How many bad-ass Desi feminist activists can you name? If your answer is “not many,” we’re here to help.
(Content warning: sexual assault, physical assault)
As Women’s History Month continues and we honor all the amazing women — past and present — who are making the world a better place, here are some badass Desi feminist activists to keep your eyes on.
1. Chuski Pop
Creators Sweety and Pappu have brought us the feminist Desi radio show podcast of our dreams. According to their website, the hosts are: “Two Desi chicks riding the fourth wave of feminism in our salwar kameez and golden heels, while flipping birds to aunties and bringing you stories from far-away lands and from our own matru-bhumi.” All topics are on the table, including things good Desi girls aren’t supposed to talk about (*cough*SEX*cough*), and their open, conversational style likely leaves many aunties and uncles sweating with the shame of it all. Check out Scroll.In’s brilliant feature to learn more about these two trailblazing podcastivists.
2. Habiba Nosheen
Winner of an Emmy and Peabody award, Nosheen is a Pakistani-Canadian investigative journalist whose film Outlawed in Pakistan opened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. The film follows Kainat Soomro, who at 13 was gang-raped, and dared to seek justice for the crime. The film eventually aired on Frontline, receiving two Emmy noms. It won for Outstanding Research, as well as the Overseas Press Club Award. In 2012, Nosheen’s investigation into sketchy adoption practices in Nepal turned into a PBS special To Adopt A Child, and forced the Nepali government to admit fault. Nosheen has been a co-host of Canadian Broadcasting Corp’s The Fifth Estate since 2016.
3. Mukhtaran Mai
Mai is another example of a woman fighting back against the cruelty of patriarchal and conservative culture. In 2002, she survived a so-called “revenge gang rape” — an archaic method of dispute settlement between clans — and, instead of quietly living out her life in shame as women in Pakistan (and South Asia as a whole) are expected to do, she prosecuted her attackers. Mai founded the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organization, a multi-pronged women’s empowerment group that provides a school, a women’s shelter and resource center, organizes community volunteers, and performs other advocacy work. To promote her foundation as well as stand for all rape survivors, Mai walked the catwalk during Fashion Pakistan Week 2016, sparking anew conversations about sexual violence against women in Pakistan.
4. Sharmila Nair
Indian fashion designer Sharmila Nair broke the mold when she not only booked two transgender models for her recent fashion line, she even designed the collection inspired by India’s transgender community. While hijra have a long history in India, the community is still very much marginalized and often shunned. Nair had heard about the Indian government’s steps forward to protect the rights of its transgender community, and Nair wanted to get involved as well. Nair’s fashion label Red Lotus is based out of Kerala.
5. Pink Ladoo
Their mission: “To eradicate gender-biased South Asian practices, customs and traditions.” Ladoo is a South Asian orange or yellow dessert made of flour, sugar, and other spices, served on special occasions such as Diwali, weddings, and births. But, traditionally, only the births of boys. Pink Ladoo is trying to change this sexist practice, and encourages South Asian families to start offering pink ladoos to celebrate births of girls in the community. Founded by Raj Khaira in September 2015 and inspired by her own sister’s birth, Pink Ladoo now has 28 team members working over three continents. And the movement continues to grow.
6. Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris is half-black and half-Indian, which makes her the first United States senator of Indian heritage — but also only the second African-American female senator. Harris won in a landslide against the Republican candidate Loretta Sanchez. Harris was the State Attorney General of California for six years, and her move to the Senate has many wondering whether she will be America’s first female president in the not-so-distant future. The fearless and outspoken Harris should be the face of the Democratic Party moving forward.
7. Pramila Jayapal
Indian-born Pramila Jayapal moved to the US at 16 for college, and is now the first-ever Indian-American congresswoman in Washington. Boom! Jayapal got involved in politics after September 11, 2001, when she founded Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, now known as OneAmerica, “as a response to the hate crimes and backlash against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians immediately after 9/11.” Her work focuses on advocacy for immigrant groups in the U.S., humane immigration reform, as well as defending women’s rights in an immigration context. Her story is another version of the American dream, and now she defends that dream for the dozens of thousands who have their own version of it.
8. Reshma Khureshi
Using fashion as activism and empowerment, 19-year-old acid attack survivor Reshma Khureshi walked the runway at 2016’s New York Fashion week in support of a ban on the sale of corrosive liquids that have been used in attacks of gender-based violence such as her own. Khureshi is also known as the face of Make Love Not Scars, an Indian advocacy group for acid attack survivors; its goals are “recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration.” Like rape and other gender-based violence, acid attacks on women are an attempt to shame and silence sometimes an entire family or clan. Speaking out, and especially showing one’s face after an attack, becomes an ultimate act of resistance to deadly patriarchal paradigms.
9. Malala Yousafzai
No list of South Asian feminist activists is complete without Malala. She has been a lifelong activist for the advancement of education for girls, and when she was 15, the Taliban was so threatened by her advocacy work and growing platform that they shot her in the head. Just the year before the Taliban attacked her, she had won the International Children’s Peace Prize 2011. Against terrible odds, Malala survived and continues to fight for women’s and girls’ right to an education in Pakistan and around the world. She is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and her institute, The Malala Fund. runs projects in six countries around the world.