On the surface, the life of the former Bollywood actress and model Somy Ali is like that of a fairy tale. Like many South Asian teenage girls, at age fifteen she dreamt she was going to leave her Florida home for India to be with Bollywood superstar Salman Khan. Unlike other teenage girls, however, she did end up dating Khan and became famous.
Yet, when one probes deeper into this dream-like story, a nightmare emerges.
At ages five, nine, and 13, Ali was sexually abused both in Pakistan and in the U.S. Indeed, few people know that this was the real reason she ran away to India to date Khan in the first place:
“I wasn’t doing well. I saw this one Bollywood movie and that night I had a dream I had to marry Khan and he was going to be my savior. Of course at this age it sounds ridiculous, but at age fifteen, it sounded like the best idea in the world. That it was going to get me out of that bad rut I was in,” Ali said in an interview with Brown Girl Magazine.
Somy Ali and Salman Khan eventually broke up, although they remain friends to this day. She returned to the U.S., got her degree, became a journalist, and started a domestic violence charity–No More Tears. She has won numerous awards for her work, been profiled in The New York Times, and her documentary about a Pakistani rape victim aired at one of Hilary Clinton’s benefits in 2005. Now Ali is currently writing a book about her life.
But it was only recently that Ali revealed she was an abuse victim herself and that was why she had created No More Tears.
“Every time I help a child, boy or woman that’s being abused, it gives me immense gratification,” she said. “It’s almost like you see yourself in the victims because you were a victim. That has really helped me”
Ali’s work at No More Tears differs from many other domestic violence charities by providing immediate help on every level to abuse victims from all cultures. From finding survivors a place to live, helping them find employment, receiving therapy, and even driving lessons, there are no services the charity does not offer.
The charity depends entirely on donations and is run by volunteers and Ali, who works tirelessly 24/7 without pay to personally help victims quickly get back on their feet. She emphasizes the immediacy aspect of No More Tears as one of the reasons her work has been impactful, ensuring victims receive immediate assistance in getting themselves on their feet so they don’t go back.
“We had a Bangladeshi girl in November 2014. She was somebody who could not open her mouth and even talk. Yet with the immediate assistance of No More Tears, she works two jobs, is going to start college next year, and has saved $10,000 for her future.”
They also highlight the cultural stigmas that often interfere with these communities and their ability to tackle abuse effectively. For instance, many South Asian victims keep silent to protect the family’s honor, as both Ali and Bashir felt pressured to do.
A myriad of misconceptions surrounding violence against women in South Asian American and British communities also impede progress.
For example, all three of these women–Zubair, Bashir, and Ali–dispel the commonly held misperception that abuse predominantly affects those countries, communities and individuals that are poorer or have less social status.
Zubair’s husband was a highly respected man, and together they both created America’s first Muslim television network. Bashir is an Oxford University and Harvard alumna selected for Forbes Magazine as “30 Under 30 in Technology” in 2012.
As Nalini Shekar—program director of Maitri, an organization dedicated to fighting domestic violence among South Asians—said in an interview with the website Model Minority:
“The fact of the matter is that domestic violence cuts across all socio-economic groups. The poor have less private space, so if there is any violence in the house, it becomes public knowledge very quickly. The really difficult cases are those which involve the very rich living in gated communities and leading ‘respectable’ lives.”
Yet, too often conversations about violence against women in the South Asian American and British communities revolve around the tragedies occurring abroad in mostly poorer South Asian countries. While this is equally important to talk about, the conversation also needs to include acknowledging violence against South Asian women at home.
Moreover, there is another dangerous misconception about the abuse that leads many South Asians to not fully grasp the seriousness of the issue—that the worst part of abuse ends once the perpetrator is out of the picture. Yet, many studies illustrate the scars it leaves can last a lifetime. The consequences of abuse–whether it be sexual, physical, or emotional—include suicide, unemployment and poverty, crime, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and can even lead to serious physical health conditions.
This highlights the need for continued support— particularly emotionally— even after the trauma occurred. This holds true within those communities where silence and stigma are less prevalent. But given the shame South Asian communities’ associate with when talking about personal issues–from abuse to mental health problems—can debilitate the victim even further.
For Ali, the legacy of abuse led to her skipping school and befriending the “wrong crowd”–drug abusers who provided some semblance of support and validation.
“If you do not have a foundation as a child of what is right and what is wrong, and that abuse is deemed normal, you will veer towards similarly dysfunctional people and situations,” Ali explained. “You don’t fit in anywhere else and they’re the only ones that get you.”
She found herself drowning deeper into a downward spiral, the young Ali eventually sought refuge in Bollywood and the arms of Khan.
Even when South Asian victims speak up and reach out for help, many times they face even more shame and isolation. Ali said she was branded as “the black sheep of the family” and found many South Asians distanced themselves from her.
“You have to be ready to face the consequences if you are going to have a voice,” she said.
She stated shame was the reason she couldn’t speak out until this year about her own plight.
“I felt I just needed to come clean and not be ashamed because I didn’t do anything wrong, she said. “So I gave this interview about it [the abuse] to one reporter and then it just quickly went crazy online. But the next day I was so afraid I didn’t even want to look at the Internet.”
Yet that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t speak out, she added.
“It’s tough, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. You have to have a voice. You have to take a stand. When I gave the interview and talked about it, I felt a huge load taken off my back. The response was very positive and the survivors at No More Tears were proud of me.”
However, the researchers also warn that “the widespread assumption that trauma will often result in disorder should not be replaced with expectations that growth is an inevitable result. Instead, continuing personal distress and growth often coexist.”
“I don’t think you’re ever fully healed or can overcome,” Ali said. “You can become functional though and I would say the closest I’d be able to come to fully able to function is through my work with No More Tears. As a teenager, I made bad choices hanging out with the wrong crowd and in India. But then the difference is I left that phase and I made something of myself. Today I’m sure I make bad choices but lesser than I did last year. And I think that’s what matters.”
While violence against women can leave permanent scars—and the complexity of the issue needs to be understood and respected – that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to fight back. In fact, sometimes the most powerful weapons in the battle against abuse is simply one’s ear and voice.
“I think we need to learn to just care and especially to listen,” she said. “Believe it or not by listening, and learning to listen, and learning to care, you can literally save lives. Because sometimes all a woman or a man or a child needs is to talk about what they went through or are going through.”
However, for us to listen requires that we first allow victims to speak openly, without experiencing shame and a cultural lack of understanding. It means initiating the conversation about violence against women not just in India, Pakistan, or other South Asian countries, but also at home.
“Just talk about it, talk about it, talk about it,” Ali proclaimed. “These are the most important three words I could ever utter. You literally are killing lives by not talking about it.”
Sheena Vasani graduated with a degree in International Relations from UC Berkeley. She is a self-described compassion, gender liberation, and mental health activist, and has worked with various social justice initiatives, including V-Day. In her free time, she ironically enjoys exploring various religions, cultivating her creativity, and cuddling her kitten. You can follow her on Twitter, and on her personal blog.
May is an important month for mothers around the world as we get to celebrate motherhood for Mother’s Day and support mental health for Mental Health Awareness Month. It is also a month in which a week is dedicated to honour maternal mental health before, after and during pregnancy. To honour this beautiful month, I would like to explore motherhood as I have experienced it as an South Asian, immigrant mom — the magic, the struggles, the mental health challenges, the community expectations — and share how I have reached the most comfortable, confident version of myself as a mother.
12 years ago, on a very hot, humid August morning, after going through a few years of unexplained infertility and then finally getting pregnant, I was rushed for an emergency C-section and my tiny, but very feisty, daughter was handed to me. As I held her in a severely drugged-up state, very much disappointed in my body’s failure to deliver naturally, I felt a rush of the most beautiful, gut-wrenching, fierce, protective love I had ever experienced. In the hours following her birth, I also experienced major confusion and anxiety every time she cried endlessly; I didn’t know how to soothe her.
I grew up listening to my mom, grandmothers and aunts talk about the beauty and miracle of motherhood, but no one ever talked about the extreme sleep deprivation, the mental and emotional breakdowns and the sheer physical exhaustion. I had seen most moms in my very traditional, Pakistani family, sacrificing their own needs for the comfort of their children. In fact often, I would be confused at how proud my grandmothers were for sacrificing their health and mental peace to raise their families.
After moving to Canada I repeatedly witnessed the same thought and behavior patterns in other South Asian maternal figures. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing, especially among the older generation! They love to talk about the beauty and magic of motherhood and glorify the rough parts of this journey with a kind of toxic positivity. South Asian women, I find, generally don’t like to discuss the struggles, the vulnerability and the mental load of motherhood. Yes, motherhood is magical, beautiful and one of the biggest blessings but also it might probably be the most difficult thing you will ever do! In retrospect I do feel, had I heard healthy discussions about the mental and emotional challenges of motherhood, along with its privilege and beauty, I would have been much more prepared for this magical, roller coaster journey!
The mental health challenges, the invisible load of motherhood, the continuous mom guilt, the overwhelm, the self doubts, I experienced all of these during the happiest time of my life. And I felt extremely guilty for having these feelings! Was I not supposed to have that ethereal new mama glow and calmly enjoy this new phase with ease and joy? My overwhelm and anxiety as I protectively held my five-pound, feisty baby girl just felt wrong! It made me doubt myself as a mother.
As an immigrant mother, one of the hardest things I have had to do is to break away from, and unlearn, so many culturally-acquired behavior patterns and expectations. It is so important to acknowledge the fact that mamas need to be vigilant about and take care of their emotional and mental health in order to be fully intentional and engaged in raising their children and taking care of their families. Thankfully, the thought patterns are evolving and finally the South Asian community has started having discussions about mothers’ mental health issues and acknowledge that motherhood, though absolutely precious, is exhausting, rough and can sometimes leave one questioning their sanity.
After the initial years of motherhood, I started researching and reading on mental health and South Asian behaviour patterns. My observation and research has led me to a point in time where I can proudly say that I am the most comfortable I have ever been in raising my children. I have come to the realization that this will be the most fulfilling, but also the most daunting and exhausting thing that I will ever do. I have also come to a very solid conclusion, the better my headspace and mental health is, the better I will be at being the best version of myself for my children. I really want my children to see me making my mental health a priority so that they learn that their mental health is also as sacred as their physical health.
Once I realized how pivotal my own mental health was for my family’s wellbeing, I became more mindful about prioritizing my mental health. These 10 mantras have really helped make a difference in my mental health:
It is not normal to feel excessively overwhelmed and anxious all the time just because you are a mom. Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. Talking to your doctor about your sense of overwhelm is a great place to start. Accepting medical intervention (meds) and therapy are an important part of my parenting journey; they do not make you a weak or bad mother in any way. Rather it makes you a braver, better parent!
Motherhood is not always glorious and rosy as most of us have been made to believe. Like any other relationship, it will also have its ebb and flow. It will sometimes be chaotic, messy and hard and that is ok!
They say, it takes a village to raise a child and that is so true! In case of immigrant families, a lot of times their village is far across the oceans so what do you do. You mindfully try seeking out a village of like-minded families/people that share similar values and beliefs as your own. And then you help each other out. In other words, when offered, graciously accept help from that elderly neighbour, a family friend or a distant relative. They probably have gone through this busy season themselves and realize how exhausting and isolating it sometimes can be.
In today’s world, many of our decisions are driven by our favourite influencers, mom bloggers and social media personalities. Majority of them curate content that just spells perfection and beauty! From a beautifully arranged, tidy house, to an impeccably put together, happy mama serving fresh, organic meals in her tastefully-decorated, minimalistic kitchen; we know very well that social media can be unrealistic and shows only the beautiful parts of the journey. Yet most of us feel this immense pressure to be perfect and be the providers of the absolute best for our children. Honestly, in my experience, motherhood became so much easier, smoother and calmer once I let go of my exhausting efforts to be the perfect mother! Once I accepted that there is no such thing as a perfect mother — only a mama who loves her children like crazy — I felt at peace and became way less anxious.
Most South Asian cultures measure the worth of a woman by her marital status and later by the success of her children. In the first few years of being a mom, I enrolled my tiny humans in as many different activities as I could in dreams of future success in education and careers. I was always running around planning things for them to do. The result was an extremely burnt-out mama with overwhelmed kids in tow. It has been quite a journey to learn that children will be at their happiest with simple routines and happy experiences. You DO NOT need to lug your family to fancy, expensive activities in order to prove your worth as a good parent! Children will remember simple, happy experiences where they can connect and spend time with their loved ones. A simple picnic in the park on a beautiful day, feeding the ducks at the local pond, visiting the farmers’ market, going to the beach on a hot day, camping trips with other families, these are some things my kids consistently recall happily from their tiny human days.
Connecting with other moms going through a similar situation will make your journey less isolating, less intimidating and so much calmer. Culture tells mothers to be resilient and unwavering, and not share their vulnerability with others. That can be very isolating! After a rough night with a teething baby and a clingy toddler, nothing feels better than having a quick cup of chai over a phone call with another sleep-deprived, tired mama!
Mamas, you are being so generous and giving to everyone around you. Be kind to yourself too! Indulge in self care and take out time to do little things that bring you peace and joy. It could be a lunch date with a friend, getting nails done, doing a yoga class, taking a walk by yourself, listening to a podcast or going out for a movie. Remember your children are observing you all the time and will learn emotional regulation and self care by watching you do it.
Mom guilt is real and can be devastating for one’s mental health. Know that you are only human and the only way to learn about motherhood is by actually going through it. You will make mistakes and it is okay! Give yourself extra love and grace on those hard days. As long as our children see us apologizing, being respectful and loving and trying to be a better parent, it’s all good.
Taking care of one’s physical health will always help in achieving better mental health. Eating well, staying hydrated, learning some breathing techniques, moving one’s body, all these help so much when the days seem long and never-ending.
Motherhood, specially in the initial years will be physically exhausting. If you are like me, maybe you have also thrown your babies at your spouse as soon as he walks into the house and escaped to the washroom for a mommy time out! It is probably the busiest season of life for both you and your spouse and might leave both of you angry with and snapping at each other. Try to find little pockets of time when you and your partner can reconnect, away from the beautiful chaos of the tiny people you have created together. Something as simple as having a takeout meal together after kids’ bedtime can feel heavenly and therapeutic and recharge both of you for the day ahead.
So moms, I urge you to let go of overthinking, enjoy the present moment, go with the flow and savour the messy as well as the beautiful, uplifting parts of your journey. Cherish and protect your own mental health, reach out for help and support if the journey gets too isolating and overwhelming. For your children, will grow up seeing the beauty and wonder around them through the eyes of the most important person in their lives — their mom.
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to publish this short story by the brilliant writer Ria Mazumdar. This story delves into very deeply important and timely themes of assimilation, family, mental health, and familial obligations.
Trigger warning: Self-harm and suicide.
America just didn’t have the right supply of spices, Neel thought as he scanned the towering aisles of the grocery store for the third time. White fluorescent overhead lights illuminated the vast shelves, which contained over three different brands of ground black pepper. While cardamom, let alone coriander powder, was nowhere to be found. On a daring day, Americans would venture to purchase paprika, which was about as seasoned as their cuisine would get. Although he had spent years in this country, the aroma of his home — an exquisite blend of turmeric, cumin, and freshly monsoon-drenched earth — still haunted Neel’s memory as he sighed into the dry, stale, air-conditioned atmosphere of the American supermarket. The same land that was supposed to grant him more constitutional rights had also robbed him of his sensory joys.
Resigned, he loaded up the metal shopping cart with ground pepper and paprika, wheeling it toward the cash register. A foreboding premonition rose to the front of his mind: without the right spices, his cooking just wouldn’t turn out right, and his wife Rana would break into tears, launching into her routine tirade. Paprika was one of many triggers of homesickness. She would rage against the frigid winters of Massachusetts and lament the absence of her family, telling him how much she regretted ever meeting him. Neel mentally prepared himself for this reaction as he braced himself to exit the store, walking headfirst into the harsh New England chill.
The pristine plains outside the supermarket stretched endlessly, as silent flakes cascaded down like sunbeams in the moonlight. As he clenched the thin plastic bags with his gloved hands, Neel proceeded toward his used Toyota Camry. The wind snarled mercilessly, tearing through the night like a whip, bearing no consideration for Neel’s circumstances. It did not recognize that he was a foreigner who had not seen snow until the age of 30, when he was tossed headlong into this abrasive climate, greeted by raging frost on a frigid December dusk. Though the walk was short, Neel trembled to the bone, pulling the diaphanous fabric of his navy blue Big Lots jacket closer to his skin. He was well aware that the flimsy, six-dollar garment was completely inadequate protection, but every penny he earned had to go toward a soft, down jacket for his small daughter.
The thought of his daughter gave him the adrenaline he needed to prevail against the hissing wind. One foot in front of another, he trudged cautiously along the snowy path, seeing nothing but a flat expanse of white before him. In the distance, a streetlamp cast a bluish glow. Finally, he reached the car and opened the door hastily, leaping inside to preserve every drop of heat. Arranging the groceries carefully on the seat beside him, he put the key in the ignition, immediately turning on the cassette player.
Barely any cars had cassette players these days, but Neel had gone out of his way to install one specifically so that he could listen to his old tapes from home. Familiar melodies were his only company on these long, solitary drives, providing stolen moments of tranquility. He emptied his mind, following the undulating roads from muscle memory, erasing any obligations to the outside world. The lyrics of his mother tongue washed over him like lukewarm water.
Sinking into a familiar tune lined with the rising drone of a harmonium, Neel came to a stoplight, drifting in this rare state of mental peace. Suddenly, two loud knocks rammed on the car’s rear window. Neel rolled down the window, seeing two men in the shadows. They were pale-skinned, dressed in extra-large gray hoodies and baggy black sweatpants, rapping at the car rambunctiously — the vapor of their breath emerging in wispy, smoke-like clouds. “Hey, sand n****r!” one yelled. “We don’t need another 9/11, go back to where you came from!”
The light turned green, as though it wanted to let Neel escape, and he stepped firmly on the gas, leaving the men’s laughter trailing in the distance. A small American flag ruffled halfheartedly on the dashboard, just above Neel’s brand new U.S. passport stowed in between the seats.
Neel drove on, feeling more resignation than anger. Such incidents were nothing short of expected for someone coming into this great country, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were granted to all, as long as they read the fine print. Racism and liberty — it was a package deal. Neel internalized each of these encounters as an exam, an opportunity to prove his stoic nature. He had adapted to his new life. Anyway, with whom could he share such experiences? The last real conversation he had with Rana occurred even before their wedding when he still lived under the euphoric illusion that his parents had discovered the right girl for him. Now, he dreaded seeing his daughter if he knew Rana would be around as well. Maybe someday the little girl could help shoulder some of this burden. Until then, he kept his chin up and moved along, expressionless.
He pulled into the garage, grabbed the groceries and steadied himself before stepping into the doorway. Old photos of his parents greeted him; the only fixtures on the white walls. His daughter, darting through the simply-furnished living room, ran up to hug his calf. He smiled and picked her up, twirling her around a couple of times.
“Want to help me unpack the groceries?” he asked. She nodded and skipped into the kitchen, her fluffy pink slippers thudding solidly with each landing.
As Neel followed her into the kitchen, he caught sight of Rana watching television, slouched on a couch, wearing her stained purple bathrobe as though she hadn’t moved since the morning.
“Ey,” she called out by way of greeting, her eyes still transfixed on the screen. “Did you bring the fish?”
Neel scanned the items laid out on the kitchen table. “No,” he said with a sigh. “Just chicken — I thought fish was for you to buy next week.”
“I wrote it on your list,” she retorted, her eyes still unmoving. “Why do you never listen to me?” Neel remained silent. As Rana’s tone grew icy, the daughter continued to prance around in the kitchen, unperturbed. Not oblivious, merely accustomed.
Neel poured the paprika onto a plate with some salt and prepared to turn on the stove. Suddenly, Rana got up from the couch and ambled into the kitchen.
“I want to take her to India next month,” she said, gesturing at her daughter. “We haven’t been back in over two years, it’s time.”
“We barely have enough saved up to get her a proper jacket,” Neel said, continuing to prepare his cooking.
“If she had been brought up in India, she wouldn’t need this ‘down jacket.’”
Ignoring this counterfactual, Neel smiled dejectedly. “Well, maybe you could bring back some cumin. God knows this house is missing some.” He regretted these words as soon as they left his mouth. His half-hearted jokes these days simply hung suspended in the air, dissipating and leaving quiet trails of resentment lingering in their wake.
“So, you’re saying we can go? You need cumin. I need my family.”
“No,” Neel said firmly. “We have to wait some more.”
His words seemed to flip a switch in Rana’s eyes. Previously drooping and groggy, her pupils alighted with sparkling embers.
“I always wait for you!” she shouted. “I don’t want to live in this godforsaken place. We don’t even have a proper store nearby. We can’t even eat proper food. You dragged me here!”
His ensuing silence only served as an additional provocation. Rana raised both hands to her head, grabbing her hair in tufts. “I HATE you!” she screamed, yanking out hair in chunks while wincing at the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Neel, all too familiar with this show, silently continued to chop tomatoes. Right down the seam in the middle, a clean slice, taking great care not to let them burst and lose juice to the cutting board. He clicked his tongue in exasperation as one lone seed came away from the whole, breaking the fruit’s pristine symmetry.
Neel’s lack of attention infuriated Rana further, while the daughter continued to sit serenely near her father’s calf. Glancing around the kitchen, Rana seized a small white ceramic plate from the Corelle set her parents had given them for their wedding. Scrunching up her face, she hurled it at the wall in a sudden burst of energy.
“I wish I were dead!” she yelled, her voice breaking and her breathing quickening, growing shallow. Neel kept his gaze on the tomato before him. He mustn’t lose any more seeds. Dice the half down the center, turn and dice again. Rana turned, running out of the kitchen, while her daughter stared confusedly at the shattered ceramic.
Indian cooking is a methodical process. In some cuisines, people throw everything in a pot and let their concoctions simmer. Not so here. One must first sauté the onions, and then gently lower the heat. Only then can the spices be added, coating the onions in a thin layer. After hitting a certain level of fragrance, the remaining ingredients are added, one by one. These steps are like a formula, nothing short of mathematical. Neel approached the stove, following these motions, seeking solace in his own muscle memory as he did during those peaceful, solo drives. The daughter skipped happily out of the kitchen.
Once everything had been added to the pot, Neel bent down to pick up the shards of ceramic Rana had left on the floor, sweeping them as far away from his daughter as he could. He felt a distinct lack of loss looking down at the broken pieces, remembering the day her father had presented them with the Corelle set and a pack of gleaming silverware. He really did like his father-in-law. He recalled smiling and laughing, putting his arm around Rana and envisioning the setup of the Americanhome they would call their very own. Although he could replay these memories in sharp focus, he now felt a strange emptiness in his chest. The knifelike pangs of the past seemed to have left him, just as his fury abandoned him when those two men tapped on his rear window. Part of him wished he could muster up that rage. Rage at the men, rage at himself for allowing the societal taboo of divorce to keep him trapped in his crumbling marriage. But instead, numbness enveloped his heart like a thin sheen of ice, simultaneously sheltering him from the polarity of emotion and inhibiting him from release.
Suddenly, he heard a loud thud outside the kitchen. Alarmed, he stepped out, running to the bathroom. The long glass mirror, stained with the debris of the past few weeks, interrupted his reflection as he stood at the door. Three glass dolls that were also once wedding gifts guarded the basin, once pearly white, now discolored in splotchy, uneven patches, grime lining their foreheads in faded streaks. Inside the basin lay twenty sleeping pills, clumped together, just fallen from reach. The open pill bottle lay sideways by the faucet. On top of the toilet lay a razor stained with fresh blood, the scarlet liquid slowly trickling onto the porcelain. Rana lay weeping on the floor, a lone pill in her hand and three long gashes tearing open her shin. The daughter watched.
“I couldn’t do it,” Rana sobbed. “I have to live, for her.”
Rana knew, but could only admit in her own mind, that she did not want to die. She did not believe in a life after death, only in blankness. But what she wanted was the opposite of blankness. She wanted a release from life as an immigrant. No fresh start can numb the pain of a tree that becomes uprooted from the place it has always stood. Suddenly, it is commanded, not merely to adapt, but assimilate. To shed old leaves and camouflage amid a new, foreign forest. To survive in sub-zero temperatures after being kissed by humid tropics its whole life. To withstand a snowstorm with nothing but a six-dollar Big Lots jacket.
So Rana did not want death. She wanted her hometown, the vibrant island of joy that lay on the opposite end of the planet. She wanted the fragrant monsoon rains that pelted the soil with scent, the same soil from which her own roots sprouted for years before being cut. She wanted a place where English was subservient to her mother tongue, the latter emblazoned everywhere from street signs to soap bottles. She wanted the spices, those long-lost aromas that the “ethnic” food aisle could only dream of capturing. Her body ached to take a dip in the Ganga River. What some, to this day, call the “Third World,” was always her first and only. This place she had landed in was not home. Regardless of what animal inhabited the cover of her passport, it would never be her home. While her body had crossed the circumference of a planet, her heart had stayed back. She knew that her family was a casualty of her pain. Yet it consumed her in clutches so tight, she felt like a puppet of her own longing. Her actions were no longer her own, driven by an unquenchable thirst, the desire for return. So she lay helplessly on the bathroom floor, rocking silently to the rhythm of her sadness.
The daughter looked on, hips akimbo, her head slightly tilted to one side. She was ignorant of her future as a sacrificial hybrid tree, one that grows uncertainly, unsure of its own existence between two lives, two anthems, two tongues, two allegiances, and even two parents.
As the daughter observed the scene — the glaze of innocence veiling her sight — Neel watched her with a dull sense of regret. He approached the bathroom sink without looking down at Rana, who remained curled up at his feet. He reached in with those hands, worn beyond their years, and picked up the pills one by one. This was one routine he hoped he would never have to teach his daughter.
Taking the little girl by the hand, Neel guided her to his own room, handing her some toys and turning on the DVD player.
“Just wait for me to finish making dinner, okay?”
She plopped down on the bed, already distracted.
Rana stayed on the floor, bearing the distance of an ocean in her empty chest. The daughter, playing with a Barbie doll in the other room while watching a Bengali cartoon, was already bearing the duality of a world she could not yet understand. And Neel, impassive, carried the weight of a thousand retorts buried deep within his heart. He and Rana had crossed a sea together but failed to cross the impasse that lay impenetrably between them. Neel stood at one end, unwavering, while Rana lay at the other end, drifting amid her own salty tears.
Neel finished cleaning the sink and set the pill bottle back inside the medicine cabinet. He returned to the kitchen, as though the entire incident had been just another task on his to-do list. As he sprinkled more paprika onto the food and resumed his work at the cutting board, his vision clouded. Onions had always made his eyes water.
When you grow up seeing blood stains on your shampoo bottles, your sense of normalcy shifts as mine did. You don’t cry when you trip and fall on the playground, because you had just seen blood the night before when your mother took a clothespin to her forearms. You watched the blood leak slowly down her clothes and onto the floor, where it left a dark brown shadow for you to see the next day too. You are unfazed when your classmates roughhouse and toss pencils across the room because a pressure cooker was hurled right past your head on your fourth birthday. You rip out pieces of your hair when you get stuck on a math problem because you are following the example of the biological role model that the world assigned to you. You hate this biologyfor making you what you are: a living reminder of your parent’s suffering, of the hurting of immigrants worldwide. You have escaped that pain simply because of the soil you were born on. And so the burden on your shoulders is inexplicable, as you carry the weight of a parent’s mental health, her suicide threats, the weight of her entire life, day in, day out. Your heart slowly starts to contort inward, its once fiery heat chilling over time like that cold Massachusetts night, for the only love you have ever known is wrapped in tears, sleeping pills, and razor blades.
Traditionally, psychotherapy has let women down. This is not to say that women and other minority group members have never received help, but rather that the therapy they received made little attempt to address the root causes of their problems. In focusing narrowly on the personal and individual, which a lot of mainstream approaches focus on, they ignore the big picture and miss the point. An alternative approach — feminist therapy — can help challenge the norms and support South Asian women in a more comprehensive way.
A therapy which fails to address power issues in people’s lives automatically reinforces oppression. Feminist therapy is a way to look at people as part of society and not merely as individuals. As more people of marginalized identities realize that the cause of their mental and emotional difficulties are not individual factors but structural, they are seeking more thoughtful therapists and counselors. Feminist therapists are aware of the cultural dynamics that uniquely affect women and keep these at the center of their practice.
Feminist therapy has a lot to offer to women of color, particularly South Asian women. It is formed on the assumption that social forces impact, and these forces include the many identities that a South Asian woman holds — including race, ethnicity, caste, etc. Feminist therapy can help support our clients and us as therapists to conceptualize the client’s difficulties, as not just stemming from internal sources, but as an outcome of the deep-rooted patriarchal system.
Feminist therapy is the key to a progressive approach towards mental health care. There is a lot of awareness about feminism nowadays and women encourage feminist approaches to therapy. Feminist approaches look at how social and political forces interact with our own identities. Feminist therapy especially puts in a lot of emphasis on how our intersectional identities such as religion, family dynamics and social class plays a role in our own gender identity. Feminist therapy can help support our clients and ourselves as therapists to conceptualize the client’s difficulties as not just stemming from internal sources, but rather face the impact of the deep rooted patriarchal system.
Here are some important aspects of a feminist approach to therapy, whether you are a therapist or someone who wants to start therapy themselves:
Therapists’ own biases
Therapists, while working with South Asian women, as with any other client, need to put in their own personal work in understanding the assumptions and biases that they may hold towards these identities. If a counselor holds bias that a South Asian woman is timid, or doesn’t know what she wants, it may cause the counselor to take in a more direct approach rather than a collaborative one.
South Asian women are often being told what to do. Hence, therapists who may choose to be more directive rather than collaborative, may often reinforce the position of power and authority onto a South Asian woman reflecting what she faces in the world. South Asian women, especially who may have not been exposed to therapy, may look at counselors from a view of receiving advice or guidance. It is through our own ability to explore and process our biases that we can help challenge this narrative for the client, and help take a more collaborative approach.
Exploring identity work
It is important for a therapist to be aware about gender, sexuality and the intersectional aspects of feminism; about how sexual minorities, caste, religion impact gender in influencing the kind of experiences that women face. The counseling relationship is a space for clients to process the identities that are the most salient to them. We can start off with providing some context and psycho-education around the purpose of understanding these identities. Helping the client process different identities that are important to her can help take a more holistic approach to understand her difficulties. We can help provide information around how every identity that we hold impacts us in some way or the other, because of its interaction within the social context. This can also be a time when a client may self-disclose about their own identities, if comfortable and appropriate, to model this understanding.
Ask instead of assume
It is considered best practice with every client to ask their preferred pronouns; as well as identities they would like to highlight at the beginning of the counseling relationship.
Asking, instead of presuming, can help clients hold their voice from the beginning of the counseling relationship and create a safe environment. Processing identities that are salient to them and opening up space to share other identities can help clients share openly about how they choose to identify with their gender/sexual identity. It creates space for clients in the process of exploring their identities, to get curious about their identified gender/sexual identities for the first time.
One of the initial and ongoing processes of feminist therapy is educating women from a collaborative aspect. Providing psycho-education about their rights, consent, impact of patriarchy and other systemic factors promotes empowerment. While providing psycho-education, it is important to process the power dynamics in the relationship and model consent within the relationship by exploring the question: “What is it like for you to hear this information from me?”
We as therapists can be considered as guiding forces, but we should also be mindful that we are providing this guidance and information from a collaborative aspect rather than enforcing authority or being direct. South Asian women are often asked to respect people in authority and not defy them. We, too, as therapists may end up reinforcing these patterns, and instead need to do our own exploration by engaging in psycho-education with collaboration and continuing to check in with the client’s internal process.
Hold context around starting therapy
A South Asian woman puts a lot of thought into seeking therapy. The cultural stigma towards mental health can have an imperative impact on her recognising that therapy could be a potential need to take care of herself. Along with the courage that it takes to reach out to a therapist, either openly or whilst keeping it hidden from her family, there may also be a potential element of what kind of therapist do I want to see. Especially for South Asian women living in the US/UK or other Western countries, there may be a significant deliberation that goes into seeing a white therapist v/s a person of color therapist v/s a south asian therapist.
Can we think of potential factors that may prevent a South Asian woman from reaching out to a therapist who may hold similar cultural identities ?
Can we think of potential factors why a client may want to work with a South Asian therapist?
Explore reasons that led them to choose you
When a client comes in for therapy, she has probably considered the therapist’s background. She may choose to see a non-South Asian woman because of past and internalized fear of being judged by other South Asian women in her life. Or a client may deliberately choose to work with a South Asian woman therapist for perceived similarities in identity. For therapists, it’s important to create space at the beginning of the relationship to ask the client what led them to choose you as their therapist. For clients, it’s important to ask questions about your therapist that are important to you.
Fostering environment for all their identities
Clients are fully seen and valued for all aspects of their identity, background and experiences. It also means that we ground our interventions from a systemic and anti-oppressive approach.
We constantly learn and evolve to provide responsiveness, humility and respect to our clients and really redefine the standard of care based on the identities and background of South Asian women.
Background of the client
Particularly while working with South Asian immigrants, it is important to know the background of the client we work with in order to design culturally-appropriate interventions. As a lot of research has asserted, not all Asians are alike and group differences within Asian groups is often overlooked.
There’s a lot of information and knowledge around Indian groups that tend to be generalized across other communities from South Asia such as those from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. It is important for counselors to be aware about similarities and differences across these cultures, and create interventions that are more specific to the client’s cultural background.
It is important to check in about how the interventions land with the client. We may use certain strategies from a Western perspective that go into exploring a client’s relationship with her parents or caregivers. This can particularly bring guilt or shame for the client as it may be in conflict with her cultural value of holding respect for her parents.
A lot of the deep respect and regard towards family comes in the form of loyalty and not speaking “ill” about the family with strangers. Reflecting on family, based on Western interventions, can sometimes make it challenging for clients based on their values. Checking in with clients on how these interventions feel, and making space for the guilt and shame to surface can once again help clients to hold value in her own voice.
Examining values and beliefs
Therapy can support South Asian women in differentiating between their own values and society’s expectations. Even though collectivism is a value within South Asian culture, it may not necessarily be an individual value to our clients.
South Asian women very often bear the burden of the value of collectivism where they have to meet family’s expectations, be in touch with other family members and engage in other collective activities. It is an expectation that has been imposed upon them. A therapy space can be a space for clients to explore what their own individual values look like. It can be a space for counselors to collaboratively work with clients in choosing what matters to them, even if what matters to them is to take care of the family.
In this essence, she now has had a voice in choosing how she wants to move forward as v/s feeling stuck in expectations set by others. When the client recognizes that she has a choice in exploring her own values and beliefs, there can be support around how to engage in behaviors that are based in these values. Sue and Sue (2008) has recommended discussion about values, beliefs and behaviors of their family and culture, so that clients can discover those that are for them, those with which they identify and those with which they are ambivalent.
The reason why a South Asian woman may choose to work with a South Asian therapist is to feel understood and not hold the burden of having to explain different cultural norms and expectations. When working with a therapist from a different racial background, clients may feel the need to explain and defend their own culture. It may feel difficult to hear about certain norms being toxic or problematic from someone who doesn’t share the same background as you.
When we as South Asian therapists work with South Asian women clients, we have the unique opportunity to validate the importance/meaning of these cultural norms, as well as challenge its problematic impact on our mental health. We have the context and ability to hold the community and cultural system accountable. It is important to hold the value of one’s desire to have a community and fellowship, as well as hold the impact of this collectivism on the mental health of South Asian women.
It is important to pause and explore: What about the culture feels impactful? How does this impact self-esteem and the way they view the world?
South Asian women are bound by the cultural value of adjustment and acceptance. Accepting our culture the way it is and moving on is what they have been taught to do across generations. The therapy room can be a good space for us to pause and help them choose what aspects of the community are helpful and what feels unacceptable.
This, in turn, can help with increasing their voice and control on their own value system. When they come to you looking for that cultural connection, you can hold space to both empathize with their cultural upbringing and to be able to challenge it. There’s more likelihood that they need it to be challenged and from someone who understands what they are going through.