By Rahul Sharma, Psy.D.
I was thrilled to finally attend a SAALT Summit! I had been hearing great things about the organization for many years. The feeling I had attending was incredible – a sense of communion with friends new and old, driven by the common purpose of social justice, in all its complexity, for South Asian communities in the U.S. This Summit reminded me of the Desh Pardesh festival/conference I used to attend in the 90’s. The best part of the SAALT Summit was, for me, the feeling that all aspects of my professional identity – the activist, artist, and mental health practitioner – had a home in this community. (In addition to attending various sessions, I had a chance to co-lead a very enjoyable “self-care for social justice activists” workshop with my esteemed peers Razia Kosi and Ulash Thakore Dunlap. For a synopsis of that workshop, provided by Ulash, click here.) For this piece, I wanted to share with you my experience as a SAALT participant interested in a particular subject area.
One of my long-standing areas of interest has been South Asian men addressing domestic violence. I have been focused on being a male ally addressing sexism and the prevention of violence against women (both generally, as well as specifically within our community) since my work as an undergraduate at The University of Michigan in 1989. For the last 24 years, I’ve taken on various leadership roles in prevention work, and occasionally written, researched, and presented on South Asian men’s roles in addressing these issues. My relationship to this work has evolved as my roles have shifted (as a student, a psychologist, a musical artist, teacher, husband, and father of a now 10 year old daughter and 8 year old son). One thing that has remained clear throughout these roles, however, is the belief that how we are taught to be – as men and as women – is very much connected to gendered violence. As such, the more we invest in our true respect and commitment to equality, we will lessen the incidences of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.
As a South Asian American male, I’ve sometimes felt alone in doing this work, which was why the SAALT Summit provided a breath of fresh air. I attended Saturday morning’s first session, “Integrating the Male Voice into Domestic Violence Work”, which consisted of four fabulous panelists, including Aparna Bhattacharyya, Chithra Jeyaram, Ramesh Kanthanadhi, and moderator Eesha Pandit. They all made poignant points about the complexity of the issue. On the one hand, we need more men to be allies to the cause of violence against women. Just as we need racism to be white people’s issue, homophobia/heterosexism to be straight people’s issue, we need the cause of gender inequality and gendered violence to be a MEN’S issue. To paraphrase panelist Ramesh Kanthanadhi (Internship Coordinator at Men Stopping Violence — www.menstoppingviolence.org), we must continue to get more men to not collude with the inequity by appearing “comfortable and silent” on issues of sexism and violence against women.
On the other hand, we must realize that when we do get men’s involvement in this issue, there may be challenges. Panelists point out that domestic violence shelters and other community based organizations addressing violence against women DO have men’s input, sometimes in a problematic way. Some men may come in with assumptions, expectations, and unchecked privilege. Aparna Bhattacharyya (Executive Director of Raksha (www.raksha.org) acknowledges this that yes, this has happened, and can be frustrating to those who have been working tirelessly on these issues.
Aparna also made the point, however, that she sees the value in partnering with men, building effective relationships, and encouraging men to engage in the training/awareness they need to understand some of the more subtle forms of sexism that contribute to violence against women. In fact, Raksha has had male allies from the beginning – all with good intentions, and with varying levels of awareness of issues of sexism. For example, she pointed out how members of Trikone (a social organization for South Asian LGBT populations), were among the first male volunteers to get involved with Raksha. Aparna adds that they have continued to be there – ready to show up and support in various ways. She stressed that building relationships with men and encouraging increased awareness/involvement is important when battling domestic violence in our communities.
I shared with the panelists and crowd what prompted me, as a man, to begin taking a leadership role in violence against women prevention, and what I’ve seen as perhaps the key ingredient. In short, we need male role models. When I was an undergrad at The University of Michigan, I met the Men’s Outreach Coordinator of the campus’ Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. If I hadn’t seen another man taking the initiative in addressing these issues head-on, I would have never fathomed this being a “guy’s issue”. I don’t think I would have taken the path of ally-ship to the degree that I did (or even at all) had I not seen another man “own” this as our issue.
I know that we, as men, can get defensive. Indeed, I initially felt defensive when I first became aware of these issues. My first reaction was that women were just interested in “men-bashing”, and I didn’t like how I felt as a person when it was pointed out to me how I might be exhibiting sexism. (During this panel, when Ramesh talked about “noticing how we interrupt”, I was brought back to my time in college – being challenged by women around issues I hadn’t thought about before.) But if we get stuck in guilt or defensiveness, we can’t get to where we, as individuals that are part of a community, need to go in order to lessen the incidences of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. For me, I had to realize that I needed to “own” my sexism (not deny its existence) without feeling like it was fundamentally who I was. What helped me was seeing other men model that ability. Again, when we see and hear other men take on these issues, it encourages our engagement in these issues, and can be powerful and transformative.
Panelist Chithra Jeyaram (award-winning filmmaker & Founder/Creative Director of Real Talkies (www.realtalkies.com) showed a clip of a film that featured a South Asian man voicing his dissent of the dowry system and views on why men should not participate. By peppering the clip with stats on the devastating effects of the dowry system, this excerpt once again showed how these are not just women’s issues, but men’s issues as well. I appreciated the potential for messages like these going viral. While this piece isn’t public yet, I believe it is vital to see allies speak about important issues.
So . . . what’s the take-home for all of us? First, I think we all need to know the resources in our area that address gendered violence in our communities. See what opportunities there are for trainings and/or dialogues in our community. Second, I think we need to expect men to step up as allies. As white people do in anti-racist struggles and straight people do in anti-LGBT discrimination, men need to take on sexism and gendered violence as an issue. Third, in doing so, remember that we ALL are in various stages of growth and awareness. Getting men properly engaged is a process. We must insist upon engaging in these issues in our community with a sense of compassion as well as resolve. My continued growth has been the result of both compassion and resolve. As Ramesh quoted a mentor during the panel discussion, men will do well to follow this wisdom: “When they call us a hero, don’t let it go to our heads. When they call us a villain, don’t let it get to our hearts.” Let’s all see how we can continue to engage each other and have a positive effect on the prevention of gendered violence in our communities.
MALE ALLY RESOURCES AND INTERESTING THINGS HAPPENING AROUND THE WORLD AND AROUND THE BLOCK (Thanks to Ramesh for providing this information!):
– www.MenStoppingViolence.org (Atlanta-based organization with great resources and information)
– www.PreventConnect.org (resources about prevention, public health framing, nationwide)
– www.RaisingVoices.org (in Uganda – rethinking domestic violence, mobilizing communities)
– www.C2Home.org (Close to Home – great organizing model out of Dorchester, MA)
– www.apiidv.org/resources/our-publications.php (Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence)
– www.engenderhealth.org/our-work/gender/men-as-partners.php (Engender Health – Men Engage/Men as partners – their youtube channel is a great starting point)
– www.promundo.org.br/en/reports/ (Promundo has reports/curricula etc. on engaging men)
– www.xyonline.net (great resources/articles etc.)
Rahul Sharma, Psy.D. – BIO
Rahul Sharma, Psy.D. began his work in 1989 in gender issues, violence against women prevention, and race relations as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, where he worked extensively at the Sexual
Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. He continued his interest in racial and gender issues in his pursuit of Clinical Psychology, specializing in multicultural issues. After receiving his doctorate in 1998, for over six years, he served as Director of the University of Chicago’s Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention, initially reporting to then Associate Dean Michelle Obama. During this time, he contributed a chapter on South Asian men’s roles in addressing violence against women for a book addressing various aspects of dealing with domestic violence in South Asian communities. He received the “Vagina Warrior” award from V-Day Celebration by the Vagina Monologues for his commitment to work against violence against women.
Dr. Sharma is currently Assistant Professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, Chicago and Coordinator of its Diversity Concentration. He is Chair Elect of the Division on South Asian Americans (DoSAA) within the Asian American Psychological Association. He also maintains a private practice as a therapist and consultant. In addition, Dr. Sharma is also the founder and bassist/sitarist for the award-winning music group Funkadesi, whose membership of Indian-American, African-American, Jamaican, Latino, and European-American members and musical pursuits sends a strong message of intercultural solidarity. Dr. Sharma’s long-standing passion for social justice has increasingly involved using music as a vehicle for empowerment, education, and community-building.