Shame shadows and domestic abuse in the South Asian communities

‘What will people say?’ ‘Men are just like that.’ ‘Did he hit you?’ ‘If you carry on you won’t be a part of this society anymore’.


These are just some of the things that friends and family say when people in the South Asian community finally muster up the courage to disclose abuse to those close to them.

Perpetrators of abuse and violence are often adept at instilling beliefs of self-blame on their victims. We know this is not exclusive to ethnic minority communities – however, the disparity here is how deeply embedded cultural and religious expectations and practices can be used to instil extremely compelling feelings of shame and guilt in the victim. This shame engulfs the victim in a sense of powerlessness and allows the abuse to continue for years leaving the victims psychologically fractured.

I  will be writing from the perspective of a mental health professional, and a woman of Bangladeshi and Muslim descent, however, I believe there are commonalities across the South Asian diaspora in the dialogues and actions that sadly, occur too often, and sometimes can end in tragedy when people are simply too frightened to tell someone, or arguably worse, are just not heard.

This is a complex subject to address with so many variables; domestic abuse can be perpetrated in intimate relationships as well as between family members – particularly prevalent in ethnic communities where families are often living together; it can be physical and mental/emotional or without physical violence.

Abuse is not always visible, can often be subtle and out of sight of others,  and there is still ignorance around what constitutes abuse – it does not have to be physical violence (the Home Office published the Domestic Abuse Statutory Act in 2021 to include coercive control as a criminal offence).

'The Push: Murder on a cliff' – the  2024 Channel 4 documentary depicts with great sensitivity the heart-breaking reality of a Pakistani family left without their only child, her life barbarically taken by her husband with whom she appeared to be happy; but behind the facade was a controlling and coercive relationship.

Lucy Mangan’s article in the Guardian (4th March 2024) comments on how the programme is careful to include a scene of the local imam condemning domestic violence and that this case had nothing to do with religion. But we cannot always be sure that religion and culture are not used as weapons of intimidation and belittlement in an abusive relationship; and to understand how victims are further disempowered in these ways, it is useful to look at how identity in particular communities is shaped from a young age.

Self-worth moulded by culture and religion

When psychologist Carl Rogers spoke about ‘conditions of worth’, he set out a framework through which we can understand how the concept of the ‘self’ is constructed in the context of the dynamics between caregivers and children, societal norms, the expectations of what we are supposed to look like, behave and act – a template of how we should be in the world. This can sometimes be in misalignment with the real needs and desires of the person – what Rogers called the ‘organismic self.’

A woman from a Muslim, Bangladeshi background, for example, has a specific set of markers to hit before she can feel comfortably accepted in her family and community. Covering of the body appropriately, speaking in a low tone of voice, not being overly opinionated, subservience and placating others as duty are examples of traits that have been transmitted through the generations as being righteous and the only palatable way to be. A lack of willingness to comply with these perceived markers of  ‘goodness’ or being the voice of dissent in addressing conflicts arising, often comes with dismissal, invisibility, or judgement, and of relevance here, a source of shame. ‘I’m not good enough’ seems to be a universally applicable distorted thought and core belief we often explore in therapy.

Conditional vs unconditional love

It is relieving to say that this generation of young people are not afraid to express themselves and have far more nuanced and compelling arguments than their predecessors. Second-generation South Asians have changed their parenting styles for their children which has created a sense of freedom and autonomy that they themselves did not experience.

Even so, a 2021 study by the University of Birmingham on the impact of shame on help-seeking behaviours for mental health issues by teenage girls aged 13-14 states:

“This research uncovers the varying discourses surrounding the socio-cultural constructs of shame and mental health. Moving away from stereotypical assumptions about particular cultural groups, this analysis uncovers the complex discourses surrounding these constructs including how they are tied to wider discourses and have the potential to influence behaviours”.

(How discourses of sharam (shame) and mental health influence the help-seeking behaviours of British-born girls of South Asian heritage, Howe, Julia; Sangar, Maninder, 2021)

This mirrors my experience as a practitioner having received plenty of enquiries from young women of South Asian backgrounds over the years, who obviously wish to speak to someone, but when sessions are organised, there is not the commitment despite the intention. 

The autonomy aforementioned was referred to by Rogers as ‘internal locus of control.’ Having the capacity to decide based on one’s own thoughts and feelings, unclouded by others’ opinions, or without fear of disappointing those close to them. Essentially if your view of the world is connected to whether you will appease or disappoint your caregivers/family, you can become detached from your real thought processes and behave and act in accordance with what is in the other’s view acceptable – making them happy becomes the driver.

A healthy love, unconditional love,  is accepting of all the parts of the other, not just the ones that are acceptable according to the needs of the parent or caregiver. This is what creates conditional love. This again perpetuates the belief that those parts that are deemed unacceptable and remain hidden are somehow flawed or wrong, even sinful, creating a damaging narrative of shame-induced behaviours. This is where cultural norms and religious practices can be particularly significant in leveraging self-identity in modern society where we live with such diverse intersectional discourses. Conflict both within the self and with others, seems inevitable.

Culture and religion as tools of oppression

It would be remiss of me not to mention that cultural norms and religious practices are not the problem here per se. The sense of belonging and purpose, the transmission of practices of cookery, history and arts through the generations must be acknowledged. Similarly, religion has a significant role to play.

My argument here is that when people mobilise to do something in an unusual way, there seems to be a price to pay – even to those who are supposed to love us. Making someone feel shame and guilt for not following what is a perceived right path leads to powerlessness and lack of belief in one’s own ability to act, even when someone is doing wrong to us. This can sit within us like a calcified ball of pain, chipping away at our sense of confidence and self-esteem, further complicated where a history of childhood abuse and neglect exists. This misuse of culture and religion to exert power and control and instil shame and guilt creates barriers to seeking help even in the most desperate of circumstances. This threads through both in unconscious processes, but also through intentional subjugation or what can be termed as spiritual abuse.

What does this mean for the victim of abuse?

The perpetrator’s aim is to dominate all aspects of the victim’s life and exert power, thereby diminishing any sense of control the in the victim. Over time, this can make the victim doubt themselves, their judgement and decision-making abilities. It follows that a person who has been already moulded by culture and religion and is disconnected to their organismic or real self is even more vulnerable to powerlessness.

A community that lives by the same unspoken rules and boundaries enables this type of abuse to continue because of being blindsided by the very same. Further, instead of holding the perpetrator accountable for their behaviour, the victim is shamed into believing that they are not the good enough daughter, sister, or spouse. The very people who should protect and stand by the victims become guilty of dismissing the victim’s disposition, conserving the self-doubt and self-critical stance of the victim, and enabling the perpetrator to feel vindicated.

Regaining power and control

The path to safety is complex. For a person who is disconnected from their authentic self and ability to make a judgement on boundaries being crossed, years can pass before any recognition or awareness of the abuse even happening occurs. The barriers that victims face in even arriving at a point where they feel able to seek help are worsened when family and community do not offer support, and in fact, can be colluding with the perpetrator in some cases.

The safety of the victim and any children is always paramount and removing oneself from these abusive relationships can often be a fragmented and slow process. This is currently further exacerbated because domestic abuse services are under-resourced and struggling to offer sufficient and appropriate assistance. Women’s Aid Federation CEO Farah Nazeer, commenting on the ‘postcode lottery’ when accessing help, urges the government to “find £427m a year to fund specialist women’s domestic abuse services, with ring-fenced resources for provision for black and minoritised and D/deaf and disabled women, as well as LGBT+ survivors.”

Nevertheless, once this stage has been completed and the victim is out of the abusive situation, the journey of recovery can begin.

In her seminal book ‘Trauma and Recovery’ Judith Herman writes on reconciling with oneself.

Gaining possession of oneself often requires repudiating those aspects of the self that were imposed by the trauma.

Trauma and Recovery, The aftermath of Violence – from Domestic abuse to Political Terror: Judith Herman, 1992

The central tenet of my therapeutic approach is that growth and recovery is always possible. For any client bringing any presenting issue, my aim is to facilitate positive change through the development of self and awareness of their own and other’s behaviours and patterns of relating, leading to improved relationships and better functioning in personal and professional life. Specifically for victims of abuse, it can be helpful to explore boundary-setting and communication skills, particularly assertiveness.

On addressing traumatic experiences and of relevance here, the shame that can be associated with it. The single most powerful thing that I once heard from a therapist was this:

"… It is not your shame to carry…"

This unburdening of the body and mind enables an opening to exploration and rebuilding of the real or authentic self, untangling the client from unconscious thoughts and behaviours that have been previously imposed through culture and religion. Only then can we start to feel true freedom – the freedom to choose our path, to lead and not be led. The freedom to make judgements and decisions and to believe in these as absolutely right for us, and only us. In doing so we are accepting all the parts of ourselves (even the flawed ones) and we are repairing the parts that others have damaged.  

My hope for South Asian communities is that by continuing to raise awareness through education, and sharing of lived experience, we can elucidate a different pathway for victims – one that leads to a safe, fulfilling and emotionally stable existence without fear of threat and intimidation or oppression through misuse of culture or religion.

Seeking help to include counselling and psychotherapy and rebuilding the self is the ultimate repositioning of a victim’s position at the helm of their life, handing back the power and control to the rightful owner.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Morden, SM4
Written by Shaheda Choudhury
Morden, SM4

I am a BACP registered Integrative Psychotherapist. I am also a Wellbeing Lead and Domestic Abuse Champion in a government department.

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