26×30 acrylic painting by Nisha Gupta,
Inspired by the poetic words of Shafina Ahmed:
I tell him this is what we women, little girls have to do–bear our burdens and sorrows with a silent smile because we’d look prettier if we would just smile like a good voiceless bride. I wonder why I am telling.
A voice inside me speaks up. It’s not about him, or them, it’s about us. The 5-year old She, the 10-year old She, the 26-year old She; all the Shes. I don’t have to be afraid of being She because I’m not alone, anymore.
Their voices will not be my story; will not be the lining of my womb, my Breast, my sexuality, my god. I don’t choose a Bengali narrative of women must suffer tremendously and not complain; I choose sex to be healing, my body a temple and a playground.
I am not a victim; I’m a survivor now, unconquerable.
I break the cycle of violence by telling my story to myself.
Reclaiming voice – honoring the courageous leaders of the Desi #metoo movement
Breaking silence to speak the true word
Sexual and gender violence is steeped within the fabric of most patriarchal societies. For Desi women, this is no exception. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka struggle with cycles of violence in the form of sexual harassment and abuse, domestic violence, female infanticide, and sex trafficking. The trauma of patriarchy also afflicts diasporic Desi women and girls; in a 2017 study of South Asian American women, 21% reported experiencing physical or sexual abuse from an intimate partner (APIGBV, 2017); and a 2016 study found that 25% of South Asian Americans report histories of childhood sexual abuse (Robertson & Chaudhary, 2016). While all cultures place a taboo on sexual and gender violence, South Asian collectivist norms make it difficult to break the silence. Historically, Desi women have been expected to demonstrate silence and emotional restraint to uphold family honor: “honor being synonymous to an obligation to the patriarchal head, whether that be a priest, community leader, husband, father, or brother. These cultural spaces encourage silence” (Gami, 2018; Singh, 2006). Fear of being ostracized or victim-blamed keeps these stories cloaked in silence, particularly when the perpetrator is a member of the family or community. Yet maintaining silence further perpetuates trauma as the cycle of violence persists.
In the Qur’an, the tree is a common symbol with many sacred meanings. One beautiful meaning is the “authentic word.” In the Qur’an, trees are “representatives of the most correct or true mode of expression and communication in nature” and “authentic and unadulterated in their expressions of experiences” (Smith, 2018). Trees find stability in authentic language rooted in the truth of human experience. According to Islam, to speak truthfully is natural, sacred, and righteous: “And if all the trees in the earth were pens, and the sea, with seven more seas to help it, (were ink), the words of Allah could not be exhausted. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise. (31, 27)“. To speak the truth about gender violence is natural and sacred. To speak the truth is to reclaim one’s sanity, voice, body, sexuality, and self. To speak the truth is to facilitate healing, empowerment, and justice for women and girls everywhere–including the little girl inside. But breaking the silence is no easy feat; the consequential backlash is a reality for many Desi women. That’s why when a woman breaks the silence to speak her #metoo story, we must recognize it as an incredible act of courage and power. Not only recognize it, but respect and revere her for the fearless leader that she is.
Standing on the shoulders of Black and Brown leaders
Visionary activist Tarana Burke is one such leader; she launched the #metoo movement in the United States to help liberate Black girls and women from the silence of their stories of sexual trauma. Her leadership sparked a revolution, spreading like wildfire among most cultures including Desi women. In South Asia and across the diaspora. women from all places and classes have shared their #metoo stories to break silences, stand in solidarity, and demand accountability and systemic change–in their homes, workplaces, communities, streets, and the political system at large.
Yet even before the contemporary #metoo movement, South Asian feminists demonstrated courageous leadership for decades by daring to hold society accountable for violence against women. In 1980s Pakistan, the fearless leaders of the Women’s Action Forum stood up to dictatorship and state-sponsored patriarchal violence, fighting against the state’s control of women’s bodies: “they took risks and were occasionally beaten, jailed, baton-charged and otherwise threatened by the dominant religious-military patriarchies of the time” (Saigol, 2019). In 1990s Bangladesh, the radical women’s rights organization Naripokkho dared to spotlight sexual violence against women with their campaign Shorir Amar, Shiddhanto Amar (My Body, My Decision), persisting despite backlash that their campaign was too “vulgar.” In early 2000s India, the Gulabi Gang was founded as a vigilante army of pink sari-clad rural women who intervene, sometimes violently, to stop any man who is beating his wife: “When word of abuse reaches the Gulabi Gang, their first line of defense is to confront the abuser. If he is unwilling to relent, the Gulabi Gang wield lathis (sticks) and thrash the abuser in question. Responding to violence with violence is a controversial tactic, but a lesson learned from the Gulabi Gang could just mark the difference between a woman living or dying” (Ward, 2020). The battle has also been championed for decades among diasporic Desi women. In 1980s New York, a group of South Asian immigrant women launched Sakhi for South Asian Women to provide shelter, advocacy, and counseling for Desi survivors of domestic violence. Since then, Sakhi has pioneered social justice efforts for the rights of South Asian American women nationwide, growing into “not only an organization but also a significant movement, with an annual budget of $7 million and inspiring over two dozen similar organizations across North America” (Gami, 2018). As a new generation of Desi women continues the battle, we must revere our courageous activists who broke silences and championed the revolution to where we stand today.
Passing the torch to a generation of artivists
Each generation of activists builds off the work of those who came before, evolving it to fit the present context. For Desi women in the media-driven landscape of the 21st century, a beautiful trend rising is artivism-activists who embrace the arts as a vehicle for liberation because they “believe in the power of creative expression for social change” (Mazwarira, 2017). Desi women find voice, catharsis, and community by sharing personal stories of sexual trauma and empowerment through artistic performance. One example is Yoni Ki Baat, launched in 2004 by South Asian American activists as the Desi version of Vagina Monologues, which translates in Hindi as “conversations about the vagina.” Co-founder Vandana Makkar explains: “Yoni Ki Baat allows individuals who identify as women of South Asian ancestry the space to share their stories around issues that are often ‘taboo’ (and therefore not discussed) in our communities. Stories around sex, body image, abuse, violence, pleasure, hair, relationships, bodily functions, strong emotions — those things we often can’t even admit to ourselves. These are the stories that we seek out and then perform on stage” (Makkar; in Luhar, 2014). The artivism of Yoni Ki Baat is two-fold: the performance is a form of social advocacy that addresses issues of sexual oppression and liberation to widespread Desi audiences. Then, the proceeds go to South Asian survivors of domestic violence. Bringing stories of gendered violence to stage is not solely a Western or privileged phenomenon. 25 women in rural West Bengal engaged in a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop in which they collaboratively wrote a play about domestic violence. Men and women from the village acted together to tell this story through song and dance, theatrically teaching the community to intervene when domestic violence unfolds in real life.
Another vehicle for social advocacy is spoken word poetry. Desi activists in the homeland and across the diaspora use spoken word as a weapon for poetic justice. Their lyrics raise critical consciousness and create community with other Desi people around issues of intersectional oppression, such as Islamaphobia or queerness alongside sexual and gender violence. For instance, the lyrics of Indian lesbian poet Divya Dureja and queer Muslim Pakistani poet Sanah Ansan offer representation for queer Desi women everywhere longing for community. The most famous Desi poet in this arena is Punjabi-Canadian artist Rupi Kaur. Kaur releases poetry on Instagram that expresses personal experiences of sexual trauma, interlaced with stories about erotic pleasure. She wrote a poem about healing from rape, “I’m Taking My Body Back,” which went viral and launched her fame: “It takes a broken, twisted person to come searching for meaning between my legs, but it takes a whole, complete, perfectly design person to survive it. It takes monsters to steal souls and fighters to reclaim them. This home is what I came into this world with; was the first home, will be the last home.” Kaur’s poetry is followed by 4 million people on Instagram–many women who are hungry for language to speak their own trauma and find catharsis through her poetry. While critics worry that Kaur promotes an exploitative “trauma narrative” of Desi women for the White gaze, there is no denying the courage it takes to speak her truth to millions of people; Kaur has experienced death threats for her content. Yet she keeps churning poem after poem, unperturbed by misogyny. Kaur situates her poetic activism firmly in her South Asian ancestry: “I come from a tradition of poetry. Being raised in a Sikh household, every instance of my life from birth has been informed by poetry. Sikh scriptures are written in poetic verse. It was on the lips of my mother as she rocked me to sleep, it was on the lips of her mother whose own mother rocked her to sleep as they traveled an ox cart through the carnage and pillage of the South Asian partition. The poetry is Punjabi, and Persian, Braj, and Sanskrit. It is how millions viewed life, in concert, constructed by the languages of nomads, and warriors, and mystics. Even our names are picked from poems written hundreds of years ago…And so, it comes as no surprise, I think, that I would use writing poetry as a means to reclaim this body, to find home here again.”
While honoring our indigenous roots, this generation of Desi activists is doing something remarkably different than our predecessors: dismantling the boundaries between the personal and political, the private and public: “No one sugarcoats their stories” (Gupta, in Murkumbi, 2019). By performing intimate stories of sexual and gendered life, our artivism demonstrates how the stronghold created by our cultures of honor, which previously kept our #metoo stories silent, is withering. Desi artivists dare to perform the most vulnerable parts of themselves to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. An underlying mission fuels such courage: helping other women feel less alone, cultivating spaces of solidarity and healing, and working to ignite long-lasting cultural change.
Delighting in being Desi while transforming Desi culture
One exciting truth about culture is that it isn’t a static entity. Culture is a living, breathing, constantly evolving, historical project. We inherit the gift of culture from our ancestors; then, it is up to each generation to honor this precious gift while simultaneously evolving it to benefit future generations. This is the paradoxical task, or torch, that is passed from each generation to the next–lovingly embracing our roots while working hard to transform them to become more beautiful, liberated, joyful.
Likewise, this generation of Desi people seem to be doing two things at once. We are speaking truth to the traumas inherited from our ancestors, while simultaneously rejoicing in being Desi as we create a new kind of authentic community which deepens our love for our people. Social media has fueled both possibilities, with e-zines and podcasts like Brown Girl Magazine, The Juggernaut, and The Woke Desi directly engaging in dialogue about oppression while also celebrating South Asian culture and community. When confronting cultural trauma, contemporary Desi activists do so intersectionally–addressing gender and sexual violence alongside LGBTQ oppression, Islamophobia and religious persecution, colorism and anti-Blackness, classism, and casteism via discourse about Brahmanical patriarchy. As we break silences around our traumas, we are paradoxically also working to embrace cultural pride and joy. Desi organizations such as the South Asian Sexual and Mental Health Alliance (SASMHA) prioritize joy, well-being, laughter, and camaraderie while deepening conversations around mental and sexual health, erotic desire, and the beauty of our South Asian bodies. Harnessing our collective voices to break taboos is profoundly healing–not only for the sake of justice but for the sake of love. As Desi people, we are cultivating a whole new sense of community as our conversations together become more intimate–not just with our peers, but with our mothers, aunties, grandmothers. As we liberate ourselves from intergenerational wounds by engaging in authentic dialogue and continuing the fight for justice, reclaiming erotic power as Desi women also entails reclaiming the power of being Desi.
This work was created while listening to “The Sun Won’t Set” by Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones:
This painting and essay are inspired by the words of Shafina Ahmed, a Muslim-Bengali American writer/poet, former social worker, and native New Yorker. Ahmed has performed in several poetry stage & TV productions with the Full Circle Ensemble; Astoria Stand Up – Harmony & Dissonance Sessions; & “Around the Fire” QPTV with Frank Robinson. She has featured at various poetry venues in NYC such as Nuyorican Café, Union Square Slam, Great Weather Media, Wordat4F. She co-curates Poets Settlement monthly Reading/Poetry Series in Brooklyn, and the storytelling series How To Build A Fire. In 2014 she was published in Full Circle Anthology and in 2018 ‘Miscellany‘ by RunAmok Books.