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Spill the Chai: On purity culture

By Aymen Sherwani, February 14, 2021—

Sex. Talking about it will probably get you a lot of weird stares in the South Asian community ― all the mothers reading this are probably already messaging their WhatsApp groups. You’ll be the talk of the town, as Lady Whistledown puts it in Netflix’s Bridgerton, based in Regency Era England, where so much as talking to the opposite gender unsupervised will ruin your chances of “marrying well.”

This is the post-colonial reality of the South Asian community. In a Bridgerton-esque South Asian society based on purity culture, and placing a price on the virginity of a woman, the problem is that we’re not teaching children anything beyond abstinence. For South Asians living abroad who are exposed to the hypersexualized imagery present in Hollywood, and are not taught about sexual health at home, this becomes a recipe for disaster. 

South Asian boys and girls are raised to stay away from each other, right until their parents want them to get married and almost immediately have children. Girls who are “raised well” are thought of as innocent and pure because they have no understanding of their bodily autonomy or overall sexual health ― as a result, they’re considered marriage material. On the other hand, girls who are more comfortable with their sexuality are considered to be shameful, referred to as “used goods” and not good enough to be wives. This Madonna-Whore complex taught to women has also been internalized by men, who now compartmentalize women into two categories: women they can sexually desire, but not respect, and women who they can respect, but never sexually desire. 

On campus, that can look like South Asian men dating and sleeping around with women they sexually desire, but will ultimately ask their mothers to arrange them with a “good girl” when they’ve finished having their fun. It looks like the sexual objectification of women they desire, but when South Asian women make an effort to be desirable too, men label them as whores. It looks like female friends gossiping about their friend’s dating life behind her back, while simultaneously thinking that they’re better than her because they’re saving themselves until marriage. Suddenly, your parents are getting a thousand phone calls from angry relatives asking why you’re wearing a miniskirt in your latest Instagram post. 

Women walk away from sexual assault thinking that it is them who have failed to uphold the standards of how a good and “pure” woman behaves, rather than understanding that someone has indeed violated them. They are seen as “damaged goods” instead of someone who’s experienced something incredibly traumatic ― but mental health is a completely different issue South Asian society is also willfully ignorant of. As a result, a family’s self-worth relies entirely upon the upbringing of a daughter, and whether the rumour-mill chooses to work in her favour. This is why sex education is important, alongside having a general understanding of bodily autonomy. This sexphobia in South Asian communities has created generations of innocence and harmful misconceptions about sexuality, particularly in the case of sexual assault, where victim-blaming has been the favourable option over holding an abuser accountable. 

As a diaspora, South Asian students have the responsibility to hold each other accountable when it comes to slut-shaming in our community. We need to hold our men accountable for degrading the women they date and desire while failing to hold themselves to the same standard of purity they expect “good” women to uphold. We need to hold our female friends accountable for looking down on other women for being open about their sexualities and using their supposed purity as a way to consider themselves superior. Most importantly, we need to usher in conversations about how the value of someone doesn’t somehow disappear if they choose to be sexually active, or at the least, try to have a conversation about informative sexual education for future generations. 

Spill the Chai is a weekly column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is a part of our Voices section.

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