Tag Archives: #liberation

Bay-Area Based Filmmaker Alka Raghuram Documents Muslim Women Boxers’ Fight for Liberation

How far would you go for freedom? A choice between survival and social acceptance.

For girls of Kiddirpur, a small Muslim neighborhood in West Bengal, the path they chose was something no one even dreamt of; a path less trodden. To be women boxers, carving out a space of their own in a male-dominated sport, that too in a patriarchal society. Burqa Boxers, an internationally acclaimed documentary portrays the incredible life story of these Muslim women boxers, how they shatter the preconceived notions incredulously and stand up for their fight for survival. 

Written and Directed by California-based Indian American Alka Raghuram, the documentary is currently premiered on Cinemapreneur – an OTT platform for independent filmmakers, and has already received rave reviews from across the world.

“When I heard about this unusual story of girls from a traditional community stepping out of their comfort zone to do something unique, it just inspired me right away. One of my photographer friends had shot these women in action and seeing those photographs gave me a massive adrenaline rush, and then and there, I decided that I want to tell this incredible story to the world,” said Alka Raghuram, who is also the producer of the film along with Deann Borshay Liem, 24 Images from France and Premlatha Durham.

With three women boxers belonging to different age groups as main protagonists, trained under Razia Shabnam, one of the first Indian women to become a boxing coach and an international referee, the documentary sheds light on their life trajectory amidst societal acceptance, financial conditions, aspirations, and dreams. Smitten by poverty, for these girls, boxing is not just their passion, but a path to attain financial independence. Being an earning member of the family empowers them to take their own decisions. The only way to break free, or else they are married off.

“Kolkata has a long history of boxing with many public boxing rings around and these girls have seen their brother or father in the field and that gave them the exposure. Coming from underprivileged communities and boxing being a cheap sport compared to others, they saw this practical opportunity and grabbed it right away. Boxing gives them financial independence and also the confidence to defend and stay strong when needed,” adds Alka, who spent nearly a year for research, building relations with the conservative community, and understanding the intricacies of complicated dynamics of the society. 

The movie explores the emotions of not just the three boxers but people around who influence them and how boxing acts as a catalyst in life-changing decisions. For Ajmira Khatoon, an aspiring boxer from the neighborhood, boxing is her future and leaves no stone unturned to attain the goal, even if it means regular beatings from father and family fights. To be financially independent is boxer Parveen Sajda’s dream, who is already a state champion but still struggles to get a job amidst societal marital pressure. And for Taslima Khatoon, who resides at a hostel for kids of impoverished communities like sex workers, run by New Light NGO, boxing has opened up new avenues to flourish. 

Apart from these main protagonists, the documentary also brings to fore many alarming issues like the rise in the number of rape cases in India, an upsurge in fear, and how girls discover the need to rise, fight, and conquer their fears. Through the eyes of coach Razia Shabnam and her son, it also delves into prejudiced notions of society that perpetuate unknowingly and engulfs even the educated minds. 

Funded by Independent Television Service (ITVS), Diversity Development Fund, Centre national du cinema et de l’image animee (CNC France), and Visions Sud Est, Burqa Boxers has already many accolades to its credit. Screened at the Locarno Film Festival co-production market, it received the top honor and the team also exhibited a compilation of photo, video and art installation based on the project at the venue.  

California Filmmaker, Alka Raghuram

“Even though the setting of the movie is a poor neighborhood in West Bengal, people from across the world could resonate and relate to it during the screenings, which I consider as most rewarding. To be able to convey a story crossing all cultural boundaries was fulfilling as a visual storyteller. I would love to take Burqa Boxers further ahead to many more public platforms where it reaches a wider audience, especially educational screenings that initiate a conversation on women empowerment and the need for change. We need more stories like these for people to step out of their comfort zone and discover their dreams,” states Alka, who is all set to embark on a new project – fiction feature film ‘Ayna’ starring acclaimed actress Mithila Palkar, a psychological thriller with cinematography by Gurgaon fame director Shanker Raman

Alka also collaborates with other artists for different projects and is currently working on five short films based on choreography by Charlotte Moraga, artistic director at Chitresh Das Institute that encompasses the theme of five elements of life. She is also working on advocacy videos profiling mothers of kids with serious mental illness. 

Dreaming high with her best-laid projects ahead, Alka contemplates the proclaimed theme of Burqa Boxers, women need to step out of their comfort zone to discover their true self. Raised in a small town of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, filmmaking was never her childhood dream but it was her hidden passion that she unraveled while living in the US, returning to school after having kids. “We must always continue to explore ourselves. Nobody comes on the world stage with everything in hand. The only thing required is to be able to ask questions without any hesitation. You just have to ask, to learn, to empower, and to discover yourselves!” concludes Alka. 


Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.


 

Bra or No Bra, That Is the Question

No single event in history has disrupted our lives as has COVID-19. Maybe, the two world wars had a far more disastrous effect on our psyche, but the arrival of Coronavirus forced us to adopt new ways of living by isolating ourselves in the closed confines of our homes. 

The first few days of the lockdown/SIP, globally, we witnessed a burst of creative activity with people entering kitchens to prepare delicious dishes, trying their hands at baking cakes, experimenting with Dalgona coffee, painting, sketching, Instagramming, and whatnot.

But soon we started to see its spillover effects. Long hours of Zoom calls, webinars, and increased household chores. And amidst all these developments, a ‘liberating’ thing happened: more and women discarded their bras in the comfort of their homes away from prying eyes. 

On July 6, Geeta Pandey, a BBC journalist based in New Delhi, posted an article on the death of the bra to which I replied saying, “I like the bra. (It) makes me feel more like a woman.”

What’s in a bra?

Why did I say that?

I go braless only when I sleep or throughout the day the very thought of my boobs hanging about without any kind of support is too much to bear. I do not feel comfortable and to add to my woes, there’s a man staying next door and a couple of men living in the building opposite mine. Yet, sometimes I sneak out braless in the dead of the night to enter my kitchen for a cup of coffee.

For me, the bra doesn’t only mean a basic necessity to wear under your clothes. It is part of lingerie after all; something sexy, sensual, and unique. I remember once when discussing a colleague’s wedding plans, someone commented that lingerie shopping was the first thing she bought after her wedding was fixed. 

Back in my school days in India, I used to accompany my mother when I needed to buy bras. She only got me the basic white and skin-colored ones. Malls didn’t exist then and the shopkeeper used to take a cursory look and bring whatever size he thought would fit me without even bothering to ask my size. My mother used to quickly hide the packets in her shopping bag and that was it. It was never ever enjoyable. “It doesn’t matter what you wear. No one sees the bra,” was all she would say. I couldn’t even dare reply that a boyfriend very much sees the bra. Thank God I didn’t have a boyfriend then.

When malls started popping up, I began to enjoy bra shopping. Most places let you try them on and for the first time, I learned basic things about the exact cup size, fit, purpose, and the need to find the right bra for sportswear, sarees, dresses, and so on. 

Buying bras has made me feel so liberated that now, I cannot think of going without them or ditching them. They are my best friends and given me many moments of pleasure. Once in the middle of the night, my roommate and I started a discussion on bras after she came back from a late shopping spree with a bag full of lingerie. Surely, this is a liberating moment with no sense of shame or hesitation about one of the most basic things in a woman’s life.

In the Bollywood movie Queen, there is a scene when Lisa Haydon takes off her bra and places it over Kangana Ranaut’s head. It reminded me of the bra-burning movement where bras were featured as an oppressive element to a women’s life. 

My Instagram profile mentions me as a journalist, bibliophile, and feminist. Going without a bra doesn’t seem like liberation to me. For me, real freedom would be able to walk down the streets any time of the day without being harassed or ogled at. For me, real freedom would be to see the end of crimes like rapes, dowry deaths, and workplace harassment against women.

Bra or no bra? Maybe that isn’t the question…


Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

Racial and Caste Apartheid: Are They Similar?

“No one is free until we are all free.”

Dr. King’s words continue to be a powerful message for South Asians throughout the U.S. 

Over the past month and a half, our country has been jolted by recent acts of violence against black folks. While systemic injustice and racism have existed in this country for centuries, there is renewed political engagement with the entrenched issues of race in our country. 

For the South Asian community, it is more important than ever to be “accomplices” in the fight against white supremacy and racism. Several South Asian activist groups and nonprofits are paving the way to help our community uncover some of its entrenched prejudices. Through education and civic leadership, these groups are helping the community discover how to participate in today’s movement. 

Why does this matter to the South Asian community? 

The human dignity of black folks is something so fundamental that has been repeatedly ignored by our country. South Asians have often ignored their complicity in this reality by hiding behind the bootstrap myth or perpetrating harmful anti-black ideologies

However, our communities are more interdependent than people might initially believe. 

“Our stories are very much interconnected and to deny that it is the doing of white supremacy and colonization that tries to keep our people divided,” says Sabiha Basrai, a member of ASATA, a grassroots South Asian activist organization in San Francisco. 

South Asians and black folks have a long and shared history. Black leaders have long fought for the liberation of South Asian communities. In the 1960s, the activism on the part of the civil rights movement banned national and racial quotas on immigrants, enabling the vast majority of today’s South Asian immigrants to come to America. 

Solidarity with communities of color is more than merely a thought, it’s been exemplified throughout the course of history. 

ASATA protests

“A specific example of that kind of solidarity is demonstrated through Bayard Rustin who was a civil rights leader. He actually committed an act of civil disobedience in support of the free India movement in the forties. He locked himself to a British embassy in the United States to protest the British occupation of India,” says Basrai. 

But over time, the South Asian community has forgotten about that solidarity. In today’s moment, it’s important to hear the call to action, Basrai advises. 

What’s Caste got to do with it? 

Equality Labs 2018 Research on Casteism in U.S.

“We must examine and reflect on our own complicity with hierarchical systems, like caste, which enables so much police violence within our communities and within home regions,” says Mahn, communications director at Equality Labs. Equality Labs is an organization that fights against oppressive systems in South Asian communities through political education and collective organizing. 

Holding complexity is an important part of this conversation, Mahn says. 

“Caste isn’t just a theory. It’s a real experience of hegemony for a lot of people.” Black and South Asian experiences are both tied to hierarchies of power. 

“Racial apartheid and caste apartheid depend on both racial abolition and caste abolition. They’re corollaries, they intersect in a lot of important ways for the South Asian community, but they’re parallel. They’re not the same thing,” Mahn says. 

Caste continues to be crucial to the conversation about the South Asian diaspora. Last month, technology giant Cisco Systems was sued for discrimination against Dalit employees. The employee experienced verbal harassment and fewer workplace opportunities due to caste. These systems of harm are real and have tangible consequences in diaspora communities. 

Progressive organizations like Equality Labs are encouraging South Asians to reflect on different vectors of privilege. While South Asians may be harmed by white supremacy in some respects, the community also benefits from the model minority myth. Similarly, it’s critical for South Asians to understand how they may propagate systems of harm. 

That’s great, but what do I do now? 

Being an “accomplice” to the movement can be framed in multiple ways, says Sree Sinha, cofounder of the South Asian Sexual and Mental Health Alliance (SASMHA). 

“The incredible thing about activism is that there are so many different ways to be involved and each of them matter, each of them are important in terms of what the work is that needs to be done and the change that we need to see happen,” she says. 

Getting involved can range from a variety of different activities, from attending protests, to donating to black non-profits, to starting conversations in one’s own community – the critical piece is personal education. 

“None of us are born with bias against anyone. It is taught to us. And the beautiful thing about that is it means that it can be unlearned as well.” Sinha says. 

Sinha says action is like a ladder. We have the personal-level, targeting biases in our own minds. We have the community-level, where we help people in our communities fight against these injustices. And finally, we have the policy level. It’s important to hold political systems accountable, “whether that’s through calling into different congressional offices and police departments, and being able to use your voice in whatever ways is comfortable to you.”

It’s important for South Asians to mobilize against anti-blackness. 

“Where I really want people to understand that rather than being a source of fear or holding you back or paralysis that in fact, making even those small changes helps buffer us against racism. So if you’re feeling a little helpless or a little stuck pushing yourself to act on any level is a major part of what makes us heal.” 

Today’s moment is different from anything in our recent history. Sinha thinks that shows promise. 

“People are thinking about these issues for many people in a way that they never have before. And that just speaks to the power of the possibility and power of growth and change for humans.”

South Asian history is now inextricably linked to American history. The radical nature of today’s moment is important and will define the way our society functions for generations. We must choose the side of justice, for our collective liberation. 

Swathi Ramprasad is a senior at Duke University. She enjoys learning more about the world through her South Asian heritage.