With Shazia Mirza, Salma El-Wardany & Seema Anand
Welcome to the Season Four Finale of Masala Podcast! This episode was recorded live in London as part of the International Women’s Podcast Festival.
Three years ago I was in this very location learning how to create a podcast, and it was so special for me to have returned for this episode, hosting my three beautiful guests: Shazia Mirza, Salma El-wardany, and Seema Anand.
In this episode we speak about being Bad Betis and not fitting into the mould as South Asian women. We speak our minds, we talk about things that we shouldn’t even mention.
Bad Beti Shazia Mirza did not become a doctor like her family wanted. Instead, she is an award winning British stand up comedian and writer. Shazia continues to be the queen of comedy and is currently on tour with her new show ‘Coconut’ which has been nominated for ‘Best Stand Up Tour’ in Channel 4’s National Comedy Awards.
Salma El-Wardany is a writer and radio presenter, among many other things. She has led many TED talks discussing topics that are considered taboo in our culture, and is an author, poet, BBC presenter and an advocate for girl’s rights all over the world.
Seema Anand uses her voice to advocate and educate the world about the joys of the ancient erotic literatures of India. She calls herself a Mythologist, a Storyteller, a Sexual Health Educator & she is the author of “The Arts of Seduction”. Seema says that she’s changing the world one story at a time.
I am proud to share this special episode with these awe-inspiring Bad Betis who are shaking things up and giving other womxn a safe space to speak up.
Masala Podcast Live in London: Transcript
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast, the Spotify original. This award-winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, sex, sexuality, periods, mental health, menopause, nipple hair, shame, and many more taboos. Join me around my virtual kitchen table as I talk with some inspiring women from around the world, exploring what it means to be a South Asian feminist today. This is the season four finale of Masala podcast, recorded live at Kings place in London. As part of the International Women’s podcast festival we showed the world how bad us, Bad betties can be. Our live show was lively and loud. And it was full of laughter. And here’s the best bit, there was so much love and support for us Bad betties in the room. We explored lots of taboos, from sex to nipple hair, and much more. We played orgasm guessing games.
I was joined by three amazing guests. Shazia Mirza, Salma, El-Wardany, and Seema Ananda. Masala podcast live was definitely more fun than a big Indian wedding. I hope you can hear how joyous it was when you listen to this episode. Enjoy
Hello, and welcome, everyone to the Masala podcast live. This is the finale of season four. I can’t believe it’s been four seasons; I still have to kind of pinch myself because, funny story, I was here in this place for Content is Queen about three years ago to learn how to make a podcast. And I feel really kind of blessed and a little bit overwhelmed sometimes when I think about it like, okay, I’ve learned and I’ve done four seasons of a podcast. And there are people actually turning up and paying money to listen to me and my amazing guests. So thank you so much.
So to anyone who doesn’t know what Masala podcast is, why would you be here then? It’s all about taboos in South Asian culture. Now, if you know anyone who is South Asian, there is a lot of shit we don’t talk about. We don’t talk about sex. We don’t talk about periods. We don’t talk about mental health. We don’t talk about my favorite thing, nipple hair. I think we should all be talking about nipple hair. The most serious point is that when we don’t talk about things that happen to every single one of us. There’s a lot of angst that we then start to embody, and we carry within us. And those things that make us feel like we’re somehow weird or strange when in fact, it’s something we all experience and we’re all challenging, and we’re all fighting against. So these sorts of conversations make the taboos non-taboos if that makes sense.
So thank you all for being here. First of all, thank you for being with me. And some of you have messaged me on my down days and I’m like, oh my God, my life is shit. I’ll get a lovely message, which really perked me up. And we all need reminders, right? There are days when we all wake up feeling like nothing’s working. And then I get a message from one of you and it just lifts me right up and reminds me of who I am and who we are. So thank you for being on this journey with me. Let me begin by introducing my amazing panel to my extreme left, Shazia who’s on her phone
Shazia Mirza 4:52
Hi. I was on Tinder actually just swiping left.
Sangeeta Pillai 5:08
Shazia, as you don’t need me to tell you, is literally the funniest woman I know. Sometimes she doesn’t have to tell a joke. I already start to laugh. There’s something about her manner and her delivery. She’s one of the world’s best known comedians and has been on tour with her show Coconut, which has been nominated for some awards I believe?
Shazia Mirza 5:39
The National Comedy Awards. It’s called British Comedy Awards, but you can’t say British anymore because it’s not politically correct. Not everyone’s British. Not everyone has a British passport, do they Sangeeta?
Sangeeta Pillai 5:57
And Shazia is off to Vegas, baby next week.
Shazia Mirza 6:01
Sangeeta Pillai 6:01
Tomorrow? And she’s talking to us today. Doing 14 shows at the comedy cellar. I mean, how cool is that? Big round of applause. Next is Salma El-Wardany.
Salma El-Wardany 6:19
Sangeeta Pillai 6:19
One of my favorite people in the world. Salma is a BBC radio presenter, poet, speaker, has just written her first novel, These Impossible Things which I’m dying to read, which I know you’ve been doing signings of.
Salma El-Wardany 6:31
Sangeeta Pillai 6:32
The books are available for anybody that wants to buy them, go buy them. It’s all about three best friends and things that happened in their lives. And then one fine night, something happens. I won’t reveal it. You need to read the book to find spoilers, no spoilers. And last but not least, Seema Ananda, also one of my favorite people. She has this ability without even being there to kind of just soothe and calm I mean, look at Seema. Just turning up and you’re like, Oh, okay. Seema is a mythologist, a storyteller, a Kama Sutra expert. She’s written a book called The Art of Seduction, which is a guide for the modern world to make love from the time of the Kama Sutra. It’s full of inspiration, it’s a beautiful book. I’ve read it. It’s gorgeous. Again, you must find a copy and buy it because it’s amazing. So welcome Shazia, Salma, and Seema. Shazia, tell us a bit about you. And then tell us what makes you a Bad Betti?
Shazia Mirza 7:47
Well, I’m a comedian. I was brought up in Birmingham obviously, I don’t live there anymore. Because you know, I’m doing well. I’m not sure. I love being from Birmingham. I think they have a specific sense of humour. Everybody in Birmingham is, when I was growing up, everybody was funny. You know, like, my parents are very serious, and they’re very religious. But at the same time, there was something about them that was funny, but they didn’t know it. So obviously, I used them as material when I grew up. My parents came from Pakistan. My mom was actually born in India, but they came over from Pakistan in the 1960s. And, like all immigrants, they wanted me to be a doctor, marry a doctor, have some little doctors. Don’t bring shame on the family, shut your mouth.
So I did all the opposite. And it was just a normal Asian working-class upbringing in Birmingham, really. And I became a science teacher. I was a science teacher in the East End in Tower Hamlets. And I hated that, never really wanted to do that. And I just used to do stand-up comedy really in front of the class every day. I mean, they hated me, and I hated them. So we got on really well. And I did stand up in front of them. And I realized every day it was such a rough school. I was just doing stand-up.
So I just started writing then and then I started doing stand up and I never thought it would go anywhere. It was jus,t I loved comedy. I never thought I’d be. I’d be a comedian. It was never my plan. It was never, I never thought Asian women could be stand-up comedians, because when I was growing up on TV, they were all white men, like Larry Grayson, Kenny Everett, Frankie Howard. All the ones my mom liked all the gay ones. She didn’t know they were gay. And that’s what I saw. And I thought they were really funny, but I never thought that an Asian woman could do that. I never even saw Asian women on TV.
Now when I was growing up, my dad always used to say to me, hurry up, hurry up, get downstairs. Trevor is on the TV. Trevor McDonald was the closest thing to an Asian woman at the time. Um, so that’s why there’s so many Asian US readers because they all think they’re Trevor McDonald. So I, what I never saw Asian women on TV in any capacity, the first time I saw Asian women was reading the news, doing something sensible.
Never thought I would be a comedian, never thought there was a place for me. And even after doing comedy for all these years, I still have to fight for my place in comedy, I still have to fight to be heard, to be recognized and to be acknowledged. And not all the white men that I started with, you know, after five or six years, they all had their own TV show. Some of them were on their second show their third show. And I was when I started comedy, I was the only Asian woman only Muslim woman doing comedy. Now there’s five of us. So things are moving, things are moving at a very fast rate. That’s quite a lot really to have five Muslim women, Asian women doing stand-up now it’s quite a lot, considering it was only white men for years and years and years, white men, and Joe brand. And that was it.
So it’s been very difficult. And every day I’m doing comedy. I feel like I’m still struggling. Because it comes to a point where you know, you’re funny, the audiences are laughing, you’re selling out, you’re doing really well. And it doesn’t become about what you’re doing, it becomes about something else. So it’s not about how good you are at your job. It’s about something else. It’s about fighting for your place in this industry, which I always feel like I’m still doing and probably every woman regardless of their race, or religion or gender, they just feel they’re fighting for their place to be heard and to be seen. And Sangeeta, my question about being a bad bat, I mean, I think any Asian woman is considered bad, who goes against the grain of what they’re supposed to do whatever that is, you know, you don’t have to be doing something bad. You have just opposed the system. You’ve just done something which you were not supposed to do, expected to do, but people never thought you would do. And you’ve somehow done that. And you’ve done it on your own and you’ve achieved it. And for some reason, you then get labelled a Bad Betti or, oh my god, she’s a feminist which is used in a derogatory way. Oh, she’s a feminist or she’s a rebel. Oh, she didn’t do what she was supposed to do. All of that is considered you are a Bad Betti. And apparently, I’m all of that.
Sangeeta Pillai 12:39
Salma El-Wardany 12:40
A little bit about me. I was born in Egypt, Egyptian father, Irish mother, and came to Newcastle when I was a baby. I was about three or four, and grew up in Newcastle and left because I wanted to do well, and it wasn’t going to happen in Newcastle. I have a lot of love for the North. But it’s Yeah, I mean, love it, that one person. Do you know what I mean? Who also left by the way. Just to point that out, she’s not there now. I go back and see my family and it just breaks my heart.
And so I grew up in Newcastle when I was about five, my mother remarried a Pakistani man. And he’s my father. He’s been the only father I’ve ever had. So I was raised in Newcastle, with his big Desi family, and then my Irish white mother. Lots of stories about that. It’s interesting, interesting rabbit hole, which we will not go down right now. And was kind of raised there until I left and went off to Egypt for a few years and then and then moved to London. And so I’ve spent a lot of my life trapped between these various different cultures being very strongly raised in a big Desi community. And, you know, I always say it takes more than genetics to be a father and my father was my Pakistani father was the only father I ever had, and he was my dad.
And that’s how I was raised kind of in that family in that desert community. But then also as a northerner in Newcastle upon Tyne and people kind of when they find out now that I’m from Newcastle, that I always hear Georgie and I, maybe, I don’t know, I lived there. I wasn’t born there. And then you’ve got the Irish side and then you’ve got the Irish Catholic side, my mum converted to Islam. So then you’ve got the Muslim Egyptian side and then the Muslim Pakistanis.
So between all of that, there’s various identity crises happening on a daily basis. And, and there are lots of communities and cultures that don’t ever say anything that point that you are saying about we don’t talk about things in better communities, and we don’t we don’t talk about feelings. God forbid anyone have a feeling other than hunger, which is the only recognizable way to the only acceptable thing that my grandma never told me that she loved me but the minute I walked into the house was every Sunday or any other day of the week? Are you hungry? Do you want roti? Yes, yes, I do. And that’s kind of how we communicated. That was our love language. That was it. And so it’s a difficult space to be trapped in. I think anyone who has a foot in various worlds finds that difficult even if you are someone who comes from both sides, your family comes from the same culture or religion, and then exists in the world that we live in. Now in the United Kingdom, you’re always shifting between various different spaces. And that’s, that can be really difficult. As for being a bad bet, I think I refuse to keep my mouth shut. Which, you know, is a point of despair for my family, I won’t remember again, my foot. So I’ve given a couple of TED Talks.
And when I gave my first one, it was all about it losing my virginity outside of marriage. So I thought that would go down well with my family. And my dad watched it, right. And it’s like my immigrant, Pakistani father, who came to England when he was like, 12. And he’s like Sama, I want you to talk. Right? Okay. What do you think? Shouldn’t why you have to tell people you had sex? I think well, I just think, you know, we don’t talk about it, and some women relate to it. And I think it helps and just makes us all feel a little less alone. Don’t think it’s a good idea. Don’t think you should do it. As I write. My book’s just come out. It’s just published last week.
And I said thank you. It’s very exciting. And it’s about three women, one of them is a Pakistani, and it’s just about all their love letters to friendship. But um, I said to my dad, by the way, it’s dedicated to my dad, he’s one of the people it’s dedicated to, to my father. I said, you’re going to read it. He’s like, No, my kind of thing. It’s not for me, so I was like, Will you buy it anyway? Like, will you just go and buy it? And he was like, How much is it? 15 pounds. He’s such an agent. And he’s a market trader.
So I grew up really working class, just like you sell stocks at a market store, and 15 pounds, and he’s like, I’ll give you the 15 pounds. He was like, you’ll get more of it than if I was like, that’s not the point. You just have to buy it. So like goes towards book sales. And he’s like, but I can’t read it. Fine. So he went and the day it was published, he went to Waterstones in Newcastle, and then got the people working there to take a picture of him with this book. And it broke my heart. So yes, anyway, the point is, I refuse to shut up about things. I keep being very vocal about the problems in our communities.
Whether that’s the Muslim community, the South Asian community, because I saw so much happening in my own family when I was growing up. Like my uncle, just one day came home with a baby that he’d had with a white woman that he refused to marry. And then no one would say anything about it. And then the kid was my cousin. It was just part of our life that we never saw her. And I remember being like, should we, at some point, have a conversation about what happened here? And no one would talk about it. And I just remember growing up and seeing so much pain in my own family and just thinking if we could just fucking say something to one another. Are we allowed to swear on this?
Salma El-Wardany 18:19
And so I suppose the thing that makes me bad in their eyes is not staying silent about all of the problems. But I’m taking it like a bad bitch, which is a great thing anyway. We all need to own the Bad Betti in us. So I keep saying things out loud that they would rather I didn’t say, I’ve got a book full of things that I probably shouldn’t have said. But I think that’s probably what makes me a Bad Betti.
Sangeeta Pillai 18:48
Brilliant. Thank you. Seema.
Seema Ananda 18:55
I kind of resonated so much with what she was saying. My own father who I’ve never met because mommy was divorced when she was pregnant with me. So he’s Hindu. I have no idea where he is. I have never seen him. My first stepfather was the one who brought me up. He was Arab. And my second stepfather was sick who had converted to Catholicism. I mean, yeah, so I got it. And mum’s latest boyfriend who I wish she hadn’t broken up with because now she has depression. So I wish she’d stuck to him.
But anyway, he was back to being Hindu. So I would have had a Hindu man in my life finally, which I didn’t have. So I made up my own rules of what Hindu means because there was no Patrion guiding me. I don’t know. I mean, my family, my mom, my grandma, my great grandmother, have done stuff that I’m still trying to catch up with and I’m not yet bad enough to have gotten there. But again, from my in-laws’ side, they think I’m really bad. My mother-in-law is the only one who’s read my book. And she has a little bit of dementia. So she forgets she’s reading. And she reads it regularly. And then she rings me, and she says, darling, I read your book, it’s so good.
How I came to my work was actually through a really serious path. I work with women’s narratives. I believe that the stories we tell define our identity, they define us. We tell stories of how a man comes home drunk, and he beats up his wife, but she’s so good. She’s so good. She never says anything. She doesn’t go and tell people outside what is happening. She’s protected the honour of the family. And then that’s what becomes a good woman.
And you have the woman who’s fighting for her rights and fighting for her ability to stand up, and she becomes a bad person. And I’ve worked with stories all my life, I believe that that’s how we actually create, what we define our roles in society. And I kind of realized maybe I’m just slow, but I realized over time that we never tell stories of a woman’s right to her own body to her own pleasure. It’s always somebody’s property. Your body, your pleasure, is somebody else’s property.
And I just thought, okay, I want to see what are the stories we’ve silenced. Because we are the land that wrote the Kama Sutra somewhere, there must have been stories that talked about a woman’s pleasure. And so I went down that path being an academic, I was like, yeah, 5000-word essay, I will move on. That was 19 years ago, I’m still on that subject. And I’m so deep into that subject, because I have to just say, we’ve got a chance maybe to talk about it or not, because if you haven’t come across, and most people haven’t come across the erotic literature’s of ancient India, there is absolutely nothing as gorgeous, as beautiful, as empowered, as that most people think the Kama Sutra was written to teach women how to go and seduce a man. It isn’t actually written for men.
The Kama Sutra was written to teach men, it’s about all sorts of things, of how to live the perfect social life. And part two of the Kama Sutra, which is about the arts of pleasure goes both ways. But it primarily talks about how if a woman can be pleasured fully, if she can be brought to her complete and absolute joy, and pleasure, the world will sit right. And they were trying to change the narrative of women by putting this in. I’m convinced it’s written by women. Because you know, it doesn’t actually talk about the act of sex. So at no point does it say, Okay, now this is enough. Now, this is how you thrust, and it doesn’t talk about bodily fluids. It doesn’t talk about thrusting. It just talks about pleasure.
Shazia Mirza 22:50
A man definitely didn’t write that.
Seema Ananda 22:55
But you know what? It is such a revelation. And I also realize that 2000 years ago, when this was being written, I want to just mention that 300 and something AD when it was being written across the oceans, somewhere in Turkey, the very first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church was being set up. And they started writing their rules 325 ad. And they’re going, the body’s evil, this is the road to hell, and Vātsyāyana is going, the body is beautiful. This is the Road to Heaven. And it’s actually by 342 AD the Catholic Church had written a law banning oral and anal sex and the counsels were still kind of discussing why it could be good and why it could be bad and how you actually must do it.
His basic argument is that when you have oral sex, most people tend to do it the same way. And you tend to then stimulate the same nerve endings. And if you keep doing that, and don’t stimulate the other nerves, then there will be an imbalance, which, of course, bad health. And so it kind of tells you how to do it properly for the sake of good health. I mean, I love it. I just love that idea. So it goes out of its way to say to men, because like I said, there is already a parallel misogynistic narrative at this point. Why do you get a man to change his mind when pleasure has been the man’s privilege and property forever? So until it actually tells them, if you can pleasure your woman fully, you will do better in business.
And it says you will become a better warrior, and it explains why. Do you know that there were actually battle formations in our ancient literature based on lovemaking positions? And just to finish, do you know there’s not just one common suitor, there are several 1000 because every king whoever came to the throne had one written for their kingdom, because it was believed that if a couple could share truly mutually pleasurable intimacy, the relationship would be good. If the relationship was good, society would be stable. And if society was stable, the kingdom would be stable. So we’re doing this today for national security.
Sangeeta Pillai 25:07
So obviously Seema doesn’t need to go into why she’s a Bad Betti. Pretty self-explanatory. So let’s think for a minute what is a Bad Betti. And I use this a lot, and it’s just like a telegraphic way for us, I think to think about anybody that challenges the patriarchy, anybody that challenges anything within the culture that we’ve grown up in, you’ve heard all two of my guests talk about how they’re doing it themselves. But it almost doesn’t matter if you’re from this culture or not. It doesn’t matter if you identify as a woman or not, he is the daughter. So a Bad Betti is a bad daughter, which is a riff on the whole good daughter thing. So we’re brought up from the time where, before we can even articulate words, we’re taught that this is a good woman, a good woman does this, she wears that she doesn’t raise her voice, she follows what she’s told she doesn’t question.
And before we even realize we’re following these set patterns for our lives. And we might get to a certain age, I don’t know, might be teenage, might be 20s/ 30s. And you’re like, how am I living this life? That is acceptable to society, but doesn’t make me happy, entirely, maybe. But by then it’s too late, almost like you’ve just conditioned and you’re following, and you’re playing it out. So the whole point of the work I do is to get us to sort of think about the choices we’re making. Think about the conditioning that we’ve internalized, and it’s not our fault. You know, our parents, their parents, think of your mother, your grandmother, her mother, we’re just carrying on what we’ve been taught.
So I think it’s time for us to sit down and question some of these ideas, and think about if they serve us, and I want to talk to you more about the comments are like that’s from our culture. And we can think about what actually serves me, but I don’t know, diaries or whatever it might be. That also was maybe part of our culture but doesn’t serve us anymore. It doesn’t. And I think those sorts of questions and asking them and not feeling like somehow you’re, then not worthy, you’re belonging to the culture. That’s what this is about. So everybody in this room is a bad Beatty, whether you are a woman or not, whether you’re Asian or not, anybody that’s challenged patriarchy. Anybody that didn’t do as they were told, anybody that didn’t just shut up and put up is a Bad Betti. So give me a cheer if you’re a Bad Betti, including the white man over there. I did warn him he’d get picked on, but I think he’s happy with that. So let’s, I think, have a moment for us as an audience, as you’re here to really touch into that part of ourselves. And feel like it’s okay for us to be whatever that might be for us.
There’s a perception of South Asian women in the West. And also in the East, as you know, these quiet people who don’t want to disrupt anything will be like, you know, head bowed, you know, quiet steps and everything. But we’re certainly not that. So, I’d like us to play a little game. Now, I like to call it the gasm guessing game, which is a game where I will play a couple of sounds. And you’ve got an answer, whether it’s an orgasm, or it’s something else. It could be all sorts of other things. So I’m going to divide up the room, you’ll Section A, your section B. And each sound I’m going to ask section A and Section B. And I’ve got these two tote bags to give away for the and I’m going to just randomly pick a winner. Okay, it’s my podcast. It’s got a t-shirt. It’s got some bindeez. Could we have the first sound please of the orgasm guessing game?
So Section A, is she having an orgasm, or has she seen the spider? Just shot out the answer. There’s no spider.
Shazia Mirza 29:10
If it’s an orgasm, it’s not a very good one.
Sangeeta Pillai 29:46
It’s our game we can be whatever. Could we have the second orgasm guessing game please?
That’s me taking off shoes at the end of the day. So, was that a woman having an orgasm? Or has she just run into the nosy Auntie next door? I think we can agree it’s an orgasm. I think that’s the majority. Could we have the third one please? Was that a little orgasm or big orgasm? or was that her drinking her favorite cocktail? Coitus interruptus. Could we have the fourth one please?
This one is for my guests. What do we think that is?
Salma El-Wardany 31:51
I didn’t I don’t want to say orgasm, because I feel like she’s just had a bad one. If that’s the case, I just never want a woman to have a bad orgasm. I’m going to, I’m going to rule it out. Or she needs to spend a bit more time.
Sangeeta Pillai 32:03
I think that one needs a little bit of work. She’s kind of halfway there, the sex toys need to come out, fingers need to come out, whatever, you know, whatever. So anyway, it was, I think things like this because as a culture, we just do not talk about sex. We come from the land of the Kama Sutra, like Seema has been telling us. But everything to do with sex is kind of bottled up. You know, I don’t know about you. But when I was growing up, anytime there was like, even a scene where a couple could be potentially kissing, not even kissing, the remote would come out and we’d change quickly, or if we watched, like, I grew up in India in the 80s.
So we didn’t get a lot of western films. But sometimes you get like a foreign film. And within five minutes, couple takes clothes out, making out and my mum and dad say, “Oh, my God, what is the stuff you people watch?” So the sense of shame was attached to sex very early on. And we knew without even being told that we couldn’t talk about it, we certainly couldn’t do it. And as women, there was a double whammy of like, being taught that sex was for men, not for women. And we somehow just turned up and lied there and thought of India as what the message was, or Pakistan.
So I think conversations like these and games like these normalize things that we’re all doing, and if we’re not doing we should be doing more of because we know sex is good for us. And similar to sex, whether it’s mental health, we’re all experiencing things, particularly over the last couple of years, I’ve had really bad anxiety, depression, PTSD, but as a culture, we do not give each other the space to talk about it, I think, and that needs to change. And so therefore, things like this are very, very important.
So this is kind of a serious message behind the gasm guessing game. Coming back to my guests, since we’re talking about sex a lot. Seema I feel like this one’s on you. So we were told as women, I was certainly growing up in Mumbai that sex was in for me. It was not part of my culture. It was Western women who had sex. Indian women didn’t hear anything about it. Can you tell us because you started to talk about the Kama Sutra and all the other kind of erotic literature from ancient India that you’re familiar with. How were women and the text linked? How much of a part was this part of our lives?
Seema Ananda 34:56
A little bit of research makes me think that when the Kama Sutra was written, it’s based on Plato’s Republic. So Plato writes the Republic to talk about how to create the perfect kingdom, the ideal kingdom, the Kama Sutra is written to create the most refined kingdom and says it’s all about how the woman is treated and how lovemaking is treated. And it’s all about changing the vocabulary. So it’s really not about the act of sex, it’s about pleasure and everything else that goes with it. I am a storyteller as Sangeeta said, but wasn’t very keen to do writing very much. Absolutely hate writing. I don’t know how you went through it, but I would like it. I hate it. But anyway, the point that changed for me was when I discovered that each position in the you know, the so-called positions are the Kama Sutra, which truly, it’s the teensiest bit, and there’s a purpose behind it was that each position is linked to a piece of jewellery.
And I’m not saying that, Oh, we’re kind of like, oh, no, we don’t talk about certain things. And hence, we’re, you know, being kind of soft about it. Women learned how to execute a position by how the jewellery moved on your body. Okay, so for instance, it is just gorgeous. This is what really got me this is when this was when I thought, Okay, this is it. This is my life from now. So, for instance, the position of where the woman would be on top, which in the ancient world was totally forbidden in every culture, because that was the position of power. Now, the Kama Sutra says that you could be on top. But you basically execute this position, you bring yourself to orgasm by only moving your hips, you don’t move the upper part of your body. And so women would wear a jingling girdle around the upper waist with lots of little belts on it, and make sure that the belts didn’t make a sound. Can you just imagine that? So in our literature, they always talk about, she put on her jingling girdle, and you know, she’s taken her position on top. But if you don’t know what those metaphors mean, you have absolutely no idea what the hell they’re talking about. It could be anything she put on her jingling girdle.
So the idea was that you change the vocabulary to make it sound like it was something beautiful, aspirational, something that everybody wanted to do, because it was the path to heaven. It literally is supposed to be you elevate yourself through pleasure, because pleasure is your Shakti to energy, and you get to heaven. So women played a huge role, don’t get me wrong. Not everybody in ancient India would like a woman and their pleasure. There was a parallel strand of misogyny, which was very strong and said this was all being written to change the narrative. And women were a huge part of that change.
When I started doing the research on my book, there’s something that Naomi Campbell says, where she talks about how if a girl was brought up, hearing parts of her body discussed in such beautiful terms. I mean, the clitoris, for instance, in the Kama Sutra is called the modern Chatri, the umbrella of the love God, you know, and the vagina is the Chandan melody. Or, you know, it’s the sandalwood Palace, oh, et cetera. Anyway, maybe those are really like over-the-top words.
But the idea is that if you talk about the woman’s anatomy, with such utter Beauty and her sexual organs with such utter beauty, think of the different way that she will grow up, she will grow up thinking of herself so differently. And that is where the change will come from. And I Yeah, so for me, that is literally, where like I said, 19 years ago, I kind of got stuck on the erotic literature’s because it’s, it truly is very, very beautiful. But more than being beautiful. It’s so gracious and so refined. It’s just not like something that you want.
Sangeeta Pillai 38:57
And I think the idea that sex is somehow not part of our culture. This is our culture. You know, this talk of the refinement of lovemaking, this talk of a woman’s pleasure. We’ve been talking about it since the fourth century BC. So anybody that tells you the next time, this is not part of our culture, well, like, go read the Kama Sutra or Ananda Ranga, or any of these other books. And the other point I wanted to make is like, we think of feminism and female pleasure and the clitoris and the orgasm as something modern. But actually, it’s not. We’ve just kind of lost the way.
And I think that’s part of my point about our culture. It is a beautiful culture. It’s a rich culture. It’s a women centric culture. I will say that the Davey’s and the, you know, the feminine power that we worship, but we’ve lost it. And then now we’ve been told that actually I have to resist. And actually I’m sorry, it isn’t. I get a bit excited about this anyway, calm down Sangeeta. Salma, coming to you, you talk a lot, I think in your talks and when we had a podcast as well about this pressure to be a good Muslim woman, which means conducting yourself a certain way, marrying a good Muslim man, and living your life in a particular way. Talk to us about that.
Salma El-Wardany 40:27
Well, I didn’t do it. It wasn’t going well for me. There is this enormous pressure. And it’s similar to what you were saying about that pressure to be a certain way. And I think your point about sex is so fascinating, that infiltrates into everything, right. And, you know, there’s this idea that if you’re going to be good, you’re not going to be a sexual creature, because good women and good Muslims, and good Muslim women are not sexual creatures at all. When in fact, we’re all horny as hell. We all want to get some. And, you know, there’s this huge amount of pressure that was heaped on me and I think every other Muslim woman and every other Muslim girl that I grew up with that you were going to be good and well behaved, and your voice was going to be low, and you were going to wear the right clothes. And you know, if I remember being in the mosque when I was young, and like, I remember praying, and then when we finished praying the ante next to me, turned to me, and said, your jeans are too tight, so your prayers are not going to be accepted.
And I remember thinking, Oh, fuck you, my maids who were Muslim at the time were out getting drunk, like, at that moment, it was a Friday night And I just thought I’m here praying, trying to have this personal relationship with God that really is none of your business. And you’re telling me that because my jeans are too tight, it’s not going to work, or that everything I’ve just done over the last, I don’t know, however long the prayer lasted, last 10 minutes, is out the window now, it’s negated.
And so I got those, those kinds of influences very early on, I was having nail polish on, and they would tell me that my prayers aren’t accepted because you have to wash before you pray. And that means like, the water can’t touch your nail. And if it hasn’t touched your nail, then you haven’t washed properly, which means then your Prayer is not valid, because you haven’t done this ablution. And I remember the kid in me who’s quite focused and pragmatic about things being logically that sounds stupid, logically, I don’t think God’s up there thinking about the bad people in the world, and the fact that Hitler killed all these people. And then Salma comes along, and he’s like, well she did have nail polish on. So, you know, she’s probably a bad Muslim or a bad person. Logically, surely this can’t really work.
So from a very early stage, I was, you know, really fed all these ideas of everything that you do wrong, and what I really hate when we talk about religion, and we talk about faith, and you’ll probably have heard this when you have conversations with people, we talk about it in the paradigm of what you can and cannot do. So when I started working in London, I used to work in corporate heading up Marketing departments in the city. And everyone goes out for drinks on a Friday night or Monday night or Tuesday night. And they’d be like are you coming for drinks? And I’d be like, sure, I’m coming for a drink. And then I would inevitably order Coke or Virgin Mojito, because that’s the only non-alcoholic drink we were provided at the time. And then everyone would ask the questions, and they would be like, you’re Muslim. So you can’t do this. You can’t have sex before marriage. You can’t show your arms, you can’t show your hair, and we talked about it straight away and what you cannot do.
No one ever stopped and said to me, Oh, well, what’s your relationship with God like, because I always think for me, religion is a personal relationship between you and God, and nobody else. And that’s it. And if you can have conversations with your God, whoever that is that you pray to at the end of the day, that is your business, right? So I was always really annoyed very early on. And I remember when I was a kid saying to my mom, I love Islam, but the Muslims really ruin it for me. And they still do, to this day, like the number of Muslims who messaged me online and I’ll post a picture of me in a bikini or just in my laundry because I want to because I looked great.
And I would like to share that with the world, or I’ll talk about sex a lot, you know, and they will immediately message me and just go you’re not allowed to do you’re not allowed to do that or stop calling yourself Muslim because at least if you want to talk about sex, then don’t call yourself Muslim. And I wrote an essay in the anthology. It’s not about the burqa, and my essay was sex in Islam. That’s literally what it was about which enraged the Muslims, they were livid about it. And it touches on exactly what you were saying is that actually, when I’m having sex, trust, trust me I’ve seen in the face of God. It was a divine experience.
I am at my most divine when I’m having an orgasm, right? Like that is a divine state of being. And it’s really hard to navigate that world and navigate a space in which patriarchy uses religion as a tool to control what they’ve done. And when we talk about sex and our cultures and we say, well, we don’t have sex and our cultures, no, we do, we just have men who are trying to control women, and they’re using culture or religion to do that as a tool. So it’s a hard space to exist in, I’ve pushed back against it at every opportunity that I possibly could, and I still push back against it to this day, because I refuse to, I think what they would like me to do is say that I’m not Muslim, because if I would stop claiming my faith, it would be easier for them to deal with, because then you can just say, she’s a sinner. She’s not one of us.
And we like to operate in these binaries of saint or sinner, like you’re good. And you go to church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, whatever. Or you are having sex and getting drunk, in which case, you’re bad and you’re not part of it. And I’m, I refuse to do that. I want to say, No, I’m showing up. And we’re going to have to start navigating modernity and faith, we’re going to start have to have conversations about sex and the fact that we’re all doing it on a regular basis. You know, everyone weighs in about conversations about religion. And not that many people are practicing it, by the way, but everyone, even those who don’t practice it, feel that they have leeway to talk about it.
And no one’s talking about sex, and we’re all doing it. And I feel like we just need to switch those things, and just have better conversations in our faith. And I say this all the time to my girlfriends, I’ve got so many people I grew up with in my Muslim community, who don’t identify with that faith and don’t really practice it or live it, my brother included, like my brother just went completely, you know, the other way, isn’t that into it and doesn’t really have a relationship with God. And it’s just not that down on faith. And so many people I know are the same.
Because when we, in our communities of faith, when we constantly tell people that they’re sinners, or that their prayers aren’t accepted, or that they’re doing it wrong, why the fuck do I want to turn up and do it, then why do I want to come to the mosque if all you’re going to tell me is that I’ve done something wrong. And we’re just pushing people outside of a really beautiful faith, it isn’t having the opportunity to bask in all of its beauty and gorgeousness. Because we’re so busy pointing fingers and shouting Shame, shame, shame at everyone. So if we could just stop pissing me off, that would be a great start and stop pushing everyone out.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:17
But coming back to your point of the binary and the non-binary, and I think whether that’s faith, whether that’s culture, it’s the same thing you tell people that to be a good Muslim, to be a good South Asian woman, you must do x x x. If not, you’re out. So what happens then is like, a lot of us will reject that, like I rejected being South Asian for many, many years, I wanted to do nothing to do with it. Exactly like you if a faith or a culture makes me feel crap about myself, why would I want to be associated with it? But I think the bigger picture is that it’s not the fault of the religion, or the fault or the culture, they are there. They are whole, they are kind of there to embrace, for us to embrace. And for us to choose the bits that work for us. Within those cultures within those faiths, I think.
Salma El-Wardany 48:03
It’s the man that’s the problem. It always comes back to patriarchy. Nothing exists in isolation and patriarchy infiltrates everything. We infiltrated how we have sex, because like you said, as well, sex happens to women, not for them, you know, it’s infiltrated our faith, it’s infiltrated our communities, it infiltrates everything. Men are always the problem. I will stand by that.
Sangeeta Pillai 48:33
I think the other thing that patriarchy has done is got women to turn against each other. They’ve conditioned women to believe this bullshit for so long that we now police other women. Whether that’s the mother-in -law, daughter-in-law trope in some Asian soaps, people in social media, whatever. So patriarchy has got us doing its dirty work. And that’s awful. I think that’s got to change anyway. Shazia.
Shazia Mirza 48:59
Sangeeta Pillai 49:00
So you know, when you think of a good Indian girl, she’s a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. She’s not a comedian. What happened?
Shazia Mirza 49:10
I don’t know. I just feel like this is what I was meant to do in my life. I don’t feel like I was meant to do anything else. Because comedy is really hard. Yeah, it’s really hard in every way. Every part of it, the lifestyle, the writing of it, the doing of it, the kind of tenacity that you have to have to keep going and never give up. The reason there’s so few women in comedies, because they give up and it’s not because they’re not good. It’s because they get worn down. And I think that that is a metaphor for all areas of women’s lives. They get worn down. Yeah, they are worn down. They don’t get the breaks. They don’t get the opportunities. They don’t get the encouragement.
They get criticized in the press way more than men and it’s for personal reasons to look how fat they are, look how thin they are, look at their cellulite. And we just have it so much harder. So we give up. And I think, you know, I don’t know why I’ve carried on I thought, well, I started so I’ll finish I think what would be more embarrassing for me if I failed at this, because I went so out there to become a comedian, I thought, I’ve got to succeed, I’ve got to make this work otherwise, all those people that said to me, this is not a respectable thing for you to be doing. Muslim women don’t do this, you’re never going to get a husband. This is so degrading, they will have one, they will have gone, I told you, so you ruined your life, you wasted your life, which is what everybody told me when I started doing comedy. So I had to keep going just so that I don’t face that shame.
Salma El-Wardany 50:53
Or you want to go back to teaching those kids. they want.
Shazia Mirza 50:56
They won’t have me anyway. During the pandemic, when they were desperate for teachers to go back, all my friends got asked, they never asked. They were getting texts going, we’ve got shortage of this, I never got anything. No, we’re not that desperate. So I’ve just had to keep going really, Asian women are good at keeping going. You know, there’s an image of Asian women being weak and vulnerable and needy and the guard, they’re not anything if they’re not married, Asian women are so strong, because they have had to endure so much more to get the same as white women. So I think we’re very strong. But it’s very hard to keep going. It does weigh you down.
Sangeeta Pillai 51:45
Which is why we do this. Because we come together, we kind of prop each other up on days when we’re not feeling so good.
Shazia Mirza 51:51
I think Asian women need other Asian women to get them going along. But I think it’s very hard for them. When they see some other Asian women doing what they would like to do. And they know they can’t get out of their situation to do it, then they get jealous, or they get angry. And then they attack you for doing what you’re doing and say, Oh, what you’re doing is really bad. But actually, what they’d rather be doing is what you’re doing.
Salma El-Wardany 52:17
I get so many messages from the Arab Muslim woman who was so annoyed at the things that I say, and they’re so furious with me for saying them. And I just think you are x stages away from being where I am. Because you also want to experience pleasure, or you want to have sex in a way that’s for you, and not just happening to you and you want to do these things. And I’m fine with him shouting at me is one stage of your journey that’s going to get you there.
Fine. But I do sense this frustration and I’m not saying that. And presumptions were like of course you all want to be you know, shagging around. Like, that’s not what I’m saying. But that there is a real frustration that because there are so many controls on the lives of Arab women, Muslim women, South Asian women, women across the board, that when you see someone else who was stepping outside the bounds of those controls, there’s this real frustration, I think that gets internalized that they haven’t managed to, or they haven’t been supported to.
Sangeeta Pillai 53:12
And they almost don’t know that that’s what they’re feeling. I think the conditioning runs so deep, that there’s just that emotion and lashing out without even quite realizing that I’m lashing out because I am so controlled in my own life. Do you get a lot of that as well, Seema?
Seema Ananda 53:26
In recent times I’ve started getting death threats as well. Which is really horrible. And it’s vile. And that does scare me. I get a lot of abuse. I get a lot of trolling. Part of it is the fact how dare you be this old and talk about it. So I mean, you can’t win. If you’re too young, you’re too young for it. If you’re too old, you’re too old for it. You bloody grey haired well, you’re I mean, everything from why don’t you die, old woman to fall in the gutter and die old woman.
Somebody sent me this awful picture the other day of some woman who has been raped, mutilated, killed, and said, I’d like to do this to you. And you know, it just made me unwell for two days to have had to see that. And then people say to me often because there’s always different ways of putting someone down, you know, one is to say, you know you’re shit, fine. I can deal with that. But then there are these little subtler ways. So you think just putting the stories out there is going to change everything. You think changing the words will change? You know what? Yes. Because to me, the stories are like role models.
A lot of the women from our culture write to me and say, this is how I feel, and this is what I’d like to do. Is that bad or is it sinful ? Could I do it? Is it okay? I have had a few people write, is it okay to kiss before marriage because I really love God. It’s okay to love God and kiss somebody as well. But, you know, it’s the stories that you put out and you know, it’s like a role model. Yes, this happened, people did it, it’s alright for me to be on that path as well. And I always think also that women have such incredible capacity for loyalty, that if we were not divided, if we came together as a unified force, we’d be far too powerful.
So it’s easier to keep us divided. And I think that’s why it’s done. And I was actually trying to, as you were saying, because it’s so difficult to be creating content that speaks to me before the pandemic happened. My work was based on the privileged few, you know, in the sense it was somebody wanted to hear me, they would either pay me to go and talk there or fly me across to wherever I needed to be, and then pay me to listen to me, and they wanted to listen to me, the pandemic happens, I have to start going on to social media. The bigger you get, the more abuse you get.
But also you realize that you have to approach your audiences very differently. Because on social media, where we’re talking like right now, for an hour or on stage, we will be like, No, you can’t stop. 60 seconds, sometimes 45 seconds is your limit. Yeah. How do you get that across, I came across this wonderful little passage from one of our ancient books, which has these two girls who are talking, and this woman has just finished saying, Oh, my boyfriend, you know, my lover, he compares my eyes to lotus flowers and my neck to the conch shell and my stomach to the data, you know, does he always do the same? And she’s just finished saying to him, No, he doesn’t say all this to me, because he can’t look beyond me.
What the hell is he going to compare me to? I loved her response. And I then thought, my God, we don’t just divide ourselves, and we don’t just compete, but we compete according to how good our man is, we grade ourselves according to how good the man in your life is. My man is so romantic, yours isn’t? Oh you poor thing. She’s nothing because you know, he won’t treat her the same way as mine treats me.
And I’m really bad. Because, of course, my poor husband, a very typical Punjabi man who would really prefer if I sat at his feet and listened while he talks about his very, very right-wing theories on a lot of things.
Sangeeta Pillai 57:13
So how do we change things? And this is for all of us on the panel. So we’re badass women here sitting here in a room full of badass women, mostly, except for the white guy who’s an ally? How do we change things? How do we change this world, which is pretty messed up? And which is making us feel awful about all of these things, from our bodies to sex, to mental health? What can we do to change things?
Seema Ananda 57:46
I always feel that you focus on the people who really believe in what you’re doing. And just build that tribe up from there. When you try to change people whose minds are in a different place, they’re not going to. You’re swimming upstream. You take up a lot of your energy, I’d much rather focus on the people who send me a lot of love and are willing to go along with me because you create that triumph and strength as you go along.
Sangeeta Pillai 58:10
Absolutely. And it almost feels like it multiplies then doesn’t it?
Seema Ananda 58:13
Sangeeta Pillai 58:13
I feel like I’ve had so much love from so many of you in this room. And it always comes to me on a day when I really need it. And it kind of booms me up. And I think even if each of us did that, supported another woman, I think the world would be a different place.
Seema Ananda 58:29
You know, I just want to say that a few years ago, I went to this Literature Festival. I always dress like this, except that I also have an arm full of very chunky silver bracelets, which I always wear from here to here. I’m a little large now. So they won’t go up beyond this point. Otherwise, I’d wait until here. You know, I mean, I absolutely love it. And so there wasn’t my sari or dress up because I like dressing like this, I have reclaimed the right to dress up because I feel like it. I will take that. But you know what I mean? Like that also, within the academic sector is like, oh my god, what does she think she’s doing? And I actually got looked down upon by women who were from Cambridge, some people I knew, and you know, just the idea of you being dressed a certain way that there always has to be a reason to put you down. And I think you just learn to focus on people who are going to bring you up.
Sangeeta Pillai 59:24
What do you guys think?
Salma El-Wardany 59:24
anything? I would say, for me, it’s about and I would say this to all the women present and listening to this is, be brave and speak out. Because the number of times women will come to me whether this was in the workplace when I challenged men or I challenged the status quo, or they’d come to me silently or quietly afterwards when we were in private and they would say, I’m so glad you said something because I thought the same. And then I would be like, what the fuck. Did you say something to me there? I’m always putting myself on the line. You’re putting yourself on the line. You’re We’re all here on the stage, we put ourselves on the line. And we get a lot of abuse for it online, right? We do. And we get abuse from it from our communities, and we get alienated by some of our communities and some of our family members. And actually what we need, because you made a good point about what if we all come together because we’re all feeling the same things, and we’re all frustrated by the same things. Be brave.
And however, you can speak out in small or big ways, do it every day, if you possibly can, even when it feels tiring, even when it feels scary, do it. So that actually, you’re in a very committed way. You are standing up for your sisters who are also speaking out and doing the same, because it cannot be the same people always putting ourselves on the line every single time, we need more people to stand up and challenge things around them. Because we all want to. And actually, if we can all find those tiny bits of bravery within ourselves, we will create that groundswell that you were talking about. And I think when I see things happening, I think, oh, I don’t want someone else to be taking the fall. So I’ll say something. And imagine if we were all thinking that. We could change a lot.
Sangeeta Pillai 1:00:59
And it doesn’t need to be a big grand thing. It can be a single conversation; it can be supporting someone else. I think we all need to find quick ways, easy ways, simple ways to kind of move this forward. Which brings me very nicely to the close of our session today. So thank you all for being here fully. And with as much love and compassion as you always are. You make me keep doing what I do and make me wake up every morning excited about what I do. So thank you massively to all my Bad Bettis. Before you go. I would like us to repeat after me. I’m going to say a word, say it as loudly as you can. Thank you so much.
I’m Sangeeta Pillai. Thank you for listening to the Masala Podcast, a Spotify original. Masala Podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras. What’s that all about? Soul Sutras is a network for South Asian women. A safe space to tell our story, to hear inspiring South Asian women challenging patriarchy, a space to be exactly the people we want to be and still feel like we belong in our culture, and our community. And ultimately, a space where we feel less alone. I’d love to hear from you. So do get in touch via email at soulsutras.co.uk or go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk. I’m also on Twitter, and Instagram. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced, by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.