Please be aware that this article discusses issues that some readers may find distressing. If you require support in regards to any of the issues discussed in the article please do not hesitate to contact the organisations at the bottom of the text.
Some taboo subjects are taboo because there’s a societal sense of shame attached to them. There are subjects that have been deemed inappropriate for us to discuss: finances, miscarriage, divorce, suicide, abuse, addiction and mental illness are a few examples of this. For instance, discussing finances in fortunate circumstances is seen as something you shouldn’t do, but this is also true in unfortunate circumstances; if you’ve had to use a food bank or go onto benefits or had to get a loan out. I have observed this in my own culture many times.
I am British Indian and very proud to be, and there is an endless list of aspects of my culture that I love, but shame is not one of them. In Indian culture, so many subjects are considered taboo and aren’t acknowledged or spoken about for fear it will bring shame to the family. It’s a dangerous precedent to set, and it’s harmful to those who need support the most. It’s a lot of pressure for people to live up to, and an impossible standard to live by.
You can see this a lot in the way women’s behaviour is monitored by society, and what happens if you dare step out of the box the patriarchy puts you in. There’s a particular order that you need to do things in, and to live life in any other way can be seen as taboo. If you live with a partner before you get married, or have a baby out of wedlock, or marry out of race, religion or caste this can be seen as shameful.
This attitude only perpetuates the patriarchy, and in turn white supremacy. Some people see these decisions as a betrayal of duty – the way your family is seen, the reputation they have and their status in society are more important than anything. You are also able to see internalised misogyny from the Masi’s (aunties) that gossip with a certain smirk and glee whilst talking about the failure of someone’s marriage, if a woman is still unmarried, or if someone is having problems in their family. This shows just how deep that attitude is ingrained within our society. Women are seen as commodities and can only exist in a very specific way and have a very specific life and behave in a very specific manner.
This method of control and the consequences of what can happen if you step out of line can be dangerous. It is enraging that these notions can still be seen today and can even result in honour killings in some parts of society. These issues do not just affect people who identify as women, of course – these attitudes reach across everybody in our culture. Thankfully, attitudes are improving in many parts of society, and hopefully from generation to generation these notions of how you should live your life and restrictions on who you should love will dissipate with time.
Today, it sometimes feels as if so many aspects of Indian society are steeped in judgement and shame. I think it’s sheer dumb luck that we’re born into the lives we’re born into. I think it’s sheer dumb luck that we’re born into lives with opportunity or privilege. I think it’s also important to note that some people unknowingly make choices that turn out to be harmful to themselves – people choose partners who they believe will treat them with kindness, people try substances that they think they’ll only do once. These situations are perhaps met with even less empathy in our society, but no-one should be judged for not being able to predict the future.
Bottling up your emotions, experiences, or not getting help to ensure shame isn’t brought upon your family name is dangerous. That is why it’s so important to be approachable, and create a safe space if you want to help a loved one. Create a compassionate space in which they know they can be seen and heard. Create a space that is devoid of judgement or any air of superiority. Create a space that they can trust, with the knowledge that they will be treated with kindness. Create a space in which they feel comfortable enough to be honest with you, even if you haven’t been through the same experiences.
Grief is a continual theme in many aspects of life but there is no guidebook on how to grieve – no right or wrong way. Some people do it publicly, and some do it privately. Some want to talk about it and others don’t. Some want to be distracted whilst others want to focus on processing their grief. Sadly grief is also subject to judgement – why haven’t they moved on yet? Why are they not over it yet? How long does it take? Some people always have an idea of how someone should be living their lives and this also applies to grief.
This audacity and arrogance is usually brushed off as people trying to help (especially if it’s coming from elders) but everyone’s process of dealing with trauma is different. The connection is different, the history is different, the relationship is different, the support system (or lack of) is different, and the experiences are different. Giving people the time and support to grieve is vital in creating a kinder and more open society. And changing attitudes to encourage and advocate for people to ask for help and support can be life-saving.
In many Indian communities, seeking help for someone else is met with the message “It’s a personal matter in their home and no-one should interfere.” You can see this particularly in issues of domestic abuse, honour killings or any other issues that involve relationships. Issues that are kept as family secrets, because if they were revealed to the world they would put the family in a shameful place. This behaviour perpetuates misogyny, and fuels the sentiment that men can take care of business in their own home; you shouldn’t interfere because it is insulting to them.
A man’s ego is seen as more valuable than a woman’s life. In turn, these attitudes affect men too, of course, and the toxic masculinity in society also stops men from seeking help in these situations. The idea that a man should behave in a certain way in society can cause men not to speak out and suppress any issues they need help or support for. Seeking or asking for help can be seen as a feminine quality, and is dictated by the patriarchy as the opposite of what a man should be.
This toxic masculinity and distinct separation of genders can also severely harm the LGBTQI+ community. Gender is a construct, and when a society places so much importance on how certain genders should act it makes people feel insecure and scared to step out of the box they’re automatically put in at birth. Being LGBTQI+ is still a taboo subject in many Indian households – people are still disowned or shunned or even killed for coming out. There is a definite lack of understanding of LGBTQI+ issues and how important it is for people to be able to be themselves and feel free in their skin, body and mind, and how unhealthy and damaging it is for people to feel otherwise.
In many communities, attitudes are changing, and people are becoming more open-minded and supportive. It’s important to note that I’m part of the diaspora and I have liberal parents; I am privileged, fortunate and grateful to be able to live my own life and make my own decisions in safety. We are seeing generation to generation become more aware of these issues and support their family and friends. Sadly, however, many issues treated as taboos still include violent outcomes for communities here and in the global south.
Diversity in our communities needs to be celebrated. We need to educate ourselves and others on equality and empathy. We need to normalise therapy, talking, crying, seeking help, and needing help in the first place. We have the power and responsibility to change this, We can shift these societal attitudes and makes these taboo subjects, taboo no longer.
If you require support in regards to any of the issues discussed in the article please do not hesitate to contact the organisations below: