Who is Saijal
I am the outwardly confident, bold and quirky woman, but the inwardly a little awkward and anxious girl.
What is your day job?
My background is in Economics and Financial Services Consulting but I have gone left field recently – I have taken a year out of my job to explore a more creative career, so now I am at film school on an acting course!
What are your hobbies?
Styling, writing and dancing to anything and everything – I am trained in North Indian classical dance (Kathak) and have dabbled in various genres from Jazz to Street. I also indulge in an embarrassingly high number of online sudokus and Scrabble games every day.
Who are your role models?
Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Jacinda Ardern and some of my own friends…all women who go against the grain of their peer groups and are not afraid to do things differently.
Is there anything inspirational you have watched or read recently?
I have just watched Michaela Coel’s series, ‘I May Destroy You’, on BBC iPlayer. It is the most real, non-glamorised portrayal of sex and sexual assault I have ever seen on TV and it has taught me more about consent than I have ever known, even as a victim myself. It has been triggering but funny and extremely healing to watch, and I would recommend it to anyone who has felt violated in any way, perhaps on a night out or on a date, or knows someone who has.
Last year you shared your own story of PTSD following sexual assault with BBC Three. You said your first kept your assault to yourself for a whole year whilst at university. Did you feel that you couldn’t talk to anyone about this?
Yes and no. I knew I had a strong support support system but it was easier to pretend that it didn’t happen, to carry on being a happy student with a carefree, enviable life. It was only until I started to experience symptoms of PTSD (they often do come with a delayed onset) such as flashbacks and mood swings, that I couldn’t deny it anymore.
Then what changed? Who did you reach out to at first?
I initially started speaking about it with a few close friends only to defend my erratic behaviour, why I was acting ‘out of character’. I was judging myself so I couldn’t expect them not to judge me. I was and still am the only woman I know personally in my social circles who this has happened to, more than once. Or at least, I am the only person who can now admit and talk about it openly. That means that whilst people willingly listen to victims, there is a limited set of narratives they have to be able to understand us, other than the highly publicised #metoo type of stories in the media, and this is the main reason why I came out about it – I am just a normal person and this is a huge taboo for us normal people!
What kind of response did you receive following the BBC Three episode?
A very unexpected flood of positive messages from friends and family who didn’t know, to complete strangers, wanting to share their experiences of mental illness and assault and seek advice. They drowned out the few odd comments from the trolls and the haters – one who kindly recommended I ‘shouldn’t hang around in dark alleyways then’. Thanks mate!
I do believe the topic of sexual assault in the South Asian community is still a taboo subject – do you agree?
Of course. Pride and ‘showing face’ are key components of our culture. Whether you were raped, domestically abused or even cheated on by your partner, it is seen as shameful and embarrassing for you.
Whilst my parents were immensely proud of me for speaking up back then and now (and that is all I care about), I know it is a taboo because they are and I have been asked questions like whether the reason I am (happily) unmarried is because of what I have been through and I have been advised to be less vocal in order to attract a mate! My mum was also told I am beautiful and ‘these things are expected to happen’ to people like me. Even the casual, well-intentioned conversation around sexual assault shifts the accountability from the offender to the victim.
What help was out there for you when suffering with PTSD?
Not enough in terms of trauma-based therapies. I got referred for counselling by my GP but was on a waiting list for over a year. Then I tried to go privately via my employer but was told they did not provide a service for people with PTSD that high on the scale. After a lot of research and waiting, I finally discovered The Havens – specialist sexual assault referral centres in London – where I had 20+ sessions of trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy, which changed my life and view of the world. I am a stronger, calmer and more confident woman now who can say she no longer exhibits symptoms of PTSD. Anyone who needs support and is overwhelmed by their Google searches can contact me.
You lost your mother quite recently. Can you tell me about that?
My mum suffered from an incurable autoimmune disease, Lupus, that affected several of her organs, joints and bones, meaning she had multiple health issues, fatigue and complications from the medications she was taking but, she barely told anyone for over 40 years. In particular, she didn’t want it to be a talking point in our community. Her achievements, like getting a PhD and working in clinical research, were epic regardless of whether she was unwell or not.
However, losing her was still a big shock. She complained of a different, more intense type of pain one day and she died that same day. The most difficult thing was having to tell my dad, who was abroad for work, over the phone that he had lost his lover since university days.
What was your mother like?
Her friends described her as ‘life itself’. She was bubbly and immensely excitable, overly loving and gooey, fearless and headstrong, and a glamorous dresser and dancer. Most importantly, she was a fierce and forward thinking feminist, and helped my friends and I to navigate through our modern day Indian girl experiences of misogyny and toxic relationships.
I saw that you dressed up for your mother’s funeral to mark her. Tell me about your decision to do this.
This was a controversial one! I didn’t see the need to wear white and keep everything ‘simple’. I wanted to celebrate this wonderful and colourful life we have been given that she always reminded me of, and give her the memorable send-off she would have wanted. So I wore her favourite colour, lime green, and red lipstick, to capture the room like she did, and I put bright, exotic flowers everywhere. I chose uplifting music for when she was carried in her bamboo coffin and I gave a speech that focused on the power of love. I have barely cried since, NOT because I am numb or in denial as I have often been told, but because my way of grieving is to reminisce, laugh and try not to be bitter about those who have left my life.
You have an Instagram page, The Unstable Label. Tell me about this amazing fashion page.Thank you! It is just a wee page that I mostly use to connect with people with similar stories, but I wanted to flip the script on mental illness and the idea that someone who is depressed or has been sexually assaulted has to behave and look a certain way, i.e. wears dark, baggy clothes and hides themselves from the world. Society led me to believe I provoked my attackers by what I was wearing and I wondered if I made myself look too attractive. Now, I use those perceived demons and my fun, eclectic wardrobe to heal myself. I dress up when I’m down, wear loud prints when I feel low and go big and bold when I feel small and not confident.
You have been as vocal as I about the term BAME. How do you feel about it?
I have been making the point in the last few months that the issue of racism in this country isn’t just white/English towards BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic) – we also need to address racism within BAME, like South Asian anti-blackness. It is all well and good that you repost things from the BLM movement, but are you still challenging yours and your family’s views like dark skin not being beautiful and marrying out of religion/race to a white Christian guy is still better than marrying a black or Muslim guy?
It is also worth noting that these South Asians I am referring to are actually victims of racism and colourism, rather than mere perpetrators. I can’t always blame them. It has been ingrained in their heads for generations from colonialism and caste systems that white is best and everyone knows their place in the racial and colour hierarchy.
How have you been dealing with COVID-19 and your PTSD?
I have been prone to bouts of overthinking with the free time and not being able to access my usual coping mechanisms in lockdown (outdoor spaces, friends and family) but luckily have the CBT ‘tools’ to manage it. For instance, it takes a lot now for me to be triggered and have flashbacks from my assaults. I worry more for the new presenters of PTSD – historical studies shows PTSD increases post pandemics when the severity of what the hell has just happened catches up with people – the healthcare and front line workers, the people who had to watch their loved ones die and couldn’t give them proper send-offs. I mentioned earlier my years-long struggle to get access to mental health treatment in normal circumstances.
What advice would you give to someone that is dealing with trauma?
Don’t belittle it – whether it is something like I have described or something you deem as relatively trivial. If intrusive memories about an event enter your head and affect your mood or behaviour, speak to someone – your GP, your friend, me.
What is next for Saijal?
Perhaps a blog of my own…given how much I have rambled on in this one!