Seated at a dinner table a few months ago, I was hardly expecting the conversation to turn to wedding nights and women around me sharing their experiences. After all, sex or any sort of physical intimacy is rarely discussed in South Asian society. As I was the youngest and only unmarried member of the group of women seated on the table at the time, the unsaid expectation was that I would stay silent. But I realized the extent of this silencing about sexuality only when one of the women on the table shared just how little she knew about sex until the day she got married. Even then, on the night of her wedding, when she asked her mother what to expect, she was told, “Just do whatever your husband says.” She was 16 at the time. More than a decade after that conversation took place, she was sitting at a table with me, laughing about the incident. Everyone else laughed too, because women being uneducated about their own bodies and relationships was not only normal but in fact preferred.
I’ve replayed that conversation multiple times in my head, trying to figure out why no one saw how scary such a situation could be for a young girl and why the absolute lack of autonomy she had in that moment didn’t worry them more. Finding answers to my questions proved even more difficult because “good girls” aren’t supposed to ask questions about sex or want to know more about it. Yet at the same time, we also have to constantly deal with the fact that while we’re not allowed to understand our own sexuality or sexual health, everyone else continues to view us through that very lens. From shame about menstruation to policing of women’s clothes, South Asian women grow up under a sexualized gaze from a very young age— often with little authority in the matter.
Ananya Rao-Middleton, the creative director at Expert by Experience, a community-led organization that looks at mental health in South Asia, told New Lines how these taboos about sexuality force women into boxes of “good” and “bad.” “Both identities are formed around our sexuality, and so our sexuality is policed in order to ensure we conform to the ‘good’ South Asian woman identity and not fall into the ‘bad’ one. It is the policing and enforcement of these identities that create taboos around women’s sexuality. Taboos may include things like ‘you mustn’t have sex before marriage,’ ‘you mustn’t gain weight/get fat’ and ‘you mustn’t wear revealing clothes,’ ” she said.
This suppression of any conversation about sexuality is reinforced by the way South Asian culture is developed, particularly in its relation to gender roles and stereotypes. When everything from TV shows and movies to family expectations and social norms is telling a woman that her body isn’t her own, just how far can she go to change her own understanding of herself?
Creative entrepreneur Am Golhar, whose work focuses on advocating for diversity, remembers discussing the backlash to the Netflix show “Bombay Begums” because it openly discussed the realities of sex work, menopause and exploring sexuality in India. And, yes, many cultural observers argue that media representation of gender and sexuality is at least forcing a much-needed conversation, perhaps an easier one to have since we can pretend that we have nothing to do with the characters on the screen. But it is far from enough to depict a woman having sex on TV, because the stigmas around sexuality stretch far beyond the act of sex and sexual pleasure in and of themselves. Indeed, in South Asia, women’s sexuality becomes an inherent part of their identity — one that interlinks heavily with economic crises, climate disasters and everyday parts of their lives. The structures that dictate where women’s sexuality becomes enough of a threat for her to be married off at 15 or for the community to prevent her from accessing healthcare need to be understood beyond the act of engaging in sex itself if these stigmas are to be truly countered. I’ve also seen South Asian women experience a lot of negligence from the rest of the community when it comes to support and guidance on mental and sexual health. Many South Asian women do not feel able to discuss their mental health with their families and community because their issues are not taken seriously. Obviously, this is not something that is just an issue in South Asian communities. We live in a patriarchal world where women are constantly being dismissed and gaslit because we are assumed to be “hysterical,” “exaggerating” or simply just “not telling the truth,” said Rao-Middleton. In many rural areas in South Asian countries, health services are few and far between and women are rarely allowed to travel far to access healthcare if there isn’t a facility close by. When it comes to sexual and reproductive health in particular, gynecologist visits are limited to pregnancy because they’re not really seen as being needed otherwise.
“We tend to see our sexual health as women as something that is separate from how we were created and from being a part of ourselves,” said Sameera Qureshi, sexual health educator and Founder of Sexual Health For Muslims. Qureshi, who has worked in the field of sexual health for the last twelve years also points out how much of the work being done in terms of challenging stigmas is often limited because of the way in which we are made to understand what sexuality and sexual health is meant to be. “With the media and South Asian women, there’s a lot of misrepresentation of women’s bodies and self worth. Women are either overly sexualised or seen as being asexual and not having sexual health and sexuality,” she shares, adding that cultural and religious spaces use these barriers of beliefs and norms to limit understandings of women’s sexuality to marriage when infact sexual health is something that is an intrinsic part of ourselves.
Advocates of sex-positivity and sex education can also sometimes lay the entire blame on culture or religious communities, but questions then arise as to who makes up those cultural and religious spaces. Qureshi adds that there is an urgent need to understand the colonial impact of the understanding around sexuality that we see in South Asia today. She further points out how after years of work in the field of sexual health, she decided to start her organization because she felt a need to start a space that situated conversations and education around sex and sexuality within cultural and religious contexts rather than imposing them the other way around.
For Reetika Subramanian, it was only when she started working in some of India’s most poverty ridden, and often crisis-stricken areas that she realized just how much these economic, social and environmental pressures really add to these issues. As the Founder of Climate Brides, Subramanian’s organization explores the linkages between early marriages in South Asia and the climate crisis. Her findings report an alarmingly high rate of hysterectomies in women as young twenty-five, in the Indian region of Marathmara, which is drought-stricken and sees communities finding work in agricultural sectors which can often end up being up to 20 hours of labor a day. With informal settlements being created around agricultural work, women and girls find themselves with little security and at high risk of sexual violence. Subramanian shares with me that early marriages as young as 15 or 16 could be because parents see it as a solution to no longer being responsible for their daughter’s sexuality, and because lack of sex education otherwise leads many in South Asia to believe that once a girl gets her period, she is ready for marriage. Young girls in Pakistan often grow up being told they can do certain things after marriage and daughters in South Asia are often referred to as guests in their parents’ house until their marriage, waiting to be given away to their husbands at the right time.
But the hush-hush nature of sexual and reproductive health issues along with with early marriages often leads to a high number of unwanted pregnancies and in the areas where Subramanian works adds further physical strain to the bodies of women who are already enduring up to 12 hours of back breaking manual labor. “By the time many of these women are barely 25 or 26, they’ve already undergone multiple pregnancies and deliveries and coupled with the toll of the labor, end up dealing with side effects to their menstrual cycle, painful discharge or other issues that lead them to get hysterectomies,” Subramanian says.
The shockingly high rate of hysterectomies is far from the only health crisis that women have to face as a result of these stigmas about their bodies. Ignorance of their own bodies is normalized for women, and a lack of access to healthcare makes the situation only worse. “A single south Asian woman seeing a healthcare professional will be questioned, because gynecologist visits are limited to married women. Even healthcare professionals in South Asian often come with their own biases,” Qureshi says. One young girl told her that when she visited a gynecologist with the possibility of a vaginal infection, she was told that she couldn’t have one because she wasn’t married; her concern was brushed off. Healthcare professionals regularly refuse to take unmarried women seriously, often judge mothers who choose to have abortions and may advise against birth control because of personal biases.
Aside from the stigma, abortions are illegal in Pakistan. The difficulty in finding a healthcare provider who is willing to carry out the procedure puts many women at risk as they end up going to smaller illegal clinics that fail to provide a safe level of care.
She also talks about how difficult it is for sexual health issues to be diagnosed. Issues like PMDD (Pre Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder), a condition that often causes intense pain or other severe side effects during periods; PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), which can also affect menstrual cycles and/or fertility; or vaginismus, in which reflex cramping or intense pain in the vagina makes penetration almost impossible, commonly affect many women but are rarely talked about. “Most women are diagnosed with these [PMDD, PCOS and vaginismus] or other similar issues much later on in life. Without having knowledge or language to discuss these topics, I find a lot of women don’t know how to talk about their bodies, and if we don’t have language it only adds to shame,” says Qureshi. The ignorance, she says, comes from general lack of access to reproductive healthcare, which is starkly differentiated from general healthcare.
Not only does that shame limit access to physical reproductive healthcare for women, it also creates generations’ worth of trauma and mental health stigmas around sexuality for women in the region, and severely affects mental health as well. “Many South Asian women, for instance, suffer from depression and anxiety due to low self-esteem and negative feelings about our bodies. I believe that this is because we are brought up to look at our bodies through the lens of control and with a distinct sense that our bodies are not our own,” Rao-Middleton says. Like Rao-Middleton and her work with Expert by Experience, many women’s rights activists have decided that it’s time for an unsilencing around South Asian women’s sexuality — and one of the first places that needs to come from is family.
“Our families play a huge role in ensuring that we are ‘good’ South Asian women, and for this reason they are central to narratives we hear about our bodies. I think the main narrative told to South Asian women that I hear again and again surrounds the idea of shame. We should feel ashamed for having a body that is ‘too much’ — too curvy, too fat, too ‘provocative.’ Particularly from puberty, we are told that our bodies are the place where our family is either shamed or honored,” says Rao-Middleton.
Her sentiments are echoed by Paromita Vohra, the founder of Agents of Ishq, a digital project focused on giving sex “a good name.” Vohra tells me that an understanding of how South Asian culture is different from Western communities plays a key role in developing the right kind of help and care. “It’s a reality here that people are highly dependent on family and cannot cut those deep emotional ties and we cannot stigmatize them. We need to develop ways of care rooted in our context,” Vohra says.
The lack of local and relatable narratives is also the driving force behind creating Agents of Ishq, and the platform features stories by different people that give a glimpse into the reality of what a range of sexual experiences can be like. To a large extent, projects like Agents of Ishq are focusing on decolonizing generations’ worth of sexual stigmas that have boxed up sex into this specific definition that seeks to shame and harm women. “Agents of Ishq has reflective narratives. It’s not about heroes and victims, it’s that kind of reflective sharing of your narrative in a space that won’t use your narrative for some other purpose and its is important because readers realize they’re not alone in what they’re going through,” Vohrs says, presenting this example of building empathetic communities as one possible solution to moving past a culture of taboo and stigma.
But solutions cannot be one-sided, and social, individual and even political actions need to come together to create lasting change. While so much emphasis is often placed on community and structural action, Subramanian says that often the people we fault — older generations who impose these norms — may not be entirely the ones to blame. “Primary healthcare centers can initiate these conversations, engaging them more productively and in a more emotional manner [and] involving the family in some of these conversations and decisions,” she says. But, she says, families often feel their hands are tied despite wanting to do better because of a lack of access to finances or education regarding the issue. She adds that “engaging different stakeholders becomes key.”
Change is about moving beyond the binary choice of either wrapping up sex in complete silence or promoting hypersexuality. It’s about agency and allowing women to own their space and their bodies, both on their own and within their relationships. It’s about an unsilencing that is loud and radical. It’s time that more space is given to the voices doing just that.