30×40 acrylic painting by Nisha Gupta,
Inspired by poem “Belemnite (I dream you are in my bed)” by Seema Reza:
Disoriented by your smell I can’t remember your name
I dip my finger into the depression where
neck & shoulder & clavicle intersect
& ask, Is it you? Are we here again?
Never have the borders of my body been so blurred:
your flesh mine, my flesh yours.
The free exchange of fluids, the reckless drawing of blood:
There is no intimacy like a wrecking love.
Some nights I lay in (our) bed awake. These nights stretch.
I stand from the bed, sit on the toilet. Bore of masturbating.
Open & close books. Remove layers of blankets, layers of clothing.
Stand under the shower. Eat ripe fruit over the sink.
Wipe my face with a dishtowel.
These are my most honest nights.
Since the untangling the lovers have been kind & clumsy & graceful.
Hungry & apathetic. I couldn’t say how many—it doesn’t matter.
They are not enough.
Lately I prefer to find myself curled upright in the bathtub,
chin between the twin flats of my knees. When I am alone,
I am almost enough.
In daylight I face others propped upright, wounds dressed,
wrapped in hard plaster. Underneath the casing I am all hollow.
I think: You are boring, boring, boring.
I read many interesting things. I am so smart,
I read things most people wouldn’t. While I read,
my mind wanders to fixate on men who think I’m great,
but not good enough. There are plenty of men like that
& they confirm what I recite in my head (in your voice):
not enough, not enough, not enough.
When I meet a man like that, the longing is unbearable.
The last time you were in this bed, it stood in the little house we bought.
We had given up, you were on edge, drinking too much,
pacing late into the night. I’d pack for my impending move,
go to work & come home to find my things unpacked.
It was like that for us:
You showed love through bared teeth. I offered sex as sedative.
That last night you woke me. Stood over me with a flashlight asking,
Are you okay? You were crying out in your sleep.
I lifted the covers, allowed you to lay beside me.
To fuck dangerous men to sleep is not unlike the circus trick
of putting one’s head into a lion’s gaping mouth. There’s a certain
glamour & giddiness to escaping unscathed.
But I never cry out in my sleep.
When dreaming of my own death, I fall silent.
Reclaiming Autonomy – Rebirthing the Worth and Freedom of Desi Women
Rebirthing worth as a Desi woman
Desi people sure know how to throw a good wedding. Yet traditionally, a South Asian woman’s worth is contingent upon fulfilling the cultural expectation of snagging a husband, as the 2017 documentary A Suitable Girl effectively depicts. In patriarchal and heteronormative cultures where a woman’s value is defined by her legal attachment to a man, the pressure to enter a heterosexual marriage for life can seem insurmountable. Managing to liberate oneself from this pressure and redefine the meaning of a Desi women’s “worth” is an act of power that deserves as much reverence as the wedding itself.
The feminist movements of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have fought to shape sociopolitical conditions that grant women’s rights to education, work, and financial independence. Thanks to the feminist work of our mothers, aunties, and ancestors, more South Asian women than ever are asserting their right to opt in or out of marital life. Divorce rates initiated by women are rising in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, particularly among educated and affluent women (Sharma, 2019; Afroz 2019; Awan 2020). Reasons for divorce include transformed meanings of marriage itself, as financially independent Desi women increasingly desire emotional intimacy over economic support from a spouse. Moreover, as the LGBTQ movement grows in our cultures, queer Desi people are increasingly coming out and negotiating the meaning of marriage in their lives. Finally, one in three Indian women and one in five Bangladeshi women face spousal violence, and violence is rising in households during the coronavirus pandemic, alongside divorce queries (Wallen, 2020; Rahman, 2019; Bari, 2020; Ram, 2020). Spousal violence is an unfortunate global epidemic that transcends race, ethnicity, class, caste, religion, and nationality, including afflicting one in four women in America. Specific to South Asian cultures, our activists fight to dismantle the social and political hurdles to divorce to help Desi women liberate themselves from marriages detrimental to their health. The taboo of being single is gradually withering among more privileged South Asian communities. This is demonstrated by movies such as Thappad and shows like Indian Matchmaker which speak truth to the misogynistic aspects of marriage and offer powerful representations of independent Desi women. Pop culture representations, rising divorce rates, and the growing economic and political power of Desi women, all attest to the progressive values evolving our cultures.
In the Abrahamic spiritual traditions, the golden egg is a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. Fighting for the right to choose whether or not to be married is a personal, cultural, and political rebirth for Desi women—rebirthing what it means to be a woman; rebirthing what it means to have worth; and rebirthing what it means to love oneself fiercely, at all costs.
Honoring the act of bravery
The Bengal tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh and the most intimidating creature of the animal kingdom. As a Desi woman, to fight the pressures of becoming and remaining married can require as much bravery as battling the Bengal tiger. Despite the strides made by feminists to redefine the worth of South Asian women, stigma remains a heavy burden and shame can be profound. Regarding divorce, Hindu law is more disapproving and unrecognizing than Islamic law, but the cultural stigma persists across the diaspora for most Desi women. Our cultures can perpetuate the harmful message that there is something wrong with her if she is unmarried or divorced–that she is not valuable enough in her own right. Desi women frequently combat this oppression towards self-worth by building bonds with other courageous and feminist South Asian women. These female friendships focus on rising each other up in solidarity, rather than judging each other and perpetuating the wounds of patriarchy (Makhijani, 2020). These friendships are also crucial supports to navigate patriarchal obstacles in the aftermath of divorce.
While dangerous, the Bengal tiger is also quite attractive. He is arguably the most handsome and powerful cat in South Asia. For women leaving marriages with long-term partners, untangling oneself from the powerful, intimate bond with a spouse also requires bravery–particularly when the love is interlaced with violence. The complexity of abusive relationships can be understood metaphorically through the poetic allegory of a movie Life of Pi, based on the novel by Yann Martel. The story entails a young Indian man named Pi Patel who survives a shipwreck and becomes lost at sea with a 450-pound Bengal tiger as his only companion. What is so moving about this story is that Pi immediately recognizes the soul of the tiger, which fuels great love, protection and care for the tiger despite his aggressive nature. Together they work side by side to survive their difficult circumstances. Pi’s story entails moments of terror as he reckons with the realization that his life might end not from being lost at sea, but from the violence of his tiger companion. When they finally survive the epic journey by reaching the Mexican coastline, the film depicts one of the most painful aspects of Pi’s journey: saying goodbye to his tiger companion and watching his beloved predator walk away without even a glance back. This is a moment of heartbreak for Pi. The trauma bond became so intense from their companionship during their mutual fight for survival that Pi is crushed by the goodbye. For Desi women who surmise the courage to walk away from traumatic yet deeply intimate relationships, let us not forget the bravery it takes to make it to the other side of heartbreak.
Caring for herself at all costs
Traditional South Asian gender norms endorse the virtues of a woman’s self-sacrifice to care for her husband, children, family, and community. For Desi women, empowerment involves flipping the gender script and learning to self-nurture—to prioritize her own needs and direct that care towards herself. Hinduism’s story of creation utilizes the symbol of a golden egg as the “cosmic womb” from which the universe came to be, and the void of darkness transformed into the light of life: “Once the golden womb yielded to the Creation process, heat or energy was generated. Molecules formed, and they interplayed with atoms and elements, giving rise to more heat in the form of self-luminous vapour. Prajapati symbolised creative radiance, and then there was light where earlier, only darkness prevailed” (Ganesh, 2011). In the aftermath of a divorce or traumatic relationship, the process of transforming darkness into light often occurs within the protective womb of a woman’s solitude—a withdrawal away from the world and a turning inwards to self-nurture and rebirth. Much like the beautiful Kingfisher bird native to South Asia, whose behavior is mostly solitary and who symbolizes peace, reclaiming solitude is an act of reclaiming peace, well-being, and life. To embrace solitude as a Desi woman is radical; Desi cultures promote collectivist values in which the self is not one’s own but expected to adjust to the needs of the family and community. As such, distinguishing a separate self and prioritizing her needs can be perceived as selfish. Yet as South Asian women, daring to assert one’s own selfhood, space, and needs echoes Audre Lorde’s declaration that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Claiming the right to erotic freedom
For many Desi women, embracing sexual freedom is essential to reclaiming power. The patriarchy of South Asian cultures is not unlike Western counterparts in assuming a woman’s sexuality belongs to her husband, family, community… anyone but herself. Embracing sexual freedom as a Desi woman involves asserting autonomous choice over what she wants to do with her body–as captured by the Bangladeshi feminist organization Naripokkho in their 90s campaign “Shorir Amar, Shiddhanto Amar (My Body, My Decision)”, which fought for South Asian women’s right to make choices about her own body, including the right to sexual pleasure (Huq, 2009). For some, empowerment means choosing to freely engage in sexual connections with lovers outside of marriage or commitment. This also involves exploring the possibility to embrace sexual pleasure as a vehicle for healing from trauma and heartbreak. This is known as “Pleasure Activism” and pioneered by Black feminist activists like Adrienne Maree Brown and Audre Lorde, who wrote the seminal work “Uses of the Erotic“. For others, sexual liberation entails drawing bold boundaries around her body in the form of masturbation or celibacy, which can be considered as revolutionary as choosing to freely have sex–particularly for women healing from the message that their sexuality belongs to others. And finally, sexual liberation entails channeling her erotic energy beyond relationships and into her vocational passions and general lust for life. Desi women are rising up as leaders in politics, healthcare, business, academia, and the arts. We can speculate that Eros is surely at play, fueling the passionate fire behind our social and economic power.
Essay by Nisha Gupta.
This work was created while listening to “Lovable” by Anoushka Shankar
This painting and essay are inspired by the work of Bangladeshi American writer Seema Reza, author of a collection of poems A Constellation of Half-Lives and her memoir When the World Breaks Open, which uncovers the lessons she learned through motherhood and an abusive marriage, and how she used her discoveries to make a meaningful difference in the world. Through observing her own experiences from the darkest moments of her life and investigating societal attitudes towards loss, love, motherhood, and community, she undermines the idea that strength requires silence. Based in Maryland, Reza has led writing workshops in correctional facilities, hospitals, schools, and universities. She is the CEO of Community Building Art Works, which encourages art as a tool for healing among a veterans grappling with emotional and physical traumas. Reza’s work with veterans is featured in the 2018 HBO documentary We Are Not Done Yet. Case studies from her work have appeared in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Related Diseases in Combat Veterans.