Four South Asian Women you Need to Know From SAWCC’s Annual Benefit

South Asian Americans

by Sneha Goud 

On November 13, the South Asian Women’s Creative Collectives Annual Soiree and Benefit perfectly embodied the organization’s mission for the advancement, visibility and development of South Asian women artists.

The nonprofit organization, founded in 1997, showcases many forms of South Asian women’s art, from literary festivals, studio circles, art exhibitions and performances. The event featured four South Asian performers, a silent bidding auction and an opportunity to mingle with the many creative souls that comprise the populace of the SAWCC.

The first performer, Ashni, was introduced as “our Norah Jones.” The singer/songwriter played original compositions that kept the audience enthralled, and closed her set with the soulful cover of The Fugees well known song “Ready or Not.”

ashni

Singer/Songwriter Ashni Photo Credit: SAWCC

Next, on the docket of talented performers was former BG Spotlight comedian Aparna Nancherla. Her set is a laugh-fest, which she tastefully tailored to her audience members. Nancherla’s comedic genius included poking fun at the over inflated New York real estate market and the anxiety associated with international flights.

aparna nancherla

Comedian Aparna Nancherla Photo Credit: SAWCC

The premiere performance of the night was transnational award winning musician Kiran Ahluwalia, who was accompanied by her guitarist husband Rex Abassi. Together, they encompassed the success of SAWCC’s mission to empower South Asian women artists.

kiran ahluwalia

Transnational award winning musician Kiran Ahluwalia Photo Credit: SAWCC

Ahluwalia’s global mix of South Asian and international music was captivating. Her recent album, “Sanata: Stillness,” includes powerful messages of the female experience, highlighted during her performance at the event.

The evening closed with popular South Asian DJ Ushka, who turned the event into a dance party.

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Popular South Asian DJ Ushka Photo Credit: SAWCC

As South Asian women become more prominent in the creative world, SAWCC’s mission and work is necessary to raise awareness of our talented community. Aligning with Brown Girl’s mission, the nonprofit is a true representation of empowering women through art and literature.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).

‘The Black Rose’: British Asian Shweta Aggarwal Voices her Truth Against Colourism and the Battle to end her Skin Whitening Cream Addiction

Black Rose

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. 

[Read Related: Liam Neeson’s Week of Rage is Every Person of Colour’s Truth]

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. 

[Read Related: Dear Priyanka Chopra, Endorsing Colorism and Discrimination is not ok. It Never was and Never Will Be]

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.

 

Photo Courtesy: Shweta Aggarwal

By Sejal Sehmi

Brown Girl Magazine’s U.K. Editor Sejal Sehmi is an IT consultant by day, whose passion for writing stemmed from challenging … Read more ›

In Conversation With Emily Harwitz: Nature is for all of Us

Emily Harwitz
Emily Harwitz

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.

[Read Related: How Nature can Reduce Stress and Anxiety]

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?

I think we should all consume less, so I’m going to recommend a few organizations promoting equitable outdoor access, diversity, and inclusivity: Skate Like a Girl, Feminist Bird Club, The Outdoorist Oath, Brown Girl Surf, Queer Asian Social Club, Hike Clerb. All of these orgs have great Instagram pages so you can fill your feed with diverse stories and faces. I guess this is still a kind of consumption, but hopefully an inspiring and generative kind!

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.

[Read Related: Meet Preet: This is What an Antarctic Explorer Looks Like!]

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 :)

[Read Related: Oil Spill Avoided in Caribbean Sea Thanks to Environmental Groups]

Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?

We’re all natural and we’re all nature people. There are as many ways to love and be loved by nature as there are people.

Photo Courtesy of Dani Shi

By Arun S.

Arun fell in love with music at a young age by way of his middle school music teacher Mr. D. … Read more ›