September 26, 2018September 27, 2018 6min readBy Reema Zaman
As I read Padma Lakshmi’s op-ed in The New York Times, on being raped when she was 16, the cells in my body began to tingle, feeling somehow more alive. I read, feeling a connection deeper than I’ve felt to any other author, as a Bangladeshi woman raised in Thailand, as a survivor of sexual assault, and as someone who too was hushed by her family when she tried to report her truth.
I was 11, on a family trip to Bangladesh to visit my grandparents, when a cousin 20 years my senior tried to molest me. I was able to get away, thanks to my instincts alerting me of incoming danger, and because other relatives had warned me of the things he had done to them.
When I reported the story to my father, he replied,
“Boys will be boys. It happens, especially between cousins.”
The next predator arrived when I was 18. I reported the incident, this time to both my mother and father. I was met with averted eyes. I immigrated to the United States at 18. At 23, I was raped by a colleague, an actor whom I had worked with and trusted, and at 24, I was sexually assaulted by a wealthy celebrity employer. He was protected by status and fame. I was a lowly struggling actress in New York City, commonplace, easily forgotten, quickly silenced.
Although I shared the first two stories with my parents, I kept the rape and the assault hidden from them. I was honoring the pattern I had inherited. I had learned to conflate silence with love, believing that even if you love someone, or because you love someone, you keep certain things quiet.
However, silence comes at a deadly cost, and shamed and buried stories will invariably manifest in painful ways. My silenced voice led to anorexia and a perilous attraction to cruel partners, the climax being an abusive marriage. The world had behaved unkindly with me, and through it all, eyes were averted. Thus I had grown to believe I was insignificant and deserved to be treated as such, by myself and others. Furthermore, living with a muted soul meant I was unable to forge authentic connection and conversation with others, including the people I loved most, my family.
It was toward the end of the abusive marriage that I began speaking. More precisely, speaking led to its end. After a lifetime of demurring to the needs and whims of others, particularly men, I learned the mighty power of the word “No.”
In 2013, after my divorce, at age 30, I wrote a memoir. Although I had spent decades searching, I had never come across a memoir written by a South Asian woman, that reflected my life experiences, and I yearned for such a book. A book that would feel like coming home. A book that would be a balm for every wound, a friend for my every flaw, a comfort amidst life’s brutality. My longing had grown so deep, I needed to create that book. I chose a title that felt fitting: “I Am Yours.”
At the beginning of the writing process, I flooded with fear, thinking, Am I allowed to voice these stories? I realized, though, that ultimately, the sole permission I need is mine, and the blessing I need most is that of my integrity. As I put words to my life narrative, I began to recognize the grit I developed to overcome adversities. Remarkably, for the first time in my life, I felt an appreciation for myself. The kind of love that cannot be acquired through others, that can only be gained through self-awareness and growth. It is what “coming home” truly is: solidity in oneself.
Writing a memoir requires that you investigate your life from all angles, through the eyes of each character. As the pages evolved, I realized my beloved parents hadn’t meant to silence me, and they certainly never wished for me to feel insignificant – they had merely behaved as they had been taught by Bangladeshi culture. They averted their eyes and we never spoke about painful experiences for such is the norm in South Asian families. If anything, they believed they were protecting me by hushing painful situations. They were honoring and performing the kind of love they had been taught to demonstrate.
They were also adhering to our common misunderstanding of shame when it comes to misogyny, sexual assault, predators, and survivors. They were likely trying to shield me from the shame society projects upon survivors of trauma, to keep me “pure,” “undamaged,” and “marriageable” in the eyes of others.
A monumental shift in my and my family’s healing and growth was learning what shame truly is, and to whom it rightly belongs. Shame is a social construct devised by the very systems that profit of a certain group’s lack of privilege, and the superior privilege of a group in power. This architecture can be used to create intimidation and dominance between survivors and perpetrators, women and men, people of color and white people, LGBTQ+ and heterosexual people, disabled and non-disabled people, and more. Shame is identical to an electric collar placed around an animal’s neck to ensure it doesn’t step over human-designed lines, from raising its voice, from questioning, “Why are you ‘superior,’ alleged ‘master?’ Why are you automatically in charge, leader of the pack?”
Furthermore, the strategic architecture of shame ensures that in the event a person does muscle the courage to speak, shame will singe their throat, to punish and minimize their chances of speaking again.
Thus, after 30 years of feeling ashamed for wounds I did not inflict and crimes I did not commit, I realized shame is a collar I was coerced to carry and is a trapping I will now forever reject. The sole shame falls upon those who wound and commit crimes. Shame belongs to the society that allows certain groups to be exploited, while other groups grow rich off the baubles of that exploitation. Shame belongs to the society complacent and complicit in violence against women, a society that thrives on women’s obedient smallness and silence.
Once we were able to deconstruct shame, my parents and I gained a new depth of love and communication. After decades of tiptoeing around life’s shadows, fearing vulnerability and focusing purely on lighthearted conversations, we are now able to speak comfortably about vulnerable experiences and memories, and complex topics ranging social justice, parenting, politics, relationships, money, feminism, and more.
At the beginning of my writing career, I realized quickly that while it may feel daunting to write about intimate partner abuse, sexual violence, or anorexia as a woman living in the United States, it is all the more daunting, rare, and downright dangerous to do so as a Bangladeshi woman. I kept and I keep writing for this vital reason. The more ardently that society tries to mute certain stories and marginalize certain voices, such is my precise indication and incentive to speak, persistently, adamantly, unflinching. Change cannot occur by waiting for someone else to model it. History requires the first voice, so that the second, and third, and fourteenth, and twenty-fourth can follow, until we achieve the greater goal of having lost count. We move away from numbers, and we become instead a movement.
You can imagine my thrill when in 2016 through the present, women’s voices began rising and are continuing to rise with fervor. One by one, sister by sister by sister, from marches to #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #WhyIDidntReport, in relationships, family, and the workplace, women are harnessing the power of their voices. Silence and shame play pivotal roles in sustaining the culture of oppression and violence toward girls and women. When our stories of harassment, assault, or abuse are hushed or ignored, perpetrators remain free to continue their wrongdoing with impunity. Thus, it is crucial that those who can, speak.
Amidst the rising voices, South Asian women have been cautious to come forth with their stories, largely due to our longstanding misunderstanding and relationship with shame. Which is why I will never cease to use my voice, and the reason Padma’s words mark a historic event. The enormity of her words, nationally, globally, and for our South Asian community, epitomizes true leadership. In spite of the profound emotional labor and toll required to revisit the past, she speaks to remind us that shame does not belong to the wounded, but to those who wound. She proves that while there are numerous reasons a survivor may refrain from reporting a crime, “it didn’t actually happen” is not one of them. She asserts that all survivors deserve justice, dignity, and respect, and now more than ever, society and its leaders must learn to heed our voices.
However, you decide to voice your story, in the privacy of a journal, in the pages of a book, to a loved one, or publicly, expressing what you have experienced will reflect the immense bravery you hold within. However you decide to voice your story, your words will pave the journey home, within yourself, and the larger world. However you decide to voice your story, I am listening.
Reema Zaman is an award-winning writer, speaker, and actress, and the author of the memoir I Am Yours, available wherever books are sold (order here).
In July 2022, Sania Khan’s life was ruthlessly taken from her by her ex-husband. Sania was a young, vibrant South Asian woman – a creator and photographer who had the courage to step out of an abusive marriage, even in the face of community norms that discourage women from speaking out. While this tragedy seemed to stir a consciousness in the South Asian diaspora that we can no longer justify the status quo, it is far from the only such incident. Just months later in December of 2022, Harpreet Kaur Gill was stabbed to death by her husband in Vancouver. While the most extreme cases like those of Sania Khan and Harpreet Kaur Gill are highlighted by mainstream media, a small body of research provides evidence that intimate partner violence experiences are equally, if not more, prevalent in South Asian communities than the general population in the US or Canada. That’s why we need to do more as a community and throw light South Asians and intimate partner violence.
Despite the identification and investigation of these norms in South Asia, there’s so much we still don’t know about diaspora communities, especially in relation to South Asians and intimate partner violence. In the US, South Asians have become one of the fastest-growing populations, but we remain unaware of how the stresses of raising a family in a different culture, and the weight of growing up between two worlds, affect these norms, expectations, and experiences among South Asian immigrants, the second generation and beyond.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how these norms are enacted to influence intimate relationship dynamics, discuss the recent rise in intimate partner violence, and explore the work that researchers, policymakers, and program implementers can do to address violence in South Asian diaspora communities.
Social Norms and Violence in South Asian Diaspora Communities
Why does it take catastrophic events to serve as a call to action? For one, the “model minority myth” continues to portray South Asians in America (who originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) as a healthy and wealthy group. As a child of Indian immigrants, I always thought this was just a frustrating trope that lived rent-free in my head next to the eternal question, “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?) However, I have realized that this constant worry is not just an innocent preoccupation. It’s the result of a dangerous spiral beginning with the portrayal of South Asians as a model minority and the need to maintain that well-to-do image. This only reinforces the traditional gender norms that overlook men’s perpetration of violence and encourage women’s silence, crippling any efforts to understand the scope of the problem and draw attention and resources to address it.
The Impacts of COVID-19 on Intimate Partner Violence
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequently-uttered phrase among researchers, practitioners, and advocates alike was “one in three” — one in three women ages 15-49 experiences physical and/or sexual violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic however, rates of violence against women rose dramatically, prompting UN Women to call for recognition of this “Shadow Pandemic.” During the height of the pandemic, the social isolation that came with lockdowns and quarantine procedures to curb the spread of disease made home a more dangerous place for an increasing number of women. As communities seek to rebuild, the inequities in access to and use of potentially lifesaving services have deepened. Now more than ever, it is critical that we shine a light on the many intersections of our society to prevent South Asian women’s experiences of intimate partner violence from being pushed even further into the shadows.
First and foremost, to better understand South Asians and intimate partner violence, we need better data disaggregated by racial/ethnic group. Since the 1980 Census, only those of Indian origin have had a fill-in bubble.All other South Asian groups have to write something in, decreasing their participation. South Asian communities in the US are not a monolith and they are certainly not all of Indian origin. This perception, fed by our lack of data, likely privileges the Indian community in America and limits the visibility of other South Asian communities.
More accurate information will help us better understand where the need is greatest. We can make a stronger case for more equitable resource allocation, improve South Asian language materials for survivors, and enhance provider training programs, accounting for the specific cultural implications of disclosing and seeking treatment for violence in South Asian communities. Public health researchers should increase efforts to understand the prevalence of experiences of violence, the environmental factors that make South Asian women in America vulnerable to experiences of intimate partner violence, and how it impacts their health.
While outstanding organizations such as Narika in California and Sakhi in New York are leading the charge in raising awareness, running active helplines, and providing support, they cannot be the sole safe space for survivors. While the system’s failure to protect Sania is not an isolated incident, it has served as a wake-up call.
All South Asian women in America should be able to be healthy and safe and lead lives free from violence, coercion, or abandonment. To achieve this, we need better data, more research, culturally-tailored resources, and appropriate legislative action that will allow for prevention, screening, and treatment efforts to finally take root.
Ten to 28% of the world’s population of women experience painful sex. Keep in mind, that this is just what is reported. As embarrassing and as vulnerable as you may feel, you are absolutely not alone. The good news is that in addition to your traditional medical care to treat painful sex (also known as dyspareunia) such as medication, injections and surgery — a conservative approach is effective and long-lasting. Conservative care ranges from pelvic floor physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture which are beneficial in treating the root cause of painful sex, as well as symptoms, for long-term healing.
Some of the signs to look out for if you experience pain are:
Treatment options for painful sex such as pelvic floor physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture provide a long-lasting and profound effect on the pelvic floor and address your entire physical well-being.
The pelvic floor is a layer of muscles that range from the pubic bone to the tailbone. The purpose of these muscles is to assist in bowel and bladder control, support a baby during pregnancy and contribute to sexual sensations. Just like any other muscle in your body, these pelvic floor muscles can become tight or weak which can be a contributing factor to pain.
Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy
Pelvic floor therapy can assist by strengthening and relaxing the muscles which is necessary to relieve pain during sex.
Chiropractors can be extremely beneficial with assisting in helping relieve pain. Associated pain and discomfort can originate from the lower back and buttock muscles. Chiropractors are trained in taking a history and performing a neurological, orthopedic and soft tissue examination to identify treatment options. Deep tissue massage, skin rolling, Active Release Technique, muscle energy technique, ice, heat and electrical stimulation are just to name a few.
Acupuncture can activate the human dopamine system which helps regulate hormone levels and can assist in psychological factors. Acupuncture can improve mood, decrease pain and can be vastly beneficial in managing pain and mental health symptoms.
Ask for help
“Everyone is having pelvic pain and no one is talking about it”
Start with seeing your gynecologist who you trust for a history and examination of current symptoms to rule out any other medical conditions that could be a contributing factor to symptoms.
How to talk to your partner about this in a safe/healthy way
Being open with your partner about your symptoms and painful sex may seem like a difficult conversation. Intercourse should never be painful and learning when to stay ‘stop’ is important in communication. Talking about pain before, during and after sex is important also in your own health diagnosis to see if pain symptoms are improving or becoming worse. Having open communication does not only benefit your relationship but most importantly, your own health.
To experience these symptoms may seem taboo or unheard of but quite frankly, they are common in many women. Women deserve to be directed to proper healthcare.
Disclaimer: These are based on recommendations from a board-certified chiropractic physician and licensed acupuncturist. If symptoms become new or worse, consult with a primary care physician and or OBGYN to co-manage symptoms.
I was taken aback when my late cousin shared this with me on the cusp of our twenties.
As a fairly modest Indo Guyanese girl raised in the Connecticut suburbs, the thought of discussing a stranger’s love life seemed not only foreign but shocking to me. Nevertheless, my cousin was always bold in this way. She took pride in the more daring aspects of our Caribbean culture with natural confidence. It was one of the things I loved and now miss most about her.
Admittedly however, it was over a decade before I started to understand some of her deeper curiosity in love, sexuality and mental health. This awakening was thanks greatly to Dr. Samosa.
In early 2020, Dr. Sarika Persaud, a New-York based, Indo Guyanese psychologist specializing in relationships, sexuality and complex trauma, took to Instagram as “Dr. Samosa,” an alias inspired by her favorite South Asian snack — and one she feels is a common thread for brown girls.
The platform became a safe space for brown girls to connect on topics like mental health, psychoanalysis, sexuality and relationships. From discussing sexual empowerment to building a strong sense of self, Dr. Persaud quietly became a confidant for those craving practical and candid insights the community shied away from.
Dr. Persaud and I sat down to talk about her journey and breaking these taboos in the South Asian society.
Her interest in psychology started as a journey of self-discovery as a pre-teen.
“I think I experienced myself as different from my peers,” she explained during our interview.
She didn’t get caught up in teenage drama and avoided certain types of relationships and people. Meanwhile, the friends she did make saw her in “this sort of teacher role.”
“I became curious about that about myself — how, in some ways, I found it beneficial to feel my feelings and have a depth people were drawn to, but also use it in ways to isolate myself,” Dr. Persaud said.
She was also beginning to identify as bisexual.
She shared, “I think I was avoiding my sexuality in some ways and psychology became a way for me to understand myself more. It’s always been this confluence of philosophy and science and even art for me.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Dr. Persaud saw fellow Indo Caribbean women at a “very specific intersection of religion and culture.” It was the nexus of Caribbean values which welcomed sexuality and more modest Indian traditions. Caribbean influence seemed to “remove a boundary” on how Indo Caribbean women felt permitted to present themselves sexually, she explained. On one hand, after her Bharatanatyam dance classes, she saw her didis (the older girls) leave their classical moves behind for sexy Bollywood choreography and dancehall songs.
“It was exciting, like they were just beginning to find ways to express their sexuality,” she reflected. Then, around the same time, Dr. Persaud discovered a copy of the “Kama Sutra” at home and her mother was appalled. “What’s wrong with your daughter?” aunties asked.
Confused, Dr. Persaud thought “You own this. This is from our culture and it’s a Sanskrit text. It’s literally a religious text. It all seemed so powerful — and yet so many people were afraid of it.”
Something didn’t add up.
In 2013, she started a blog to bring a voice to topics like these. As word of her content spread, Dr. Persaud was met with backlash from her temple. Leaders said her blog was inappropriate and dishonorable to her community, but she stuck with it and her family stuck by her.
A few years later, when she launched Dr. Samosa to share her research and insights with a wider audience, sexuality came front and center.
“Sexuality — how you understand and honor what you want and like, and the ways you let yourself experience that pleasure — is intrinsically connected to how deserving you feel in the world,” she explained.
For example, if you think you’re worthy of a raise at work, a partner who desires you, or a family that listens to you — all can be linked back to a block in your relationship with yourself as a sexual being.
However, if you can feel confident in something as “primal, instinctual, and personal” as your sexuality, Dr. Persaud argues you lay the foundation for confidence in these other areas of your life.
Dr. Persaud says the fear of sexuality comes into play for South Asians.
“Being comfortable with your sexuality means being comfortable with your power,” she explained. “If everyone felt empowered and had a healthy relationship with themselves sexually, a lot of our relationships and hierarchies in society would change. And there are just so many people who benefit from women and marginalized communities (like LGBTQ+ and those with chronic illnesses) being disempowered,” Dr. Persaud said.
Throughout her work, Dr. Persaud has found it’s especially difficult for South Asian women to feel pride in themselves as sexual beings.
“There’s so much shame about the self and the body. Women especially are held to a double standard and it’s so confusing. If you look one way, you won’t get a husband. If you look sexual, no one will want to hire you for a job. Regardless of the South Asian ethnic group, there’s the same shame and belief that your body has to look a certain way, and if it doesn’t, you’re not desirable. Everything gets tied up in sexual shame.”
It’s undeniable that Bollywood movies have also heavily impacted many of our views on love and sex, but Dr. Persaud didn’t condemn this.
She says, “People need to realize Bollywood started from a tradition of classical drama and dance from ancient India. Those dances were meant to be explorations of dreams and mythical and philosophical ideas. Bollywood is just a continuation of that. It’s meant to be a break from reality.”
Real relationships are much more fraught and complicated than in films, but that doesn’t mean you should be ashamed of looking to Bollywood as a way to be in touch with romance and love in your life.
“They’re a fantasy,” Dr. Persaud added.
She also argued Bollywood isn’t necessarily as “censored” as many claim.
“People don’t have to watch others physically have sex or kiss to be in touch with their sensuality,” she noted. “It can be much more nuanced to see two people just embracing in a way that stirs up feelings. Like, how does it feel to have your lover’s head against your chest? Culturally, we just explore and express sexuality differently than the West.”
When it comes to becoming more comfortable with our bodies and sexual health, Dr. Persaud says it starts with self-reflection.
“Ask yourself why you’re afraid of being sexy or seen as sexual. Are you afraid your family will reject you? That you’ll be thrown out of your home? We all have different triggers, and once you identify yours, you can get to the issue underneath it all.”
Dr. Persaud encourages women to ask themselves important questions.
“If you’re afraid that if you assert your sexuality, your family will reject or not support you, how can you be more financially independent? How can you find pride in being able to take care of yourself?” She urges women to take inventory of what they like. “Look at books and movies and what you see in the world and consciously take note of what you react to. This puts you more in touch with yourself.”
When it comes to fostering open conversations with others, Dr. Persaud says to lead with vulnerability and clarity.
“If you wonder whether your friends have had sex yet and are embarrassed to ask, voice that concern. Share how you’re feeling or ask yourself why. Leading conversations with vulnerability allows people to connect a little bit more; to feel safer to share.”
“If you’re uncomfortable with something your partner does or want more of something else, talk about what you want to change and why it’s important to you. It’s not a shortcoming on their part, but rather you saying ‘this is what I need for myself. Is this something we can talk about and work on together?’”
With South Asian families, especially older relatives, things can get a bit more complex. Boundary setting is important as the family can bring out your biggest triggers.
“You need to be at a point where you own yourself,” Dr. Persaud explained. For example, if your mom finds out you were out with someone and questions you about it — “A bai? A boy?!” — you should be able to say confidently, ‘Yeah I was on a date,’ and also not feel obligated to give more details. Of course, that may not always be safe for someone younger, but at a certain age, it is OK to be private, to have that shield to protect and develop yourself and your confidence,” Dr. Persaud says.
Dr. Persaud also reinforces the importance of knowing your boundaries when reflecting on “coming out” to parents. She wanted to be open about her bi-sexuality with her parents; that she was dating — but not just men. She stresses however, one does not need to be excessively open.
“Not everyone has to come out and not everyone has to come out to everyone. You’re likely not facing anything new from your parents when coming out. If they are critical and judgmental generally in life, they’re probably going to be like that again. South Asian dads can really just be like, ‘Okay, don’t tell me you’re a sexual being,’” she laughed.
While Dr. Persaud is thankful for her parents’ acceptance, there are members of her family who’ve been less than supportive. She credits her confidence and sense of self for drowning them out.
“I’ve found the more I become comfortable with myself, the more I have this sexual energy that I can use creatively and in other good ways. If my dad rejects me, it doesn’t change that I am bisexual. Or if my mom rejects me, it’s not going to change this thing I know so deeply about myself. I’m just sharing something true. I can’t change it.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I shared with Dr. Persaud that I wondered how my own family would react to this article. I felt a bit of shame.
But she reminded me, “You can also find pride in it — ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of the fact that I’m one of the people breaking the stigma. I’m talking about something important to people’s health.’”
And she’s right, as was my dear cousin in her early ambitions. These conversations are never easy, but walking in curiosity, confidence and pride can help us find our power as South Asian women. It can help break the stigma surrounding love, sexuality and relationships in our community and their roles in our greater health.
In so many ways, sexual health and mental health are not only connected but interdependent. In fact, Dr. Persaud believes the more confident people are in their bodies and identities, the more confident they are as a whole — and the more attractive they are.
“Sexual attraction and energy comes from people being competent and peaceful and calm with themselves; knowing who they are,” she said, and the more we learn to embrace this and speak about it openly, the more we can not only grow but thrive.
For more on Dr. Sarika Persaud’s (aka Dr. Samosa) doctoral work and writing, visit her website or Instagram @doctor.samosa. For more on how to talk to your family or children about sexual health, visit sexpositivefamilies.com.