Okay, let’s have at it — who here is a hardcore fan of one of the U.K. longest running soap operas — EastEnders?! I most certainly am, and whilst the show, since its debut in 1985, has had some groundbreaking storylines, I know I am not alone when I say, as British South Asian women, we were most definitely blessed with actress Priya Davdra’s entrance in February 2019. Playing the role of runaway Iqra Ahmed, she debuted alongside with Rukku Nahar as Habiba Ahmed — and these sisters were about to create a storm. Although EastEnders hasn’t been shy in casting South Asian actors, Davdra’s role as Iqra definitely brought to light a new representation for Muslims, that being the first female Muslim queer character in the soap.
As an absolute fan girl, I was amazed to see a British South Asian female character depicted and emerge as unapologetically gay, especially as we went from the not-so excellent representation of former Eastenders’ gay Muslim character Syed’s relationship with Christian — one that pushed the stereotype that one’s religion and sexuality cannot be coherent, particularly within Islam. Iqra became the main Muslim character on the show for two years, and performed exceptionally well in the difficult-to-watch Islamophobic scenes alongside recent Islam convert Bobby Beale. If their relationship wasn’t enough to melt your heart, her iconic moments include her relationship with Sikh-queer character Ash Panesar and final love interest Mila — another great representation, dismantling the idea to young queer POC that they must seek love outside their race, or that the LGBTQ+ community is exclusively for white people.
Hence, you can understand my sheer excitement to interview Priya about her time on screen, to talk all things EastEnders and representation.
What does it mean to you to be the first Muslim-lesbian character on Eastenders? Do you think your portrayal was was a fair representation?
I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to take on such a role. I think it started off as a bit of a shock for some as this type of character had not been portrayed before, but I felt a real shift as people got to know Iqra better and really understand her story. This reflected positively on the feedback I received as my character opened up conversations on LGBTQ and South Asian communities, which I felt were important and long overdue. I got the impression that many people finally felt like they were being represented, which was great to be able to do on a show like EastEnders, which has such a large following. I am honoured to have played a big part in that. I invested a lot of time and energy in portraying Iqra and I hope I did the role justice.
How important is South Asian representatives on screen? Should the mainstream media be doing more?
Growing up there wasn’t anyone who looked like me or anyone I could relate to on screen. It was only until films like ‘East is East and ‘Bend it like Beckham’ were released that I realised, “oh wait I could be that girl.” For our community it’s hugely important that we continue supporting and encouraging artistic talent. I think we are headed in the right direction as a society, but there is always room to do a little more in allowing for more diversity and representation especially in more lead, powerful, complex roles and not just the stereotypical characters we are used to seeing. All in all I don’t think there is one media avenue that wouldn’t benefit from more diversity, they all can do more.
You come from a Gujarati-Hindu background — how did you find it portraying a Muslim? Was there a lot to learn, did anyone react negatively to this?
I wanted to make sure the character was as authentic as possible, and I learnt so much in the process. Not only do you have to fully appreciate a particular culture and way of life, but then play a role and capture the imagination of audiences who represent that community and those who do not. As an actor, you are always required to play different and diverse characters to appeal to a wide range of audience, which for me is the most exciting part of the job.
Have you received any hate/negative feedback from fans of the show/the South Asian community for your role? If so, how did you navigate it?
Whatever you do in life there are always going to be people who cheer for you and people who don’t. For me I focus on the positives, whilst taking on-board the honest feedback of critics and fans to help me improve every day. I personally made sure that I was as truthful and honest in representing Iqra and worked hard to ensure I really understood her faith and practices. Due to this, I have received a lot of love and support which I am so grateful for.
Who was your favourite character to work alongside on EastEnders or any other work you’ve done on screen?
I had the opportunity to work with some great actors on screen but if I take it back to the start, I burst onto the scene with my on-screen sister, Habiba, played by Rukku Nahar. We had so much fun on set and because we were filming together most of the time, we built a great friendship. We’re still in contact and have a great sisterly bond off screen.
I’m really looking forward to what 2022 has to offer and I am determined to make the most of this new year. My focus is on my health, wellbeing and progressing in my career and with a few things in the pipeline, I’ll be sure to update my fans on what is next as soon as I can.
Priya’s career in acting has only just begun, I simply cannot wait to hear what’s next for Priya and absolutely wish her all the best. I’m sure her future roles will exceed our expectations once again.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
Emily Harwitz is a journalist, photographer, and podcaster whose work focuses on making the outdoors a more inclusive place. Coming from a background in chemistry and ecology, Harwitz uses her knowledge to tell stories about the environment. She has written for many publications including High Country News, Hakai Magazine, Mongabay, Chemical & Engineering News, and more. Harwitz is an ambassador for Girls Who Click which is a nonprofit that empowers women to forge their paths in conservation photography. Her creativity does not stop there as Harwitz is also the host and producer of the Save the Redwoods League podcast: “I’ll Go If You Go.” Harwitz has explored a range of topics such as forest bathing, skateboarding, and building an inclusive community in the outdoors. Her stories do not stop there as Harwitz is always on the move looking for her next story. Continue reading to learn more about Emily Harwitz’s journey.
The term inclusion when it comes to the environment and outdoors does not always go together. How can we make the outdoors a more inclusive place?
The outdoors is inherently inclusive because, the moment you step outside, you’re outdoors, regardless of who you think you are. What needs to change is how we think about who is and isn’t “natural,” or what’s a “natural” way to behave. The natural way to be is however you are.
How have your personal experiences in nature affected the way you look at the rest of the world?
When I’m in nature, I feel the smallness of my being in the context of the bigness of the natural world. But the amazing thing is, when I slow down to look around, smell the air, touch the dirt, I feel like I’m a part of that nature, too. It’s really comforting to feel connected to something so vast outside myself. I no longer think it’s hoaky to say that appreciating nature’s beauty is spiritual for me. It just feels so good to look at water sparkling in the sun, or a dusting of purple and yellow flowers in a gently waving field of grass. Watching how animals and other creatures seem to flow through their landscapes is also a spiritual experience. How perfect they seem! And wow, I’m an animal, too!
This brings up some important questions: In what context do I exist that effortlessly? How can I foster that feeling for myself in my daily life? How can I foster that feeling for others? And how can I connect other people to that feeling of “I love being alive!”? That fuels so much of my work—wanting to share the feeling of what I experience in nature with others.
As you have covered many stories for various publications as a reporter, is there one that specifically calls out to you that you would like to expand upon?
I just wrote a story about biophobia, or the fear of nature, for Hakai Magazine and it got picked up by The Atlantic. I’m pretty stoked about that because this is a really important topic. The story’s about how certain aspects of modern life, like urbanization and the ensuing lack of daily nature experiences, are driving people to feel increasingly disconnected from nature. This not only impacts conservation, but also human health because nature provides so many benefits to physical and mental health. Here’s a good article introducing a growing body of research about the health benefits of nature immersion. Nature also provides the opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, which I believe is an important thing to experience.
As someone who is in the field of environmentalism do you feel this influences you to follow a vegetarian or even vegan diet which is more supportive of animals from all walks of life?
Absolutely. Animals from all walks of life, I like that! I eat a pretty pescatarian diet and try to use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to look up the seafood I eat. I feel strongly about what I put in my body and where it comes from. Beyond the sustainability and health concerns of factory-farmed animals, I am deeply disturbed by the conditions animals are subjected to in factory farms. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up. If you do know what I’m talking about and you’re still eating conventionally-raised factory-farmed animals, I’d urge you to take another look. We all exist in systems, though, and I know it can be hard for people to totally overhaul their diets—especially with things like ag-gag laws in the US blocking the spread of information about the conditions farm animals are raised in. It’s a privilege to even be able to consider where I’m getting my food from, considering the vast food deserts in the US and how inaccessible fresh produce is for many. So, my hope is for a growing collective consciousness about our food systems that eventually leads to regenerative agriculture that’s healthy for all of us on this planet.
Are there any brands we can support which push the message of inclusion?
How has Girls Who Click empowered you to get into the field of nature photography?
Girls Who Click connected me with an incredible filmmaking mentor, Dewi Marquis, who is also mixed Asian American. In addition to practical advice for film shoots, we’ve talked about work and life as women of color and the importance of listening to our own intuition during the creative process. Dewi’s involved with some great filmmaking organizations that I think the Brown Girl Magazine community would be interested in: Asian American Documentary Network, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, and Film Fatales.
As you have explored a range of topics on the Save The Redwoods League Podcast: “I’ll Go If You Go,” what are your plans for the newest season and how can we help support?
Thanks for this question! This new season is all about building community outdoors—hearing guests’ stories about how they started and grew their awesome community groups and organizations. My hope is that people can hear these stories and then go foster their own communities, wherever they are. All of our guests started with the desire to connect more with nature and others who can relate to their experiences as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ2S+ folks in the outdoors. If you identify with either or both of those categories, this podcast is for you! It’s by us, for us. The best way to support would be to listen, rate us 5 stars (if that’s how you feel), and share with friends. You can also follow the podcast on IG at @illgoifyougopodcast.
What is the Emily Harwitz starter kit for going camping or hiking?
I love this question! For hiking, aka a big walk outside, I always bring: a least one 32 oz. water bottle, a thermos of tea (oolong or green), a notebook or sketchbook, a pen or pencil. Sometimes I’ll bring a book that I don’t end up reading (how can I when there’s so much pretty nature to look at?), a tub of strawberries or other in-season fruit, my camera (currently shooting on a Sony alpha 6300 and a G200-600 lens). One of these days, I’m planning to bring my flute and a field recorder (Zoom H5). For going camping, I’d say: Make plans with a friend who already has lots of gear and likes to plan camping trips! Or there are lots of organizations that host camping trips you can sign up for. One day, I’ll go solo-backpacking, but I really enjoy camping with friends.
If you could go hiking with anyone in the world who would it be and why?
My Chinese grandpa who recently passed away. He loved nature, especially flowers, and I would love to go for a hike with to appreciate the beauty of nature together.
Who are your conservation heroes?
Personally: my grandmother who worked as lawyer to protect the environment in Florida, where I grew up. She introduced me to the whole world of conservation at an early age and I have so many joyful memories sifting through sargassum weed with her for tiny little shrimp and crabs, or looking for monarch caterpillars in the garden.
Thinking globally: Indigenous peoples around the world who steward and protect the lands they live on—including 80% of the world’s biodiversity. There’s growing recognition of this, and I hope to see more respect, protection, resources, and political action dedicated to Indigenous peoples who are doing this important work.
Do you feel that we will see a change and more representation in the outdoors?
Definitely! It’s already happening. Social media has actually been really beneficial in this regard because people can form their own communities online and share media and resources relevant to them. The outdoors industry is moving slower, but I’m seeing more initiatives to diversify marketing and such. The industry will have to adapt to include the people of the global majority if it wants to survive.
What do you see as the future for the outdoors?
Biodiverse (including humans!), inclusive, healthy, thriving, accessible experiences for adaptive skill levels. I am optimistic!
The sweet smell of petrichor, a cup of tea, and the redwoods. What more could you ask for?
True! Maybe an animal in the bushes nearby and a human friend to share it all with :)