I live in your city. I live among all of you. You know me. But you don’t know what I hide.
I grew up in an abusive environment. My immigrant parents, believing they were doling out tough love, never relinquished an opportunity to try to “straighten me out.” My earliest memory of being beaten is the age of 3 or 4. I didn’t finish my milk. And I lied about it. The thing is, I hated milk. It made me gag. A feeling of repulsion would come over me as the glass came close to my mouth. I tried to talk to my parents about my extreme dislike. They wouldn’t listen. “There are children starving around the world. You will drink it.” This became a metaphor for every struggle between me and my parents. Somebody would score higher than me on a math test – the whip came out. If I didn’t say please, I would be slapped for being impolite. I was bound and tied, mouth taped and beaten until I had welt marks on my arms and back for the smallest of things.
This lasted for years, mostly at the hands of my father. But my mother never said anything. She stood by him silently, his loyal subject. The emotional abuse was even more scathing – “Why were you born to us,” “Go to hell,” or “You’re ugly.” It’s amazing how much a child’s brain processes. I felt unloved and scared most of my childhood. Lying became my defense mechanism, hoping each time that that would be the one time I wouldn’t get caught. Somehow I always was, and my body, mind, and heart would bear the brunt of the beatings.
When I was 13, we went on an overseas trip to visit family in my parents’ homeland. We were staying at a relative’s home. There was another young man staying there at the time – an adult distant cousin to one of my cousins, not related by blood. I can’t remember all the details of that visit. I remember playing an innocent game of “hide and seek” and finding a great hiding place behind a hut. That distant cousin was hiding with me. Suddenly, his mouth was on my mouth. Before I could even internalize what was happening, he started telling me how pretty I was and how he thought he was falling in love with me. For a child who had never received any emotional love, his affirmations were music to my ears. When he would touch me, I remember freezing, not knowing if I should resist for fear of being beaten. These clandestine interludes continued until we left – I honestly can’t remember if it was a few days or a couple of weeks. We returned home, and I never heard from him again.
Somehow, I knew enough not to share anything about that experience with my family. A year later, in a high school English class discussing “Romeo and Juliet,” I found myself sharing some of the “details” from that family trip with a close friend. My English teacher overheard me and pulled me outside of the classroom. A sense of fear and dread washed over me – once again, I believed I had done something wrong and I was about to suffer the repercussions. Once outside, however, her concerned voice allayed me. She didn’t poke or prod or ask me uncomfortable questions. Instead, she told me that nobody should ever touch anyone without permission, and more importantly, that an adult should never take advantage of a child in that sort of inappropriate manner.
It was only at that moment that I realized the violation that had occurred during that trip a year earlier. I felt dirty and ashamed all at once. My teacher sensed my anxiety and asked me if there was anything I wanted to share with her. I decided right then and there that I would bury the experience and never speak of it nor think about it again. I looked at my teacher and told her, “No.”
My high school years went by and the physical and emotional abuse at home intensified. Nothing I did was good enough. My grades weren’t up to par with my parents’ friends’ children. I was a failure in every sense. I often thought about suicide, not because I lost the will to live, but because I wanted to find a way to inflict pain on my parents. But then I decided they didn’t love me enough to even feel pain if I was no longer around. Killing myself would only give them what they wanted – a life without their miserable daughter.
I couldn’t wait until college – it represented freedom from my hell. However, once I did get to college, I didn’t have the skills necessary to navigate the maze of social situations. Alcohol, boys, all of which had been previously taboo, were now no holds barred. After all, my parents were no longer around. I met a young man – we had so much in common. We started hanging out, and before long, we were dating. As things progressed, we went a little bit too far one night without any sort of protection. Thinking I was being responsible, I went to the health clinic the next morning and received a prescription for birth control pills. I started taking them as soon as I could, but it was already too late. That one indiscretion led to an unwanted pregnancy. I had no other recourse but to get an abortion. I was so grateful for that choice. I knew that I would never be able to face my family with the alternative. Before I even had a chance to process the emotional implications of my actions, I retreated to my modus operandi – I compartmentalized the experience and buried it in the recesses of my mind.
After the procedure, I tried to go back to some semblance of a normal, student life. It didn’t work. My relationship fell apart, many of my friends began to judge me for my decision, my health began to deteriorate, and my grades began to suffer. I was forced to move back home, and the hell from my childhood resurfaced. The abuse began almost instantaneously. I felt trapped and suffocated and existed quite lifelessly. It was impossible to focus on school.
After a couple of years, quite by happenstance, I met another young man. He was thoughtful, funny, and most of all, kind. We dated secretly for a few months and decided at some point to get married. Not only did I want to spend the balance of my life with him, but marriage also provided a respite from the abusive life I was leading at home. This, I thought, was my chance at happiness. We got married – but I never finished college. I didn’t tell my husband nor anybody else; instead, I jumped into work and we led what I thought was an idyllic life. Years passed. We had children. They grew up and settled into their own lives. My life was normal. And I thought my secrets and the horrors from my childhood were behind me.
But, as I have found out, nothing ever leaves you. Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Pain has a way of morphing itself inconspicuously. The sting, however, would unknowingly pierce every decision I ever made. The triggers from last week’s Kavanaugh hearings have almost been too much. A tsunami of guilt, memories, and regret overcame me as I listened to a virtual stranger on my television recount the same fear, anxiety and pain that I have tried to suppress for decades. The familiarity was palpable. The buried hurt, the violation of trust, the searing words have all resurfaced. And I don’t know what to do with all of these emotions.
Seeing my ordeal in words as I type them for the world to read is surreal to me, as I’ve shared only bits and pieces of my past with fewer than a handful of people. Yet, I find myself bound and tied, once again – this time by society. And by virtue of my immigrant family, I find myself living in two different worlds – modern-day America, through whatever lens it is viewed, and the culture of my roots that is often mired in patriarchy and misogyny. Those cultural battles are almost always difficult to fight. The stigma of my past would practically banish me from my circles, or so I fear. I wouldn’t be able to withstand the whispers or the conversations behind my back.
The other side of it is that my story is not mine alone – it’s inextricably woven along with my siblings’, parents’, friends’, family’s experiences. Publicly sharing my ordeal would be putting an undue burden on them – protecting their anonymity and privacy is important to me. But trauma doesn’t have a shelf life – even if specifics aren’t remembered, the pain is real. My abuse was real. My sexual assault was real. And those experiences adversely affected much of my decisionmaking throughout my life. Their imperceptible tentacles always had a grasp, even when I didn’t realize it.
As I listen to people question Dr. Ford and other victims, I so badly want to shout out, “Me Too!” and let my truth set me free. The reality is, though, that as a society, we haven’t created enough safe spaces for our stories to be told without judgment and without consternation. And even though the #MeToo movement has created some sense of the scope and vastness of the issue of sexual assault, I still wonder if it runs true in my cultural community. But I’m too afraid to test the waters. I worry that I will be shunned for misinterpreting moments or remembering incorrectly, or worse, be blamed for someone else’s inability to control their actions.
I shouldn’t have to live through this labyrinth of self-doubt and pain and take it to my grave. I can’t stop the thoughts that are now permeating my mind. I need to unpack – the load is just too heavy. These are the wounds that time can’t heal. So I hide behind a computer screen hoping my words will resonate with someone – maybe a parent who is confusing abusive behavior with discipline, or a young child who is living a similar nightmare. And maybe my story will encourage them to seek help or to talk to someone.
I write this also because I live in your city. I am your friend, and your sister, your wife, and your daughter. I sit alongside you at ball games, bunco, galas, board meetings, book clubs, concerts, and parties. I am next to you. Yet I am all alone.
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Search “why don’t Indians smile in photos?” on Google and you’ll find an astounding 6,760,000 results trying to get to the bottom of this age-old question.
Despite having rich, celebratory cultures, it’s no secret that South Asians and the diaspora alike are known for being reserved with their emotions. Expressing ourselves — crying, smiling, laughing, even speaking — out of place is often looked down upon. And Indian-born comedian Zarna Garg has had enough of it.
“Culturally, we’ve been told ‘keep your gaze low. Don’t look people in the eye, all in the name of respect,’” Garg pointed out, with her signature fervor, as we chatted.
“And laughing? Forget that. Don’t smile, nothing. Don’t show any indication of joy. And it’s absolutely outrageous!”
A former lawyer, and mother of three living in New York, Garg has been taking the American comedy scene by storm with her unique voice and brand of humor. She believes that brown people, and especially brown women, “have a right to laugh,” and she’s on a mission to make sure they do.
Though it’s only been four years since Garg took the stage, she’s already entertained millions of people across the country, and beyond, through social media, sold out shows, and her critically-acclaimed Amazon special,“One in a Billion.”
But what the comedian really wants is to get people talking, and not just about herself. On her new podcast, aptly named “The Zarna Garg Show,” Garg sits down with her family twice a month to get comfortable with the uncomfortable — discussing, and even laughing, at topics that brown families tend to avoid such as sexuality and parenting styles.
We at Brown Girl Magazine sat down with Garg to dive deeper into this project, her journey, as well as the impact she hopes to make with it all.
Space for a “happy brown woman”
After being a lawyer and then a stay-at-home mom for 16 years, Garg found herself in search of new opportunities. She said she made several failed attempts as an entrepreneur and felt stuck.
“I thought that my time was best spent doing something that no one else was doing; something where I could have a real, unique touch,” she shared.
However, despite always being a strong writer — she wrote an award-winning screenplay — a creative career never seemed like a viable option.
“First of all, when you’re a mom, whatever your kid tells you is wrong,” she joked, recalling how her daughter was the first to encourage her to try stand-up comedy.
She scoffed at the suggestion, not understanding how telling jokes could be a real career that made money. It wasn’t until she actually set foot in a comedy club that she began to see the possibilities.
“That first day changed my life,” Garg continued. “I was like, what? This is an art form? I realized there was a space for a ‘happy brown woman’ telling stories. Not heavy-sad stories, but just goofy stories, stupid stories, sexy stories, regular women’s stories about our lives — not the stuff Hollywood loves to make about our people.”
Garg also realized there wasn’t really anyone else like her in the space. No one was talking about, not just Indian culture, but being a mom, wife and immigrant in a lighthearted way that people could relate with.
“When I started looking around, I was like, ‘No one’s doing this. Why isn’t anybody doing this?’ That set me on a journey of thinking even deeper and harder about our culture; the things we are okay talking about and those we shy away from.”
The taboos Garg uncovered became the foundation of her material. She jokes about marriage, motherhood, in-laws and Indian stereotypes — but not to everyone’s delight.
The comedian frequently shares some of the critical direct messages she receives on Instagram.
And she welcomes these individuals with a smile, saying “Namaste haters.”
“I invite my haters to my comment section to get involved and hear the other side. Listen, you might change your mind. You might just see why everybody is getting on board the Auntie Z train.”
Garg also reflected on the supportive, yet enraging, messages she’s received from South Asian women abroad who watch her videos in secret.
She explained, “There are people who find my videos funny but don’t openly acknowledge it. They’re so scared that if their husband finds out that they like a mother-in-law joke or something like that, they’ll get in trouble, and it’s completely preposterous.”
Garg wants to use her platform to raise awareness and start conversations about these issues. She discussed how brown women are often taught to be obedient and respectful to the point where they tolerate abuse, and how the policing of her comedy is merely a small example of these bigger problems.
“Mother-in-law humor, family humor is older than the hills,” she continued. “But, as brown women, we are expected to be the culture police. It’s like if your mother-in-law is pouring gasoline over you and lighting you on fire, you’re supposed to say ‘thank you, thank you mummy ji.’ What are you, nuts? When I point these things out, I get trolled, but then, every few months, something really bad happens in India or elsewhere.”
Garg considers herself extremely lucky to live in a place where she has the freedom to do and speak as she wants.
“I’m not speaking about you or me. I’m not worried about me. I’m speaking out about all of us — my sisters, my in-laws, the extended family of brown women that we are part of.”
And her voice doesn’t stop at just women’s issues. Garg’s podcast is her latest effort to push the envelope and spark important conversations brown families should be having.
“I asked myself ‘If I’m in a position to open conversations that otherwise have been taboo, how best can I use that power and broadly reach people?’ That’s what inspired the podcast. I feel like the time has definitely come when [brown people] have to join the rest of the world and have these conversations. Our kids are out there living life. It’s not okay for them to be completely unaware and drifting into social situations with no idea what they’re talking about. I wanted to come to our community and to our world with the authentic truth.”
In the premiere episode, you get just that.
Garg’s children open up about sex, its role in their individual social circles and age groups, and how they felt their parents handled the topic at home. The discussion is full of bold moments, but also plenty of laughs as is Garg’s modus operandi.
On Labor Day weekend, she even hosted live recordings of the podcast in New York City where fans could attend with their loved ones, have a Q&A with the Gargs, and play some games. The event will return in November during the New York Comedy Festival.
The comedian hopes that her playful approach shows people that having a conversation doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating.
“People often misunderstand my videos and stuff. It could look like I’m seriously reprimanding my daughter. I get it! But even that right there generates a first conversation. Even when you fully understand what I’m doing, it’s enough to open the door.”
People reach out to Garg regularly telling her how one of her videos or tweets encouraged them to call their children or parents to have a conversation and she couldn’t be happier.
More than meets the eye
“I’m as Indian as they come.”
Garg joked describing herself, and she is, but there’s also much more to her than meets the eye. While, on the surface, her proudly-worn bindi and modest style may have some thinking she’s just another “Indian auntie,” it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Garg left India at the age of 16 to escape an arranged marriage. She met her husband, Shalabh, in 1997 through Internet dating. She left behind a law career to take a chance on a creative endeavor that was completely unknown to her and she wants to see more people do the same.
“Comedy is a young person’s game and I really wish I started at least 10 years before I did. Now, I tell my own kids, and I’m saying this to all [readers]: ‘there has never been a better time to take a chance at something new. Do it as a side hustle. Do it as a hobby. Do it as a weekend thing. Whatever it is, just get going. You owe it to yourself to take that shot and see if it’s gonna work. Don’t be worried about failure, be worried about not trying.”
Garg is challenging every brown norm and stereotype, and that includes helping Indians smile.
“We’re very stressed out people. We love stress. I feel honored and blessed to be a catalyst in our community who is bringing joy and openness of culture. I’m not a movie star or anything, but there are times when people see me from a distance and I see a smile on their face. People associate me with humor and joy and I’m so grateful for that.”
You can learn more about Zarna Garg’s upcoming shows and projects on her website, or follow her on Instagram and TikTok to get involved in the conversation. “The Zarna Garg Show” podcast releases new episodes on the 1st and 15th of every month and is available on YouTube, Spotify, and all other major streaming platforms.
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.
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.