In the past few months conversations about sexual violence and assault have been in the news, from respected directors to actors being outed as sexual abusers.
The movement, dubbed #Metoo and #TimesUp, have allowed for discussions around violence against women as not only an industry norm within Hollywood but across all sectors as well. However, criticisms of the movement point out that the majority of the women and cases that are highlighted are those of white women- and that they happen to be running them as well. Sexual violence happens to all women who exist within patriarchal societies; however black, indigenous and women of color are often demographically subjected to more sexual violence yet are seldom mentioned, much less central, in these conversations.
When looking at these movements there needs to be an understanding that conversations around rape culture, toxic masculinity and consent need to happen within different communities as well, particularly within the South Asian community.
[Read More: How I Overcame my Hesitancy to Write #MeToo]
The South Asian community is an incredibly diverse and multi-faceted community that has a plethora of different cultures, ethnic groups, languages, religions and more. With that understanding, there is room to discuss the issues that South Asian women experience as commonalities around sexual violence, assault, and consent. While a lot of South Asian women exist in different cultural contexts, there is a notion of purity being tied to the dignity that persists as a common thread; this refers to ideas of respectability to their sexual encounters and essentially can dictate their ability to navigate within their communities and families. This is a phenomenon that affects all women in patriarchal societies; however, it takes different forms in different communities and places.
When searching for examples of the South Asian community having wider and public discussions about sexual violence it is evident that there are not many cases, much less those where the narrative is lead by South Asian women themselves. The Aqsa Parvez case which took place in Canada was covered by the mainstream media with the blame placed on “barbaric cultural practices.” Another recent case that comes to mind was of Stacy Singh which wasn’t reported widely aside from a handful of local publications.
The reality is that there are thousands of unreported cases that are on the spectrum of sexual violence within the community and that there is a lack of discussion or even acknowledgment. In a U.S. study interviewing 208 South Asian women, it was reported that 21.2 percent of South Asian women have experienced sexual and/or physical abuse via their intimate partner, while “14.9 percent reported such experience during the previous year.”
Different organizations that work with South Asian women on issues regarding sexual violence all agree that there are indeed many unreported cases. These examples can be seen from Canada, to the US and UK as well where there seems to be a strong theme of underreporting and an even stronger knowledge that sexual violence is happening in the community.
There is an unwritten code of silence regarding domestic, sexual and familial abuse which is why most cases go unreported within the wider community. Furthermore, there is a dismissal of these cases within the mainstream as “cultural practices” or “honor-related” when in reality there are complicated cases of violence. Even with the coverage of the Aqsa Parvez case, there was blatant xenophobia in mainstream coverage with headlines and articles suggesting that violence was inherent solely to the South Asian community when the reality is that sexual violence affects all women. The reality is that between the stigma within the community and the lack of trust with institutions such as the police, this leaves many women falling between the gaps. Furthermore, there are Canadian studies that strongly suggest that when women of colour report “violence, particularly rape, their experiences are often taken less seriously within the criminal justice system.”
Furthermore, social services aren’t equipped to train their staff on sexual violence, consent or rape culture adequately for women, let alone women of color at this moment in time. This becomes even more complicated when classism, legal status, language barriers and fear of being outed to community or family are concerned. Some frontline workers, such as police, aren’t trained on these aspects of sexual violence and therefore there is a conception from multiple communities that they can’t disclose their cases of sexual violence safely. These issues are apparent and in particular, disproportionality affects black and brown women as when communities can’t access services meant to assist them, they often have nowhere else to go.
When we speak about the #MeToo or #TimesUp campaign we only see certain stories and narratives shared, even though sexual violence is something women from all walks of life are familiar with. For every woman who is able to disclose her story, there are so many more who are unable to due to family or community ties that they can’t sever. When it comes to the spectrum of sexual violence, the reality is most women aren’t exempt from either knowing of cases like these or experiencing it themselves. In particular, for South Asian women, these discussions represent a plethora of untold, unreported and often unbelieved stories, which is why it’s a pivotal turning point for the South Asian community to be given space to share their stories and to confront issues at home and stereotypes within the wider community.
Furthermore, when campaigns like #MeToo or #TimesUp are created, the people are most affected and least serviced need to be at the front lines- this means black, indigenous and brown women that live within multiple intersections of class, race, religion, legal status and much more. A movement solely for white women, by white women isn’t new or daring- it’s simply an injustice and disservice to truly working on eradicating sexual violence for all women, especially those who have been silenced by communities, families and systems.
Manaal is a writer, artist, graphic designer and community organizer in Toronto. She writes primarily about issues pertaining to violence against women, Islamophobia, South Asia and race using the conceptual frameworks of anti-oppression, intersectional feminism and post-colonial theory.