It was a hot summer day in rural West Lafayette, and we had just taken what seemed like a thousand graduation pictures. After making a necessary stop at our favorite ramen place, we jumped in the car and started our road trip to Ohio for the week. It felt both nostalgic and routine as we started jamming to our favorite Bhangra mixes from our three years on the Purdue team.
Priyanka had graduated the year before, so our time together had dwindled since then to weekend trips and late-night FaceTimes. Yet, we were still inseparable. After an hour on the road and much laughter, our music was interrupted by both of our phones buzzing. Thinking it was from a group chat we were both in, we decided to turn the volume down and check.
Far from a funny Tik Tok, however, it was a warning from campus that read “ALERT: Molester reported in E. Main St. Garage. Police are responding. Please avoid the area if possible.” Suddenly the dynamic in the car morphed into a much more serious type of reflection, the joys of our college adventures now tinged with the harsh reality of our experiences and clearly the ones of many other women.
Although these alerts were not out of the ordinary, that day we reflected on just how many more incidences are never reported or acknowledged. Without the prospect of a looming exam, it was harder than ever to ignore. We both came from traditional Indian backgrounds where the topic of sexual misconduct was often swept under the rug; yet, we ourselves carried our own sickening experiences of sexual objectification, sexual harassment, and even assault.
Early on in our friendship, we focused our conversations on Bhangra practice, our mutual love for “New Girl,” and planning game nights with our friends. However, behind closed doors, we were both grappling with the invisible scars from violating encounters. One night at a party when a guy was too close for comfort, we remember looking at each other with a scared look, and without saying a word, it was clear that we were on the same page. Over the following weeks, months, and years, we opened up to each other about our past and grew stronger from this dialogue.
What was even more alarming to realize was that both of our stories and those of many of our friends all stemmed from the same community. At every desi gathering on campus, our guy friends had to be our fake “boyfriends” in front of strangers, and we had to dance in strategic groupings to avoid someone coming and grinding on us.
It became second nature to move in groups, always be on guard, and protect newcomers from guys we knew were bad news. Being able to lean on each other about our experiences with sexual misconduct helped give the two of us closure, but we found that there were many people who did not have that opportunity. Especially for young desi girls who came to believe this behavior was acceptable or who were taught to push down their feelings of being violated, we knew they were suffering from being silent.
For the entirety of the car ride, we found our passion for this issue growing, and by the time we reached our destination, we knew we had to take action. That night, rather than unpacking and watching movies as planned, we researched existing resources for this cause and decided to launch Dialogues of Desi Women, an Instagram account and Facebook page for South Asian women to anonymously share their struggles with sexual misconduct of any degree and learn about recovery and coping methods.
Our goal for this platform is to join a community of survivors and allies. Providing an outlet for reflecting on past experiences is healing, but we want DDW to not only be a space to look back, but also to look forward. We are working toward collaborations with professionals in a wide range of disciplines related to this issue because although we all have this common thread, each person’s story and challenges are unique.
We, as a generation, have the power to create change in the desi community on a completely preventable problem. To our desi women, know that you are not alone, you are not overreacting, and your feelings are valid. Together, our voices will not be ignored.
Email Dialogues of Desi Women at email@example.com or find them on Instagram or Facebook.
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular