Put down Shame and Pick up your Stick

by Anj Handa

Why is it we don’t talk about [X]?


I tell you to put down your shame and pick up your stick.

This epic line, delivered by Syreeta Kumar in The Pink Sari Revolution, is a great metaphor.  In this politically-charged play, Kumar plays Sampat Pal, leader of India’s Gulabi Gang. It’s not a gang in the usual sense. Rather, it’s a movement of women, recognisable by their pink (gulab) saris, created in 2006 by Sampat Pal Devi in Uttar Pradesh.

The region is one of the poorest parts of India with many societal issues. It has a deeply ingrained patriarchal structure, strict caste delineations, high levels of female illiteracy and domestic and sexual violence (including gang rape and acid attacks), child labour, child marriages, demands of dowry and more.

The gang’s members seek justice by engaging them in dialogue and holding male offenders to account. Serious offenders are publicly shamed when they fail to see reason. As a last resort, the gang take up their lathis (sticks) if the men retaliate with force.

Shame is a Silencer

Back to the metaphor. Shame is a silencer. It prevents people from speaking up, even when issues are unjust and need to be tackled. How can we address challenges in our own lives, or in society, if we stay silent? How can we come together and pick up our metaphorical sticks if we are gagged by shame?

Shame… I get it. As a British Indian woman with a strong extended family network, the concepts of Izzat (honour/reputation) and sharam (shame) underpin the structure of our community. These concepts kept me quiet on so many occasions when I was younger.  The need to be a ‘good Indian girl’ (whatever that means).

Words stuck in my throat, making it hard to breathe at times. Often, I’d stay quiet about events that hurt me so as not to hurt my loved ones. Skirting around difficult subjects for fear of judgement, when in fact I was my harshest critic.

Putting down shame

Then I discovered a book… In 2013, I picked up Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and it changed my life forever. Brown is researcher and storyteller at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, acclaimed for her research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. (You can watch her TED Talk here).

Here are some of the things she says about shame:

Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change - Brené Brown Click To Tweet

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows…

If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.

Her words shook me awake. What had I been doing?! I had a choice. To continue as I was – smaller than my potential – or to put down shame and pick up my stick.

Picking up my stick

So I started to blog. I was scared at first, worrying that my family would read some of my deepest secrets, secrets that might bring shame on the family. But brought into the light, they really weren’t that bad.

Now, I have the platform to speak about my own experiences and why social change is so important. I have countless examples of when my words have reached at least one person who, in that moment, needed to hear them.

Only this week, several people have reached out to me to receive support and advice, simply as a result of me writing about about topics ranging from domestic abuse to fertility in my own and my friend’s lives.

This is why I teach women to speak up. Inspiring women changemakers, you’re needed. Join our movement for positive change and liberate your voice!

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