Divorce in the South Asian Community
Divorce is an emotional, mentally, physically and financially draining process no matter what cultural background you come from. There are, however, unique experiences that those from the South Asian community go through which pose barriers to navigating divorce successfully. Understanding how the South Asian community experiences and treats divorce will help us move toward making much needed changes and progress.
1. The Importance of Marriage in the Culture
The success of one from a South Asian background is defined by that person’s education level and whether they get married or not. Even the timing of the marriage is subject for judgement. Sure there is the caste system and the power inequities between various diasporas within the community, but overall, every South Asian parent defines their success by what their children have achieved with respect to their education and career and whether they got married before it’s “too late”. Another level of expectation arises with giving your parents the blessing of being grandparents. This is the pinnacle of creating the perfect dream and picture for South Asian parents, especially immigrant South Asian parents. I am sure this is the same in many cultures. In South Asian culture, this can define one as either a success or pure failure with shame attached. It is unfortunate to say it this way, but it is the truth. So, you can imagine if one chooses Divorce, that person has to be ready to fall down the pedestal and essentially has to be ready for the negative inner and external voices throughout the divorce process and journey.
2. The Patriarchal Structures and Mindset
Patriarchy is so deeply entrenched in South Asian culture that any woman who chooses to stand up for her rights is shamed by the majority of people in the community. She is considered a "selfish" person who is ruining the family-oriented culture and the “image” of the perfect well-to-do family that South Asian families try to preserve. A patriarchal culture also silences women in many obvious and subtle ways and increases suffering and mental agony for women. Women silence themselves unconsciously as they have been groomed to be quiet in order to protect the honour of their family, their society, their religion and beyond. In the case of divorce, a woman getting divorced even once is a strong mark against her character and she is seen as not marriageable. However, a man can divorce many times and his image and character stay intact. This is the unfortunate reality of a patriarchal society, and today’s generation of men and women have to actively stay conscious of these conditionings and structures to support each other effectively.
3.Marriage is the Cultural Script for Women
The South Asian community is one of the largest and fastest growing immigrant populations in the country; however, there is not much research about the community. Researchers are now exploring the importance of gender, marriage, and family within South Asian diasporic culture. Gita R. Mehotra explores this in her research article titled: South Asian Women and Marriage: Experiences of a Cultural Script. This study aimed to understand how first and second generation South Asian women in the US understand their experiences of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and diaspora. The study highlights how messages about (heterosexual) marriage emerged as central to how women understood their gendered experience and, as such, marriage and being marriageable functions as a “cultural script” for middle-class South Asian womanhood. Women’s narratives reiterate this “cultural script” and in everyday ways this script is indirectly and directly communicated to women within family and community interactions With this cultural script in mind, the very thought of divorce pulls the rug from under a woman’s identity and her self-worth.
4. Lack of Community and Culturally Appropriate Supports
The journey is a lonely one if you are going through divorce in the South Asian community. No one in the family knows how to support emotionally without feeling anger, resentment, judgement and a lack of control. Divorce challenges the mental structures that the South Asian culture and generations have reinforced. The common theme for those going through divorce in the South Asian community is to retreat and establish new friendships and distance from old networks within the community. It’s a harsh reality, but having to deal with the chatter and advice from those who don’t have a pulse of how things are going in your life is even worse to sustain. Hence emotional supports within the community is usually few and far between.
Trying to find culturally appropriate professional resources is not an easy task. By professional resources, I mean social workers, psychologists, lawyers, mediators or family therapists that understand the nuances and cultural context of the South Asian culture. In Canada, the resources are growing from lawyers, mainly located in the Toronto area to mental health organizations like Punjabi Community Health Services and Indus Community Services located in the Brampton area. It is important for professionals to understand the cultural context and the role the extended family plays into the workings of a divorce. I am not saying it is right, I am simply saying the cultural context needs to be understood to better support the client at hand.
5. The Overly Stigmatized Perceptions of Divorce Lead to Shame and Mental Health Issues
People who go through divorce in the South Asian community go through more mental agony and cultural barriers to find their way forward. The mindset of an individual going through divorce as a South Asian is heavily focused on failure and there is an obsession of what family and friends will think. This fixated view on life leaves a divorced person spiralling alone and puts that at the risk of hurting themselves. There is also a strong stigma towards going and seeking help from a psychologist or therapist. The lack of support from one’s family coupled with the stigma the culture places around mental health is a very heavy burden. Families don't want to help, nor do they approve of one seeking help which compounds the weight on the divorced person. There is a lot of shame associated with Divorce to the point that people are outcast, hidden or silenced throughout the journey. It takes a lot of mental strength, self-awareness and a willingness to pull yourself out of the trenches to see past the negativity cast upon your life. Divorce is a taboo topic to discuss within the community and is seen to bring about shame to the immediate and extended family. This is a daunting reality to bear when one navigates divorce in the South Asian community
Divorce is a hard enough reality for anyone to face, even if it is done for the right reasons and for the better health of those involved. In the South Asian culture, this is harsh reality when compounded with shame, judgement, stigma and lack of support for all individuals involved. This needs to change. Divorce needs to be de-stigmatize within the South Asian community so those going through it are allowed to feel human and know that they are not alone. If you or someone you know is struggling through this, please do not hesitate to reach out for guidance and support.
Yvonne Sinniah joins us on the Feel Free Podcast next week to talk more about South Asian divorce!