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.
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.
I was taken aback when my late cousin shared this with me on the cusp of our twenties.
As a fairly modest Indo Guyanese girl raised in the Connecticut suburbs, the thought of discussing a stranger’s love life seemed not only foreign but shocking to me. Nevertheless, my cousin was always bold in this way. She took pride in the more daring aspects of our Caribbean culture with natural confidence. It was one of the things I loved and now miss most about her.
Admittedly however, it was over a decade before I started to understand some of her deeper curiosity in love, sexuality and mental health. This awakening was thanks greatly to Dr. Samosa.
In early 2020, Dr. Sarika Persaud, a New-York based, Indo Guyanese psychologist specializing in relationships, sexuality and complex trauma, took to Instagram as “Dr. Samosa,” an alias inspired by her favorite South Asian snack — and one she feels is a common thread for brown girls.
The platform became a safe space for brown girls to connect on topics like mental health, psychoanalysis, sexuality and relationships. From discussing sexual empowerment to building a strong sense of self, Dr. Persaud quietly became a confidant for those craving practical and candid insights the community shied away from.
Dr. Persaud and I sat down to talk about her journey and breaking these taboos in the South Asian society.
Her interest in psychology started as a journey of self-discovery as a pre-teen.
“I think I experienced myself as different from my peers,” she explained during our interview.
She didn’t get caught up in teenage drama and avoided certain types of relationships and people. Meanwhile, the friends she did make saw her in “this sort of teacher role.”
“I became curious about that about myself — how, in some ways, I found it beneficial to feel my feelings and have a depth people were drawn to, but also use it in ways to isolate myself,” Dr. Persaud said.
She was also beginning to identify as bisexual.
She shared, “I think I was avoiding my sexuality in some ways and psychology became a way for me to understand myself more. It’s always been this confluence of philosophy and science and even art for me.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, Dr. Persaud saw fellow Indo Caribbean women at a “very specific intersection of religion and culture.” It was the nexus of Caribbean values which welcomed sexuality and more modest Indian traditions. Caribbean influence seemed to “remove a boundary” on how Indo Caribbean women felt permitted to present themselves sexually, she explained. On one hand, after her Bharatanatyam dance classes, she saw her didis (the older girls) leave their classical moves behind for sexy Bollywood choreography and dancehall songs.
“It was exciting, like they were just beginning to find ways to express their sexuality,” she reflected. Then, around the same time, Dr. Persaud discovered a copy of the “Kama Sutra” at home and her mother was appalled. “What’s wrong with your daughter?” aunties asked.
Confused, Dr. Persaud thought “You own this. This is from our culture and it’s a Sanskrit text. It’s literally a religious text. It all seemed so powerful — and yet so many people were afraid of it.”
Something didn’t add up.
In 2013, she started a blog to bring a voice to topics like these. As word of her content spread, Dr. Persaud was met with backlash from her temple. Leaders said her blog was inappropriate and dishonorable to her community, but she stuck with it and her family stuck by her.
A few years later, when she launched Dr. Samosa to share her research and insights with a wider audience, sexuality came front and center.
“Sexuality — how you understand and honor what you want and like, and the ways you let yourself experience that pleasure — is intrinsically connected to how deserving you feel in the world,” she explained.
For example, if you think you’re worthy of a raise at work, a partner who desires you, or a family that listens to you — all can be linked back to a block in your relationship with yourself as a sexual being.
However, if you can feel confident in something as “primal, instinctual, and personal” as your sexuality, Dr. Persaud argues you lay the foundation for confidence in these other areas of your life.
Dr. Persaud says the fear of sexuality comes into play for South Asians.
“Being comfortable with your sexuality means being comfortable with your power,” she explained. “If everyone felt empowered and had a healthy relationship with themselves sexually, a lot of our relationships and hierarchies in society would change. And there are just so many people who benefit from women and marginalized communities (like LGBTQ+ and those with chronic illnesses) being disempowered,” Dr. Persaud said.
Throughout her work, Dr. Persaud has found it’s especially difficult for South Asian women to feel pride in themselves as sexual beings.
“There’s so much shame about the self and the body. Women especially are held to a double standard and it’s so confusing. If you look one way, you won’t get a husband. If you look sexual, no one will want to hire you for a job. Regardless of the South Asian ethnic group, there’s the same shame and belief that your body has to look a certain way, and if it doesn’t, you’re not desirable. Everything gets tied up in sexual shame.”
It’s undeniable that Bollywood movies have also heavily impacted many of our views on love and sex, but Dr. Persaud didn’t condemn this.
She says, “People need to realize Bollywood started from a tradition of classical drama and dance from ancient India. Those dances were meant to be explorations of dreams and mythical and philosophical ideas. Bollywood is just a continuation of that. It’s meant to be a break from reality.”
Real relationships are much more fraught and complicated than in films, but that doesn’t mean you should be ashamed of looking to Bollywood as a way to be in touch with romance and love in your life.
“They’re a fantasy,” Dr. Persaud added.
She also argued Bollywood isn’t necessarily as “censored” as many claim.
“People don’t have to watch others physically have sex or kiss to be in touch with their sensuality,” she noted. “It can be much more nuanced to see two people just embracing in a way that stirs up feelings. Like, how does it feel to have your lover’s head against your chest? Culturally, we just explore and express sexuality differently than the West.”
When it comes to becoming more comfortable with our bodies and sexual health, Dr. Persaud says it starts with self-reflection.
“Ask yourself why you’re afraid of being sexy or seen as sexual. Are you afraid your family will reject you? That you’ll be thrown out of your home? We all have different triggers, and once you identify yours, you can get to the issue underneath it all.”
Dr. Persaud encourages women to ask themselves important questions.
“If you’re afraid that if you assert your sexuality, your family will reject or not support you, how can you be more financially independent? How can you find pride in being able to take care of yourself?” She urges women to take inventory of what they like. “Look at books and movies and what you see in the world and consciously take note of what you react to. This puts you more in touch with yourself.”
When it comes to fostering open conversations with others, Dr. Persaud says to lead with vulnerability and clarity.
“If you wonder whether your friends have had sex yet and are embarrassed to ask, voice that concern. Share how you’re feeling or ask yourself why. Leading conversations with vulnerability allows people to connect a little bit more; to feel safer to share.”
“If you’re uncomfortable with something your partner does or want more of something else, talk about what you want to change and why it’s important to you. It’s not a shortcoming on their part, but rather you saying ‘this is what I need for myself. Is this something we can talk about and work on together?’”
With South Asian families, especially older relatives, things can get a bit more complex. Boundary setting is important as the family can bring out your biggest triggers.
“You need to be at a point where you own yourself,” Dr. Persaud explained. For example, if your mom finds out you were out with someone and questions you about it — “A bai? A boy?!” — you should be able to say confidently, ‘Yeah I was on a date,’ and also not feel obligated to give more details. Of course, that may not always be safe for someone younger, but at a certain age, it is OK to be private, to have that shield to protect and develop yourself and your confidence,” Dr. Persaud says.
Dr. Persaud also reinforces the importance of knowing your boundaries when reflecting on “coming out” to parents. She wanted to be open about her bi-sexuality with her parents; that she was dating — but not just men. She stresses however, one does not need to be excessively open.
“Not everyone has to come out and not everyone has to come out to everyone. You’re likely not facing anything new from your parents when coming out. If they are critical and judgmental generally in life, they’re probably going to be like that again. South Asian dads can really just be like, ‘Okay, don’t tell me you’re a sexual being,’” she laughed.
While Dr. Persaud is thankful for her parents’ acceptance, there are members of her family who’ve been less than supportive. She credits her confidence and sense of self for drowning them out.
“I’ve found the more I become comfortable with myself, the more I have this sexual energy that I can use creatively and in other good ways. If my dad rejects me, it doesn’t change that I am bisexual. Or if my mom rejects me, it’s not going to change this thing I know so deeply about myself. I’m just sharing something true. I can’t change it.”
Toward the end of our conversation, I shared with Dr. Persaud that I wondered how my own family would react to this article. I felt a bit of shame.
But she reminded me, “You can also find pride in it — ‘Yeah, I’m really proud of the fact that I’m one of the people breaking the stigma. I’m talking about something important to people’s health.’”
And she’s right, as was my dear cousin in her early ambitions. These conversations are never easy, but walking in curiosity, confidence and pride can help us find our power as South Asian women. It can help break the stigma surrounding love, sexuality and relationships in our community and their roles in our greater health.
In so many ways, sexual health and mental health are not only connected but interdependent. In fact, Dr. Persaud believes the more confident people are in their bodies and identities, the more confident they are as a whole — and the more attractive they are.
“Sexual attraction and energy comes from people being competent and peaceful and calm with themselves; knowing who they are,” she said, and the more we learn to embrace this and speak about it openly, the more we can not only grow but thrive.
For more on Dr. Sarika Persaud’s (aka Dr. Samosa) doctoral work and writing, visit her website or Instagram @doctor.samosa. For more on how to talk to your family or children about sexual health, visit sexpositivefamilies.com.