Lost in Translation: discussing sex and relationships within BAME communities

By Priyankha Khindri |

“For most Asian girls, openly chatting about sex is firmly off limits. Enter Poppy, Rubina and Roya” | Brown Girls Do It Too/BBC RADIO Asian Network.

As seventeen-year-old me packed her bags for university, the voices of three women Poppy Jay, Roya Eslami, and Rubina Pabina played through my headphones. In the summer of 2019 the three women were banded together by the BBC Asian Network to create the playlist “Brown Girls Do It Too”: an open and raw account of their honest experiences with sex and relationships as brown women.

“For the first time in my life women were talking about experiences to do with sex and relationships that I could actually relate to”

Priyankha Khindri

I listened as the trio from Bangladeshi, Iranian, and Pakistani descent respectively, shared details of their love lives and experiences with sex. Their boldness and brashness captivated me, and I listened in awe at their confidence – for the first time in my life women were talking about experiences to do with sex and relationships that I could actually relate to.

I’d spent years watching, and had recently started listening to podcasts about love, sex, and relationships, but they were almost always entirely presented from the perspective of Caucasian women. These women however captured the idea of sex and relationships as being shrouded in shame and secrecy, often stress-inducing, whilst self-love and pleasure took a back seat. Roya’s hilarious analogy of her moustache competing with most of the boys’ in her class was painfully accurate, and made me smile.

As I listened to them share details of their sex lives, or lack thereof, I wondered whether they feared what their families and friends would think of the commentary; as if they read my mind the three women turned to address the fear of their parents listening. Jay, whose parents are Bangladeshi, remarked that she didn’t think they’d even understand what she was talking about — after all, she didn’t even know the Bangladeshi word for sex. 

Although this concept is nothing new with one of the most well-renowned BAME writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, even commenting on the concept in her feminist manifesto, “Dear Ijeawele”, the comment bounced about in my head for days.

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As I packed up the clothes, that my mum claimed “I’d catch a cold in” if I ever left the house wearing, it dawned on me — not only did I not have the vocabulary to talk about sex and relationships in my native language, but I was pretty sure my mum didn’t and that her mum didn’t either. Both of my parents are children of first-generation immigrant parents from India, and they both grew up in Hindi and Punjabi speaking households. Although it is not my mother tongue in the same way that it is theirs, I grew up surrounded by it and inherited a pretty good understanding of both languages as I spent a large part of my childhood with my grandparents. Still I wondered whether it was just my limited grasp of the language which meant that I didn’t have the vocabulary, or whether it was indicative of a larger problem. 

Luckily for me my poor mum has, for nineteen years, been subject to my weird and wonderful array of questions, so she didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked her what the word for sex was in either Hindi or Punjabi. She sat there, perplexed, and you could practically see the cogs turning in her head. She began to smile and responded, rather sheepishly, that she didn’t know and that her and my grandma had only ever used “chi chi” in an almost mocking manner. Although the thought of my 80-something-year-old grandma calling sex “chi chi” definitely made me laugh, it also raised concerns. It indicated to me that my mum had never had a serious conversation with her own mother about sex, despite having two kids and being *49 years old* so she claims. I then asked about the word for relationship, and again, she sat there pensive. Her response was one word: “viyar”, or marriage. 

Admittedly this exercise could just be an exposé on my mum’s poor grasp on Hindi and Punjabi, but to me it proved to be quite illuminating. It highlights why BAME – specifically Indian – cultures have such a difficult time having conversations about sex and relationships. How can we expect our parents to talk to us openly about sex if they don’t even know the word for sex, and were never themselves taught the language of sexual intercourse? When the languages they grew up around synonymised relationships and sex with marriage, how can we talk to them about boyfriends, girlfriends, or in fact any partner serious or casual pre-marriage? 

“young BAME people must take the lead and create the spaces in which to house these essential discourses of love, sex and relationships”

Priyankha Khindri

The shortcomings of languages native to BAME communities charges BAME youth with a difficult task, but one that I believe we are more than capable of fulfilling. We have to not only learn for ourselves the language of love, and discuss sex and relationships more freely, but we have to try and impart that knowledge on the generations that both precede us and come after us. Women such as Poppy, Roya, and Rubina have demonstrated in their podcast that young BAME people must take the lead and create the spaces in which to house these essential discourses of love, sex and relationships.

With the rise of social media, and the preoccupation of our generation with streaming platforms such as YouTube, I implore our generation to try and instigate conversations with our parents (conversations that are difficult) regardless of how uncomfortable we feel. If this seems too daunting, then perhaps even talking to your siblings, cousins, or other relatives of a similar age can be the beginnings of a way in which we dispel the stigma associated with sex and relationships in BAME culture. Even something as simple as engaging in the conversation which BAME creators have already started online by sharing a post, commenting on a YouTube video, or listening to a podcast can help to equip us with the tools we need to feel more comfortable engaging in these conversations.

“A problem not limited to the BAME community”

Priyankha Khindri

However, I am also aware that this is a problem not limited to the BAME community, and that those from conservative households rooted in traditionalism — regardless of race — may also find themselves in the same predicament. As I am asking you all to engage and be open, it only feels fair that I do the same. 

We have decided to open a Q&A forum: students and other young people, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity can feel free to engage in open and honest conversations about such topics on our lifestyle page. Let us know what you’d like to hear more about! 

Listen to “Brown Girls Do It Too” here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08k5cp0/episodes/downloads?fbclid=IwAR0RmTImFqs-OOd5Cxy1wzv6bGxfGp8jBeAYOVvP0GamueJ5pQo5rdXMvbM