‘Unpacking Brown Boy Misogyny’

The following post is originally published to SurjMagazine.com and republished here with permission by the author. 

Brown boys my age engage in the most violent projections of the patriarchy. The diaspora in New York City represents a microcosm of south Asia — its vibrancy, its colorful culture — but it rears the ugly head too often, whether it be divisions of religions, nationalism, or of course, a very carefully constructed misogyny. It doesn’t come from Islam, and yet religion is used as a defense from accountability. It doesn’t come from Hinduism, and yet tradition is used as a facade to get away with it. Stop using God as your security blanket to justify your suppression of women. It has stretched from our homelands that are desperately trying to reform to no avail.

I’m going to break this down into three sections: guilty, Mia Khalifa and simping to make it easier to comprehend. It’s like a pyramid, top to bottom — the hierarchy of brown boy misogyny.



I. Guilty

In the past week or so, brown girls in New York City have been coming forward in what can be called an intense second wave of the #metoo movement. This time, it’s coming for the brown boys who thought that our culture’s taboos would keep them safe. It’s not just random brown men either. It’s friends, it’s classmates, it’s family, it’s Khan’s tutorial. accounts like ‘telling my truth,’ which was the first to go viral, are anonymously sharing the victim’s stories and urging their followers to hold the brown boy accountable for his actions. and they’re listening: In the past two days alone, there are thousands of comments tagging the said perpetrator’s school and employment in an effort to call attention to the specific story. Although telling my truth has now been deactivated, to be a survivor and anon.co17 are still actively posting stories.

[Read Related: Madame Gandhi Envelopes us in Her New ‘Visions’ Energy and it’s Worth Every Minute]

However, in classic brown culture style, we have men and even women deflecting the issue, but let’s be honest, did we expect anything else? Instead of cutting ties with known rapists, these people are insisting that somehow it is still the girl’s fault. She was drunk. She was showing skin. She was hanging out with a guy late at night. “It’s haram,” they say. But what about forcing yourself onto someone? Is that not haram, too?

Prophet Muhammad (saw) swiftly punished a rapist when a woman came to him. He did not try to convince her otherwise, he did not blame her, so who are you to gaslight a survivor? There is no link between rape and sexual desire. don’t tell us to dress better — become better men. When the stories started to gain traction, brown boys claimed that these girls were ruining the man’s reputation. Did you not stop to think that he ruined her in every way imaginable? And what reputation are you talking about? Instead of standing with the victim, you’re out here defending your boy and asking her what she was doing. Who cares what she was doing? We know what he did. 

Over and over again, we are seeing the brown boys named defending themselves by insisting that while they are definitely assholes, they are not rapists. They’re saying they had consent from someone who was drunk. how dare you. How do you expect someone who is intoxicated to give you the same answers as she would if she were sober? You were waiting for her to be drunk enough to have your way. Their excuses are: “She was wet, too!” “I know she wanted it.” “She was feening for me.” “She’s a clout-chaser.” “She continued to be friends with me after I did it.” “How come she didn’t report it to the police?” “How do you not know when you were being raped?”

Their pathetic excuses won’t work on us. Tell me, do you know that physical arousal isn’t consenting? If she wanted it, why are you so scared? Was she really feening for you, or are you gaslighting the trauma you caused her? I hate to be the one to ask, but tell me, what clout could a rape survivor possibly get when our own president is a rapist? Since you’re so smart, you must know that thousands of rape kits go untested at police stations, right? You must know that police do nothing to protect women. and you, of course, know the lengths a brown family would go to convince their daughter not to report her abuser. It is not the job of brown girls to educate you on how survivors process rape differently; there is no ‘correct’ way to react after being assaulted. But since I’m on the topic anyway, let me tell you that 70 percent of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim and continuing a relationship with an abuser is a common way of repressing the memory. It does not, in any way or form, negate the fact that the rape happened.

It is not the job of brown girls to educate you on how survivors process rape differently; there is no ‘correct’ way to react after being assaulted.

And the friends of these boys? They’re defending them. They’re writing love letters in their DMs as proof of character. News flash: Just because he held the door open for you once in third grade doesn’t absolve of him of rape. Brown boys have collectively come together to force the victims to prove their rapes countless times. One girl even had to screenshot her rapist’s “apology” and refuted every single thing he said because he tampered with evidence and screenshots. Brown girls don’t owe it to anyone to prove a single thing, yet they’re being pressured to do so, thus reliving their trauma under a harsh spotlight. These are brown boys that we might not know personally, but they run in our circles. We have heard these stories before. It could have been any of us, and it is imperative to stand up for all brown girls. break the damn bro code. Call out your boys. 

Our culture downplays sexual assault because we are trained to believe that men are in control, and even if we know that men are the problem, we place the blame onto women because brown girls should compromise, be careful, and protect themselves. The shortcomings of brown men are somehow still our fault and ours to fix: jab iski biwi aayegi, toh yeh sudhar jayega (when he gets married, his wife will fix him). we rarely teach brown boys to not rape; we don’t teach them the word no. We let them get away with so much, and it culminates into an explosion like the one happening right now. Our culture already makes women so vulnerable from the very moment they are born. The very first thing we’re told to do is close our legs, sit like a lady, cover ourselves. brown girls are already guilty from the time we enter this world. This is the very same reason why it is so frustrating and difficult to even say anything against an abuser, predator, and rapist — we are told to keep quiet because it won’t get anywhere.

Our culture downplays sexual assault because we are trained to believe that men are in control. We place the blame onto women because brown girls should compromise, be careful, and protect themselves.

And the thing is, it doesn’t start with rape. men view rape as aggressive, forced upon sex, but ignore the cat-calling, groping, and casual touches we deal with while we walk down Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens. I don’t know who needs to hear this but saying “mashallah” won’t cancel out the fact that you tried to grab a girl’s ass. Every time I try to explain rape culture and its consequences, I am hit with the same answer: “I don’t care, it’s a joke.” These are the same boys that turn around and victimize themselves when they are finally called out for their extremely perverted behavior. Rape is not limited to extreme force, and brown boys are the quickest to victim-blame. Save for a select few, so many brown boys are now saying that there are two sides of the story and that we should all wait for evidence — were you not paying attention? How much more evidence do you need? If your first instinct when hearing about sexual assault is to automatically discredit the victim, or start to talk about how women “lie,” — as if that false equivalency even makes sense — unlearn your own misogyny. Growing up in a close-minded household isn’t an excuse to not educate yourself. Brown boys fail to keep this same energy for the 98 percent of rape allegations that are true while hounding to death the 2 percent that are false.

I don’t think it’s just our culture that’s failed us for being inherently insensitive to gender-based violence — it’s also the men. They lack empathy, they lack remorse, and they want us to “stop the cap.”

II. Mia Khalifa

Brown boys are more often than not desensitized to violence — baba beats ammi, he slaps your sister across her face, but he doesn’t hit you because you’re a mard (man). You may get angry at him and shout at him to stop, but the violence seeps into your veins. It runs through you so viciously that you watch media that inflict violence upon women, and you don’t even notice — be it your video games, the Netflix shows you watch, and the unethical porn that you consume. Suddenly, all the sharam (shame) that you speak of dissipates.

Let me make it a tiny bit more specific: Let’s talk about Mia Khalifa. Let’s put a pin in the conversation about Islamophobia and her Lebanese forces cross tattoo — yes, the same armed forces who allied with the IDF and led the sabra/Shatila massacre. It was not her active decision to partake in hijabi porn although it disrespectfully sexualized Muslim women, and sure, let’s hold her accountable for calling the scenes satire, but let’s not pretend that’s where the sexualization of Muslim women by brown men started.

[Read Related: Why Dismantling Patriarchy is Good for Men]

She was coerced into her contract with Pornhub during a low point in her life years ago and was never compensated properly. Pornhub refuses to remove her videos, but brown boys don’t know that. All they know is that she’s the ‘Muslim’ girl from porn and crack a joke about her every time they see a brown girl wearing glasses. She lost her family, she doesn’t get a second chance at first impressions and gets shamed every day because brown boys have an extremely exploitative obsession with her. You call her a disgrace, but you actively watch her videos — special shoutout to Muslim-majority countries for always ranking at the top for porn consumption — and then take pleasure in picking her apart in your little locker rooms. And it’s all because you have been taught — and you choose to believe — a twisted culture that allows you to belittle any woman for any reason. Brown boys have the audacity to say that she chose to do porn, that it was her fault for ignoring how our traditions work, and then say it’s not a respectful job to have. Why does it irk you when girls profit on their own sexualization?

  1. Learn the difference between coercion and consent, and
  2. Our traditions are deeply rooted in the patriarchy — brown girls are not bound to them. Sex work is valid work, you can acknowledge that while still knowing that porn is violence against women. Both exist at the same time because rape culture is so normalized in our communities.

Slut-shaming is especially prevalent in our communities; brown boys love calling brown girls hoes, feens, and sluts for existing. Everything we do is a threat to their izzat (honor). Brown boys will get off to naked women on their screens and then go tell their girlfriends and sisters what to wear. They police the women in their lives because they know that all men are, indeed, trash. they know because they happen to be one of them. You tell your sister to wear her dupatta (scarf) because you are the same man who looked at a woman lustfully as she walked down the street. You tell your girlfriend to button up her shirt because you know how predatory the male gaze is.

You tell your sister to wear her dupatta because you are the same man who looked at a woman lustfully as she walked down the street. You tell your girlfriend to button up her shirt because you know how predatory the male gaze is.

III. Simping

The simplest form of sexism — and I say “simplest” lightly because it is incredibly harmful and helps in climbing the sexist mountain — is literally rhetoric. Our generation has a lot of good things going for us: We advocate on TikTok, we take care of our mental health, we’re pretty woke. But for some reason, we’re the same generation that let go of cigarettes (only for nicotine in a USB instead) faster than we let go of slut-shaming. Brown boys don’t realize that slut-shaming doesn’t have to be heard; it’s not just cat-calling or calling a girl a whore to her face. You just have to laugh at the rape joke your boy just told. You just have to turn a blind eye to your friend cheating on his girlfriend. You just have to say that she belongs to the streets. Think of what that means. You think just because a brown girl shows some skin, just because she is sexually liberated, and just because you can’t stand the fact that you can’t have her that she should be thrown out? It’s not just a joke. It’s suggestive of another ideology at play. Brown boys will do the same things that they think is “hoe behavior” but will never apply this double standard to themselves. Because they know they are immune to any type of backlash. so if “simping” means respecting women, then so be it. Be a fucking simp. Stop being nice to girls you want to sleep with and then throw all moral decency out the door. You belong to the streets, not the girl who rejected you. 

[Read Related: Traveling the Long Road From Patriarchy to Freedom]

Some brown boys hide their own sexism behind a soft boy persona. You can brand yourself a leftist and be an ally, but that performative behavior doesn’t do anything when you’re only doing it to appeal to women. You’ve built your base on the free labor of your female friends who taught you all the right things. The subtle sexism that exudes from self-labeled soft brown boys is typical — it’s quiet but it’s seething. You support your girlfriend being a feminist, but you want her to hold your hand while she’s saying men are trash? That’s not how it works. you are not exempt. You’ve done the bare minimum for women, congratulations.

That performative behavior doesn’t do anything when you’re only doing it to appeal to women. You’ve built your base on the free labor of your female friends who taught you all the right things.

So many brown boys like to speak over women because they think it’s a personality trait to be sexist (and they like that their friends cheer them on for it). Brown boys have made up their minds that women’s struggles don’t even exist, so how can we ask them to be educated? You can’t sit here and tell us what you think real feminism is — don’t you dare talk over those who are trying to create change within this stubborn society. You say that “men need to do better” but put in zero effort to make the women you know comfortable. You don’t get a cookie for thinking you’ve never been even moderately violent towards a woman. Because chances are, you have, and your girlfriend ignored it because brown girls are told to compromise since isli mard aisi hi hotay hai (that’s just how boys are). Say it with me: Being nice to your mom, girlfriend, and wife isn’t being a feminist. If you still hate the ones that you think stepped out of a line set by the patriarchy, you’re a misogynist.

Thank you for coming to my TedTalk.


When brown boys are born, they suddenly become the center of that household, even with daughters — and yet Islam preaches the exact opposite. brown boys are coddled; they are taught that they can do anything, and they will still be defended. They are told that a woman is something to step on for their own purposes. In the city where it seems so easy to be educated and respectful despite growing up in such a household, brown boys aren’t, and they refuse to be. They want their girlfriends and wives to exist solely for them because that’s how their parent’s relationship worked. Brown boys are quick to deem this as an unnecessary gender war because nothing affects them. It’s because you don’t care since you think you’ll continue to get away with it. Well, I’m here to tell you that you won’t.

To South Asian survivors seeking resources, please access the following links and numbers below.

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Hiba Sohail

Hiba Sohail is a political communication major and a women, gender, sexuality studies minor at George Washington. Originally from New … Read more ›

South Asian Masculinity and Mental Health: Can we Find a new way Forward?

toxic masculinity

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.

[Read Related: Brown Boys Do Cry: How Toxic Masculinity Screws With Us, Too]

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.

[Read Related: These 5 South Asian Men Are Opening up About Their Mental Health and Toxic Masculinity]

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.

If you need additional resources, please visit:

Photo: Shutterstock/Roxanne 134

paritosh joshi
By Paritosh Joshi

Paritosh Joshi is a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. His background includes a Master of … Read more ›

Shedding Light on South Asians and Intimate Partner Violence


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.

[Read Related: A South Asian Daughter of Divorced Parents Speaks up After the Tragic Death of Pakistani-American Photographer Sania Khan]

Violence prevention researchers have long used traditional gender roles to explain intimate partner violence in South Asian countries. These norms are deeply entrenched beliefs in society about appropriate roles for people based on their gender. In South Asian communities, these norms typically privilege men in intimate relationships. These beliefs are further perpetuated by mainstream media. For example, despite historic criticism for its depiction of harassment as “romance” or abuse as “lovers’ quarrels,” Indian cinema has only normalized toxic masculinity and violence as a form of conflict resolution with its hundreds of millions of viewers.

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.

[Read Related: On Domestic Violence: Model Minority, Private Pain]

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. 

[Read Related: How to Talk to Your Child About Domestic Violence: 5 Tips for Parents]

Addressing the “Shadow Pandemic”

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.

 Intimate Partner Violence Resources:

  1.     National Domestic Violence Hotline Call: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224; Text: “START” to 8878
  1.     National Dating Abuse Helpline Call: 1-866-331-9474
  1.     National Sexual Assault Hotline Call: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
By Sneha Challa

Sneha holds a PhD in Global Health and is currently a researcher at the University of California San Francisco working … Read more ›

‘The Black Rose’: British Asian Shweta Aggarwal Voices her Truth Against Colourism and the Battle to end her Skin Whitening Cream Addiction

Black Rose

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. 

[Read Related: Liam Neeson’s Week of Rage is Every Person of Colour’s Truth]

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. 

[Read Related: Dear Priyanka Chopra, Endorsing Colorism and Discrimination is not ok. It Never was and Never Will Be]

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.


Photo Courtesy: Shweta Aggarwal

By Sejal Sehmi

Brown Girl Magazine’s U.K. Editor Sejal Sehmi is an IT consultant by day, whose passion for writing stemmed from challenging … Read more ›