The Disease of Slander and How to Cure it

Bollywood times

As an Indian Gujarati, I grew up watching Hindi movies depicting stereotypical gender roles and personalities such as: the domineering mother-in-law who believes no woman is good enough for her son; the dutiful daughter-in-law submissive, obedient and never speaking out for her rights; the interfering aunt who makes it her business to know everyone else’s; the son with no real backbone who just wants to be adored by his wife and mothered by his mother; and either the quiet and deferential father-in-law or the father-in-law who rules the household with an iron fist and against whom no-one can speak.

And the typecasts go on.

is TV an influencer?

This isn’t a one woman crusade against the Indian film or TV series industry, however I do believe that given its pseudo worshipped status amongst the Asian community, it has a role to play in how it depicts the various familial characters on screen, and the typical conflict and conspiracies which transpire between the personalities.

In a study of the effect of TV violence on children’s behaviour, Palermo* concluded that: “…it is not the programming per se that creates violence, but that the violent programs may influence negatively those individuals who are already violence-prone…”.

Taking the essence of this, would it not be fair then to say that if you were gossip prone and regularly following those TV series which promote patriarchy, familial infighting and power struggles, then you’re more likely to be negatively influenced and exude those same qualities in your own daily life?

keeping up with the Patels

Growing up, I noticed that in my community there was always a lot of interest in what others were doing; be it comparing one’s station in life or their children’s academic  performance. The effect of this was that others’ successes became the yardstick against which one had to measure up to show that they were equal, good enough or worthy to be in the same company.

Factors for comparison between families could be anything tangible such as money in the bank, property owned, accolades achieved, countries travelled to, parties hosted – if it was measurable, it counted – and was talked about.

The problem with this is that the bar isn’t static; people keep achieving things, buying things, travelling to new places. As such, many of us Asians are constantly striving, never being content with what we’ve achieved and where we are in life, because it doesn’t fare as well compared to some other person in the community.

Growing up, it was rare to see or hear someone simply being happy for another at their success – and leaving it at that. It always became the gauge for the next endeavour.

I recall as a child being unjustifiably chastised that so-and-so’s child had achieved 10 A’s at GCSE and am I really doing enough studying to ensure that I bring home the same results?

Constant comparisons.

About everything.

It was like being in a race – I an unwitting participant – and every time I approached the finish line, it moved.

self-examination

What is it that stops us from simply celebrating another’s success without immediately employing it as a barometer to measure how we’re doing? And why do we look for the negative in every success story – and then talk about that with others?

Blogger Angi* says:

“… When I’m suffering a scarcity in the fulfillment department, seeing others thriving can sometimes create a twinge of jealousy. That’s a subtle tap on the shoulder for me, a reminder that it’s time to search out more purpose in my life.”

GoodTherapy* says:

“People might gossip for a variety of reasons. Sharing negative information about others can be a method some individuals use to feel better about themselves… Sometimes gossiping can also be a way to get attention—knowing something no one else knows about another person can make a person feel important. In some cases, people may engage in gossip in order to feel accepted. If other people in a social group are spreading gossip, it may feel necessary to participate in order to fit in.”

Could it be that inherently, we feel a sense of unworthiness or a lack of purpose in our lives and the only way to reconcile this with ourselves is to look outwardly and bring others down to our miserable soul level? Is this so inextricably weaved into our culture that we don’t know how to function, i.e. how and what to say to people, if we don’t have gossip as a common denominator as the basis of our conversations?

If this is true, then it’s time to take stock and change gears if we want to leave behind us a culture which is all embracing, unified and wholehearted.

that aunty

Growing up, I recall an animated aunt (who doesn’t?) who’d circle the room at weddings  and download exactly what was happening in everyone’s lives; where the kids were studying (and what, after all, media/business/travel studies weren’t proper subjects), how many bedrooms their house had, what holidays they’d been on, extracting every bit of information which could be cooked up into salacious gossip and then redistributed to listening ears.

There was a running (not publicised) joke amongst us that if there was any key announcement to be made such as a birth, death or marriage, one needn’t inform people individually, simply let this aunt know and the news will have spread to all and sundry by nightfall.

Human nature is such that people love to talk about themselves so when my aunt was  providing her undivided attention, people wouldn’t think twice about responding to her intense and persistent questioning.

It was only after she’d left the conversation that they’d realise they’d imparted information their own extended family didn’t yet know and that apart from learning that the aunt’s son was marrying a doctor (“by God, they’re so wealthy; they live in a six bedroom house in Windsor, far out of our humble league”) they hadn’t gleaned anything about her family’s movements.

And then after all the mingling, the well wishing of the bride and groom and goodbyes to everyone who should know that she’s now leaving, she’d get in the car and and before the car exited the car park, the post mortem would start. It would go something like this:

“Did you see Chanchal Masi? She’s walking with a stick now. Her legs must be giving up on her. Anyway, she’s 72 now so she’s had a good life if it all ends tomorrow. God, Bharthi has put on so much weight! She had her baby three years ago so she should have lost it by now. After I had Manisha, I was back in my clothes within six months! And Harsha’s son is going to Oxford university this year. Funny how she was less quick to talk about her other son who was recently cautioned on drugs charges I heard. And that Magan Kaka’s son has bought a villa in Spain. His dad must have left him a good inheritance to suddenly be able to afford that. I remember when he got married, Magan Kaka only gave saris to Kaki’s sisters, no laani* or gifts for anyone else. It’s all people could talk about for ages; doesn’t bother me in the slightest, just what everyone else was saying. I tried to tell them these things aren’t important but you know how people can be…”.

And so on, recounting every last detail of the conversations had and her take on things in a one way diatribe all the way from Birmingham back to London.

who’s gossiping? we’re just sharing information

Those of you from a similar background can possibly identify corresponding members of your own family who resemble my late aunt. In fact, there are some who expect and even consider it endearing when they hear their elders rambling on about others in this fashion.

Some consider it a facet of our community – but I reject this.

Often people engage in this type of talk to feel good about themselves. But this isn’t true contentment; it’s oneupmanship at play and it’s superficial, so is quickly displaced compared to true happiness which yields “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” (Sonja Lyubomirsky*).

For the Asian community to be a close knit one which our children will want to be a part of, we need to understand that inane and purposeless gossip is mindless and damaging.

We need to demonstrate and inspire our children to commend others’ successes and genuinely be delighted for them without drawing any reflective interpretation on themselves or their own abilities.

Furthermore, we need to teach them to filter out and consciously reject idle chit chat about others. But it starts with us.

all change!

Situations don’t change, people do – through the choices that we make.

We are each the custodians of our culture; we can choose how we react to information and situations – and we can choose to change our emotional responses too. It’s not just me saying this; there is significant commentary from people who’ve studied this topic, about the difference we can make to ourselves and others by reframing how we react to situations.

The incredible writer, speaker and research professor Dr Brené Brown says:

“… A lot of times, we share things that are not ours to share as a way to hot wire connection with a friend, right? …Our closeness is built on talking bad about other people. You know what I call that? Common enemy intimacy.

What we have is not real. The intimacy we have is built on hating the same people, and that’s counterfeit. That’s counterfeit trust….”

By being more mindful when we speak and by consciously rejecting low level conversations about others, we can empower ourselves to  feel healthier emotionally and psychologically as well as role model to those around us – young and old alike – what it means to be truly content and live in a positively charged state.

let’s be practical

“This is all very theoretical, how does this actually work in practice?” I hear you wondering. Here’s one suggestion, if someone starts tattling on about another to you, you can choose to:

  1. change the subject completely
  2. pick out the positives from what they’re saying and focus your discussion on those
  3. be bold enough to say it’s best not to talk about this because it’s nothing to do with you.

the BMW story

Not long back, my dad bumped into a family friend, Hansaben, whilst shopping for Indian groceries; he’d not seen her in about eight years. She and her husband had always been a quiet, salt of the earth couple and he received word that her husband had passed away last year. Hansaben exchanged a few words with my dad and then walked to her silver BMW 1 Series (latest reg) car. When recounting the interaction to me he said: “You should have seen that car, so beautiful and brand new. Bharatbhai must have had some good insurance policies to enable Hansaben to buy a BMW car!”.

Not wanting to instigate a conversation about what possible assets Bharatbhai may or may not have had here and in India, I replied “isn’t it lovely to see that since Bharatbhai’s passing, Hansaben has adapted to being independent and is shopping and managing all the things which he used to do. Well done to her”.

And that was literally the end of the conversation.

Gossip thrives when it has an active audience. But if the conditions aren’t present for it to grow, that is, if there’s no-one to entertain it and give it attention which enables it to spread, it’ll die its death swiftly.

be the change

“When words are both true and kind they can change the world” – Buddha

We’re so conscious about upgrading our technology; we need to ensure that we are also regularly checking in and upgrading ourselves; an internal audit where we question ourselves and our beliefs and check the needle is where we want it to be on our inner compass.

By doing this, we can consciously create a rich and wholesome culture for our children where they are fulfilled and energised by others’ accomplishments and where their own efforts are genuinely championed without worrying about how others may perceive or speak of them.

Now that’s something worth talking about.

 

Acknowledgements:

laani = traditional gifts given to all guests at pre-wedding functions often comprising organza bags of mixed nuts or sweets, something for the home, saris, money or other tokens.

Palermo, G. B. (1995). Adolescent Criminal Behavior — Is TV Violence One of the Culprits? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 39(1), 11–22.

Angi (blogger): http://www.mindfulandmama.com/blog/2017/9/12/when-women-support-each-other-incredible-things-happen

Sonja Lyubomirsky, positive psychology researcher and author of The How of Happiness

Dr Brenè Brown, The Anatomy of Trust, speech transcript available on https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/the-anatomy-of-trust-by-brene-brown

GoodTherapy: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/gossip

photo credit: ‘Gossip at the West Gate’ by cowyeow on http://www.flickr.com/photos/cowyeow/8061307642/in/photostream/

 

Period Dramas: calling out menstruation discrimination

I was chatting with a friend recently and as I often do, I innocuously asked “so what’s on the menu tonight, you cooking or date night?” with a cheeky glint in my eye. “Looks like a takeaway in the living room for me tonight” she replied with a degree of resignation in her voice and releasing an all-too-telling sigh. My senses were tweaked, I knew something was up so I asked “oh, how come?”. “You know, time of the month and all that” she said rolling her eyes.

And then I remembered. For the last 10 years of knowing my friend, I’ve also known her monthly period. Reason being, she lives in a household where her menstrual cycle is a monthly update for everyone. It tells her mother and father in law that progeny has not yet been conceived; it alerts her mother in law that she’s responsible for the family meals for the next week and gives notice to her four brothers in law that they can organise a mid-week lads night out with her husband since he’s not sharing a bed with his wife so not a lot else will be going on.

being untouchable

You may be wondering how on earth anyone would be alerted to my friend’s menstrual cycle but she lives in a household where periods are considered ‘dirty’ and so when mother nature pays her a visit, she’s not allowed to go in the kitchen, use the waste bins in her house whether it’s to dispose of a sweet wrapper or yesterday’s contact lenses (yes, even in the dead of winter), touch anyone or share a bed with her husband (there’s a double mattress permanently propped up against the bedroom wall ready for it’s monthly seven day usage).

She’s been married for so long and this situation has played itself out so many times that I can see her initial anger and resentment towards it all has now boiled down to forlorn acceptance of her situation. We’ve talked about her moving to her own place where her periods can become less of a public event but her husband is the eldest son and maintains that it’s his responsibility to look after his ageing parents. And but for the whole period publicity, she actually has a very happy relationship with her rather strict in-laws which is significant because she came from a liberal family where no one knew (or asked) about her periods and life was free and easy – from what she studied, to whom she hung out with – so the transition to this household required concerted adjustment.

reflections

Our chat caused me to reflect on how periods were treated in my own household when I was growing up and for other girls I knew at the time. I remembered one girl whom I went to Gujarati classes with (generally the only exciting activity on the weekends when I was a teenager) who had to leave home every month when she got her period and stay with her aunty. It never made sense to me that if periods were dirty, why would it be ok to sully someone else’s home but not your own?

In my own example, as a family we used to pray together everyday and so when I was on my period, I wasn’t allowed to enter the mandir* for five days after which I’d have to wash my hair and then my access would be reinstated. I was never told what the significance of the hair washing was but I assume it was symbolic of cleansing.

And no-one ever explained to me what the cleansing of hair on my head had to do with what was going on in my uterus.

religion vs. culture

From my experience, I can see a conflict between religion and cultural practices which we just seem to have accepted without question. I say this because in the Hindu religion the feminine aspect is considered holy; Shiva (part of the Trinity) is said to be completed by Shakti; the female aspect. During Navaratri, the three female energies of Laxmi, Saraswati and Durga are worshipped.There are female deities and these are worshipped with the same degree of reverence as the male representations.

In the Asian community a fertile woman is considered to be a blessing because after all, periods reflect the potential to conceive a child. But our present treatment of menstruating women doesn’t reflect this same reverence and respect – and we don’t seem to question this.

old practices, outdated thinking

In an article by Mythri Speaks [mythrispeaks.wordpress.com], the author talks about the ancient reasons why women were secluded from their homes and avoided cooking and eating with others at this time. She says that the reasons were all generally positive and spiritually enhancing but these scientifically Vedic based reasons aren’t the ones we hear today in our community. Instead the words associated with periods are “dirty” and “impure” and serve only to cast out the afflicted female enduring a process created by nature and into which, she didn’t have any input.

o great man!

We really need to question what message about our culture we’re delivering to our children; in many cases, are we even providing a culture based explanation for this treatment or are we just telling our daughters that they’re dirty? Whilst it may be rooted in ancient culture or historical practices, we need to consider the wider impact of this treatment on the self-esteem of our girls, in today’s society. By blindly following anachronistic practices, it seems to me that we’re inadvertently reinforcing gender inequality because men don’t suffer the same ‘dirtiness’ warranting segregation and by default, are the more superior.

shame

We have a duty to empower our daughters but also to educate our sons, fathers in law and other male figures around us not to malign the image and respect they give to women because of a sense of impurity associated with periods. If we don’t correct this, then periods will continue to be synonymous with shame and don’t we already have enough battles with shame without adding more to the pile?

Dr Brene Brown** defines shame as: “the intensely painful feeling that we’re unworthy of love and belonging”. Ultimately, by maintaining practices which reinforce this ‘shame’ feeling in our girls, we’re reinforcing an inner dialogue in them that they are not enough; that they must subscribe to these rituals to maintain their worthiness and place in society and the Asian community.

Brene Brown says if you were to put shame in a petri dish and “douse it with a little secrecy, silence and judgement then it will grow exponentially”. She describes shame as “lethal” and that we’re often “swimming in it” however, she also says that shame cannot survive being spoken about. Therefore, in western society where hygiene is no longer a problem, I think it’s time for us girls to openly question why we’re following these practices and be brave enough to make choices based on what reinforces our self-worth; not choosing to follow something because we’re afraid of the consequences but positively electing to do something because we want to do it.

nurturing the inner, not just the outer

As parents we do a grand job of nurturing our children physically – preparing fresh food, ferrying them to extra curricular classes, clothing and accessorising them and more, but we need to put as much focus and attention on how we’re nurturing the self worth of our girls.

We could take the perspective that we’ll continue with these familiar, age old customs and then allow our girls to choose what they want to follow once they’re married and independent. But this seemingly liberal stance serves only to condition our girls to do things a certain way whilst growing up and then feel guilty or conflicted when the opportunity presents itself to make choices for themselves, i.e. once they’re in their own marital homes.

This leaves women feeling guilty if they don’t follow what their mothers have taught them and quick to assume the blame should anything unforeseen happen in the family as bad luck brought on by their violation of the cultural ‘rules’.

Shame, shame and a dollop of more shame.

choosing authenticity

As parents and carers we get to choose how we parent our children – and it’s ok to change track midway if after we look inwards and ask questions of our behaviour we realise something feels counter intuitive.

Another friend’s mother in law knows when she’s on her period because after marriage she lived with her for a while. Now in her marital home, she does as she pleases and has left all period discrimination and related practices behind. However, every month she’s on guard and ensures during that time that no pans with freshly prepared food are left on the stove and the spare room is made up and looking to be ‘in use’ just in case mother-in-law come over. It’s a monthly charade that’s kept up because like a sentinel, she wanders around the house for a general nose about. I can’t imagine anything more stressful than having to prepare to enact a scene on a monthly basis and my concern is the effect of this wearing of different personas for different audiences leading to us losing sight of our own identity [more about this in “Did you hear about her son?” – Shattering the Stigma around Autism in the Asian Community].

Authenticity is so paramount to our own well being and our self-nourishment – by just being whom we are regardless of the audience – we don’t just value ourselves, we give permission to others to do the same.

beetroots

In another case, a London friend was recently invited to a cousin’s baby shower in Ahemdabad. A week ahead of the event, her dad received a call to ask whether she was likely to be on her period at the time of the event lest she should have to sit outside of the main religious proceedings. Her dad’s cheeks reportedly went an interesting shade of beetroot as he digested what he’d been asked to do – to enquire of his 40 year old daughter for the first time in his life whether she was on her period. So he approached her sister to undertake the reconnaissance and then feed back the reply for him to deliver to said relatives in India. I found the whole episode superficially comical but at it’s core, fundamentally degrading.

I’ve been able to easily relegate my period experiences to the past and not carry them forward into my married life because I’ve married into a family where period discrimination simply isn’t a thing. For a long time, I assumed this was a thing of the past  but from the conversations I’m having with friends and wider, I’ve learnt that this is far from the truth.

Historically, Asian women would have shouldered these rituals and accepted them as a symptom of their gender, but today women are outwardly conforming but feeling inwardly divided about why they’re still subjected to such archaic rituals; they’re afraid to stand up and disagree or even to bring it up as a topic of conversation because of the perception that they’re abandoning their culture and inviting bad luck upon the family.

baaaa!

We need to stop the sheep-like mentality of just doing things because they’ve always been done like that. We also need to stop thinking that whether we do something or not won’t make a difference in the grander scheme of things. In the words of Anita Roddick: “If you don’t believe one person can make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”.

Each one of us has the power to influence and role model and by following period discrimination practices we don’t believe in, we’re not serving anyone wholeheartedly; at best we’re just poor excuses for actors enacting a charade for a non-fee paying, judgement doling audience. Essentially, accessories to a crime against women’s self-worth.

If you don’t believe in it, then it’s time to stop. And the choice is entirely in our hands.

Period.

photo credit: http://www.sbs.com.au

*mandir = shrine room where deities are kept

**Brene Brown talks to Ophrah Winfrey on Super Soul Sundays, the podcast