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Ansuni Stories: Unpacking the idea of community among the South Asian diaspora

Ansuni Stories is a story telling and research project, where we are capturing the experiences of the South Asian diaspora across the U.K. in relation to our diverse, nuanced and, sometimes, conflicted experiences with our families and our community. The project explores both the healing, nourishing and positive aspects, along with the challenging, toxic and harmful impacts that result from our "collectivist culture".

What is a collectivist culture?

A collectivist culture is one where the needs and expectations of the community are placed above those of the individual. Typically, in collectivist cultures, interpersonal relationships and the interconnectedness between members of the community play a central role in each individuals’ identity.

Common traits of a collectivist culture include:

  • Individuals being encouraged to do what is best for the community and, widely, society.

  • Families and communities hold a central role.

  • A greater emphasis on commonly shared goals rather than individual pursuits.

  • Social and cultural rules that promote selflessness.

  • An emphasis on the needs of the community rather than individual needs.

In collectivist cultures, members are considered “good” if they are generous, selfless, dependable, attentive to the needs of others and somewhat passive. This is a stark contrast to individualistic cultures where the emphasis lies on the individuals’ needs and pursuits, and encourages independence, assertiveness, personal identity and self-centred behaviour.

Within South Asian communities, collectivism manifests through the emphasis on family and the community, being socialised into cultural gendered norms, and stressing the importance of maintaining familial and communal ties. Collectivist orientation within South Asian cultures encourages the importance of the wellbeing of the family, which extends to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Generally, collectivist cultures enjoy increased stability due to the mutual care and support that is encouraged within the community. This also means that individuals are less likely to have to face problems alone, as they become the responsibility of everyone. This can award individuals with a feeling of protection and security. Many individuals also enjoy the advantages of having a supportive community network, especially in terms of forming a shared identity, feeling part of a community, financial stability, having a close family and moral guidance.

However, individuals are also expected to sacrifice their personal desires if it means that the well-being of the family is protected, especially when individual and group goals are conflicting. As the idea of self exists in relation to others within collectivist cultures, pursuing personal goals that conflict with community goals is seen as a selfish act, and a betrayal to the community.

Community exclusion and othering

As an example, during the initial phases of our research on gender-based violence in diaspora communities, we learned that there were many incidents of womxn hesitating to come forward about their domestic abuse out of fear of being excluded from the community. This fear is imbued with the logics and dynamics of a collectivist culture - putting the needs of the community before your own, fear of facing judgement from your family and peers, tarnishing your’s and your family’s reputation, carrying the burden of honour, and feeling as if you have failed to live up to your gendered roles and expectations.

We define community exclusion broadly in order to encompass both mental and physical experiences which may be one off or on-going, including: experiencing pressure from family or other community members to behave in a certain way, judgmental attitudes, barring from religious buildings or family events, mental abuse, isolation within the family home, etc.

Community exclusion affects individuals who identify as womxn, non-binary, queer, or trans disproportionately. We created Ansuni Stories to give these experiences the space to be heard, surfaced and challenged. We recognise that collectivism allows our communities to practice community exclusion on the grounds of doing what is best for the whole but, often, these practices cause harm and distress and, yet, those experiences are either ignored or silenced.

Workshopping our experiences

We hosted our first workshop along this theme on 16 August 2020 with 20 participants from across the U.K. After setting our community agreements and getting to know one another, we began by exploring what the words community and family meant to us based on our lived experiences and tried to dig deeper into our feelings around these relationships. Nishma, our facilitator and co-founder of The Rights Collective, invited participants to share the first thing that came to mind when they thought of “community” and “family” and add it to a virtual whiteboard. There were a range of positive and negative connotations, including:

  • loss of autonomy

  • fear, reputation, expectation

  • shared experience

  • identity

  • showing only one side of yourself

  • fear

  • expectations

  • love and home

  • comfort

  • biryani

We split into smaller groups to discuss this further. The workshop then went onto explore the following broad themes as chosen by participants and facilitated by our team:

  1. Community / Social Support

  2. Caste / Race / Class

  3. Mental & Physical Health (including menstruation, body image, weight, skin colour)

  4. Family Ties / Kinship

  5. Gender Inequality

  6. Religion / Faith / Spirituality

Each theme was explored in virtual breakout rooms of 3-4 people. We were taken aback by the openness with which the participants shared their stories, showing empathy and understanding towards others. Unfortunately, we felt short on time so we’ll be sure to extend the breakout room discussions next time!

Family and kinship

In one the breakout, the participants discussed the way in which their relationships with their family had changed over time. They felt a sense of belonging however this was often conditional on meeting other people’s expectations. For some participants, they had essentially lost their family’s support when falling in love with someone who was of a different caste or religion. The most interesting part of the discussion was the continuing reference to how we would react and/or behave differently as parents. As a group, we believed that we could be the catalyst for change through our thoughts and actions.

The breakout rooms revealed many moments of vulnerability, which were beautiful and also inspiring to hear and be a part of. The things people openly shared were intimate experiences of their life which they may not have shared otherwise. Many of us left the breakout rooms and the Ansuni workshop feeling lighter and reflective.

Dream mapping

The final part of the workshop sought to look into the future a bit. Nishma led participants in a personal creative reflection to explore the hopes and aspirations for the future of their community. We thought about the kind of world we hope to leave to the next generation. We asked ourselves what it looked like to have a nourishing community and what ideal family relationships looked like.

We also considered who we wanted to listen to these dreams to make them happen and what one thing we could do to start making that shift. People shared their hopes of an open and progressive space as well as paradigm shifts when it came to the role of women. They also imagined a space they could bring their whole selves, a place of compassion, to be understood and to be held accountable.

We look forward to holding more such workshops in the future. Feel free to reach out to us if you’d like to collaborate!

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