The interview of the month is about social problems in the Surinamese-Indian community in the Netherlands. This time I talk with Shiwani Sewdajal about LGBT, menstruation and parenting. Although there is still a stigma on these topics in Dutch society, they are more or less accepted and discussable. In contrast to the openness of discussing these taboos in the Surinamese-Indian community. That’s why Shiwani and I want to create awareness.
Shiwani is 26 years old and lives with her boyfriend in Rotterdam. She studied BA International Studies and MA International Relations at Leiden University. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking and photography. She currently works at the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations.
Shiwani, before we get into the social issues, let me first ask you how you view your Surinamese-Indian heritage. What do you like about our culture?
As I am growing older, I find myself proud of our culture and religion. I really like our culture and the philosophy on which Hinduism is based. I also like that the family is involved. Spending time together is very important. This can sometimes be less fun, but it is often joyous! What I like about Hinduism is that it mainly focuses on the way of living and achieving Moksha (salvation) and that it can be different for everyone. I also really like our music, food and films. It’s so vibrant.
What I find unfortunate is that many cultural / social customs are dismissed as religious, which quickly creates the misconception that it is “not accepted by God”. An example of this is homosexuality.
What does LGBT stand for?
It stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender.
Do you know how it used to be viewed in our community?
When I look at how previous generations (my grandmothers and grandfathers) look at it, it was always negative. Because it deviates from the norm (male / female). For example, their first experience with transgender / intersex people were the hijras who were rejected by society. Hijras are transgender women / intersex people and are usually castrated. In India and Suriname, they are seen as the third gender. They are seen as neither male nor female. They often perform at important events such as weddings and births in India.
During the British colonial rule of India, hijras were seen as “unruly” or “dirty”. They were not accepted. In 1871, legislation even banned hijras from performing with song and dance, wearing women’s clothing, and castration was prohibited to prevent more hijras from being added. In addition, registers were drawn up in which hijras were registered. With this, an attempt was made to eradicate the hijra culture and to strengthen the binary idea of man / woman.
Based on this, it was viewed negatively. Probably because it has flowed from colonial rule to contemporary social ideas about homosexuals and transgender people.
How is it now looked at? What do members of our community who are gay / bisexual / transgender have to deal with?
When I look at the beliefs in the Surinamese-Indian community about LGBT people, the negative associations are widespread. Homosexuals are not free to come out openly. Conversations about this are swept under the rug. People pretend that it does not exist. Many parents do not want their children to deviate from the norm. Many LGBT people are therefore not accepted for who they are by their parents and family. They risk the chance of being disowned. Homosexual men and women often marry someone of the opposite sex to meet the man / woman norm and even have children.
But I think there is more acceptance in our community today. I notice that my generation is mainly informing themselves more, showing support for the LGBT community, and older generations are modernizing. Unfortunately, there are still negative ideas and misconceptions about LGBT people. For example, some people still see it as a “choice” and that it would be punished by God. This often leads to the concealment of sexual orientation out of fear of being disowned.
It is remarkable that it is often dismissed as something “western”. Children are too influenced by the “western” culture. Then things are said such as “you have been influenced too much by Dutch culture or you watch American films too much.” Few people know that banning homosexuality is a British thought that was carried over to India during the colonial period. While homosexuality was accepted in India in pre-colonial eras.
During the colonial period, Article 377 of Indian criminal law was passed by the British. Until recently, this stipulated that “unnatural sex” was prohibited, with a maximum prison sentence of ten years. In practice, this law was mainly used for blackmailing gays, lesbians and transgender people. These ideas were not in line with the Indian attitude towards homosexuality at the time. This law was changed September 6, 2018 and no longer applies to mutually consenting adults.
What are the reasons for the reaction of Surinamese-Indian parents?
In our community, your actions reflect on your family and parents. That is something that still weighs heavily, I notice. I think that also plays a role in disapproving homosexuality. The question that often arises is: what will people think / say? Parents also fear how their child will be treated by others in society. So, on one side it can also be protection from a parent’s perspective. They sometimes weigh it heavier than it really is.
Another factor to consider is the importance of grandchildren and the continuation of the lineage. In their view, the “choice” of homosexuality makes this impossible. Having a homosexual child diminishes the family’s status within the community.
Yes, but nowadays couples can have children through surrogate motherhood / sperm donor so that’s not even a problem anymore. It is more about getting used to the idea that their daughter has children with a woman or their son with a man.
This also has to do with traditional gender roles. A woman is a mother and a man is a father. How can there be two fathers? Who is the breadwinner? Who will take on which role? Parents are also concerned about that. In earlier times, women took care of children and men worked. While our generation thinks a relationship should be a 50/50 split, that man and woman do the same. Those traditional gender roles are changing.
How do you view LGBT people yourself?
In my view, their sexual identity does not make them any different from friends, family or other people. This realization came to me only when it came close through the experience of a friend of mine. It is easy to put aside or ignore social problems that you are not experiencing. But when you see and hear what someone has to endure in order to be themselves, then you realize what it takes to cope with such a situation.
How can we help?
Education is key! I hope that people will mainly inform and delve into the issues surrounding LGBT in order to eliminate misconceptions.
In addition, I think you can certainly help the LGBT community as a cis gender. Simply by supporting them and being open to take a critical look at your own prejudices. When I try to imagine what someone is going through, it seems very difficult to me. They give their lives away to something they don’t support. They only have one life so it would be a shame if they don’t live the way they want to.
I am glad that there is more attention for this and I hope that we move towards a society where they are accepted for who they are.
What have you learned about menstruation from your environment?
Fortunately, my mother passed on many positive thoughts about menstruation! She made sure that I actually always felt at ease and never had to be ashamed of it. But I soon realized that this was not true for everyone. I also sometimes heard from my environment that your period is something very private and that you should not talk about it openly, especially with men. The opposite of what my mother taught me.
At a later age I was sometimes told that women on their periods are dirty/impure and should not perform religious rituals or enter the kitchen. Fortunately, my parents had a different stance in this. I still had mixed feelings, because I heard different perspectives.
Do you have an example of a situation?
During a puja (religious ceremony) I was once not allowed to participate because according to the pandit (priest) I was unclean. This was so uncomfortable because he was shouting it across the room! The pandit was pretty old-fashioned. I was no longer allowed to participate in the puja. It was very uncomfortable because everyone was looking at me.
How does that make you feel? What do you learn about yourself?
You’re going to see yourself like that… it’s dirty, it’s private, you can’t talk about it. I just wanted to practice my religion. Then why am I being disadvantaged? What makes me so different? Why is it talked about so negatively? It also makes you feel less worthy.
Period shaming also gives you, as a woman, the feeling that menstruation is embarrassing or that you have to hide it while it is a normal biological function of the female body that you have no control over. Menstruation is always seen as shameful. You can also see that in how hygiene products are hidden on the way to the toilet in schools and the workplace. The reasoning around menstruation is actually a paradox: a woman is admired for her fertility to ensure the future of the family, but the very thing that ensures her fertility is seen as taboo.
How should people deal with menstruation?
I think it’s important to stop seeing menstruation as a negative thing first of all. Parents should especially pass on the positive aspects of menstruation to their young daughters. Then it also has an effect on how young girls look at menstruation. That it’s not something they should feel ashamed of and understand that having periods is a good thing. You shouldn’t want that you are not able to menstruate because then you might not be able to have children.
What issues do you encounter in parent-child relationships?
There is too much social control. Some parents almost become police parents. Where are you? What are you doing? Who are you going with? How late are you coming home? I have experienced that I was not allowed to go to the city centre, while my friends were allowed to go. And that there is no reason why something is not allowed. The child is monitored. The child is brought up to the idea of how the parents want the child to be. They fear that things will go wrong or that children will end up on the wrong path. I often hear “I am not allowed to go to the city centre”, “I have to be home before 9 pm”, “I am not allowed to have a boyfriend”. And this gives children the idea that they cannot go to their parents to talk about things. They don’t dare to be honest with parents out of fear that their parents will get angry. For example, if things are going badly at school or if they have had an accident, they do not dare to tell it honestly. Fortunately, I do see that parents are trying to break this vicious circle. And that more attention is paid to communication. I have an open relationship with my mother. I can discuss everything with her. And when I hear that others don’t have that, then I also ask how do you deal with that? That you can’t express your feelings?
Why is social control harmful to the child?
In Surinamese-Indian culture, the child grows up with the idea that the parent has the highest authority. So, you do not argue. In their upbringing they get used to the important decisions being made by their parents. A psychological safety net is created which gives the child a safe feeling. But as children get older and develop themselves, frictions arise between parent and child. An example of this is career. Your parents want you to want you to become a doctor, but you know yourself that that career is not right for you. The safety net that once felt safe turns into a cage in which you feel trapped and have to get out yourself. In addition, social control does not give the child a chance to develop themselves socially. This often occurs at a later age when the child is already an adult.
What else do you encounter in parent-child relationships?
Discussions around menstruation and LGBT lead to intergenerational cultural dissonance* for the younger generations. When our ancestors migrated from India to Suriname, they took with them the cultural traditions, norms and values as they were then. They then tried to keep it as they learned it from their parents. When our parents moved from Suriname to the Netherlands, the same happened. The problem is that beliefs change over time, but the traditions remain the same. This creates a clash between children and parents about what cultural norms and values are correct.
How should parents respond to clashes with children about preserving cultural norms and values? Or vice versa?
The best thing is for parents to talk about it openly with their children. I also notice that it helps if parents can explain why they weigh so heavily on certain cultural norms and values. If there is understanding from both sides, you can also create respect for the choice of the other. The child can then understand why the parent finds it important and the parent can then understand why the child does not find it important.
It is May 16, 2041. How do you think the Surinamese-Indian community thinks about LGBT, menstruation and parenting?
Pfoe! What I hope is that they are no longer taboo and that more education is given within our community to give the next generations the right information. Above all, I hope that there will be acceptance.
Thank you for sharing your perspective, Shiwani.
* cultural dissonance: experiencing psychological stress when a person has two psychological ideas, values, or beliefs. A person has a certain belief but acts the opposite.
- personal belief: menstruation is normal and I am allowed to participate in a religious ceremony
- belief from the environment: menstruating women are not allowed to participate in a religious ceremony
- behavior: I do not participate when I have my period