I was made to feel ashamed for being a girl when I was growing up. Torn between my Indian and British roots. I am today the lotus that blossomed from the misogynous muddy waters.
In cultures across the globe women are framed with shame in one way or another. Shame comes in many forms. Labelling, belittling, disrespecting, insulting, abusing or just holding negative attitudes. Women in the west are not impervious to be made to feel ashamed. For example, menstruation is still so stigmatised. In some Asian cultures (not mine), girls are celebrated and showered with gifts for being fertile. However, here women hide tampons and sanitary towels, dodging every eye in sight like a ninja. Breastfeeding is another taboo. Women are also criticised for aging or putting on weight. Letting that saggy skin hang out is an outcry, let alone the humiliation of rape, sexual assaults and domestic violence. Though this is all very much down to individual experience, shame is always thrown at us.
I was born in the UK in the 80s. My mother came to the UK as a child and married my dad from India in the late 70s. Though my family adopted British values like Christmas, Easter and English food, they were still indoctrinated by a patriarchal system of their community. It should have been the best of both worlds, but I resented Indian culture at the time. I was told to “have shame” like a repeated broken record by my mother. This became a staple accessory for most girls from my tribe. The Punjabi word for shameless is “Besharam.” Nobody wanted that, so we stuck with shame. The “in” compliment was to be a “simple” girl and if you did not conform to that, then shame on you!
My whole early life in the 80s and early 90s was moulded to impress my “future in-laws and husband.” I was told I need to learn to cook and clean and be quiet. Why would I celebrate such a depressive culture? I desperately wanted to be part of British society but I was labelled and called a “coconut!” – More insults! I remember how sad it was to strip pictures of pop stars and footballers off my wall because I was told that “Indian girls don’t have pictures of men.” As soon as I hit puberty, I was made to feel worse. The cost of boobs was being forced to wear baggy unfeminine clothes. I never owned my femininity because it was so dirtied. There were so many expectations for girls but never boys. I used to hear people in the community bad mouth and slam girls. I would hear gossip about girls who wore make-up like it was a crime. Girls slated for seen wearing a skirt and shunned for talking to a boy! Girls often rebelled and lived double lives to escape this oppression. I didn’t blame them.
In Indian culture, there are two poles as far as I am concerned. One where women are revered as Goddess and the others where the women are marred in misogyny. My white friends would assume that my culture was curried and colourful and wanted to hear beautiful stories of my life. Apart from the food and music there was seldom positive aspects. I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair, they were; I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts and dresses, they were; I wasn’t allowed to express myself, and they were. I remember being at a family wedding and I thought that my bra strap was slightly on show. How I spend months worrying whether it was captured on film. I worried to the point of sickness of what people would think of me – yes over a bra strap! I would worry if they would affect my future proposals of marriage. Sad existence but I was so engrained. It never did show up on the video after all…
There were Asian families who didn’t have the same “shame” thing. They were liberal but so Indian. They could show their legs, cut their hair, have an open conversation with their parents and remain so Asian! I wanted that life and was going to create it. Looking back, I don’t resent my parents. It’s just the way it was and they followed what other people did. This had to end so the rebellion began.
Things changed slowly over time. I put pressure on my parents to allow me to cut my hair and with doing this I paved the way for my younger siblings whom had a delight of privileges. Times have defiantly changed now, thankfully. Now I do not have to wear shame because I have none. And if my bra strap is showing then oh well, I hope it’s nice and bright and in your face! I respect women who chose to dress modestly dress such as Muslim with nikabs and challenge any discrimination they face. But you do not need to be modest to be respected! Nudity empowers some. Modesty empowers some. I still have my self-respect and decadency; however, the feeling I get wearing a bikini on the beach or a pair of shorts is so liberating because I remember the days where I couldn’t imagine wearing that and feeling good about myself.
The proudness I have today for my heritage is a far cry from my childhood. I love celebrating it because now all that shame has been stripped. I can see the rich beauty that was hiding beneath. Though there are still many wrongs across diverse south Asian cultures. No one should feel shame, have shame or wear shame. I am today the lotus that has blossomed from the muddy misogynous water. Shit is the best fertilizer. Be a badass Besharam!
Author: Reena Kumari
Author Bio: Reena Kumari is British Born Asian woman. She has a background in arts, social research and is a qualified health and lifestyle adviser.