu and Khala talk and laughs, as if those two years of separation never even existed.
Marwa grins and loops her arms through mine. “Shall we try some of the famous non-Mughal payesh?” she asks.
“We should, especially now that we have two recipes in the family.” And as we wander off to fill up on the tastiest dessert in the world, I think about how Ammu’s payesh story is definitely going to be a lot longer next year.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.