Claiming to act as a parent for one of the most vulnerable South Asian communities, Urvi Shah started the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau in 2016, the first matchmaking service for queer South Asians.
At the end of April, Vice released a documentary where journalist Reeta Loi signed up for the service as a client. Her journey lasts a little under a year and at that time, Loi discovers that Shah’s company is nothing more than a scam.
Shah takes a substantial amount of money from her clients, and then takes them on a ride for months, making promises that she does not keep. Throughout the documentary, Loi and Keith, another client of the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau, discover that the very few profiles of prospective matches they are sent are pulled directly from other websites. They also discover that the couples used as success stories to promote the service have never had an association with the service or Shah.
Loi speaks to Vivek and Vishua, whom she describes as the “poster boys” of the service. The two reveal that not only have they never used the Bureau, they had not even heard of it prior to this call.
Loi confronts Shah almost a year after registering for her service and Shah continues to defend her company, despite the fact that she cannot fully debunk any of Loi’s claims. Loi also asserts that she has never seen or spoken to any of the employees that Shah claims to have, nor has she seen an office. Even more incriminating, the address of the company leads to a bus stand.
In addition, in my research, I discovered that Shah is the only listed employee on the Bureau’s website.
Shah’s claim to act as a parent to such a vulnerable community is particularly sickening. Queer South Asians are, heartbreakingly, often not accepted by their family and possibly even disowned. Arranged marriages are a prominent tradition of many South Asian cultures, existing even today. Queer South Asians are frequently not given access to that cultural custom or even access to romantic love in the first place.
Homosexuality was only decriminalized in India in late 2018 and is still seen as unacceptable on a larger societal level.
In many cases, queer South Asians do not really have a ‘home’ or a ‘family.’ The promise of a future with a life partner and the best equivalent of parental support is something many queer South Asians desperately need and deserve.
To take advantage of the years of pain the vast majority of these individuals have faced and the decades of oppression this community has faced is monstrous.
Scams are, unfortunately, a familiar part of life. Shah’s scam is so abhorrent because of how she actively takes action to further abuse an already mistreated community. It is a special kind of cruel.
Queer people are strong; I know that. We are resilient.
And we do not all have one identical experience of growing up queer.
But to give a community, one that never gets this kind of opportunity from their larger culture, the hope of love, only to snatch it away after receiving payment is as cold-hearted as one can be. To claim to be an activist for a marginalized community while exploiting their stories and their individual selves for monetary gain is vile.
Shah’s company is still operating today. After making promises that she will provide evidence that proves the legitimacy of her service, she has done nothing. She is running her company as though nothing happened.
Ultimately, preying on an innocent and vulnerable community is just deplorable. Yet, even as more and more people discover the truth about Shah, she continues to face no consequences for her actions. Though Shah’s actions are unforgivable, our primary concern right now should be to keep queer South Asians safe. The first step to doing so is shutting down the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau.
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.
As we enter the holy month for Muslims around the world, Ramadan — a month of fasting, reflection, community, charity and celebration — I aim to foster long-lasting Ramadan memories and traditions for my children while also showing them the beauty of our faith.
The rich tapestry of my life has been intricately woven by the threads of my Pakistani ancestry, an Indian-Kashmiri partner, and the multiculturalism we have passed on to our children. As I navigate the current journey of my life while being a mother to two children, I aim to provide my kids with a life enriched by different cultures which will ultimately help them to become compassionate and empathetic human beings in the future.
Through education, conversation, and exploration, I hope to help set a strong foundation of values that will serve them well in their journey as Muslim Americans and make Ramadan a holiday that they look forward to every year.
Before we explain the importance of Ramadan to children, it’s helpful to holistically explain the importance of the five pillars of Islam.
Declaration of Faith (Shahada)
Giving Alms/Charity (Zakat)
Fasting During the Month of Ramadan (Sawm)
Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)
When it comes to Ramadan for young children like mine, there is no better way to teach them than implementing practices of both fun and learning. Engaging them in activities that feed their interests means that they are much more likely to retain information.
It’s amazing to see the assortment of Ramadan decor available at national retailers such as Target and Amazon. I purchased Ramadan lanterns for the kids, and we decorated our home with majestic lights, crescent moons, and other arts and crafts the kids and their friends enjoyed. Noah and Liyana also look forward to the ‘Countdown to Eid Calendar,‘ and put a star sticker on, each day before bed.
Charity and Gifts
Charity supports building a strong foundation for children and demonstrates to them that their actions, no matter how big or small, can make a difference. I strongly believe that good habits instilled during childhood go a long way. The kids have been packing gift bags filled with toys and food packages for local orphanages. I have partnered with other Muslim families to create Ramadan cards for the victims of the Syrian and Turkish earthquakes.
Songs and videos
Another form of educational content that we have introduced to our kids is singing and watching animated videos — after all, we are in a tech generation! Below are some options for child-friendly and lyrical songs to teach your children about Ramadan.
Community is an integral part of a Muslim’s life and even more so important during Ramadan. It shows the profound significance of relationships to humanity. As a Muslim parent, it is important for me to make my kids excited about community-based traditions such as Eid-ul-Fitr. This year we will be taking the kids to the Washington Square Park Eid Event where there will be many family-friendly activities.
Whether it’s decorating our home during this blessed month, Ramadan-themed coloring books, bedtime stories or our ‘Countdown-to-Eid’ calendar, the best part of it is that we do it all together, as a family.
Wedding season is in full swing as the world resets from the coronavirus pandemic that halted mass events for years. Indo Caribbean weddings have rich diversity due to their varying religious and regional intricacies, but are generally large celebrations that require planning, coordination and preparation. Growing up, I was both excited and stunned at the busyness associated with streamlining a multi-day wedding celebration.
The vibrant diaspora of first-generation young adults and their families may look to vendors who can understand the nuances of Indo Caribbean weddings. Below are five Indo Caribbean vendors you need to know about this wedding season!
A self-taught mehndi artist for more than 16 years, Anil Deonarine was fascinated by the delicate, deeply stained details that adorned the hands of Indian actresses and classical dancers. His passion for art inspired him to watch YouTube tutorials and meticulously freestyle designs on his sister’s hands.
Soon after, he began practicing mehndi on himself and perfected his signature designs that drew inspiration from traditional Rajasthani textiles and Arabic floral patterns. Deonarine is also known for his speed, and can craft a flowing, freestyle design in 3-5 minutes without much pre-planning that is symbolic and personalized to the individual.
As a member of the Indo Caribbean, Latino and LGBTQ communities, mehndi was a therapeutic means of growth for Deonarine at the intersection of his identities. With his mother’s aid, he began introducing mehndi to those that celebrate Quinceneras, Noche Buena (Christmas Eve Dinners) and Three Kings’ Day. Within the greater South Asian community, Deonarine frequently applied mehndi on family and friends for weddings/events and participated in cultural events such as holidays.
He initially faced some negative reactions from members of the South Asian community as a male artist, such as being chastised that mehndi is only for women, called slurs and told to stick to traditionally manly activities. However, Deonarine instead focused on bettering his skills, advocating and supporting other male artists, and soon built a loyal and excited clientele that fully supported and accepted him. It is his dream to design mehndi at a queer wedding to further defy stereotypes and champion mehndi’s inclusivity for all, irrespective of race, sexual orientation, religion or gender.
Offering soy candles and natural soaps, Diana Sookram’s products have been used as bridal shower and wedding favors and gifts in bridesmaid, bachelorette and groomsmen boxes.
Sookram began creating natural products in 2016 after her daughter developed respiratory issues from store-bought candles. She fell in love with the creation process and soon began taking small-batch orders from family, friends and co-workers. Now, she is expanding her business through summer networking socials and prepping for mass orders during wedding season by stocking up on top-selling supplies such as small candle jars, lids and soap packaging.
Sookram’s products can be color and scent customized to match the theme of any occasion. Popular scents during wedding season include beach linen, honeysuckle jasmine, lavender and chamomile and honeysuckle rose. Whether a couple envisions a beachy, garden or opulent wedding, Sookram is able to create complementary colors and scents.
She admits the hard work that goes into promoting a small business and jumps at the opportunity, particularly within the Indo Caribbean community, to network and collaborate.
Fresh flowers are a staple in weddings and plentiful throughout the Caribbean. In some Indo Caribbean weddings, couples exchange garlands of fresh flowers, called malas, to signify their consent and joy in choosing one another as partners. This fundamental ritual dates back to ancient times and is deeply symbolic, as malas also adorn the statues of gods and goddesses in Indo Caribbean temples.
Since the age of seven, Mallika Balgobin sat alongside aunties and uncles in temple and watched them handcraft malas. She was inspired to learn the techniques and in 2018, established her business, Vibrant Garlands, to make and sell malas for special occasions.
Balgobin finds the preservation and teaching of traditional craft vital to her Indo Caribbean heritage, as she is able to make malas for some of the community’s biggest events such as weddings, religious ceremonies, holidays and funerals.
Her recent 2023 trip to South India aided her in learning new techniques and she was encouraged by how the tiniest, simplest flower is arranged to symbolize auspiciousness and beauty. For weddings, Balgobin loves stringing white carnations, red roses, baby’s breath and pink lilies to evoke feelings of unity and love. Balgobin works with couples to customize fresh flowers. She provides fresh flowers or suggests couples buy the flowers of choice prior to customization.
The pulsating and electrifying rhythms of live tassa are a grand component of Indo Caribbean weddings. Since 2017, G Star Tassa Group has brought unique beats and energetic vibes to Indo Caribbean special occasions. While derived from Indian traditional drumming, tassa is a distinct musical experience particular to the Caribbean. It is generally associated with the splendor of wedding festivities due to the excited ambiance it produces. When arriving at a wedding where tassa is performing, the music is loud and center, indicating that a celebration is taking place.
Watching, listening and dancing to tassa is a multisensory experience that heightens the audience.
For the members of G Star, playing tassa is a means of, “expressing culture, rather than representing it. When we play, we like to believe we are invoking emotions from every person who can hear it. Our culture embodies happiness, togetherness and love, all of which can be found in the sweet sound of Tassa.”
Photography and videography offer couples some of the strongest mementos to relive their special day. Nicholas Mangal at DvS Photography brings high energy and professionalism to capture the right angles, looks and moments of a wedding. Located in both New York and Florida, Mangal prides himself as one of the only individuals in the Indo Caribbean community who shoots and edits both photography and videography in specially curated, all-inclusive packages for couples. With an emphasis on portraits, he personally caters to each couple and involves them after the shoot in the editing and final stages of his products.
Mangal understands the complexity that can accompany an Indo Caribbean wedding, but believes that this, “forces me to think outside of the box and create new perspectives, ensuring that I try different styles.”
He loves to document the aesthetics of Indo Caribbean weddings, from the rich embroideries of the outfits to colorful decor.
Ultimately, he aims to highlight the timeline of wedding rituals by capturing people in motion and interacting with the crowd to create lifelong memories that the couple can cherish forever. For Mangal, photography/cinematography is a deeply subjective form of art that can be used to capture the unique beauty and experience of Indo Caribbean weddings.
These vendors bring an important cultural and niche aspect to the Indo Caribbean wedding industry. Their products and brands are tailored to the community. As a 2023 bride, I am excited to see the diversity of vendors available to help guide and support those getting ready to begin their new journey of married life.
To inquire about services, please visit the vendors’ social media pages.