Why Punjabi Men Get Addicted: Being a Man, Hard Work, and Sex

By Ravia Dhaliwal

This is part two of a three-part series of articles based on Ravia Dhaliwal’s Undergraduate Honours paper “Sikh Punjabi Masculinity and Barriers to Mental Health and Addiction Supports,” from the University of Alberta’s Women’s and Gender Studies and Political Science program. If you haven’t already, read the first part: “How Addiction Begins: Opioid Addiction in Punjabi-Canadian Communities,” for the geopolitical contexts of how addiction begins for Punjabi Canadians. 

This second part attempts to answer the question, why are Punjabi men disproportionately afflicted with addiction issues? In my research, I found three overarching reasons: Being a Man, Hard Work, and Sex.

As a researcher, I focused on understanding masculinity as something that is taught, something that is “performed.” Here, masculinity is understood as something that is policed, where if someone does not act masculine enough, there are consequences. As a part of this policing process there are a number of things a man is expected to do and in Punjabi culture (also western culture and the global patriarchy), working hard and providing for loved ones is at the top of those expectations. 

In unpacking Punjabi masculinity, hard work plays a central role to identity development and self worth. Mouallem (2017) explains in Alberta’s contexts how “a lot of men’s sense of self-worth comes from his job and what he makes,” and if a man is unable to find that employment or make the money he needs to survive, his self-perception lowers, creating conditions where he may face mental health issues as a result of his paycheck.

The mental exhaustion that comes from the expectation that Punjabi men provide for their families is magnified by the fact that many immigrants’ educations are not recognized in Canada. As a result individuals work labour jobs to support themselves and their families. To increase the amount a person works, an increase of risk is involved including driving extra long hours as truckers or taxi drivers or working multiple jobs and overtime shifts. Furthermore, studies have found that the immigrant experience, which includes isolation from families and communities, language barriers, and racism, plays a large role in the creation and realization of mental health issues (Islam et al. 2017, 2, Dhaliwal-Rai 1992, 4). Understanding these experiences in conjunction with masculine expectations, we are able to see how the pressures are insurmountable. 

On top of this, men are often ill-equipped to work through mental health issues because speaking about feelings is not considered masculine, resulting in an ineffective way to deal with mental health issues (Mouallem 2017). In relation to masculinity, Oliffe et al. (2010) found that immigrant men said that the men’s depression signalled weakness while women’s signalled emotionality and fragility. As a result, men are likely to live with unresolved mental health issues and turn to other methods of dealing with emotions, such as drinking alcohol or consuming drugs. 

Furthermore, as exacerbated in Punjabi pop culture, using substances to increase productivity or deal with stress is exceedingly prevalent. As I briefly touched on in the first article of this series, the normalization of using doday (poppy pod tea) is not just a Canadian problem, but a transnational issue. Men who are addicted often see their addiction as normal. Especially because most men begin their usage to increase the amount they work, the use is justified. Historically, many farmers from Punjab used opium to perform physical labour on their farms, normalizing the medicinal use of opiates. Opium has a long history in Punjab and is commonly associated with agricultural work. As Sandhu (2009) finds, there is a distinct trend of an increase in opioid use during harvesting months. Specifically, bhuki (dried poppy husk) is used to increase productivity by suppressing one’s appetite (Chaudhary 2019). As opiates are highly addictive, self medication with opioids without correct dosages can lead to a reliance on the drug (Authors Interview, Dr. Singh, November 20, 2019). This means that health literacy or an understanding of the path to addiction is very difficult for some to understand. Addiction is not identified by the people who use opium, and it is often thought that willpower and self control will help them get rid of their addiction. 

What’s Masculinity Got to do With Mental Health and Addiction?

Masculine expectations for men play a large role in how the “good immigrant” in Canada is conceptualized. The “good immigrant” is one who complies to the neoliberal capitalist conceptions of working hard at their jobs (Boparai 2019, 46). Saran (2016) poses that immigrants view education as an “investment for economic returns and gaining access to white, middle class, mainstream society” (48). In this same way, I posit that immigrant men work to provide for their families to fit into hegemonic masculinity which in Western contexts constructs the ideal and most revered masculinity. These ideals of masculinity can be illustrated through Brannon’s Four Rules of Masculinity which are as follows:

1. “No sissy stuff,” avoid feminine behaviours,

2. “Be a big wheel”, aggressively strive for status and achievement, especially in sports and work, 

3. “Be a male machine,” solve problems without help, maintain emotional control at all times, and never show weakness to anybody, and 

 4. “Give ‘em hell,” take physical risks and be violent if necessary (N.A. 2016). 

Although hegemonic masculinity changes within the time and space it is constructed, these conceptions of Brannon’s rules of masculinity are helpful in the understanding of masculinity upheld by Sikh Punjabi men in post-migration contexts. 

Understanding Sikh Punjabi masculinity in post migration involves a consideration of the marginalization of racialized men in Canadian society, and masculinity literature. Connell’s (1995) conceptualization of “marginalized masculinities” is useful in comprehending the masculinity Sikh Punjabi men are expected to uphold. For the Sikh Punjabi immigrant, the experience of being a racialized immigrant who may not speak the language, plays a role in the constructions of masculinity they are expected to uphold. “Protest masculinity,”masculinity constructed in local working class settings and sometimes in ethnically marginalized men, is also helpful here in understanding Sikh Punjabi men. It “embodies the claim to power typical of regional hegemonic masculinities in Western countries, but lacks the economic resources and institutional authority” (80). Western and Sikh Punjabi ideals of masculinity overlap in the appreciation of work and productivity (McMillan 2018). The hegemonic masculinity in the West may require Sikh Punjabi men to uphold the rules of masculinity of “being a big wheel” and being a “male machine” (N.A. 2016), but the minority status of a Sikh Punjabi man creates a lack of “institutional authority” (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 848). 

Sikh Punjabi masculinity embodies the standards of the “model minority” and embraces conceptions of the “hardworking man” and of men being a “male machine” which are upheld in Canadian hegemonic masculinity (N.A. 2016). A model minority is the conception that a minority population, such as Punjabi’s in Canada, models the characteristics valued by western society. Mahalingam (2012) posits that Sikh Americans are one of the most successful South Asian immigrant groups. Although Punjabi Sikh’s have been successful in colouring their piece of glass for “Canada’s cultural mosaic,” the upward mobility they have is ultimately a result of the Punjabi-Sikh perspective on the world matching up with Western world view and being successful in Canada’s capitalist society. 

Many academics have compared the Punjabi Sikh work ethic to Weber’s “Protestant work ethic”: to work hard, save money, and educate one’s children (Mooney 2012, Tanabe 2014, Purchase et al. 2018). These conclusions, which aim to explain the relative economic successes of the communities still seem to lack “institutional authority” in Canada  (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 84). For example, Member of Parliament Amarjeet Sohi who gained political success and embodies many of the “rules of masculinity,” was laughed at by Conservative MP’s because of his past as a city bus driver (Trynacity, 2017). Alberta NDP politician Brian Mason, also a former bus driver, has never faced such remarks, the difference being his positionality as a white politician who can embody hegemonic masculinity and have institutional authority whereas Sohi’s political success and ability to “be a male machine” and work hard at a job is ridiculed because of the “lack of economic institutional authority” Sohi has due to being a racialized immigrant man who was previously employed as a bus driver (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 84).  

The rigidity of Brannan’s rule of masculinity shows how men’s mental health is disregarded overall, especially through the third rule of being a “male machine” which teaches men to “never show weakness to anybody,” or ask anyone or help (N.A. 2016). Sikh Punjabi masculinity, paired with the Sikh Punjabi perceptions of mental health, and the immigrant experience create the conditions for men to be in environments which would increase the likelihood of them having mental health issues. Without support which fit the understandings and experiences of Sikh Punjabi men, many are led to cope with reliance on alcohol and drugs (Weber 1996, 1716). 

The Strong Sikh Punjabi Man and Sex

Sex. Yes. The ever avoided subject. Pervasive, and suggested in much of Punjabi media, but evaded, bleached clean, and made virtually impossible to imagine through several overlapping issues. 

Much to my own surprise, an individual I interviewed highlighted how men on their swaag raat (wedding night) would receive a small dose of opium to enhance sexual performance. Following this tradition, an opiate-based drug, named Kamini Vidrawan Ras, commonly known as Kamini, is an opiate-based drug that is sold as an aphrodisiac. This stimulant contains 2-20mg of opioids per tablet (Singh and Kainth 2017). Specifically, Kamini is used to “prevent premature ejaculation, intimate anxiety, and other worries” men may have, in order to “prolong the sexual encounter” (Advani 2013, 10). Kamini is reported to be sold over the counter at many Indian grocery stores–  much like doday was sold in Canada. One of my interview participants mentioned that Kamini can be bought online, or brought from India and sold in Edmonton. The interviewee described that the whole point of Kamini, or taking opiates prior to a sexual encounter, is that if one is in  “control” of oneself, it is more masculine. It is not necessarily for pleasure, but to delay orgasm and to seem more masculine (Author’s Interview, November 15, 2019). In this case, men’s opiate use can be directly tied with their masculinity. 

Talking about sex in the Punjabi community is so rare but as soon as it gets to the swaag raat, the pressure to have intercourse and reproduce is imposed on newlyweds. I had thought that maybe coming forward about addictions because of taking Kamini for reasons related to sexuality may act as a further barrier to accessing care. Contrary to my thoughts, Dr. Singh found that many of his patient’s families were concerned about their son’s or nephew’s sexual and intimate life, especially when it came to having children (Author’s Interview, November 20, 2019). I found that there is a plethora of research on the “Dhat syndrome” – a condition of premature ejaculation which is researched and treated through drugs like Kamini (Avasthi et al 2017).  Moreover, many Punjabi men come to Dr. Singh for testosterone replacement, to the point where the doctor was refusing to give patients more testosterone because their dosage was already high. Dr. Singh specifically mentioned that patients wanted testosterone injections because it would make them “stronger and make them more masculine” (Author’s Interview, Dr. Singh, November 20, 2019). The obsession with wanting testosterone injections as described by Dr. Singh and Dr. Smith may be related to marginalized masculinity in Canada. On the other hand, it also highlights the self-perception and the social conditions which cause men to be obsessed with being more manly.  

Understandably, this is not what it takes to explain away addiction. Now that we know how addiction begins and what makes Punjabi men addicted, the third and final article in this series will unpack the barriers to support that they face and recommendations for health care providers. 

References:

Advani, Rahul. 2013. “Factors Driving Drug Abuse in India’s Punjab.” National University of Singapore, Institute of South Asian Studies. (177). https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/170331/ISAS_Working_Paper_No__177_-_Factors_Driving_Drug_Abuse_in_India’s_punjab_24092013171919.pdf 

Boparai, Parmvir Singh. 2019. “Relationships between Culture and Masculine Identity Development in South Asian Canadian Immigrants,” Masters Thesis.  University of Seattle, Vancouver BC, Canada Site. http://52.160.103.123/bitstream/handle/20.500.11803/788/Parmvir%20Singh%20Boparai%20Thesis%20Final.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y 

Butler, Judith. 1988. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40 (4) 519-531.

Dhaliwal-Rai, Karin. 1992. “Perspectives on Mental Wellness/Health of Sikh Punjabi Immigrants in the City of Surrey.” M.A. Thesis. Simon Fraser University. Google Scholar http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/MQ61549.pdf

Chaudary, Vivek. 2019. “The Indian state where farmers sow seeds of death”  The Guardian. July 1, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jul/01/the-indian-state-where-farmers-sow-the-seeds-of-death

Connell, R.W.. 1995. “The Social Organization of Masculinity.” In Masculinities, 76-86. St. Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin. 

Connell, R.W., and James. W. Messerschmidt. 2005. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19 (6): 829-859. 

Hall, Kathleen D.  2004. “The ethnography of imagined communities: The cultural production of Sikh ethnicity in Britain.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 595 (1): 108-121.

Islam, Farah., Amanpreet Multani, Michaela Hynie, Yogendra Shayam Kwame McKenzie. 2017. “Mental health of South Asian youth in Peel Region”, Toronto, Canada: a qualitative study of determinants, coping strategies and service access. BMJ Open 7:e018265. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2017-018265https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/7/11/e018265.full.pdf

Mahalingam, Ramaswami.  2012. “Misidentification, Misembodiment and the Paradox of Being a Model Minority” Sikh Formations 8 (3) 299-304. 

McMillan, Anna. 2018. “Edmonton Sikh parade draws tens of thousands to Mill Woods neighbourhood.” CBC News, May 20, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/edmonton-vaisakhi-sikh-parade-1.4671638#targetText=Edmonton’s%20Sikh%20population%20has%20about,the%202011%20National%20Household%20Survey.

Mooney, Nicola. 2006. “Aspiration, reunification and gender transformation in Jat Sikh marriages from India to Canada.” Global Networks 6 (4): 389-403.

Mouallem, Omar. 2017. “Oil, Heartbreak, And Manhood: Behind The Mental Health Crisis of Alberta Oil Workers.” BuzzFeed News, August 2, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/omarmouallem/oil-heartbreak-and-manhood

N.A., Shawn. 2016. Man up! The “Rules” of Masculinity. Accessed April 16, 2019. https://mavricproject.princeton.edu/2016/08/man-up-the-rules-of-masculinity/

Oliffe, John L., Steve Robertson, Mary T. Kelly, Philippe Roy, and John S. Ogrodniczuk. 2010. “Connecting Masculinity and Depression Among International University Students.” Qualitative Health Research 20 (7): 987-998. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732310365700

Purchase, Sharon., Nick Ellis, Oliver Mallet, and Theingi Theingi. 2018. “Religious Social Identities in the Hybrid Self-presentations of Sikh Businesspeople” British Journal of Management 29: 99-117. 

Sandhu, Jaswinder Singh. 2009. “A Sikh Perspective on Alcohol and Drugs: Implications for the Treatment of Punjabi-Sikh Patients” 5 (1): 23-37 DOI: 10.1080/17448720902935037

Tanabe, Sean. 2014. “Let’s Meet at the Langar: How the Sikh community has persevered and Thrived in the US. Global Societies Journal, 2(0): 9-16. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/34c5582q

Saran, Rupam. 2016. Navigating model minority stereotypes: Asian Indian youth in South Asian diaspora. New York: Routledge.

Trynacity, Kim. 2017. “Conservative MPs laugh at Amarjeet Sohi’s past as a city bus driver.” CBC News. February 15 2017. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/bus-driver-minister-laughter-1.3984808
Weber, Timothy R. 1996. “The influence of acculturation on attitudes toward alcohol and alcohol use within the Punjabi community: an exploratory analysis.” Substance Use Misuse 31 (11-12):1715–1732.https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3109/10826089609063998

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Bsrandomramblings

a place to keep me sane. a place to document growth. Reflections of a west coast dweller, world traveler, and confused med student.

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