Jagdeesh Mann: #NotMySecret—a #MeToo moment for Vancouver’s South Asian community

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      Over the past 18 months, the #MeToo movement has decisively corrected—after decades of disadvantage—the balance of power for women working in Hollywood, navigating corporate boardrooms, and campaigning in the public sphere. The hashtag has brought into the media spotlight a range of odious behaviours, from sexual harassment in the workplace to the "traditional" entertainment industry practice of producers extorting sex from women in lieu of acting roles.

      And critically, this change in values has reduced the appalling double victimization of women who have fallen prey to sexual abuse and harassment. Where, in the past, women were more likely to feel shamed into silence—to the benefit of perpetrators—#MeToo has spearheaded a shift in social values that today encourages women to speak out rather than suffer in isolation.

      Yet for Nimi Chauhan, founder of Sahara Services Society based in Surrey, gains of #MeToo have been realized disproportionately by women from privileged backgrounds. Indigenous, black, and other racialized women—particularly from lower economic cohorts—remain trapped in the old power paradigm that clearly favours men and perpetrators of harassment.

      Some of the barriers are economic. For every lawyer-on-retainer a celeb like Taylor Swift can release upon a handsy DJ, is yet another lawyer unwilling to work pro bono for a vulnerable woman of colour being threatened by her boss while working a frontline service industry job.

      But other barriers are cultural, such as those confronted daily by Chauhan’s Sahara Society in its mission to empower children and families affected by abuse and violence through culturally conscientious advocacy. In cases of sexual abuse in the South Asian community, rigid ideas toward family honour and other family pressures have continued to suppress women into silence, often to shield "family honour" that in actuality only end up protecting male perpetrators of sexual violence.

      “Cultural pride, honour, sense of family obligations run across all cultures, however, they are more extreme in the South Asian immigrant community,” said Chauhan, explaining how non-gender specific cultural traditions can still be used to doubly victimize women. “We have families that tend to be closer knit, and extended families living together for longer. This is not as common in mainstream society.”

      For Chauhan, uncovering this topic—long stigmatized as taboo in the South Asian community—and bringing it into the light is the first step to helping victims heal. Her organization, in collaboration with the Social Foundry, a South Asian female collective that supports social justice issues, is hosting #NotMySecret on Friday (April 5), an evening with survivors and artists, showcasing their art around themes of sexual abuse, empowerment, and healing. Featured visual and spoken art, and stories will reflect creators’ personal experience as survivors of sexual abuse.

      “South Asians generally don't want things to be public. They don't want to talk to the police, they would much rather just sweep it under the carpet and ask the victim to not talk about it again,” Chauhan further added, again highlighting how powerful a deterrent ‘family (dis)honour’ is in denying justice for victims.

      “I'm a survivor of sexual abuse; and from the first time I've shared my story publicly in 2007, I've always wanted to let others know this isn't the survivor’s fault,” she continued. “We didn't do anything wrong.”

      It seems like such an obvious message in this #MeToo era but it still takes someone with the courage to stand up and say it aloud in order to trigger real change.

      And Nimi Chauhan, with the support of the Social Foundary collective, has no intention of ever seeing women in the South Asian community silenced again.

      #NotMySecret is at the Surrey Arts Centre on Friday (April 5). Doors open at 6:30. For more information go to https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/notmysecret/.