The Asian Silence


Sejal Sehmi

“Let’s be real, without a man in the house, an Indian woman’s life is pretty f****d up! The world is out to make sure of that!” I sip on my much needed glass of wine, listening intently as my friend and cousin discuss the hardships both their widowed mothers face within their communities. An hour later, we head down to the Shed theatre at South Bank, to watch Nick Payne’s contemporary play, Blurred Lines, an exploration that attempts to uncover perception versus the reality of gender equality in Britain today.


The 70 minute piece was certainly thought-provoking and controversial, highlighting not just how society often fails the female gender in its character portrayal – be it in the workplace, the media, or within the home; but more worryingly, how women themselves are dismissive of the fact that they continue to quietly accept and endure this representation. For some, ignorance is bliss, for many other women however, the path of silent existence is not out of choice.


Silence isn’t always golden, this was the undertone of the BBC’s The Asian Silence, a radio debate hosted by BBC Four’s Ritula Shah back in November 2013. Along with many other bloggers, activists and journalists, I too was extremely privileged to be a part of this debate to discuss how South Asian communities in the UK had been impacted by two key events in India and Pakistan one year on – the attack by extremists on fifteen year old Malala Yousafzai for taking a stand in a girl’s right to education, and the horrific gang rape of a young student in New Delhi, who sadly succumbed to her injuries.


Audience members were united in the belief that the global coverage for both stories had been phenomenal and within the UK, solidarity for our South Asian counterparts was very much alive in the form of debates, articles, petitions and protests on every corner including the Indian High Commission office in London, to voice that gender inequality and sexual violence towards women is simply inexcusable.


Within weeks of the Delhi gang rape incident, news stories of similar attacks in India suddenly spread like wildfire prompting the UK Home Office to issue an alert to females wanting to travel to India. Yet, the harsh reality is, in a country that prides itself on welcoming the Goddess Laxmi in their homes every New Year in the hope of gaining health and happiness, misogyny and sexual violence towards women has been a major issue in India for many years, so why the global outrage now?


The 23 year old victim in Delhi was an aspiring medical student, who happened to be travelling with a male companion one evening when she was brutally attacked. In spite of the universal outrage, there were still extremists who criticized her for not only travelling past 7pm, but for choosing to be accompanied by a male, thus provoking her attackers. It was this reaction that for me, and many other female audience members, tugged on a thread which forced us to become reflective and identify with this woman who had been ostracised for having a choice. What if it was anyone of us here in the UK, on the train, or on the bus?


In the case of Malala, where there are many British Indian women here who are trying to break the mould of building a career that is often not associated with “academia” amongst South Asian communities but slowly being accepted, not to be given a choice to education is predominately unheard of; hence the build-up of creating Malala as a voice to thousands of girls across the world is fully justified.


However, amongst the collective display of unity for justice for these victims, many campaigners and activists across the UK have been trying to highlight these vicious attacks to also remind us that sexual and domestic violence against women is a still burning issue amongst the South Asian community in the UK. Many of the audience members in the BBC studio questioned whether it was easier for British Asians to look outwards than to face their own injustices against women, particularly where so-called “family honour” is at stake. Is there the same level of outrage, anger and persistence for changes in attitudes when the victim is closer to home?


Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a UK women’s human rights establishment, have been fighting against domestic and gender related violence for the Asian and African-Caribbean ethnic groups for over thirty years, especially when the journey to justice for such women are often hindered by either lack of empathy or the social stigmas of family honour and shame from their own communities.


Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who in 1979, moved from the Punjab to the UK at the tender age of 23 to join her husband whom she had met just once, suffered ten years of extreme abuse. Cries to family members for help fell on deaf ears; regardless of her husband’s adultery and the extreme violence she endured, including rape and starvation; she was expected to continue to play the role of the dutiful housewife in a country that was alien to her. In 1989, she burned her husband in self-defence and his death prompted her murder conviction. When SBS finally brought her shocking history of abuse she suffered to the surface, her sentence was overturned to manslaughter and she was eventually released in 1992, representing a light of hope for many other Indian women who were forced to live a life of abuse and deceit.


Similarly, Zoora Shah, moved from Pakistan to the UK in Bradford after an arranged marriage in the 1970’s. Following years of violence and abuse, her husband eventually abandoned her and her children whilst she was expecting her fourth child. Shunned by family and with no refuge option, in her vulnerable state, she found solace in a friendship with local drug dealer, Mohammed Azam but soon found herself trapped in a vicious circle of sexual enslavement. When Mohmamed’s attention turned to her daughters as objects of lust, she took fate in her own hands and poisoned him before he could harm her children. Yet, her refusal to give any evidence in court in 1993 was a result of her belief that her daughters’ honour should remain untarnished. With the help of SBS and countless appeals she was finally released in 2006.


It took two tragedies to highlight this cultural myth of honouring the family reputation in return a woman’s sanity, loss of self-identity and safety.  Where there was sympathy and sheer outrage for Kiranjit’s plight, Zoora Shah’s case lacked the same media profile and coverage; many believed that her decision to befriend someone who was not her husband, sadly tainted her character regardless of the fact she was the one who had been abandoned by her husband.


So do British Asian women identify with this need to fulfil their duties to serve and honour or have they quietly accepted their pre-written fate because they feel nothing will change? Is the mythological character of Lord Rama’s wife Sita, whom he rescued from Ravan but asked her to jump in a fire to prove her chastity, expected to be instilled within every Indian wife and mother even today?


Last summer, I created a mini documentary called the Evolution of the British Indian Woman, to highlight the changing face of the British Indian woman through my own family tree. “Education and economic independence is what will ensure that no woman should suffer in silence and be supressed by a man,” these were my 80 year old grandmother’s words who came from a small village in India and settled here 30 years ago. Without access to either, she believed many Indian women, especially during her generation, found themselves forced to remain in unhappy marriages and often with little or no refuge. Coming to the UK, she ensured both her sons and daughters grabbed the opportunities around them to become independent. “It’s not just in the UK, but globally these key possibilities have created women into breadwinners too who can equally provide for their families, they no longer need to live in fear of verbal or physical abuse.”


But is the reality of such abuse still shunned within South Asian families? Seventeen year old British Pakistani Shafilea Ahmed, was murdered by her parents in 2003 for refusing to have an arranged marriage. It was only in 2012, that her younger sister’s crucial evidence finally resulted in their arrest. Shafilea’s suicide attempts and frustration of feeling trapped may have been known to her sister, but it was a fear of becoming the next victim that prolonged the justice Shafilea deserved.


At a time, where the UK has seen a huge growth in charities and refuges specifically for women of ethnic minorities, the fear of raising a voice suppresses even those who are aware of their options because their cultural base has already set the foundation of inequality. Malala Yousafzai is certainly a global inspiration, but for many girls in the UK who are not encouraged to talk, stereotyped by their attire, contested for challenging society and punished for it through forced marriage or violence, Malala, in their eyes, makes no difference.


Speaking to a Pakistani friend of mine, who too endured years of violence in an arranged marriage here in London, regardless of the support her brothers offered, it pains her that financially, no one but her husband’s family can aid her with her children’s future. Yet she is angered by the contradictory attitudes of her siblings who praise Malala’s bravery, but have foreseen their own young daughters’ fate, the oldest being eight, by reducing their time spent at school, restricting any interaction with boys, and moulding them to become the obedient housewives they are expected to be, forcing them into isolation before they can even enjoy a normal childhood. She states, “Why fight for my freedom, if they refuse their children a choice in life?”


A BBC Asian Network report back in January, recorded that so-called honour based violence failed to be reported in one in five police forces in the UK, either by lack of understanding the severity of such incidents or out of fear of speaking out.  Using religious institutions within communities to create an awareness was something that Chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK Shaista Gohir undertook last year by handing out postcards urging mosques to support their anti-violence campaign.


Although religious leaders hold an influential position within south Asian communities, many audience members at the BBC Asian Silence debate, argued that leaders of an older generation may be biased in towards the direction of upholding family honour, whilst others believed that news stories circulating about the grooming of young vulnerable girls for sex had an undertone on blaming specific communities and hence creating religious conflicts as opposed to addressing the issue.


Collective feminist platforms that urge women to voice their right to equality are faced with the battle that the term “feminist” goes against what is “culturally” expected from an Indian or Pakistani woman, as opposed to creating an awareness of how to tackle injustices against the female gender. Facing an injustice is not always just violent; women who are working and independent that I have spoken to in the UK, have expressed how adultery and abuse within the family is often brushed under the carpet and never spoken of, yet the same family members are outraged by an outsider’s grievance. 


“Indian men just want a mother figure!”, my friends would often joke when the topic of our single status arose. Yet when a woman covers up a man’s mistake for the sake of defending honour and protecting them, that statement seems far from a joke; and forcing a child to grow up within an environment where respect for a woman is disregarded will only ensue this vicious cycle to continue. “When I get home, it’s just another battlefield, another excuse for me to go and rot in hell,” harsh but honest emotions of a young teen who penned their thoughts on the reality that south Asians refuse to consider when faced with protecting so-called honour over stability.


A close friend of mine who married at a young age was trapped in unhappy marriage for years with a young child. Despite having a strong network of family and friends, she was oblivious of the impact this mental abuse had on her. “I lost my confidence and my identity,” she recalls. Being an educated and financially dependent woman, she took the brave step in starting afresh with her baby and with the support of her family. Despite protests about what was right for the child, she stood by her belief that allowing a child to be raised in an environment of instability and fear was inexcusable, and it is this belief that her child will respect her for.




Indian women are no longer just empowered by the jhaaru (broom)!


The stereotypes of an Indian woman’s role even today stretches from being dutiful to being an item of lust. We are the wife, mother of the children, we will cook, clean up and even allow the menfolk to eat first at family gatherings! If he is an adulterer, the wife is neglecting his sexual needs, and if it’s abuse, the abuser was provoked by what she was wearing.


This constant need to serve and honour to the extent where a woman’s self-identity is lost contradicts everything that the current generation are fighting to gain. Gone are the days where South Asian women were simply empowered by the jhaaru (indian broom)!  Difficult as it is to digest, unless we are willing to look inwards and face the reality of inequality, the Asian silence will continue to scream silently for generations to come.


Originally published on Twitter: @sejal_thefilm


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