As we mark South Asian Heritage Month and as part of our wider work around reclaiming certain narratives and tackling stigma, people in our Network are sharing their stories with us. Anisah Osman Britton, author of Brown Bodies, shares her experience of belonging as part of the East African Indian diaspora in the UK and how she learnt to fight back against colonial-era feelings of shame around sex and relationships that were forced on colonised communities.
Colonialist Victorian values were forced on racialised people and these taboos and harmful narratives shape harmful Western perceptions of minoritised groups today. But members of diasporic migrant communities are taking back the narrative. In this piece, she shares her journey of embracing the intricate histories of feminism, sex and power in religion, literature and colonised history.
As a Brown person, it often feels like you’re putting your reputation, family name and prospects on the line just by uttering that tiny, singular syllable word, s-e-x. The taboo of all taboos.
But here we go! If talking about it outloud makes one other person talk about it outloud, then it’s worth it.
Growing up, I always felt the absence of conversations about s-e-x. Our communities — in my case, the East African Indian diaspora — lacked conversation about pleasure, self love, trust, body positivity, confidence, vulnerability, intimacy, fun, about why religions tell you to wait until marriage. There was also no talk about pain, sexual health, fertility difficulties, loss, ongoing consent within relationships, lack or loss of desire or fear. It was always ‘no sex before marriage’ or ‘don’t get pregnant’.
I knew I wasn’t going to have sex before marriage. My faith was my guide. When I consciously made that decision, I was about 13 and at school in India. I was surrounded by people with a mixture of outlooks, including religious girls and boys who saw sex as an act that took place within a marriage — I wasn’t an outlier. It made it easy to be confident and comfortable in who I was and in my body. When you’re 13, you’re going through enough changes as it is, that wasn’t another thing I needed.
Then, I moved back to the UK, when I was 14 and did my final years of secondary school at an inner city girls school. One thing about inner city schools is they’re filled with kids from every diaspora. It’s the utopia we were promised when they said ‘multicultural society’. In that mix, I found my beliefs understood by the Black Christian girls who attended the pentecostal church near my house at the weekend, the Pakistani Muslim girls who I wasn’t cool enough to hang out with but who would give me the nod of sisterhood when it came to conversations about sex, the White girls who’d grown up in single parent houses and had sworn off sex until after university and everyone else in between who’d been indoctrinated into this mix and had learnt to accept that all of it was ‘normal’.
But college? Boy, did things change. It felt like everyday someone was losing their virginity. In their stories, my choices were questioned. ‘Don’t you want to know?’ ‘Aren’t you worried that they’re not going to be good at it and then you’re stuck with them?’ ‘Don’t you have…needs?’ And the games of assimilation began. Depending on who I spoke to, my story changed. To the cute boy in the library, I said I was waiting for the right guy. To the girls on my course, I was experimenting. To the Islamic society, I was waiting until marriage. I felt lost. My body no longer felt like my own. And I became obsessed with sex. Not with the act of it, but how it affected and impacted everything.
In English literature, I looked for the author’s motivation and more often than not, sex. In the canteen, I watched how boys changed how they spoke when they were talking to someone attractive — sex. I observed the Christian and Muslim girls talk about marriage more than any other of my friends — sex. I watched myself change as my faith clashed with the Western world’s expectation of how I used my body. I observed myself become more anxious about articulating my faith and my beliefs around sex. And mostly? I discovered my own obsession with sex.
I learnt about women’s rights to pleasure and sexual fulfilment in Islam. I read about the erotic history of India. I horrifyingly discovered the role of colonialism in creating and forcing people to feel shame. I explored the world of erotic literature from South America. I found myself in history. I found my voice in the voice of authors. I found my faith confirmed by stories of love. I found my anger in the lack of inclusion for different normalities.
The intertwinement of faith and culture with pleasure can be beautiful. Our histories are rich with it. But it can be messy, there are tons of nonsense articles and bad faith players online and so much ‘fake news’ is passed down under the pretence of ‘religion’ or culture. And we need to talk about it.
We need to talk about the fact women have painful sex their entire lives because they’ve been told it’s normal.
We need to talk about men feeling like they need to know it all when it comes to sex and the barriers it’s putting up to their pleasure. As Kapil Gupta said when I interviewed him for Brown Bodies.
We need to talk about the repression in our communities that keeps our desire locked up. If you suppress your feelings for long enough, it leads to numbness — a feeling of emptiness and an absence of emotion. We need to talk about why we see sex as dirty, secret and quiet. We need to talk about why our communities struggle to seek legitimate help when it comes to sex and sexual health.
We need to talk about how many people are hiding: their sexuality, their internal gender battles and their partners from a different faith. We need to talk about the challenges individuals face while they try to uphold religious and cultural beliefs whilst navigating the Western world’s expectations of how you use your body. “When I moved to London, a friend warned me how different relationships are here: people have sex first, then they decide if they want a relationship. Whereas in Asia, people date first,” says Eshita Kabra-Davies in her Brown Bodies chat.
And that’s just a few of the things we need to talk about. Sex impacts us all, whether we’re having it or not — not only does it affect our love lives, it plays an important role in our confidence and the way we carry ourselves in the world, our careers, our interactions with our communities, our relationships with ourselves, our parents, family, God, faith, spirituality.