In November 2016, our Brown Girl of the Month Sarish Khan took a huge leap of faith by taking a one-way flight to Pakistan to pursue her dream of an acting career. With no projects lined up, she auditioned until she was discovered and found her way into films.
BG Pooja Dhar caught up with her incredible journey a day after Sarish’s first film release, “Chain Aye Na.”
P: Tell me a little bit about how you got into films.
S: I grew up in a family that was firmly rooted in the entertainment industry. Both of my grandparents are actors, and stalwarts of the Pakistan film industry. I remember watching my Nani’smovies with her, singing and dancing to her songs. Acting took a backseat to my academic pursuits up until I finished law school. But after I won Miss Pakistan USA, all of those dreams of acting came rushing back. So, I took a chance, and went to Pakistan in October with absolutely no idea what was going to happen. I auditioned quite a bit, and participated in some fashion shows. I was noticed by a lot of people in the industry when I was the showstopper for Rozina Munid and Maheen Karim. I was then interviewed on ARY and Hum TV, which are some of the biggest Pakistani TV channels, and this created a lot of social media buzz. My co-star in Chain Aye Na, Shahroz Sabzwari, recommended me for my role as the female protagonist, Ruba. The first film I signed is actually Rehbra starring Ahsan Khan, which is expected to release by the end of this year.
P: What makes you particularly proud of “Chain Aye Na?”
S: I always wanted my first film genre to be romance. I have to say, I’m a hopeless romantic, and this is what attracts me towards Bollywood and Pakistani films. I wanted to be part of keeping that passion and those dreams alive. “Chain Aye Na”is through and through a romance. Shahroz plays a passionate lover who believes in his love deeply, and can go to any extent for her.
P: Why is acting your calling?
S: The one thing that really draws me to acting is that it gives me the platform to be someone else. It allows me to portray a character’s life who may or may not be like me, who has a set of experiences and has her own opinions and challenges. Whether as a lawyer or as an actor, I take a personal interest in others’ lives, challenges, and dreams.
P: What’s next for you?
S: I’ve actually started taking voice lessons! I have a background in theater that I’d love to explore more out here in the US, for which I would definitely need to have a great singing voice. So, I’m training with a vocal coach and with my Nani. As a child, I performed with the acclaimed Alhamra Arts Council, and I also did theater at George Mason University. I don’t plan on moving to Pakistan at this time, but I’m very excited to try and juggle my law, theater acting, and film acting careers!
P: How do you feel about being a public figure, since it could open you up to criticism, scandals and public expectations?
S: Being a public figure, you do have a higher responsibility towards the public. I realize this very deeply. Decisions we make as public figures can give people indications regarding our values. And our audience is not just our peers and elders, we’ve also got children and the youth of today who look up to us as role models. I believe that the audience does not attack a public figure out of malice, but because they hold us to a high standard, and I certainly hold myself to a high standard. I am always open to critique.
In fact, recently, a couple of publications, Dawn Images and Express Tribune, wrote that “Chain Aye Na” promotes a sexist misogynist culture because there is a scene in the film where my character is slapped by Shahroz’s character. The article continued to point out that I am a women’s empowerment ambassador, and questioned how I could allow or support violence against women. Actually, I couldn’t think of a more perfect outlet to addressing those comments than in a conversation with Brown Girl Magazine. This is the first time I am coming on record with a response to that criticism. We MUST learn to separate the person from the actor. An actor lives two lives—on screen and off screen. An actor does not always have leverage on how the character should behave, and us playing a character does not mean we subscribe to that character’s views. Yes, I am progressive, and I completely support women’s empowerment, and in far more meaningful ways than just in words. But films do portray reality, and as such there are characters and moments that are black and white, and all shades in between. I actually think it is great that people are appalled by a man slapping a woman. They should be! This tells me that our society is headed towards a progressive future. Awareness of social issues generates emotion and that leads to action.
P: Sarish, you are Pakistani and rooted in your culture, but also grew up in America. How do you feel about the tensions between India and Pakistan?
S: I was brought up to respect people from all backgrounds. I have family in India and in Pakistan. I have never felt any apprehension or negativity towards India or Indians, but of course, I have encountered those opinions from others. I think of this divide as childish and harmful. We are the same, after all. In fact, to me, the cultural differences seem greater between regions than between the nations. I connect strongly to Punjabi people from both India and from Pakistan easier than those from other parts of India and Pakistan because that is the culture that is closest to my heart. I even participated on the George Mason Bhangra team, and never differentiated between Indian and Pakistani friends. As an artist, I love what people like Manish Sood of Intense Entertainment are doing with showcasing artists from both India and Pakistan. This is such an amazing way to bridge the gap through art and music. For example, I just attended the Sonu Nigam and Atif Aslam concert and I was so moved when Sonu Nigam sang a Pakistani song and Atif Aslam sang an Indian song.
P: So many female actors have called out the entertainment industry for being sexist. Have you experienced any sexism in the industry?
S: I have to say that I have not yet experienced any sexism in my very limited time in the industry. I haven’t been here long enough to truly make an informed statement. I have definitely heard of sexism being an issue in the industry, not necessarily impacting opportunities, but more so with pay scales. And I find that to be extremely unfair—men and women should be paid equally for the work they do. That said, I do find a dearth of women-centric roles in Pakistani cinema. I’d love to do an action film someday, for instance!
P: Now, for a tough question. Which actor(s) would you like to work with next?
S: (Chuckles) That is certainly a tough question, but quite a fun one to answer. In Bollywood, that would be Ranveer Singh. He is absolutely dreamy. Being the romantic I am, I think if anyone is the quintessential lover in Indian Cinema (after Shahrukh Khan of course), it would be Ranveer. In the Pakistani movie industry, I’d have to pick Mikaal Zulfiqar. I’ve followed all of his dramas, most recently, I’ve been blown away by his work in “Alif Allah aur Insaan.” I’m a huge fan! I just did a photo shoot with him, and can’t wait for the photos to be released. We have great chemistry, and it would be wonderful to be able to bring that to the big screen!
P: Another fun question—tell me a role in a film that you would have liked to play.
S: This one’s easy. Hands down, it would have to be the character of Mastani in “Bajirao Mastani.” I really connect to that kind of passionate character that would do anything and everything for the sake of love.
P: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Brown Girl Magazine readers/viewers?
S: Absolutely. I just want to tell all my fellow brown girls that the subject of mental health is taboo in our collective South Asian culture, but it is critical to our success in any field. It is important for South Asian women to be vocal, and seek help. You will face criticism and backlash no matter which industry you work in and even in your personal lives. So let’s all do everything we can to own up to our struggles and get help.
Pooja Dhar is the quintessential “Jill of all trades.” A brown girl who spent the first 17 years of her life in India, and the next 17 years of her life in the U.S., she has never truly fit in with either culture and has found reasons to rebel against and embrace both, for various reasons. She’s a proud Indian, and a proud American, but resists the term Indian-American for unknown reasons. A corporate Training & Development professional by day, Pooja has had a checkered past littered with artistic pursuits – from acting in plays as a child, to being her school’s beloved emcee at a moment’s notice, to a brief and highly unsuccessful stint as a dancer, to an advertisement dubbing artist, to a wedding singer, a blog/poem/short story writer, to a photographer. The singing is now mainly contained to the bathroom (!), but the writing and photography are and remain front row center. To support her quirky artistic pursuits, follow her on Facebook and Instagram or check out her website.
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.
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.
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.