Chup Kar, be quiet: On infertility as a South Asian Woman

by Sunita Thind

As an Indian woman, I can say that there are endless expectations placed upon us. Our hair, vaal, must be long and lustrous. We must have fair skin. Most importantly, we must be able to bear healthy children.

Photo of Sunita Thind wearing a long white shirt and jeans.
Photo provided by Sunita Thind

Infertility in South Asian families is considered a curse. It is believed the evil eye is cast upon those who are infertile. The evil eye, or nazar, holds significant cultural and spiritual importance – it stems from the idea that jealousy, envy, and negative thoughts can cause real harm and misfortune to another. Infertility, as well as illness and misfortune, is caused by the malevolent gaze of nazar.

Despite the prominence and broad acceptance of this belief, I have experienced its consequences. I feel guilt and grief, where I cry most days and nights. I am told chup kar, ‘be quiet,’ by friends, family, and members of my community – but it is not my choice to be childless. As well as my inability to have children, my community believe I am cursed for marrying a white man – a pariah in my Sikh community.

As South Asian women, we face internalised attitudes towards fertility in our own community. I spoke to a relation, wishing to remain anonymous, who also cannot have children who said: “I’m shamed by my in-laws as I had an arranged marriage. I felt such burning shame and self-blame. Thankfully, my husband was supportive and after much grieving we are a lot happier.” Now, my relation lives in Malaysia in her own home and is much more content.

As well as the pressures within our community, there is little external support surrounding this issue. Infertility among British South Asian women has long been a topic of concern, because of the complex interplay of cultural, socio-economic, and biological factors. Notably, socio-economic factors play a significant role in infertility. Limited access to healthcare services and low-income levels mean South Asian women are less able to seek fertility treatments, such as IVF.

My own personal health battles have clashed with both these spiritual and social issues. When I got Ovarian Cancer in 2016 and 2020, I lost my fertility, periods, and ovaries, surviving after multiple gruelling surgeries and chemotherapy. This put me into surgical menopause. As I have positive hormone receptors, I could not have hormone replacement therapy either.

The restrictions from the Lockdown had buffeted me from cruel jibes about my appearance. the bloated, mood swings, anger, hot flushes, fainting, anxiety, low mood and a million other symptoms were hell! 

It took me a long time to find a therapist of colour who understood the nuances and idiosyncrasies of South Asian and Sikh culture. In many instances, when I raised my experiences, I was met with racism, bullying, or downright ignored.

How, then, can we move towards providing adequate support for South Asian women facing this battle? Spiritually, there are certain rituals and practices that are performed across South Asia to ward off nazar. One form of protection is the use of amulets, often in the shape of an eye, which are displayed in homes and businesses. These amulets are believed to deflect the negative energy of the evil eye and safeguard people and their possessions from harm. Additionally, practices are performed to ward off the evil eye. These can include reciting prayers, burning incense, or performing cleansing rituals using water, salt, or herbs. 

Stock photo of an Amulet
Stock photo from Pexels of an Amulet

However, the very fear of evil eye itself can cause psychological stress – particularly for couples struggling with fertility issues. The belief that one’s ability to conceive may be attributed to bad intentions or jealousy causes feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, and guilt. It can also contribute to strained interpersonal relationships within our own community, as people become resentful of others who may possess nazar. Belief in evil eye and its influence on fertility underscores the complex interplay between culture, psychology, and social dynamics within Indian communities. Understanding and addressing these beliefs and their implications are essential for providing holistic support and care for people navigating fertility challenges.

Within our communities, we need to recognise the existence of stigma surrounding discussions about infertility and pregnancy. The pressure to conceive and bear children can be immense, and women may face social ostracisation or marital strain if they are unable to conceive. As a result, seeking medical assistance for infertility may be viewed as a taboo subject, hindering access to reproductive healthcare services. It is important that these conversations are open, to protect our mental health.

There are support groups both online and in-person, which address infertility by and for women of colour. For example, I was given free membership to The Daisy Network,a charity providing support for women who have been through the premature menopause. There are also groups on Facebook and Instagram. Personally, I can find these triggering, but it’s good to know that support is out there.

There is little representation of women of colour experiencing infertility in the media. Rather, we see white, middle-class people going through the issue – meaning South Asian women are less likely to feel they can seek help. People from white communities are twice as likely to seek mental help than people of colour. 

Ultimately, addressing infertility among British South Asian women requires a multifaceted approach. We must acknowledge and address all the intersecting factors at play – the spiritual, the cultural, and the socio-economic. This must involve improving access to reproductive healthcare services and destigmatising discussions surrounding infertility. By addressing these barriers, we can empower South Asian women in their reproductive health journeys and improve outcomes for those experiencing infertility. 

© 2024

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