As a dark-complexioned, brown, South Asian Muslim woman, at any one point in my prolific dating career, I’ve had to deal with iterations of the following conversation:
(Where X denotes men I have dated, and Y = me).
X: “I didn’t think you would talk to me!”
X: “Cos you’re you know (this is where he usually whispers one of the following): Indian! Or alternative: Muslim!
Y: “SHUT UP?! Who, me? Shit, why didn’t someone tell me?!”
If the relationship is successfully consummated, the juju that I cast on these poor unsuspecting men becomes even more potent: (these are actual quotes)
X: “Did you learn all that from the Kama Sutra?”
X: “You Asian girls are D I R T Y ! “
X: “Raah! Are all Asian girls bald down there?”
X: “Is Allah gonna come look for me?”
Sometimes they would just skip off doing this:
I haven’t always made the best choices when it comes to men; I usually prefer them with big muscles and less talk. The less talk the better, as you can see from the above.
It is apparent that most of these guys (most of whom have been non-Asian) had experienced some amount of cognitive dissonance in trying to unpack my identity. I’ve often wondered why it is that when dating someone who isn’t South Asian, they don’t have a hard time reconciling this “cognitive dissonance.” I’m often told you
“But you’re not like most Asian girls.”
Right, because there’s only another X number of South Asian women globally and I stood out for you did I? I’m consistently told that because I have short hair, tattoos, and loose knickers’ elastic, I’m some sort of outlier. This is hardly the case, but I’ve often wanted to get to the bottom of this.
A boy I once dated had me in his phone as “Poppadum Pussy”. (It’s ok, I slept with his best friend, so we’re even), but when I confronted let’s call him “Mason”, and informed him reliably that it was a little bit racist, he just shrugged his shoulders, unable to extrapolate why. He saw nothing wrong in labelling me as “Poppadum Pussy”. He, and a few others were so excited at the prospect of sex with an Indian girl, fantasising at I don’t know perhaps fireworks shooting out of my vagina that needless to say, I was left disappointed at some of their eagerness. Some of them went out of their way to explain they got off on the whole “forbidden fruit-ness” of it. For some, it was sheer curiosity, as if my vagina would make them run through a field of tulips:
Digging a bit further, and from everyday observations, I realised their attitudes were informed by a general lack of overtly sexual depictions of South Asian women (and men) in the western media. Leaving aside, the general debates around sexualised imagery of women in the media, there is a specificity to how South Asian men and women are portrayed in the mainstream western media which shows us to be “docile”, “veiled,” “proper” “geeks”, or under the thumb, basically: Tamwar.
It’s almost as if, if you’re brown, you don’t get to have a sexual identity. You cannot be portrayed as being sexual, or sexually attractive. Contrast this to how Afro-Caribbean women are hyper-sexualised by the media, and there is a stark difference. Liz Jones, the ever reliable “what’s she done now” columnist wrote a piece in which she described Rihanna as “Pop’s Poisonous Princess,” in which she slags off Riri’s behaviour, the way she is styled, and her platform as a pop-star. Queen Bey, or Beyonce to the rest of you, has been criticised by, amongst others, Hadley Freeman for appearing on a cover of American GQ in which Beyonce was shot in some sexy-ass panties. Critiques followed the standard: “but they’re role models,” “why are they are shot in such skimpy outfits,” “pah – feminist? Hardly!” That kind of nuanced critique!
Suffice to say, well-respected white female journalists write the critiques, which then gain the most traction. This is hardly feminism. It is policing black women’s bodies. Critiques that don’t appear to take into account the importance of young women of colour celebrating and feeling emboldened by the successes of Beyoncé or Rihanna are met (rightly so) with frustration and exasperation. This article in Bitch media: All Hail the Queen? excellently describes this prejudiced feminist narrative: Beyonce is “exotified,” Madonna is “fist-bumped.” The implication here is that only white female celebrities get to be in charge of their sexualised identities, black female celebrities do not, or even if they do, they are discharged of any “feminist” pretensions.
There is clearly an asymmetry in how the media (particularly the western media) portrays women of colour and how this translates into everyday lived experiences of most women (and men of colour). For South Asian women and men (and I would argue the problem is even more acute for South Asian men who are hardly ever promoted or “objectified” as sexually attractive), this creates problems when we’re out here trying to hustle and date widely across the human spectrum. This isn’t a plea to suddenly start “objectifying” me or others, it’s about acknowledging the fact that South Asian men and women are three-dimensional, some of us are overtly sexual and are in command of our sexual identities. Some of us may not be so much, but that doesn’t mean we’re innocent gullible desexualised virgins. We shouldn’t be reduced to crude 1-dimensional prudish stereotypes, neither should we be reduced to some niche porn category.
There are important consequences if we do not recognise that young Asian men and women are having sex, and in order to promote awareness of appropriate sexual health and reproductive knowledge, there is no harm in featuring Asian men and women in the media as sexually active and sexually attractive. Growing up brown in Britain and being bombarded with images of sexually “available” and “attractive” white women only in the mainstream media not only confused me but also made me self-conscious about sex and relationships, and how I was to manage my own attitude towards sexual activity. In a study conducted by French et al (2005) for the Teenage Pregnancy Unity “Exploring the attitudes and behaviours of Bangladeshi, Indian and Jamaican young people in relation to reproductive and sexual health,” there is strong evidence however, that things are changing. Young Indian and Bangladeshi men and women are reporting sex before marriage (irrespective of religion), and the study revealed qualitative differences in the influences impacting sexually active young Bangladeshi, Indian and Jamaican people. Influences such as the local provision of sexual health advice and access to contraceptive services impact how these young people manage their sexual activity. Awareness of and access to “people who look like them” in the media may well increase their confidence in talking more openly about sex and ensuring healthy sexual activity.
There’s a lot of debate about people of colour being exotified and fetishised by both the media and regular society. I’ve experienced it first hand, but that’s not to say that every woman or man of colour who is photographed with very little on, is unaware of his/her exotification. Some of us own it and are using it to our own advantage, whilst some well-meaning but misguided people out there try desperately to find symbolic meaning in these portrayals *cough white feminists cough* in order to “save” us. If it’s sexist – I’ll let you know, if it’s racist – I’ll let you know. Both Veena Malik (Pakistani actress) and Bipasha Basu (Bengali Indian actress) are two very prominent South Asian celebrities who have met strong resistance and attacks from conservative commenters in their home countries. Veena’s image on a cover of Indian FHM was re-mastered to show her wearing nothing, (in the actual shoot, she was wearing bikini bottoms), Bipasha was condemned for her sex scenes in Bollywood film: Jism.
Despite the controversy and opposition, the fact remains, that it will be a long time coming before any western magazine or western produced film shoots a naked South Asian man or woman, or a sex scene with a South Asian man or woman. The momentary outbursts of rage directed at these two from Pakistani and Indian conservatives didn’t hurt their careers, the opposite in fact.
There is a very fine line between owning the label “exotic” and becoming a self-parody (see Sunaina Kumar’s fine article on Priyanka Chopra’s disastrous music video “Exotic”). I’ve seen Asian girls mount and straddle any man who wasn’t South Asian in clubs and raves. Dating men who aren’t South Asian is a “thing” for some. Nuance, nuance is so important. We’ve been born and brought up here so it’s difficult trying to manage our multiple identities, we don’t have to disown all our cultural heritage, but neither do we have to refuse to take on the advantages of living in a multi-ethnic society. When it comes to sex and bodily integrity: to each one’s own, if someone who is brown is in command of their body and their identity, it is for them and them only to manage their identity. Having more brown skin in the mainstream media would help to explore issues of exotification and fetishisation as well as racism, feminism is not the only driver behind debates on body image. It will be a long time before we see bare brown breasts on Page 3.
 French et al (2005) “Exploring the attitudes and behaviours of Bangladeshi, Indian and Jamaican young people in relation to reproductive and sexual health”, Teenage Pregnancy Unit.
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Farzana Rahman is South Asian, and is rather fond of writing, learning languages (including Spanish and Japanese), reading books, peanut M&Ms and tattoos. She has taught English abroad and is currently finishing her first novel. She writes quite a bit about the complexities of romantic relationships, social injustice and racism here: Bananas Are Not The Only Fruit She does not bite, but may bark endlessly if provoked. Twitter: @bananarahman
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- Sexual Exploitation, Islam and the Media (mediadiversified.org)
- Miss America Is Indian-American: Yay, I Think. Or Not. (urbantimes.co)