Let’s talk about gender bias in South Asian culture – In conversation with Tarang Chawla

Far too often, when starting a conversation around gender roles in a South Asian household, one is brushed-off or met with defensive statements behind wide smiles. For this precise reason, more often than not conversations are not started at all and a culture of conformity seeps further within us. 

The barriers preventing such conversations have devastating consequences where on average one women a week is killed by a current or former partner in Australia. The murder of Poonam Sharma and her six-year-old daughter Vanessa on January 13 in Melbourne’s Mill Park is a heartbreaking reminder of mens-violence against women. It is a heartbreaking reminder that regressive patriarchal values normalise the subordination of women in South Asian communities. 

For many of us, growing up in a tug-of-war between cultures and generations is a process of unlearning preconceived notions around gender roles and relearning new perspectives by pulling away from the intergenerational colonial past that has entrenched rigid notions in aspects of our South Asian culture.

Overtime, we begin to question our mums when they ask us to pamper our brothers with food or hush us anxiously when we disagree with our fathers. We furrow our brows at the phrases we hear around us and start to see through the catchy lyrics and dance steps in Bollywood films, understanding the problems behind the idealised hero/heroine narrative. 

However, when it comes to initiating these conversations in South Asian households, some are willing participants, while others are silent and uncomfortable at the idea of challenging attitudes amongst their family or friends. In our collectivist culture, where acting in-line with societal expectations is so deeply conditioned, fear of conflict pushes many away from these conversations.

To understand how we can, with empathy and care, invite our loved ones and those closest to us on their own journey of breaking through entrenched regressive behaviours, I sat down with writer, anti-violence campaigner, mental health and gender-equality advocate, Tarang Chawla.

Tarang, who is a 2017 Young Australian of the Year Finalist, founded Not One More Niki, Australia’s largest campaign focused on ending violence against women in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Not One More Niki is named after Tarang’s younger sister Nikita, who was murdered by her husband in 2015.

Being a trainer lawyer and experiencing the systemic failures within the legal process in relation to Nikita’s murder, Tarang’s work in the advocacy space started as a result of “feeling a need to do something” and “processing and handling grief”.

“South Asian women [are] impacted by men’s violence [as well as] so much silence, that borders on complicity from even non-violent men.”

Change has been slow and progress in domestic violence has been stagnant particularly with the impacts of COVID-19, with over two-thirds of Domestic Violence agencies across the country reporting an increase in new clients and increase in severity of cases.

However, for the 34-year-old anti-violence campaigner, there is still hope and “a sense of both satisfaction and gratitude that the work [he] has done has …helped [others] escape abusive relationships, or more significantly, supported those who choose to use violence, to get help.”

“Because ultimately, that’s the thing we tend not to speak about, in terms of male behaviour – what happens to those who use violence? It’s a positive for me that there is this sense of more men wanting to understand on the one hand, what they can do on a broad cultural level, and on the other individual level, what they can do as people who want to have better relationships with their families, their partners, their children and themselves.”

Chawla, who holds a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) as well as a Diploma of Arts in Gender Studies has gone through his own journey of working through biases. “I’m not immune – I grew up in the same society. I watched the same films. It’s really about a process of self-examination and considering the sense of self within.”

“We need to start unlearning the learned behaviours and then relearning new patterns, and that doesn’t even just apply to men, that applies to all individuals in South Asian communities. And there is a sense of shame and embarrassment in terms of having those conversations.”

When I asked Tarang about his advice on how to poach these difficult conversations he said, “it’s about looking at it as an opportunity for growth rather than a site for condemnation.” It’s really important to make them part of a collective and ask, ‘Hey, aren’t we better than that?’”

“Creating conditions by which we can actually have these conversations is important - acknowledging that not every time or situation or space is best.” “Often if we raise things in situations where the other person is not given an opportunity or feels a sense of being able to have the conversation openly, there is defensiveness.”

Putting in place the right conditions to have these conversations is one aspect of changing the narrative around gender-based violence. But without the right language, we cannot begin to have a conversation that changes views. 

Language barriers go beyond word to word translations between English and another language. In South Asian communities where there are strong cultural barriers that enable the perpetual cycle of abuse, the cultural connotations behind terms like “domestic violence” “coercion” and “abuse” are vastly different to the way these words are understood in Western culture. 

One in four women from the age of 15, will experience some form of abuse or violence right? Men don’t think that, that means that one in four [of their mates] could be responsible for that. And that’s about flipping the narrative. That’s why the framing of these things is so important when we talk about ‘men’s violence against women.’”

Changing the language and thus the narrative on gender-based violence is easier said than done, however it is the most pertinent aspect of being able to bring down the horrendous statistics of violence in Australia. We need to be facing these conversations head-on, inviting those who are silently standing on the side to be part of the conversation and part of the change. We have too much to lose by brushing under the rug the conservative attitudes and behaviours we see around us. 

It’s about time we grasp the fact that the attitudes we hold or see in our social circles are in some ways responsible for creating a culture that enables the mistreatment of women by men. 

Family and Domestic Violence Support Helplines:

1800 Respect national helpline:

1800 737 732

Women's Crisis Line:

1800 811 811

Men's Referral Service:

1300 766 491

Lifeline (24 hour crisis line):

131 114

Relationships Australia:

1300 364 277

NSW Domestic Violence Line:

1800 656 463

Qld domestic violence Connect Womensline:

1800 811 811

Vic Safe Steps crisis response line:

1800 015 188

ACT 24/7 Crisis Line:

(02) 6280 0900

Tas Family Violence Counselling and Support Service:

1800 608 122

SA Domestic Violence Crisis Line:

1800 800 098

WA Women's Domestic Violence 24h Helpline:

1800 007 339

NT Domestic violence helpline:

1800 737 732

Harshdeep Kaur is the Editorial Team Leader at SAARI Collective. Based in Naarm (Melbourne), she has a background in marketing and business operations. You can connect with Harshdeep via LinkedIn.