Culture of shame

Lucy Peters 25 January 2008

Samira is a 19-year-old Egyptian woman who lived in England with her upper-middle class, Muslim family. When Samira came out as a lesbian to her parents at 14 her relationship with them disintegrated and at the age of 16 she left home.

Seven months later Samira’s parents re-established contact with her, inviting her to join them on a family holiday to Egypt that summer. Samira’s friends advised her not to go, but she missed her parents and eventually agreed to accompany them.

Upon their arrival in Cairo, Samira was driven to a flat in Rahab where her passport was taken from her. She soon understood that her parents intended to keep her under house-arrest. Samira is desperately unhappy, describing her treatment as kidnapping. In her efforts to get back to England she has applied to the British Embassy and asked human rights workers in Cairo to help her, but until she is 21 she is legally under-age and under the protection of her father.

Her parents consider her lesbianism to result from her upbringing in the West and intend to “cure” it by taking her back to a society which they believe doesn’t share these problems.

The experiences of British lesbians whose families are from countries where homosexuality is taboo are ignored by the mainstream media. Many such women experience serious suffering in their attempts to reconcile their cultural background with their sexual orientation. The conflict between their desires and the expectations of their families and communities forces them to choose between miserable, secretive silence and subjection to manipulative pressure from those they ought most to trust.

British society is often portrayed as gay-friendly, but the popular and gay press, in their focus on the experiences of white, “out” lesbians, fail to pick up on the serious difficulties faced by women whose families refuse to see being out as something of which to be proud.

Mina is a young British-Iranian woman at university in London. Her siblings were born in Iraq, but during the Iran/Iraq war her family moved to England, where Mina was born. Mina is a lesbian who says that if she came out to her parents she “would lose my family imminently.” Her family is very important to her but she is constantly tormented by the knowledge that if they knew she wished to live as a lesbian, they would reject her completely.

“I invest a lot of myself and my time into my family, and sometimes I think – is it worth it? I might lose all these people. Though if that happens, I won’t have to wonder all the time about who might be most disgusted when they find out… When I think about it, it really upsets me…”

Mina is not alone. But she is forced into silence, like so many other British women struggling to reconcile their cultural backgrounds with their sexual identity.

And she voices the popular misconception that her circumstances are rare: “If the gay people you meet are mostly in bars and clubs you really can delude yourself into thinking you’re the only one who has a situation like this.”

Most of Mina’s parents’ friends in England are from Iran and Iraq. In Iraq homosexuality is no longer illegal, but fatwas are still issued stating that all gay people should be put to death. In Iran, a theocracy run by the tenets of the Koran, homosexuality is outlawed and may be punished by death. This law has been put into practice by the current president and several gay teenagers have been hanged. Mina adds that her parents’ community is very homophobic but that this is less about their religion and more about the culture they come from.

“It’s a culture of shame”, she says. “Shame is a very important concept – and it’s a word that you start hearing when you’re quite young – it’s the first thing that you hear when you’ve strayed slightly. I fear most of all to bring shame on my family.”

Mina states that homophobia is usually focused on gay men, whilst lesbianism is not even recognised. She claims that this lack of acknowledgement of female sexuality is found throughout Arab culture.

“People do feel like you can almost hold lesbianism in because women’s sexuality is so controlled. In consequence, the belief is that you don’t have to be a lesbian. Whereas with gay men the idea is that they are as they are. Maybe people are more disgusted by that, though.”

Just after Mina had broken up with her last girlfriend, she was so upset that she told her mother about their relationship.

“My mum told me that I would be forgiven as long as it was just this one time and it never happened again. And I was grateful even for that.”

Mina’s mother’s reaction was similar to that described by Lily, a British woman whose mother is Iranian, when I asked her what would happen if she told her mother about her year-long relationship with another woman at university.

“If I came out my mum would just cry and cry”, Lilly claimed. “She would think she had brought me up wrong and failed as a mother. She would think she wasn’t going to have grandchildren and cry. She’s also think I was being selfish and rebelling against them in some horrible way.

“They would be ashamed at the thought of everyone knowing. They would be incredibly concerned and worried about me. They would probably phone me every day and sit me down when I was at home to talk about it and sort it out. It would be a complete nightmare. I would be very embarrassed and sad at seeing my parents that hurt.”

And Mina sums up her mother’s feelings by saying: “She told me that no one in my family would want me around their children. was so disturbing for her that she didn’t tell anyone.

“I still call her up quite often and tell her that I don’t want to be with a man. But she always returns to the idea of finding a husband for me.”

Lily describes the way her family’s expectations are different from those of lesbians with Western parents.

“My mother has dedicated her life and everything she does to me and to my brother. This is hard to explain to westerners from a very liberal background.

“Divorce was never an option for my mother because it was all about the family for her. To turn around and disappoint her in this way would be the most selfish act on my behalf, and I can’t do it.”

Both Mina and Lily resort to deception in order to continue to have relationships with women. Mina explains this by saying: “I don’t even think of it as concealing anything or lying… I have to live away from home: that in itself was very difficult to make happen.”

Xue, a young bisexual woman from Singapore, tells me that the situation is similar for gay women from Eastern Asia.

“A lot of youths in Singapore are still very much constrained by their parents’ expectations”, Xue claims. “I have lots of Chinese lesbian friends in Britain who have never come out to their parents because they’re afraid of being rejected or disowned.

“They’re literally living double lives: on one hand, they’re out to gay clubs in London, pulling girls left right and centre, but once they’re with their parents they turn into agreeable heterosexual girls who just haven’t found the right guy.”

“Also, a lot of conservative Asian parents use a convenient rhetoric to disagree with homosexuality”

“That might be the way they do it here, they say, but it’s not how we do it back home…They don’t know what our culture is like: our culture doesn’t allow such things.”

These experiences are similar to those of Abeni, who is bisexual and whose family is from Nigeria, where homosexuality in men or women is forbidden by Sharia law and is punishable by death. Abeni is not out to her parents as her bisexuality would be “completely and utterly not acceptable” to them.

Abeni’s parents arrived in England from Nigeria about forty years ago, and she says that they are “not as strict as they used to be”. They still tell her that she should marry a Nigerian man, but her brother is engaged to a woman from the West Indies, and her sister is no longer living with her husband.

Abeni’s mum has hinted that she is suspicious that Abeni is gay and asks her questions to which “the answer had better be no”. But Abeni says that her parents haven’t tried to control her life since she began university. As time goes on there’s the possibility that she might tell them about her sexuality, if she were not living with them.

Abeni argues that it is far more difficult for British women from ethnic minorities to come out as gay because minority communities tend to be more defensive of their cultural values. “If you come from any sort of minority you experience a stronger sense of conformity”, she says. “The dominant culture sets the status quo and any deviation is ridiculed. There’s a stick-together mentality among members of minority cultures: it makes you stronger and affirms your own identity.

“It’s difficult to add difference to difference. Your parents want you to carry on their traditions so that your family retains a sense of heritage.”

Anjali is in a relationship with another woman at university. Her parents, she says, would class themselves as Indian, although neither was actually born in India. She is out to her parents and tells me that they are supportive and pretty inclusive of her girlfriend.

“As ever, it’s not quite the rosy picture it appears to be in that it’s taken a couple of years,” Anjali says. “they’d guard this knowledge with their lives (their family and friends don’t know, and it’s ‘understood’ that I won’t tell them); and they still call my partner my friend.

“I think that the attitude of my parents is due to where we live: tiny villages in south Cambridgeshire aren’t exactly cultural centres for minority ethnic groups so my parents are very much part of a white, British community.”

However, Anjali believes that the experience of British lesbians who have trouble reconciling their cultural background to their sexual orientation is commonly misrepresented.

“Minority ethnic groups are characterised as homophobic due to supposedly arcane religious practises and rigid, generally misogynistic, attitudes to gender.

“What no one seems to take into account is that they are also subject to the same institutionalized homophobia that the rest of British society experiences and propogates.

“Communities, however tightly knit, don’t exist in a cultural vaccum so their views must be examined as part of, not in opposition to, ‘British’ views of homosexuality.”

Her comments certainly tie in with those of the white, British women I interviewed about sexuality and culture. These women generally found their parents and friends to be supportive of their sexual identification, but did not always find society so accepting. Speaking of her experiences in the North and South of England, Amanda says that she never feels entirely comfortable: “In the clubs in the north, where my home is, we didn’t kiss in public because young men find homosexuality a threat there, and there was always the potential of being followed home or harmed.

“On a number of occasions I’ve been harassed for having danced with a female, while looking stereotypically ‘dykey’. I hide because there is nothing worse than being seen as a sexual object for the entertainment of men.”

“A kiss between a straight couple is expected in a club; a kiss between two women is an invitation for young men to make comments, as though I was merely performing for the voyeurs on the dance-floor.”

And Jessie, another British LGBT woman, notes a number of difficulties she has encountered expressing her sexuality.

“A lot of people have strong stereotypes about lesbians – that you have to be butch or perhaps that you even want to be a man – which wasn’t the case for me because I’m pretty girly.”

And a girl called Sophie adds: “Little things… build up and give the overall impression: you’re different to us, and your relationship is not as normal or valid as a straight relationship.”

It seems clear that the misery and fear shared by many gay women from minority cultures in Britain is not something that the rest of British society can afford to ignore. Lesbianism is all too casually dismissed by its treatment as a source of titillation for men, and the widespread belief that lesbian sex “doesn’t really count” comes up all too often in casual conversation.

And the painful pressure to conform inflicted on gay women from minority communities matters for those who recognise it as a denial of identity as well as a dismissal of desire.

Lucy Peters