Late one night in December, Suraiya Ali, or @iranikanjari, tweeted a photo of her torso and brown boys everywhere lost their minds.
Although Suraiya, an 18-year-old student of Irani, Indian, and Pakistani heritage from Texas, had already gained a loyal following on Twitter, she said—in an exclusive interview with Brown Girl Magazine—she did not expect this kind of attention:
“This has been the biggest shock of my life. And at the beginning of 2016? This year will be crazy.”
Instead of ignoring the trolls, Suraiya chose to fight back and have a laugh along the way:
“…these boys are IDIOTS. I’m smart. I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t have a knack for rhetoric. Being bullied and being smart in real life—it’s hard to clap back since the bullies will physically shut you up. But on Twitter? Man, they can’t do anything. And I can say whatever I want back. This is my platform. And I’m going to use it.
Half these boys think I’ll ignore them, but if I can exploit their ignorance to reach more women and make them laugh while helping them love themselves—why wouldn’t I? Being carefree, to me, means I will take your insults and make them work for me. I’m not here to be docile, you come into my mentions and I will notice you. Brown men especially. We come from the same place, I’m not letting anything you do slide. If your mother won’t hold you accountable— I will.”
What followed was a glorious 23 Tweet-long clap back putting brown men on blast for criticizing the natural beauty of brown women, to uphold sexist double standards.
According to Suraiya, the reasons brown men are threatened by the idea of brown women accepting themselves are rooted in a history of inequality:
“Well, if they can’t subjugate us, what use are they? I mean, honestly, I can’t think of anything more powerful than a woman of color. And I think men know this. Now, that’s the poetic answer. Men have upheld power since the dawn of whatever creation you believe in, and homeostasis isn’t something the powerful like to see disrupted.
You can boil it down to power, to money, to greed, to religion —whatever. They don’t want to see us as equals because then they’re forced to face every atrocity they ever committed against us. We talk about white guilt, but male guilt? Rarely said. ‘I’m a nice guy’ = male guilt. They don’t want to see us win because then they have to admit they played dirty.”
As for her self-care routine and how other brown girls can deal with haters both on and offline, she has a few practical tips:
“[I] recently became a fan of Lush shower jellies and Vatika hair care products. Also, ask your mom for the remedies she did back home, those never fail to work. Dealing with haters: know how to cuss them out in your mother tongue. If that’s not an option, be as humorous as possible. When you’re funny, they panic.”
Now that the excitement of the first photo and subsequent rant has died down, Suraiya hopes people following online realize she’s only human:
“I’m a giant nerd who is constantly spilling things. I’m so human. Like I want them to know I’m beyond human. I mess up so much. And I’m only here to learn more to help everyone be an amazing version of themselves.”
We love how awesome-ly human you are, Suraiya! Continue empowering woman to love their bodies! <3
Check out some of the love she received from women around the world:
Brown girls, stay tuned for Suraiya’s blog post next week!! (We can’t contain the excitement!)
[All images are screenshots via Twitter.]
Salwa Tareen is a recent college graduate, community organizer, and writer from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Through her work, she seeks to explore the intersections of language, identity, and politics whether it’s in the form of a poem, dialogue, essay or literature review. In her spare time, as a Pakistani-American woman born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Canada, Salwa enjoys crafting clever quips to the question: “No, where are you really from?”
Mental health in the South Asian community has long been stigmatized, and South Asian individuals who experience psychological issues might feel hesitant to express their concerns due to the shame they may encounter. Nevertheless, while there has been progress made in studying and openly discussing South Asian mental health, several topics remain in need of further examination; these include studying the relationship between mental health and gender, specifically the role of masculinity on mental health outcomes.
What is South Asian masculinity?
Masculinity and mental health have come under greater scrutiny by researchers, particularly as traditional masculinity is often cited as the reason why men are less willing to reach out for support regarding psychological issues. However, the influence of masculine norms on well-being has been insufficiently viewed through an intersectional lens and is understudied within South Asian mental health. From a South Asian context, traditional masculinity can include focusing on material success while displaying suppressed emotionality, which can be manifested through anger or practicing other harmful behaviors.
In order to understand its influence, it is critical to examine the impact of traditional paradigms of masculinity across the diaspora. For instance, some traits associated with traditional masculinity among South Asian men include displaying control over others. A Sri-Lanka-based study found that most male participants “associated manhood with dominance…” A Forbes India article asserted how boys in India are “taught to … apply themselves to the task of growing up to be a strong, unwavering support system for their families,” which in turn forces them to be silent about topics that may make them seem weak. This pattern of behavior becomes manifested in a particularly harmful way because boys grow up with the inability to handle their emotions or formulate healthy coping strategies during challenging circumstances.
These norms can have drastic implications and harm other community members. For instance, a focus group conducted among Nepali men found that failure to deliver for their household economically as breadwinners eventually resulted in heated disputes, which escalated and led them to engage in domestic violence. The presence of domestic violence can also be observed through media stories on the pervasiveness of gender-based harm within South Asian communities, as seen in the murder of Sania Khan.
Traditional masculinity also hides the wounds that South Asian men may be battling within themselves. One paper asserts that for a sizable number of Indian men, “…sadness and despair find a distorted manifestation in destructive behaviors that deny their emotional pain to themselves and to others.” Thus, performing conventionally masculine behaviors can mask deeper mental health issues.
Repercussions of South Asian masculinity on mental health
Because of the pressure to adhere to such strict standards of conduct, traditional masculinity has significant, greater repercussions for mental health and well-being. For instance, because of the narrow ability of men to compartmentalize their feelings, this restrictive emotionality can result in an inability for others to recognize their mental health issues, thus failing to target the deeper causes of men’s behavior. Furthermore, men themselves might engage in fewer help-seeking behaviors. This is also further complicated due to gaps in culturally competent services that can serve South Asian men when they do utilize support systems.
Additional social forces experienced by South Asian men might explain mental health outcomes, particularly when considering the role of immigration. Among South Asian American men in the United States, one study noted that “a lower social position” within their community was linked to higher distress, indicating how critical it was for first-generation men to be leaders and actively participate in their ethnic community’s organizations. Thus, social expectations of men within South Asian communities influenced their well-being, as did their social status and relative power.
What we can do to change the status quo on South Asian masculinity and mental health
In order to ensure that men in South Asian cultures can embrace their mental health, it is important to formulate a prudent, welcoming paradigm that encourages greater help-seeking behaviors. Greater attention to this topic can also contribute to theories on feminist and sociocultural therapeutic frameworks, which both offer the following includes suggested remedies:
Challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging mental health care as a means to discuss issues about well-being
It is imperative to encourage South Asian men to show more emotion, thus changing the existing narrative and social pressure they face to limit the expression of their feelings. Fortunately, there is a platform, known as @BrownManTherapy, that posts content about the struggles South Asian men experience. Furthermore, therapy ought to be recommended as a means to deal with mental health concerns, which should be combined with support from the community.
More South Asian male clinicians
In addition to instituting changes in community norms, there needs to be more diverse representation in the mental health field. In doing so, there will be greater platforms to have conversations about the negative repercussions of traditional masculinity that are unique to South Asian men. Furthermore, it is critical to challenge the social stigma that mental health is a female-dominated profession or that seeking therapy is emasculating.
More research studies examining cross-cultural differences in masculinity across South Asian cultures
The connection between masculinity and mental health ought to be investigated much further. Studies should particularly assess masculinity within non-white contexts in order to examine the standards of manhood across several communities and truly understand the unique stressors men face across different cultural backgrounds.
While the connection between South Asian masculinity and mental health is not discussed among psychology professionals, it is critical to study the association since it plays a role in South Asian gender inequities and in mental health behaviors among South Asian men. More broadly, given the prevalence of intimate partner violence within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and the role of patriarchal norms in inflicting this harm, it is now more important than ever to reimagine expectations surrounding men’s behavior.
By further examining the problems caused by adherence to traditionally masculine norms and implementing certain solutions, these ideas can be challenged and dismantled to create a progressive and more inclusive model of manhood. Above all, identifying and eradicating toxic ideas rooted in traditional South Asian masculinity will lead to liberation for all people.
I have many happy memories of celebrating Diwali as a child in suburban Mumbai. Looking back though, I realise that my favourite festival stands on the foundations of patriarchy. At home, all the labour that went into making Diwali special was borne by my mother. She’d wake up early for weeks to clean the house, mop the floors, make the sweets and clean the diyas. In every household, it was always the women who did all the cleaning, cooking, shopping, prepping — so that their families could have the most amazing Diwali.
I’m single, a feminist and the founder of Masala Podcast — tackling those taboo subjects South Asians shy away from. I chose not to follow the traditional Indian path of getting married and having kids. This means that Diwali, with its usual traditions, can be a tough time for me. Because if you don’t meet the quintessential South Asian expectations of having a husband, kids and extended family, it is assumed that you’ll miss out on all the Diwali magic. Who do you burn firecrackers with when you don’t have kids? Who’s going to make all the Diwali sweets when you have a busy career and social life? Who’s going to fight you for the last chakli in the Diwali tin if you’re not that connected with your siblings?
Obviously, this made me a bit sad. So I sat down and thought about all the Diwali traditions I loved and just tweaked them to fit my single, feminist life. If like me, you don’t fit into the mould of a “traditional South Asian woman”, I hope you find my “Feminist Diwali traditions” guide useful.
Show your space some love for Diwali
I was taught as a child, that goddess Laxmi wouldn’t come into a filthy house. But whether you believe this or not, give your space a nice, clean scrub. For me, this literally gets me into a clearer space of mind. Whether you live in a little studio or a large house, I do believe that when you create space in your home (and in your mind!) good things come into that space. So go grab that dustpan!
Light up your world with diyas
The sight of glowing diyas (candles) on a dark night is incredibly beautiful. Make your home as bright and beautiful as you can by lighting as many diyas as you can. I literally have around fifty diyas lighting up every corner of my flat. It makes me feel sort of “lit up” from within. Because we want the power of light over darkness, in every area of our lives. And yes, that includes our work lives as well as our love lives.
Create your own kind of rangoli
Rangoli is traditionally used to decorate homes, usually made of intricate patterns using a variety of powdered colours. No rangoli powder? No problem. Just grab whatever you have at hand — from flower petals to beads to marker pens — and make your own version of a rangoli. If you’re using marker pens, you might want to do your rangoli on a sheet of paper or plastic though. Just have fun creating your own kind of rangoli, be it traditional or alternative.
Give yourself a warm oil bath on Diwali morning
I love this Diwali ritual. I’m a South Indian, so growing up my mother would wake me up bright and early on Diwali mornings and give me an oil massage, gently rubbing warm oil all over my body. Then she’d send me off to have a hot shower or bath. I now try and re-create that sense of love for my body by warming up sesame seed oil (you can choose any oil you like!). I light a few diyas, turn up the heaters and give myself a beautiful oil massage, taking my time to care for every part of my body. It feels nurturing; it feels loving to myself. As a woman in the world today, we need all the self-love we can get.
Dress up to ‘Diwali Dazzle’
I love Indian clothes — the dazzle and the shine of it all. Depending on my mood, I might wear a shimmering sari on Diwali day; I love how sexy saris make me feel, how they “fit” my body in a way other clothes don’t. If I want something easy, I wear a glittering salwar kameez. I also like to mix things up. One of my favourite outfits is a business suit made with Indian brocade fabric and I wear this with a gorgeous bright fuchsia top. So pick whatever suits your Diwali mood. And wear it your way!
The smell of ghee in the air is one of my favourite smells during Diwali. I don’t have the time or the skills to make traditional Diwali sweets. But I live in a cosmopolitan city, so I head to a fabulous Indian sweet shop nearby and stock up on all the Diwali treats. I do however, cook one tasty Diwali meal and invite other women friends to join in. This year, I’m in New York during Diwali. And I’ve literally just invited a few amazing women I met last week. I plan to make a simple yet delicious Diwali lunch for them. I do have to go hunting for ingredients and diyas in New York, and I’m sure that’s not too hard; us desis are everywhere! But I’m excited about sharing my Diwali tradition with a bunch of new women friends in a brand new city.
Give yourself a Diwali gift because you are worth it
Traditionally family and friends visit each other and exchange gifts during Diwali. Now I don’t have a big South Asian network or an extended family, but I still treat myself to that Diwali gift. I buy myself something nice. Something luxurious that I’ve saved up for, something that gives me joy. After all, that Diwali gesture of love and goodwill applies to me as much as to anyone else.
Have a chit chat with goddess Laxmi
I don’t usually go to temples or do religious rituals. However, over the past few years, I’ve found a little murti of goddess Laxmi that I love. So I light lots of lamps in front of her, play music that I connect to from the heart, and then just, you know, chat to her. Prayer is a conversation, after all. Goddess Laxmi and I, we usually have a good old chat on Diwali mornings. I might tell her about technical problems with my podcast or moan about relationship issues. She is a great listener. This Diwali, I might even ask her for that holy grail — happiness. Or a gorgeous silk negligee if I’m feeling sexy!
Make this Diwali your own kind of Diwali
Through my podcast, and my feminist platform Soul Sutras, I’ve spent the last five years asking South Asian women to challenge patriarchal systems within our culture. As well as inspiring them to own the most beautiful parts of our culture. Whether that’s our ancient erotic arts like the “Kamasutra” or “Tantra”, or our beautiful festivals like Diwali.
Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate
Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. TheEagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.
The crossing of these tumultuous seas wasforbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boatinstead of birth.
These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.
They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.
Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,
I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.
Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.
The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions.
Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?
Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:
Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.
OnMay 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.
Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers.
I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.
Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years.
To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.
As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploringdigital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?
As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.