The opening image on a story about breastfeeding for the Man Repeller is a petite woman of Indian descent with long, curly, and some may think messy hair. That’s me, wearing my mane in its natural state publicly for the very first time. As a 32-year-old CEO and public speaker that champions diversity in tech and business, it’s ironic that for my entire life, I’ve hated my curly, Indian hair. It’s been a long, arduous journey toward accepting it.
Every morning, since I was a teenager, I’ve straightened my thick, curly hair no matter how long it took. As a teenager in the late ’90s and early ’00s, straight, gelled-to-death hair was in. And as Indian kids, most of us did anything possible to distract from our brownness. Curls equaled frizz equaled messy equaled “fresh off the boat.”
This bias stayed with me through high school, college, my 20s and into my early thirties as I became a mom and built a business that represents women and minority-owned small businesses. I championed the marginalized, promoting tolerance and acceptance and yet I was intolerant of my own natural self.
When I started speaking on panels and giving keynotes, I made sure my hair was straight and silky, to appease Eurocentric beauty standards. And there’s the issue of what is considered to be good Indian hair — it’s the stereotype perpetuated by Bollywood that all desi girls should have straight, dark, thick and luscious strands. Yet another reason for torturing my messy curls into obedience through a blow dryer and straightener. After all, some of the most expensive hair extensions come from temples in India.
In India, curly-haired women like me invest in keratin and chemical treatments to fit the stereotype. Curly hair is seen as unruly and evokes images of angry, feisty women. But a movement for curly-haired Indian women worldwide is growing to fight back this baseless stigma. The country got its first curly hair brand just this year. Even Bollywood is coming around—actress Kangana Ranaut is curly hair goals and one of the few actresses to embrace her natural mane.
But embracing my ringlets didn’t happen so easily. Last year, when I was part of Bumble’s ‘New Yorkers, you inspire us’ campaign representing my tech company, FoodtoEat — helping immigrant, women and minority food vendors procure catering — I balked when the stylist suggested styling my hair naturally. Nobody except my husband was ever allowed to see the ‘frizz’ and I certainly wasn’t going to let all of New York City see me lookin’ like Medusa on Bumble’s bus and subway ads. But raising two kids and my own company means that straightening my hair every day is a fool’s errand. So, when I was asked to be featured in a story in Man Repeller, I decided to bite the bullet to go au natural. At first, it was just about saving time but lo and behold, I fell in love with my curls.
Don’t get me wrong, curly hair is work. Really hard work. Especially after a lifetime of straightening it. Curly hair has its own mood and I am constantly trying new techniques and products to get the look I want. Getting the right curl pattern depends on water pressure, season, weather, type of products as well as the timing of when you apply the products. Achieving picture-perfect curls is not only labor-intensive, but it requires whole lotta luck!
How we present ourselves as women of color on a public platform is important. Women of my generation hardly saw brown and black women in the media. We aspired to achieve beauty standards that betrayed our true selves and set us up for a lifetime of insecurity and self-loathing. I owe it to my younger self and future generations of brown women to be the most authentic version of myself—frizzy hair and all.
Eid-ul-Fitr is a special holiday that marks the end of Ramadan — the month of fasting — for Muslims worldwide. Ramadan is a time of gratitude, spiritual focus, forgiveness, celebrating community and helping the needy. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan.
Rubab Bukhari is a busy mom of five based in Calgary, Canada. She shared that Eid, for her family, is a day of gathering with loved ones and sharing a delicious meal together as a symbol for breaking fast. “Eid is celebrated as the most joyous occasion where we put up Eid decorations and exchange gifts with everyone in the house. New clothes are made for everyone; the girls get excited about getting henna on their hands and the boys get more excited about receiving their Eidi (gifts/money).”
A published author, spoken word artist and dance fitness instructor, Nazhah Khawaja shares how she’s built new traditions with her two children and husband in Illinois, Chicago despite not being exposed to the “Eid flavor” herself while growing up.
“My sister suggested decorating the house for Eid with the goal of getting the kids in the holiday mood,” she said. Regardless of the exhaustion that followed due to decorating while fasting, Khawaja realized that her sister “was onto something.” She added that “kids are very visual learners and interpreters — the visual display of decorations helps them to feel the festivity more. Forever grateful to my sister for encouraging this tradition that our family has embraced.”
Another new tradition that she has embraced is celebrating Eid festivities with her husband’s family who are non-Muslim. Furthermore, she insists on taking photographs during Eid-ul-Fitr to keep memories alive because one never really knows if the people in the photos will be there next time around. She also includes that the “Eid nap is a must — which means adults are dozing off while the kids are running wild; ample heavenly chaos and beautiful noise.”
Passing down familial customs from her mother, Khawaja remembers a story she had told her of how as soon as the dawn of Eid arrived, the villagers in Pakistan walked down unpaved streets welcoming Eid with a tune: “Mubarak Eid Mubarak/ Mubarak Khair Mubarak/ Saheliyon Eid Mubarak!” Khawaja’s mother used to sing it every time. “Growing up, my siblings and I would sing this tune in our not-so-refined Urdu, giggle at one another, create our own, often goofy lyrics, and even dance silly moves,” she shared.
Meanwhile, Bengali shemai, Kashmiri kheer and ma’amoul are the favorite Eid desserts in Janan’s household! She is the founder and CEO of the publishing company, Global Bookshelves Intl., a pharmacist by profession and a mother of three young girls, based in Louisville, Kentucky. They look forward to dressing up their best for Eid prayers the most.
Likewise, Ursula Sarah Khan who is a mom influencer and an accountant by trade, said that they fill their Eid-themed gift bags with all sorts of goodies like candy, bubbles and pencils. On Eid-ul-Fitr, her eight-year-old son, Ibrahim, distributes these bags amongst the boys after Eid prayers, while her five-year-old daughter, Eliyah, hands them to the girls.
They also bake Eid cookies together in addition to swapping their Ramadan decor with Eid decor, while still in their Eid pajamas in their Northern Virginia home!
Blending older traditions with some newer ones, Sarah carries on her mother’s age-old tradition of making sheer khorma — a Pakistani dessert made with vermicelli, milk, dates and nuts — in the morning.
She also explains to her children the importance of Zakat or charity, which is what her mother taught her: “I now take this same approach with my children to ensure they have a deep understanding of the generosity Islam teaches.”
Speaking of home and family, Haffsa Rizwani — a Canadian, currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, as a PhD candidate — said: “Living away from home, Canada, where my immediate family resides, we have a tradition of traveling from Stockholm to my aunt’s house in Oslo, Norway, every Eid. Especially to mark the celebration as a family event for my children.” Together with her aunt, Haffsa’s daughter gets her henna done and goes shopping for bangles! She goes on to explain how Eid-ul-Fitr is an opportunity to not only dress up, but also regain that morning ritual of chai and evenings with games like carrom board; “a game played till my uncle wins.”
As Rizwani so eloquently puts it, “While my children are still quite small, my daughter is now of age to appreciate and understand the meaning of gratitude, blessings, and giving back. She now has the empathy to comprehend the inequalities and injustices in the world. Ramadan is therefore a month of being thankful and making extra duas. Eid is a day of celebration with gratitude and blessings.”
Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate
Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. TheEagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.
The crossing of these tumultuous seas wasforbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boatinstead of birth.
These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.
They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.
Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,
I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.
Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.
The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions.
Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?
Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:
Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.
OnMay 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.
Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers.
I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.
Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years.
To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.
As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploringdigital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?
As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.
Tina Singh, formerly known as Mombossof3 online, understands how to make her presence known in the parenting space. Seven years ago, she set out to create and share content related to motherhood, and there’s been no looking back since. Singh has mastered the idea of evolving with the times and the needs of her audience while staying true to her number one role in life — mom!
As she navigated her personal and professional life through the lens of a parent, she came across a void that just wasn’t being filled. So, in typical Singh style, this mom of three put her entrepreneurial hat on and got down to creating a solution for Sikh kids who struggled to find a helmet that fits over their patkas (a small cloth head covering).
The problem was personal — all three of Singh’s sons wear patkas and just couldn’t find the right helmet for their safety — and so the solution had to be homegrown. Enter, the Bold Helmets.
Singh gave Brown Girl Magazine an exclusive interview in which she talked about the Bold Helmets, the change in her journey since she’s become a public figure, and what it was like to innovate her very first product!
Here’s how it went:
Let’s start from the beginning. How did this idea come to mind?
This idea has been in my head for many, many years — over five years. I had issues with my kids and having helmets fit them after they turned age four or five.
I worked as an Occupational Therapist, in the head injury space, so I was always the one saying, ‘Okay kids, you’re gonna have to tie your hair in the back, do braids, or something in order to put on a helmet properly because I’m not gonna let you go down these bike ramps without a helmet!’ That’s just not okay for me.
So I talked to my husband and said, ‘there’s gotta be another way this works.’ So we did all the things that parents in situations like these do — they hollow out the helmets, some people go as far as cutting holes at the top of the helmet — you do what works. But I had in my mind an idea of what I think the helmet should look like based on what a patka looks like, and what my kids look like. I then found an engineer to draw it out for me to bring [my idea] to a place where I can actually take it somewhere and say, ‘Okay, how do I make this?’
But, yes, it started mainly with my kids and facing that struggle myself.
You mention that this idea had been brewing in your mind for over five years. How long did it take you to actually bring it to life?
To this point, it’s been about two and a half to three years. I let it sit in my mind for a while. Winters come here in Canada and then we forget about it again until we have to go skiing, and then there’s another problem, right?! I did let it lay dormant for a bit for sure, but once I made the commitment to do it, I made up my mind to see it all the way through.
You recently pivoted and changed the name of the product to the Bold Helmets. Can you talk me through how you came up with the new name?
Bold Helmets became the name because they’re designed to be bold, to be different and who you are. I also think that the way the helmet is made, even though it’s made with Sikh kids in mind, there are other applications to it. I do think that taking the Bold Helmets approach embodies its [the product’s] uniqueness and really focuses on being bold and who you are.
And the Bold Helmet is multi-sport, correct?
This helmet is certified for bicycles, kick scooters, skateboards, and inline skating. It is not a ski helmet. So every helmet you use for a different sport has a different safety certification or testing that it has to go through. So, this helmet is called ‘multi-sport’ because it covers those four sports but I wouldn’t take this helmet and use it for skiing. I’d have to make sure that this helmet, or a helmet like this, gets certified for various other standards for other sports.
Makes sense! I want to change the course of the conversation here a bit and talk more about how you pivoted from Mombossof3 to innovating your very first product. How was that experience?
So what I did throughout this journey was that I went from marketing myself as ‘mombossof3’ to ‘Tina Singh’ because I was sharing more of my life’s journey as my kids were getting older and in an effort to respect my children’s space as well, and letting them decide how much — or how little — they want to be involved with what I was doing online. And part of that was about the journey of what I was doing next, and the transition came naturally to me.
I think right now, truthfully, I’m struggling in the space where I kind of have a shift in audience and so my usual, everyday self that I share on social seems like it doesn’t work. I feel like I need to find a new balance; I will always be true to who I am, and I will never present myself as something that I’m not. But, just finding a space for me to continue creating content while also taking on this new endeavor with Bold Helmets, is important right now.
Aside from this struggle of finding that new balance, what is that one challenge that really sticks out to you from this journey?
I think my biggest challenge being an entrepreneur is finding that balance between my responsibilities as a parent, which is my number one role in my life and there’s no one that can take that role for me — my husband and I are the only parents — and passions outside of that.
Do you think it helped that you were creating a helmet for Sikh children so it allowed you to pursue your passion but also work with your kids in some capacity since they inspired the whole idea?
I never thought of it that way, but yes actually, it did! So all my entrepreneurial projects have involved my kids. Even now they were involved in picking the colors, all the sample tests we did they tried the helmets on! They’re probably sick of it since they’re constantly trying on helmets, but I get their opinion on them. Even as we pivoted with the name, we involved them and got their feedback on it also. So, they were involved in very large parts of this project.
And my husband is also a huge part of this project. He’s been heavily involved in this process, too!
You have a huge online presence, and I know that you’re probably not new to trolling and bullying that comes with being on social media. More recently, Bold Helmets was subject to a lot of backlashes. Is there something that you took away from this recent experience? Was it different this time around?
The extent to which things got was different this time around and that’s not something I have faced in the past. But I have been in the online space for about seven years now, and I’m accustomed to it. I think what I learned this time around is that sometimes silence and reflection is the best thing you can do. Sometimes reflecting and not being defensive on feedback that you get — and this may be something that comes with age as well as experience — is best.
But, I’m happy with the pivots we made, the feedback we’ve gotten, and the way we’re moving forward.
You mentioned that this isn’t your first entrepreneurial venture. But each experience teaches you something different. What did you learn while working on Bold Helmets?
I learned to be okay with taking things slow. I’ve never been that person; I’ve always jumped the gun on lots of things. It’s understanding that it’s ok to slow down and recognize that things have to just run their course.
And while the interview wraps up there, there is more to come with Singh on her journey! Catch Lifestyle Editor Sandeep on Instagram LIVE this Saturday, January 28, at 10 a.m. EST, as she has a more in-depth conversation with Singh on Bold Helmets and more!
In the meantime, Bold Helmets are available for pre-order now, and as a small token of appreciation, Canadian pre-orders will get $10 off their purchase until the end of January 2023!