Raising Our Voices
I graduated from Hunter College with a degree in Psychology. I was born and raised in Richmond Hill, NY, in a diverse neighborhood with a large and flourishing Punjabi population. This upbringing and my experiences in my community have largely contributed to my perspective on the issues that matter a lot to me. One such set of topics that I’d like to discuss further are women’s issues.
Women’s issues regarding health, sexual assault, body image, etc. In many ways the community failed to prepare young women for the experiences they would possibly have. As a result many ended up blaming themselves for the things they have experienced.
Unfortunately, as I try to reminisce on the past years, I cannot recall any discussions with any women of the community on any women's issues. I do however recall being told what not to wear so I wouldn’t attract the wrong male attention, because of course it was my choice of attire which would ultimately decide how men would treat me. It was my first year of highschool and like every other freshmen I felt a wide array of emotions about the next four years of my teen life. However, I never expected that my first few memories of highschool would include sexual assault. Honestly speaking, it was three years later that I discovered that I had been through was sexual assault. As unfortunate as it was, I had not been familiar to the term at the time of the incident. Why would I be? It was a term that was never mentioned in my household. You only hear of such stories or incidents from your peers and friends, but never think you would go through it yourself. At the time of the assault I knew what the boy had done was wrong, because it felt wrong. However, for a long time I thought to myself, “well he didn’t rape me so what does that mean”. I didn’t know how to tell my family, afraid that immediately the blame would be go to me. I thought that perhaps I had done something to lure him my way instead of thinking about his actions and how wrong they were. Eventually, I mustered the strength to tell my brother and later on my parents. My family was supportive of me and understanding, however I cannot say other girls in the community would have the same support, which is a huge issue.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always questioned why it was so challenging to have a discussion on violence against women in the Indian community in America. Why was there red tape on discussing gender based violence in South Asian communities as opposed to open discussion in western societies? Rape, sexual assault and even body image/ confidence are topics that are rarely mentioned in an Indian household. Additionally, something as natural as periods are still not openly discussed in Indian households. The men of the family are culturally not expected to be a part of such discussions. Many fear that by bringing up such taboo topics will raise an interest of sex in young girls, . However, I could never understand why mothers or sisters didn’t sit down and talk about such crucial topics. Personally, I would have much rather learned about periods from my mother than the school's nurse, but life goes on.
I started noticing that the older I got the more comfortable my mother became talking to me about sexual health, body image, boys, and rape. My father on the other hand, still shied away from such topics. Unfortunately when news of the gruesome Delhi rape case appeared on the television screen that my father started to have some small talks on the subject. Although I was happy that he was beginning to even bring up the topic, some of his thoughts and ideas did upset me as a women. I had to quickly remind myself that his mentality had been set this way because that’s what he had been taught. My saving grace was my older brother, surprisingly, who never shied away from any topic and taught me the power of no. Sadly, not all brothers or men in general are as open as we wish they could be.
After years of questioning and frustration on the subject, I was beyond thrilled when an opportunity came about to create a safe space for these discussions. Earlier this year in February, I had the pleasure of meeting Pooja Raj, a social worker for Sakhi for South Asian women. The organization works to end violence against women in South Asian communities.
I couldn’t think of a better collaboration for the workshops. We were all eager to begin a discussion with women and girls in Richmond Hill in an effort to discuss and bring awareness to sensitive issues such as sexual assault, rape, self esteem and defining what these terms mean in a local context. Gurleen, Charan, and I met with Pooja and were all shocked and almost relieved after realizing we weren’t the only ones who had been through or known someone who had been through sexual assault. Until now, we only heard of sexual assault cases on the news channels or by the few people brave enough to speak about it. Having grown up in Richmond Hill we knew Richmond Hill itself did not have a safe place in which these issues could be discussed.
Pooja’s social work experience was very beneficial for the workshops. She offered a very professional outlook for the events. Her experience working with women from all walks of life helped her connect with the girls and she was able to create a safe environment for everyone. She began each workshop with a safe circle, in which we all got together and established a judgement free and comfortable environment for everyone. Working with a social worker for an event as sensitive as ours was very important. Her office offered a space out of Richmond hill, which was great. We came up with the idea to have a workshop not only to raise awareness but also to create a safe space in which girls felt safe to share their stories, seek help, or educate themselves. During the workshop several emotions were triggered, some statistics left women outraged while others were left near tears. This workshop was very important as it started a much needed discussion among South Asian women on how to be safe and how to possibly help victims or sexual assault. More often than not women, especially in the Indian community women find it difficult to share any experiences they might have had with sexual assault. This problem also comes from a lack of knowledge on the subject. When it comes to defining what sexual assault actually is, many assume it is just rape. However, as we all came to learn through this workshop was that it’s much much more. Sexual assault varies from verbal abuse, catcalling, online abuse, and also rape.
Initially, my fears about beginning the workshops included not having a good turn out and how the workshops would be perceived the girls in the community. I questioned whether girls would trust to confide in us and support our endeavours. Such workshops have been done before but not in the Richmond Hill area, that I was aware of. I only hoped it would be a success however I knew just getting girls to come out would be difficult. It’s not as easy as saying, “Hey mom, I’m going to a women’s support group”. However, we started off great for the first workshop, we had about a total of six girls and in the second we had a few more. Our ultimate goal was to start small because we wanted to get a discussion started which we could later continue with a larger crowd. It was a test run which in our eyes was a success.
The girls that attended were Punjabi girls from the community from the ages of 20 to 25. All felt comfortable to share their stories which was very important to us. We all realized how much we downplayed our experiences and how many of us never shared our experiences with our loved ones.
While debriefing the last workshop with Pooja I realized that I had learned a lot from the entire process. From our very first meeting to our last I found that I had grown and learned new things about myself and the people around me. The thing that caught me by surprise was how many other girls in the community, some even close friends of mine had gone through some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime. Additionally, I was taken aback by how many girls had low self esteem and body image, even those who I thought had the “desired” body type. It made me realize that no matter what they looked like or what they had been through, we were had one thing in common; the fact that we at some point left like we were going through it alone.
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