Is Life a Drag for British Asian Men?

Star rating: *****
Being a Man Festival
Weston Roof Pavilion – Southbank Centre
London SE1
Saturday 28th November 2015

What does it mean to be a South Asian man in Britain today?  Is it any different from being a White or Black man, or indeed a man of any other nationality?

This was the ‘British Asian Men’ topic under discussion at the Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival 2015.

The panel comprised writer, performer, storyteller and music producer Shane Solanki; Sandeep Virdee, Artistic Director of Darbar festival; former contestant on The Apprentice and LGBT activist Sanjay Sood-Smith; and Asif Quraishi, Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen, to find out. The discussion was brilliantly and humorously chaired by Nihal Arthanayake, broadcaster, DJ and BBC Radio Asian Network presenter.

The debate examined how men in the South Asian community view their manhood and deal with life’s big issues.

Nihal Arthanayake, Shane Solanki, Sandeep Virdee, Sanjay Sood-Smith and Asif Quraishi

Nihal Arthanayake, Shane Solanki, Sandeep Virdee, Sanjay Sood-Smith and Asif Quraishi

One of the biggest stereotypes around is that Asian men are mummy’s boys. Somewhat surprisingly both Shane Solanki and Sandeep Virdee didn’t vehemently deny this and both confirmed that as being true. Maybe their mother’s were in the audience and they had to say that! Shane stated that the mother in the Asian family rules the roost and therefore her sons seek to please her above all.

Some Asians of dual heritage, like former Apprentice contestant Sanjay Sood-Smith have two stereotypes to live up to as a result of having dual identity. Sanjay has a white father and an Asian mother. Unfortunately for him it can be difficult falling between the two as the Asian community see him as not Asian looking enough and white people see him as “one of them”.

Asif Quraishi said he grew up expecting to be a provider – based on the men as hero’s image portrayed in Bollywood films. However, “I didn’t know I’d have to do it in a dress!”

Emotional issues

There was a general consensus that men don’t do emotion very well, for they weren’t brought up by father’s who discussed matters of the heart or other emotional issues with their sons. No discussions about how they were feeling. It means they too are more likely to be the same type of emotionally repressed, so to speak, father’s to their children. This shows the huge influence, quite probably unknowingly, father’s have on their children, not just in what they say and do, but what they don’t say and do too.

Sanjay said, “In our culture parent’s disown you if they disapprove of you.” Asif interestingly and perhaps surprisingly considering that statement admitted he was not disowned by his parent’s. Not because they approved of his becoming a drag queen but more because they thought that if they didn’t make a big issue of it and kept it in the family it would be OK. Asif acknowledged that that became somewhat problematic to say the least when he became more of a public figure as Britain’s first out drag queen!


It has been said that Asian’s are not individual’s as they tend to think of themselves as a community, as a homogenised one at that. Nihal mentioned that there is a pressure on Asian women to be the perfect daughter, sister, wife, mother etc…”

Honour is still very important in the Asian community. Honour killings still go on.

There is tremendous pressure to be successful. Asif said the main pressure if to earn money and show it off in a “look how successful I am” manner. Sandeep acknowledged that “there is a pressure to go into a respectable profession as opposed to the arts.” There were jokes about why it takes so long for people to park at weddings. Answer – It’s because driver’s take forever so that everyone can see what car they’re driving!

In multi-cultural London, Asian’s can blend in with little fuss or attention as they don’t especially stand out. One can almost forget being Asian. However, as Sanjay pointed out, once you leave London to go to places like Italy and Russia you are soon reminded of your otherness! He felt like an animal in the zoo, such was the curiosity around him. “I sensed all eyes on me.”

Diversity in media

Nihal described himself jokingly as a “token” with all the various roles he has on the BBC – BBC2, Five Live, Asian Network etc… He sits with Sir Lenny Henry on the BBC’s diversity board. He felt that the BBC is progressing and that he and most Asian’s just want a level playing field.

The future

Shane argued that a “new, softer, kinder masculinity” was required. All agreed that men needed to talk more. With male suicide rates three times higher than women’s and running at 12 per day on average he is certainly right about that for their is a male suicide crisis in the country.


Reference was made to a Sikh-Muslim enmity going back centuries and a sense that Sikh’s are exploiting this by joining in the anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions.

Nihal said he saw more unity in the black community that the Asian community. The Asian community has become more clannish. There is strength in numbers. I was quite surprised to hear that comment as I’m quite sure the Black community tends to view the Asian community as a lot more unified than they are.

The talk highlighted some of the issues within the Asian male community – some of which are specific to them and their culture, but many of which are familiar to all men.

I think it’s fair to say some of the biggest stereotypes around South Asian men are not empty, dated one’s. They are still present – the pressure to be successful, to show off visible symbols of success, status of career, a preference for professional careers, being a mummy’s boy, a preference within family’s for newborn baby boys rather than girls; pressure for men to be the breadwinner. The importance of honour and not bringing shame on the family are still important.

Some of these are not especially South Asian only traits.  Many families, black, white or Asian want to raise children to enter successful careers, to honour, rather than bring shame on the family etc…

The failure of men to talk emotions with their sons and daughter’s is not a singularly Asian trait. It’s right across the board. The biggest killer of men aged 18-50 is suicide which speaks to the lack of emotional conversational tools men today have. The responsibility lies with father’s to start talking to their sons and daughters in order for them to learn the language of emotions, rather than keeping feelings bottled up and eventually in the most extreme cases ending in suicide.

This was a brilliantly lively and good humoured discussion with plenty of jokes flying around and good natured banter between panelists and audience alike. There was even the shocking revelation from a national newspaper Journalist admitting that he doesn’t even believe everything he writes for his paper! That drew visible gasps of breath from all present.

Review and Photograph © Tiemo Talk of the Town

Video ©  Southbank Centre


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If you attended the show we’d love to read your comments. They can be simply posted via the comments section below. These may be posted anonymously if you wish.

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1 Response to Is Life a Drag for British Asian Men?

  1. Pingback: Come out and be a Black Man | tiemotalkofthetown

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