You sigh as you watch your teacher struggle over a name. She didn’t even have to utter a sound. It has to be you.
“Rev, Reev — Rayvaaatheee?”
Now it’s time to choose. You can either draw attention to yourself in front of the entire class and repeat the accurate pronunciation of your name as your teacher still gets it wrong; or, you can go with whatever she says and allow the entire school to call you by a name that your parents would not recognize as yours. It seems like an easy choice, but, as many of us know, it’s not.
Because conforming is typically the easier and sometimes safer path to take. Anjali becomes Aanjali, Ramya becomes Rumya, and Revati turns into Revethi, Ravathi, Reveethi, Raven, and the occasional Rachel.
I don’t blame anyone for going this route, as it’s a pain to keep correcting people. Some have even been teased for the actual pronunciations of their names. What I do worry about is what we are losing as a community every time we allow another name to go butchered by our friends, teachers, and bosses.
Speaking from a Hindu Indian perspective, the majority of Indian names are sourced from mythology. Every name comes from a story dated back to at least 2300 years ago. These stories from ancient Indian culture have been sustained by the practice of oral transmission. Epics like the Ramayan and the Mahabharat were only written down much later, once the Devanagariscript was invented. Thus, our names have played a major role in carrying these stories and the lessons they teach forward.
For example, the name Revati comes from the Mahabharat. She was the daughter of a King who believed that she was too kind-hearted and talented for any of the men currently on earth. The king traveled to Brahma’s residence to ask for his advice on a list of potential suitors. However, as he reached, Brahma informed him that, as his abode was on a different plane of existence, time moved at a much faster pace and all the people from earth on the King’s list had passed away. He instead recommended Balarama, brother of Krishna and incarnation of God Vishnu. Revati and her father then returned to earth to propose and finalize the marriage.
In addition, as Revati is a reincarnation of the Goddess Lakshmi, her character promotes knowledge, wealth, and generosity. But when we allow Revati to become Revaatee, somewhere along the way the original name is lost and so is the meaning that goes with it. What’s a name other than a set of particular sounds put together?
Furthermore, some Hindu households continue to follow the rituals of astrology. When a baby is born, an astrologer is called upon to determine which letter will be auspicious for the child’s name. My mother’s the Devanagari letter for the sound Puh (it’s a phonetic script). Her name is Padmini and she often turns into Paadmeenee. But even that sound of Puh was actually specifically picked for her.
So now with all of that in mind, are you still okay with Akshay becoming Aakshay? Ishaan becoming Eeshaan? Chandra becoming Shaandra? It’s okay to struggle with it. I was lucky enough to have friends who, when I kept quiet, spoke up and told my teachers that they were mispronouncing my name. But why was I relying on them? I loved them for speaking up, but I shouldn’t have needed them to.
While it’s an absolute pain sometimes, it’s my job to assert who I am, to not let my identity be erased by someone else. I, and others like me, should have the confidence to look that friend, teacher, or boss in the eye and tell them that there is a correct way to say my name and that it’s not something that I’m going to let slide.
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.
Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the coming of spring and is observed near the end of winter. It’s also referred to as the festival of colors or the festival of love. Although my daughters and I are not Hindus, (we are Sikhs) we still celebrate Holi. Our Holi celebrations always include reading about this festival, making colorful art, playing with the colorful powders, and making some delicious, traditional sweets. This is always such a great occasion to discuss the diversity of Indian culture with my daughters. I use this opportunity to teach them about inclusivity and respect for different cultures around the world. All across India, different states celebrate this festival in their own meaningful ways.
My first experience celebrating this beautiful festival was in university. My roommates, friends and international students put together a lovely day of Holi celebrations outside. We were completely covered in variety of colors — pinks, purples, and blues. There was music, laughter, dancing, and an overall joyous atmosphere (including bhang, which is essentially a cannabis milkshake). It was particularly heartwarming to see so many Indian students coming together as a community, so far from home, to connect with such a beloved tradition.
For those of us, brought up in Canada, such celebrations were amazing opportunities to genuinely experience the true spirit of Holi. Similar to how it is done in India, everyone became one – there were no small groups or cliques doing their own thing; class lines and caste systems, predominant across India, disappeared. Everyone joined together; our skin tones hidden under the bright colours of the Holi powders. It surely was an unforgettable time.
As a child, I got to experience Holi only through Indian Cinema. Bollywood films like “Silsila,” “Darr,” and “Mohabbatein” stand out in my memory. The actors are dressed completely in white at the beginning of the song, enjoying Holi celebrations, and are then painted from head to toe, in various bright colours, by the end of the song. Since then, I’ve learned that certain colours hold meaning and significance. Red symbolizes love, fertility, and matrimony; blue represents the Lord Krishna; and green stands for new beginnings.
Now, as a mother, I don’t want my children to experience our culture through a screen. So we bring these Holi traditions into our home in our own creative ways. We certainly tend to get creative since around March there is still ample snow on the ground outside and a chill in the air!
The activities we have fun doing are:
Making rangoli designs using coloured powders (this is a helpful site we’ve used)
Making paper flowers to decorate the house with (like the ones here)
Making tie-dye shirts (we’ve got a kit for this because the girls love it)
Baking a traditional Indian snack, like gujiya (we bake them because I get paranoid about the girls being around hot oil).
“Let’s Celebrate Holi!” by Ajanta Chakraborty and Vivek Kumar (for three to seven-year-olds)
“Festival of Colors” by Surishtha Seghal and Kabir Seghal (for two to eight-year-olds)
“Why Do We Celebrate Holi” by Anitha Rathod (for eight years old and above)
This year, Holi falls on the same date as International Women’s Day! To combine the two celebrations, my daughters and I plan on sketching South Asian females we look up to the most, and then adding bright colours using different types of paint. For another element of texture, we might add the paper flowers to these as well. I’m thinking these are going to be frame-worthy pieces of art!
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.