Patterns of suicide and attempted suicide among Asian women in Britain do not reflect those in the wider community. A recent report published by Southall Black Sisters stated women, aged between 18 and 35, from the Asian community are 3x more likely to commit suicide compared to women of any other ethnic backgrounds. Venna Soni, an epidemiologist and a leading expert on Asian suicides, reported that 1,979 women of all races between the ages of 15 and 34 years killed themselves between 1988 and 1992 in England and Wales, 85 of whom were Asian. This rate is nearly double their proportion of the population. Other reports and research also point to the high rate of self-harm amongst Asian women. What is it about their ethnicity that makes them more vulnerable to self harm and suicide?
There are a few cultural concepts specific to the Asian community which may contribute to this. One is the issue relating to society and the impression that others will have if family problems are made public. These occur in 3 tiers – firstly the impression made of the individual, then the effect of this issue on this individuals immediate family, which includes her own family and her in-laws and on a larger scale the potential negative effect on her parents and siblings. All are interlinked and have an almost domino effect – nothing occurs is in isolation.
In the Asian patriarchal culture reputation, status and honour are very important in propagating the desirable social image and facade families display amongst their own kind. These three aspects are pertinent to the overall functioning of the family not only within their own relatives, their peers, acquaintances but also the larger Asian community (Bengali, Pakistani, and Indian) and one that families work hard to assert, maintain and propagate. Women are seen as the bastions of honour and reputation of families, therefore placing their behaviours and actions under greater scrutiny and judgement by others.
There is also an unspoken code of honour which relates to keeping family affairs, troubles and problems within the four walls of their home. Keeping problems within the family attempts to prevent shame and tainting of the reputation of the family within the Asian community, which being tight knit makes this a real possibility. The clustering of Asian communities in areas where other Asian’s have settled and made their nests nearby primarily for this reason further adds to this palpable tension and fear of problems escaping the cocoon of their houses.
The hardships inflicted on women in their homes may take many forms. Commonly it is assumed that if a woman is staying in an abusive marriage/home, then it is because perhaps her issue is confounded by her not being able to speak English, fearing her family back home may suffer or being unfamiliar with support services available to her. But these suicide cases do not only include those who have been brought to the UK from desi-lands, nor were they all forced into marriage or married strangers. Some of these women are born and bred in the UK, have their families living 10mins away and married someone of their choosing. This gives more weight to the statistics which infer ethnic background alone to be the greatest factor in the suicide rates amongst Asian women.
A lot of these married women may be being mistreated by their in-laws, including their husband. Issues such as domestic violence, removing her autonomy, imprisoning her in the home, taunting her, treating her as their slave, subjecting her to emotional and mental distress and even resorting to physical harm are not unknown. However because the notions of honour and shame are so powerful, most women feel they will be judged by society if they leave or expose the issues occurring in the home. Accusations normally point to the woman: “what did you/she do?” . Ultimately the issues and problems occurring in her personal life are her fault, and she is the problem.
Often these women may even present at gatherings at places of worship, and discreetly ask for help but people wishing not to interfere in what essentially is viewed to be a private matter simply walk away. This includes women acquaintances and peers who may be sympathetic to their suffering, but do not want to meddle and gain the reputation of someone who breaks up families. Watching from the sidelines, sticking their head in the sand and brushing problems (that are almost epidemic in the community) under the carpet are common.
Sadly sometimes the woman’s own family wish not to intervene as it may “ruin” things for them and their family if she exposes the problems or divorces. Women are encouraged to stay in abusive relationships out of this possibility that she may ruin and bring shame on everyone including herself. There is an ironic element in this – most Asian cultures are inherently patriarchal and it has been known that the men would defend the honour of their family if it was stained, even resorting to murdering the female relative – honour killings. However, when it comes to preserving the value, worth and integrity of their female relatives who have been married into another family there is at best meek support by way of advising her to “stick it out”. Owing to this lack of support, the only way out of the desperation these women experience and to save face by keeping the family honour intact is seen to be suicide.
Alienation, isolation and ostracisation from the family and community are real consequences for women who choose to expose and break free from the oppressive relationships they find themselves in. The key factor in allowing these women to feel they have the absolute option and autonomy to leave in order to protect themselves is the unwavering support of her family and friends. If these families valued their women more on the basis of humanity, love and kinship and less so on the societal impression and opinion of them, the patriarchal concepts of shame, honour and reputation which dictate expected decorums of women, many of their sisters would feel there is a way out apart from suicide.