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When I first set out to write this post, I thought I’d make it about rules brown girls should live by. So I polled some friends, and the first thing they all railed against was gossip and judgment. Don’t gossip and don’t be judgmental might seem like fairly obvious rules and everyone complains about this in the Pakistani community. Yet we thrive on it; it’s our life blood. We gossip to pass time. We gossip to make ourselves feel better. We gossip to make ourselves feel more important. We gossip about “stories” we’ve heard even though these “stories” are actually lives people are living. I ain’t even gonna front. I indulge in it from time to time and I like to convince myself it’s harmless. But there’s something particularly insidious about the way South Asians do it.
It’s played out and dissected in Serial, the incredibly popular podcast about the true story of a Pakistani American Muslim, Adnan, convicted of murdering his Korean American girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, as a teenager. One of the episodes centered on Adnan’s character, with the host speaking with people from the Pakistani community Adnan grew up in. One rather odd story was from a caller who accused Adnan of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the local mosque Adnan volunteered at as a teenager. When further investigated, this story turned out to be partially false. The host interviewed the imam of that mosque who seemed unperturbed by the news, saying they would have noticed large amounts of money missing because of the small size of the donations they received. Indeed, Adnan admitted that he and his friends would take a nominal amount of money from time to time to go to the movies. The caller also claimed Adnan was fake and manipulative but then ended the call saying he still thought Adnan was a great person. Obviously, this guy is a complete and utter jackass who wanted to feel important and resorted to embellishing an insignificant fact. This isn’t really new or unique to any particular community.
But the story of another caller really struck me. It’s a perfect example of how pernicious and rampant gossip and judgment is in the Pakistani community. One of the callers chose to remain anonymous and have his voice digitally altered only to say that he remembers Adnan being thoughtful and compassionate. He recounted a rather sweet story in which Adnan made the caller, who was a chubby nerdy child, feel included. The host, incredulous, asked why he wanted to remain anonymous when his story was relatively innocuous. The caller’s reasoning seemed all too familiar – someone he knew would hear and tell someone else in the community and then it would spread like wildfire and get back to his family which would cause trouble EVEN THOUGH HE ONLY HAD NICE THINGS TO SAY. Standing out, not necessarily against the crowd, but just identifying yourself amongst the hoard, is akin to sin for many Pakistanis.
It might seem like hyperbole but your goal in life is to make sure people say as little as possible about you. A familiar refrain I heard growing up was “ghar ke bathay ghar mein rehna chaiyya,” roughly translated to “what happens in the home should stay in the home.” If the Pakistani community was a house in Game of Thrones, our motto would be “WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY?” with a sigil of a group of aunties clutching their head scarves.
This is also the kind of thinking that allows domestic violence and sexual abuse to occur without much recourse for victims. While domestic and sexual abuse victims have a hard time getting help and gaining access to resources in the mainstream, it’s increasingly difficult for Pakistanis. Having experienced domestic violence growing up, I know firsthand how this fear of gossip and judgment can silence victims. Despite being educated and having a successful career, my mother was too ashamed to seek help and this was reinforced by views espoused by people around her. One reason she was discouraged from seeking divorce was the consequence it would have on her daughters’ marriage prospects. If it got out that we came from a broken home, then “good and respectable” families wouldn’t want their sons to marry my sister and me. Because, obviously, witnessing an abusive marriage, my first thought was ‘WHEN CAN I GET MARRIED? THIS SEEMS AWESOME.”
If domestic violence seems taboo, it’s nothing compared to the subject of sexual violence. Just this week, a news story broke of a well-known imam charged with sexually abusing children at a Chicago Islamic school. Some of the allegations are over thirty years old, starting in the 1980s up until 2013. The victims interviewed cited the taboo surrounding sex and sexual abuse as the main reason for their initial reluctance to speak out. To my pleasant surprise (because, to be honest, I have such little faith in the Pakistani community on these matters), the community is actively looking to start a dialogue on sexual abuse instead of shaming the victims into silence. While it is tragic that it took over thirty years, a pattern of abuse, and too many victims before it came to light, it is heartening to see this community taking a progressive stance on the issue. And for me, personally, even though it made me sad that my first reaction was to expect people in the community try to discredit or silence the victims (I briefly volunteered at a South Asian women’s shelter in college, and all too often, this was the case), I’m glad there are community based organizations working to fix this.
All of this is to say, the casual judgment we pass down and the salacious gossip we indulge in may not seem harmful in daily instances, but living in such an isolated, insular community, these vices are amplified. Living in fear of what people might say shouldn’t force someone to suffer or stifle truth. We owe it to our community and ourselves to do and be better.
P.S. Here are some South Asian women’s centers in NY-NJ with services for domestic violence and sexual abuse victims: http://manavi.org/