Tag Archives: #sexism

Working Women of Color in Crisis

On Monday, March 8 as we celebrated International Women’s Day, I received many empowering messages from my female friends from all walks of life.  But at this moment in history, the irony of the situation is that while women have made tremendous strides in the workplace with fulfilling careers and increasing pay in the past half-century, the pandemic has upended all that progress in just one year.  

Workforce participation of women has reached a level last seen in 1988.  The Gender Wage gap is estimated to widen even further from 81 cents on the dollar to 76 cents on the dollar.  

President Biden has called it a national emergency and on that same Monday, March 8 on International Women’s Day, he signed an executive order establishing the Gender Policy Council within the White House to focus on uplifting the rights of women and address gender-based discrimination and violence among many other such goals.  But a telling addition to his broad gender policy initiative was its particular focus on addressing the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate impact on women by engaging with the White House coronavirus task force. 

Here are some sobering statistics from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.  Nearly 3 million women in the U.S. have left the labor force in the past year. Those who are employed make up an outsized share of the high-risk essential workforce, holding 78% of all hospital jobs, 70% of pharmacy jobs, and 51% of grocery store jobs. Two out of three women are caregivers, putting them at risk of depression and anxiety. Nearly two-thirds of mothers are in charge of supporting their children’s remote learning. 

“We saw all of these economic cleavages that were underneath those gains laid bare for us,” says C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D.,  president, and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Women fell out of the workforce at four times the rate of men and have a disproportionate number of job losses mainly because they are overrepresented in the hardest-hit sectors like the service sector, leisure, hospitality, education, and healthcare.  Black and Latino women in particular make up a little over a quarter of all jobs in the service sector.  If you couple this with the lower wages, pay inequality, fewer benefits in those jobs, it has been economically devastating for the women in this country.  

We were already dealing with a broken child care infrastructure and the pandemic brought this into focus for many American families.  School closures had a disproportionate effect on women as well.  In August 2020, when schools did not reopen, 860,000 women exited the workplace because they had to make the tough choice between their families and their jobs. 

Many of these women according to Dr. Mason are the primary breadwinners in their family and make less than 40k a year but still had to make this desperate choice because their children were failing virtual school.

Not surprisingly,  mothers are also doing a disproportionate share of pandemic parenting, regardless of employment. This raises the question, why are mothers taking on so much more of the parenting responsibilities during this pandemic, even when they have a partner who could share the duties? And especially when those partners see the devastating effect it is having on the mothers, both emotionally and economically. 

“This is because of the gendered structures of paid work that existed long before the pandemic” according to Dr. Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. This division of unpaid labor that women in families have always done has been starkly laid bare during this pandemic.  Women are in crisis. They are tired, depressed, and scared.

Many of the work-from-home mothers described having little choice but to sacrifice their paid work for their families during the pandemic because they were the only parent able to work from home or they earned substantially less than their male partners or because their children demanded more of their attention at home.  This leads to a combination of frustration, resentment, and then guilt – all taking a toll on their wellbeing and having an adverse effect on all aspects of their family’s life. 

More than a quarter of mothers report more verbal or physical fights with their partners or spouses.  30% say they are yelling more at their kids.  Another third says they are more frustrated with their children. Mothers also feel tremendous guilt at the amount of screen time their children are exposed to, because of virtual school and for entertainment. 

Dr. Calarco’s research shows that the pandemic is having serious consequences for mothers’ paid work, relationships, and wellbeing. She says these inequalities exposed by the pandemic reflect the gendered inequalities in our workplace and are “not just the function of men not stepping up to do their part”.  They are a function of failed policies, of the lack of affordable childcare, and lack of maternity leave.  This forced women into lower-paid jobs and part-time work even before the pandemic and now leave them feeling like “they have no choice but to sacrifice their own careers and wellbeing for their husband’s higher earning jobs.” 

When the recovery begins, it is very important to create economic policies that support this sector that was hardest hit – women and especially women of color and lower-wage workers. Some of the policies that could help women recover their place in the workplace include a minimum wage increase, especially for women of color.  If the Federal government cannot pass this legislation, follow the lead of many states and cities that have done so.  Healthcare, childcare support, and paid leave investments are also critical policies that need to be legislated.  Education and job training opportunities for women coming back to work after the pandemic is also critical.  And most importantly, we need vaccines in the arms of all Americans so that we can safely open schools and daycares and get women back to work.  

Corporate America should open back-to-work programs and reduce barriers for women to return to work. Paid leave and childcare facilities could increase flexibility that frankly, most employees with families want.   In many cases, the executives who are women and mothers with children at home and are saying to Maria Aspan, senior writer at Fortune,  “I am not just worrying about this for my employees, I am living this.”

There is a genuine desire to work on these issues, but, says Ms. Aspan, we have to wait to see if there is “any action behind the rhetoric”. 

This is a unifying time for all women, of all socioeconomic levels, that have been hit hard by this pandemic. We need to hold both the government and the private sector accountable.  It is time for all of us to band together to advocate for policies that will help all women thrive emotionally and economically.  And we will take our partners with us into this more equitable future.


Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality, and public education.

Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

Desi Feminist Men – It Does Not Have To Be An Oxymoron

(Featured Image: Cover of the book, Men and Feminism: Seal Studies by Shira Tarrant)

In its simplest form, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” In other words, because women have traditionally had fewer rights, feminism is about asserting and working to achieve equal rights for women. However, nowhere does this imply that achieving equality should be solely women’s fight or women’s goal.

There are but scarce instances when men made it their business to fight for women’s causes. A shining example is the active participation of Indian men in the many marches that took place all over India in 2012 after the horrific “Delhi rape.” Rather than retreating behind rationalizations such as “men will be men,” or “it has always been thus,” or blaming women for their choice of attire and pursuit of activities outside the safe confines of home, thousands of men agitated for respect and safety for the women in their lives — their daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, coworkers, and neighbors. The men showed that women’s lives matter and that they matter to them.

In taking this proactive stand, the men were following the example set by a few men who came before. In this essay, I want to highlight a few of them.

Dr. Anand-bai Joshee

I am sure many know about Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor, and her heroic struggle to bring medical care to the women of India. I just published “Radical Spirits,” her deeply-researched biography. In the course of my research, I came across a letter that her husband, Gopal, wrote in 1878 to an American missionary requesting help to educate his wife. The letter makes an eloquent and heartfelt case for the importance of empowering women and men’s essential role in making that happen:

Ever since I began to think independently for myself, female education has been my favorite subject. I keenly felt the growing want of it to raise the nation to eminence among civilized countries. It is the source of happiness in a family. As every reform must begin at home, I considered it my duty to give my wife a thorough education, that she might be able to impart it to her country-sisters…. On the other hand, female education is much looked down upon among my people… My attempts have been frustrated, my object universally condemned by my own people. … and yet I cannot give up the point. I will try to the last, there being nothing so important as female education for our elevation morally and spiritually.

Gopal Joshee believed that it was important to educate and empower women, but not just for their own good. He saw that this was an indispensable component of the good of families, communities, and country. Indeed, he went so far as to state that the state of women was a hallmark of a civilized society. And, in pursuit of this goal, he stood alone against his community and defied its regressive views.

Another great example of a feminist man is Ziauddin Yousufzai, father of Malala. In his TED talk, he said:

Ladies and gentlemen, this plight of millions of women could be changed if we think differently, if women and men think differently, if men and women in the tribal and patriarchal societies in the developing countries, if they can break a few norms of family and society, if they can abolish the discriminatory laws of the systems in their states, which go against the basic human rights of the women.

In other words, he made it his personal mission to empower his own daughter and to champion the empowerment of girls and women all over the world. The title of his memoir, “Let Her Fly,” says it all.

These two men, Gopal Joshee and Ziauddin Yousufzai, are separated by almost 150 years. Ironically, both were thrust into the limelight because of the tragedies of their protégés. However, these tragedies now live on as triumphs. Despite Anandi Joshee’s early death, or maybe because of the shock and tremendous loss that it represented, segments of 19th century Indian society took a decisive turn towards acknowledging women’s full humanity and their potential. Similarly, because of the violent attack on young Malala, there is greater awareness all over the world of girls’ right to education and empowerment.

Fortunately, tragedy is no longer a prerequisite to creating fundamental change for women. There can be no better example of this than what Indian states are doing to ensure and encourage access to education for girls.

  1. Tamil Nadu: The government offered a 50% subsidy to girls/women to buy scooters and laptops
  2. Uttarakhand: Girls enrolled in school get free bicycles
  3. Kerala: Sanitary napkin vending machines have been made mandatory in all higher secondary schools
  4. Karnataka: Girls studying in government and aided private degree colleges receive free education
  5. Gujarat: Free medical education to female students

Undoubtedly, there are countless nameless men fighting the good fight within their circles of influence, be it in their families or workplaces, or communities. For example, I know of a farmer who sold part of his land to finance the education of his daughters.

However, the battle is far from over. Many issues continue to challenge women. Starting from the management of menstruation and early marriage to access to education and medical care, they extend all the way to sexual harassment and rape, family and maternity leave, and equal pay.

So, here is a challenge for men to be more active feminists. Encourage your daughter as much as you do your son. Create a safe and welcoming family and work environments. Agitate for equal pay for women. Be compassionate and generous to your women coworkers and your subordinates (including household help where applicable).

Make every day Women’s Day and make every month Women’s History Month. The goal should be to make women’s disempowerment a historical artifact rather than a present-day scourge. Rather than diminish your power, it will only empower YOU more.


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

What was 2020 About?

I struggled with 2020. What was it all about? All over the world this year people weren’t just fighting COVID-19 and lack of freedom, but were also standing up against violence and discrimination.

The year 2020 has been the first of many things:

  • The first time we experienced lockdowns and felt an urgency to grab every wet wipe in sight.
  • The first time people spent their holidays without family.
  • The first time people worked and studied from home, where the first twenty minutes of every Zoom interaction were spent discussing poor connections, muted microphones, and turned off cameras.
  • Someone’s first graduation or first year in school.
  • Someone’s first day at work and someone’s last.

All these firsts occurred so naturally that we became increasingly comfortable in them and they became our seconds, thirds, and constants. Most importantly, however, this year has been a space of growth for people, not just individually but as a community – something that perhaps a fast-paced, capitalistic society might’ve prevented in the past.

We experienced large movements all around the world, people came out to fight for each other and stand by each other. Black Lives Matter, Dalit Lives Matter, and Muslim Lives Matter were three such movements that were instigated by atrocities committed against these minorities in America and India. 

These movements highlighted that people are born human. It’s ironic that the biggest divides are made by people. We divide the day with time, divide people with everything we possibly could, and yet, believe that the solution to atrocities that occur from such divide is to further divide a community that is already disintegrating.

For once, in perhaps a long time, Black people were not alone in fighting their own battles against institutionalized oppression and racism. Teenagers and senior citizens walked on the streets to empower and protect a future that should be built on equality, regardless of skin color. But the BLM movement isn’t a trend, it didn’t ask people to post a picture once or twice on Instagram with captions like “Black Out Tuesday” and call it a day.

Instead, it created a space that supported black-owned businesses. It gave a platform for students and employees who were discriminated against in the workplace because of the color of their skin. It united people, as the privileged stood with black people and worked as allies. While all these events are a change in the positive direction, this movement isn’t close to ending. It has just begun. 

India also dealt with violence and inequality against minorities this year. In Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, a 19-year-old woman was raped by four men and her corpse was burned by the police while her mother cried in protest. The woman was of the Dalit caste (which is the “lowest”) while the rapists were from the Thakur caste (the “highest”). 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

To add to this, India’s nationalist government wanted Hindutva to prevail as the dominant (and only) religion. The government was and is vehemently against people who identify as Muslim. From crass WhatsApp jokes that highlight the ingrained discrimination against Muslims in India, to the police and government using violence against Muslim people on the streets, the divide and inequality reached a high this year. 

These violent crimes against Muslim and Dalit people caused rage all over the country (as it should). Caste-ism, sexism, and religious discrimination reared their ugly heads and Indians came out in hoards to globally speak out against it. Calls for equality were heard as thousands of protests were held to fight against the violence these minorities face. 

It irked me to say Muslim People, Hindu People, Dalit people, Black people. It irked me because it has come to a world where people are defined more by a part of their whole identity and less as just people. Rather than giving equal weight to ‘Dalit’ and ‘people’, we have begun to stress on the former and neglect the latter. It irks me because we take humanity away from humans. This year, however, it irked the whole world. These movements, these calls for equality forced people to stand up for each other. There is unrest still, there is discomfort, but what I learned this year is that we are tirelessly hopeful beings, even when we ourselves don’t see it. 

So while 2020 had some of the worst to give, the best part of it has been the people living in it. 


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

‘Beyonce Sharma Jayegi’ is More Problematic Than it Appears

From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.

Beyonce does not need an introduction. She is arguably one of the most influential artists in the history of pop music. An inspiration to millions of women, especially women of color, an ally of the LGBTQ community, and a powerhouse of an artistBeyonce is an international icon.

Brown skin girl, ya skin just like pearls

The best thing in all the world

These are the lyrics from her song “Brown Skin Girl” released last year in July. The lyrics bolster Beyoncé’s crusade for cultural pride and female empowerment; the song went on to become the most-streamed female song of the year. In the video, black and brown-skinned women are portrayed beautifully in celebration of their skin color and diversity. For me, the highlight is the part where the video features a dark-skinned South Asian woman in all her glory. 

Enter Bollywood.

Back at home (India), a group of educated, young creatives decided that a song titled Tujhe Dekh K Goriya, Beyonce Sharma Jaegi” (Beyonce will be ashamed when she sees you oh fair lady) is what the world needs. Barely a month or so after the whole #FairAndLovely debacle in India and #BLM campaigns worldwide, women found themselves back to square one with this inappropriate song.

A Sad State of Affairs

Composed by India’s leading music composer duo Vishal-Shekhar, sung by Nakash Aziz and Neeti Mohan, featuring lyrics by Kumaar and Raj Shekhar, this song was released last month with a promotional video on YouTube. Soon after the launch, the video, starring young actors Ananya Pandey and Ishaan Khattar, amassed over a million downvotes and widespread criticism due to its racist undertones, and for unnecessarily dragging singer-actor Beyoncé’s name.

The film director Maqbool and lyricist Kumaar apologized and said that they never intended to offend Beyonce’s fans and that the “lyric in question was never intended racially”. If this is true then the state of affairs is scarier because if in 2020 learned practitioners of art do not even realize that they are being racist or sexist or colorist, then we probably haven’t progressed as much as a society as we’d like to think.

In an interview to an Indian national daily, the film director Maqbool said, “The term ‘Moriya’ has been so often and traditionally used in Indian songs to address a girl, that it didn’t occur to any of us to interpret it in a literal manner.” 

First of all, this statement in itself is a glaring warning sign. If the urban population of educated creatives is so oblivious to the deep-rooted colorist trends in the Indian society, how can we expect things to change at the ground level. The term “goriya”, which means a fair girl has been used synonymously for “girl” in numerous hit songs like “Chura ke dil mera goriya chali”, “Goriya Churana Mera Jeeya”, “Goriya Re Goriya Re” and many more over the years.

Secondly, the very idea of using Beyoncé’s name in the song and reducing the Grammy-winning icon to just her skin color reflects poorly on the mindset of the creators. In a culture where the colonial hangover is still quite relevant and cinema is more than just a form of entertainment but a social agent of influence, it is high time that filmmakers, actors, and songwriters start taking some responsibility. 

From Plato to Aristotle and Kant: Exploring Art and Its Impact

The debate of art as means versus art as an end has been ongoing for centuries and this song brings us back to it. While Plato was completely against artists and poets and wanted to banish them from his Republic because he believed that art was corrupting, Aristotle, on the other hand, saw art as therapeutic and cathartic. Later, Kant came up with the ends and the means theory where he stated that treating anything as a means to an end is problematic. 

I personally believe that the extent of the impact of art and its influence depends on society. In India, art is never welcomed as just an end in itself. Bollywood is big and people (literally) worship actors. Cinema has the power to influence young minds and when it comes to sensitive challenging issues like domestic violence, crime against women, colorism, sexism, and casteism, can India as a society afford to have such “item songs” blaring on loudspeakers?

India accounts for 37 percent of global female suicides. Last year, in October, a 21-year old woman killed herself over dark complexion taunts in Rajasthan. In 2014, a 29-year old girl’s husband drove her to suicide by taunting her over her dark complexion— this was in close proximity to the national capital (Gurgaon). In 2018, a 14-year old girl in Hyderabad burned herself alive and succumbed to death after she was bullied in school for her dark complexion. 

Even today, most, if not all, matrimonial ads say that the groom is looking for a fair bride. We all saw the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking— an embarrassing but sadly, mostly, true tale of the realities of arranged marriages in India.

However, we need to remember that this is not just an issue in India. It is everywhere— it is a universal challenge. As a 30-year old Indian living in Singapore, I get comments like “for an Indian, you have great skin” or “how come you are not that dark” and sometimes a direct “are you Malay or Indian”. I see whitening and skin lightening treatments and cosmetics everywhere I look in a mall. In Korea, I’ve heard people gift cosmetic surgeries to their daughters as soon as they turn 16. In the US, a recent study has revealed that racism is linked to cognitive decline in African American women.

Young girls are fed with a singular idea of beauty and suffer major self-worth issues growing up. Colorism is affecting the mental as well as the physical well-being of women all over the world. It is high time that we realize the gravity of these issues and stop obsessing over fair skin on a global level.


Surabhi Pandey is a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram

 

Indian Matchmaking: It Sucks, It’s True

“They want a girl who is slim, tall, educated, and from a good family,” says matchmaker Sima Taparia, as she flips between pages of marriage biodatas. Beside Taparia, her husband laughs. “They want everything.” 

Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Smriti Mundhra, Netflix series Indian Matchmaking offers an unsanitized glance into the nitty-gritty of South Asian arranged marriages. The show follows the day-to-activities of Sima Taparia, who navigates the labyrinthian love lives of Indian and immigrant millennials. From horoscope hurdles to culture contrasts, Taparia’s job is to find a middle ground between parents and partners, spouses, and societal norms. Because of Taparia, the end-all of a successful marriage is compromised. 

Although praised by audiences for its comedic timing, Indian Matchmaking has been subject to widespread criticism for its portrayal of casteism, colorism, elitism, and sexism. And the critics aren’t wrong. If I had a dollar for every time Taparia or a client equated physical attractiveness with being “tall and fair”, I could probably afford Taparia’s fees. (There’s a reason why almost everyone on Indian Matchmaking is rich, and it’s not by accident.) 

The show reveals deep-seated prejudices that form the bedrock of the arranged matchmaking system. Parents often request Taparia to look for a ‘good family background’ — a euphemism for a specific caste, class, and ethnic background. Colorism is a regular facet of the show. Ankita, a surprisingly likable client, is immediately labeled as ugly by Taparia for her darker skin. She prefers the likes of Pradhyuman and Rushali Rai, who are praised for their lighter complexions. 

Women above the age of 30 (case in point: Aparna) are treated like slowly rotting vegetables, who must be carted off before they cross the expiry date. And once they agree to the marriage, these women’s preferences and opinions are quickly dismissed by Taparia. Indian Matchmaking’s vision of marital compromise often targets its women, who are expected to be flexible and beautiful and witty regardless of the groom. 

“The bride has to change and compromise for the family,” says Preeti, mother of 23-year old Akshay. “Not the boy. Those are the values we were raised with.” 

Aside from the casual misogyny, divorcees and single parents are wholly ignored in the matchmaking process, perhaps because they’re evidence that relationships — “heavenly” as they are — don’t always work. “If anybody comes to me with a child, I mostly don’t take that case, because it is a very tough job for me to match them,” says Taparia, while discussing single mother Rupam. 

It’s flippant. It’s shallow. It’s the kind of discrimination that bites you where it hurts, even when packaged as a joke. 

I can understand why so many Indian Americans my age despise Indian Matchmaking. As I watched the show for the first time, I found myself deeply uncomfortable. Although presented as ‘just another reality show’, the series provided a painful lens on the worst of South Asian culture — traits that have endured generations of development and diaspora. 

The criticism is real, but it’s misdirected. With Mundhra’s keen sense of direction and focus, it’s obvious why the show is popular with a global audience. To offer an accurate glimpse into South Asian society, Mundhra has a duty to present its flaws — regardless of how ugly and misguided they may be. 

“Yes, it’s misogynistic, it’s objectifying people.. but this is what India is,” says stand-up comedian Atul Khatri. In his review of the show, Khatri concedes, “You know what India is..you cannot ignore it, you cannot brush it under the carpet.”

Taparia can do her best to sugarcoat the flaws of her clients — that’s her job as a matchmaker. But what Indian Matchmaking refuses to do is sugarcoat Taparia and the system that has made her what she is. 

A better glimpse into arranged marriages is A Suitable Girl, which came out in 2018, and might be a better watch!

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. This year, Kanchan was selected as a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program. 

How I Became a Political Activist

When our fresh-out-of-college son got his first job as a field organizer with the Democratic Party in Maryland, my husband and I privately began worrying about what kind of a future the son of two Indian immigrants could have in this unorthodox career. But in breaking out of the Asian parenting stereotype, we’d told our children we wouldn’t push them into medicine or engineering and instead would support their individual choices. I must confess this was easier said than done, for our children sure tested our resolve! 

First, our daughter went to music school to pursue her passion for opera, and then our son, Aman, declared that he was getting into politics. 

One day, Aman called me from work, “Mom, can I put you down for a two-hour shift for phone-banking or canvassing?” 

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh, the organizer will give you a list of voters with whom you can either talk on the phone or you knock on their door. Either way, your job is to convince them to vote for Hillary.” 

This was an alien concept for me. Growing up in India, elections had merely meant seeing billboards with smiling faces of random politicians or seeing truckloads of party-workers with loud-speakers chanting names that I’d paid scant attention to. My experience in American politics had been equally limited. Although I’d been here two decades, I’d only chosen to become a citizen in 2008, because I wanted to cast a vote for America’s first Black President. 

I hesitated before replying, “I don’t know if I can do that. I have an accent, I look different…” 

He interrupted me, “That’s nonsense, Mom. You’re American, that is all that matters. As a lawyer, you don’t need me to tell you that if a female President is to be elected, people like you must become politically active – you are a woman of color, an immigrant. I’m putting you down for two hours on Friday morning.” 

He hung up. 

So there I was. For two months every Friday morning, I showed up at the Party Headquarters to talk to random strangers on the phone about which local or national issues were important to them, and then probe whom they intended to vote for in the Presidential election. 

Despite some rude hang-ups and nasty comments, with each phone call, my trepidation decreased and I began to feel more comfortable in this role. Soon I discovered some kindred spirits among the other volunteers and made a few friends. 

A while back I had rolled my eyes when my son said to me, “Mom, “this whole campaign-business is addictive,” but now I was discovering how right he was. I too had gotten sucked in, so much so that – now as a “regular” at the office, I often ran into our Congressman and the two Senators from Maryland and chatted them up like we were old friends. 

In July, when Donald Trump won the nomination at the Republican National Convention, panic began to set in among the volunteers at the office. I too felt my blood pressure rising. My family, like most others who weren’t working at the Party office, were dismissive of this mounting anxiety because they were sure that America would never send  “a xenophobic, race-baiting, sexist, anti-Muslim and Mexican-hating man to the White House.” 

Yet, on my calls each Friday, I sensed the tide turning and my fear increased. My calling-list comprised of only Democrats in Maryland, a very Blue state; even then, every session resulted in responses that left me in shock. 

Several people said that they were willing to vote for the entire Democratic ticket except for Hillary. One man even yelled at me when I tried to question what he had against Hillary. “She is the devil,”  he said, “and Donald Trump is our lord and savior!”

By the time October rolled around, I was in a state of frenzy. I phone-banked three times a week, went out canvassing, and constantly tried recruiting people to volunteer. But despite my overwhelming sense of urgency, others seemed to be blasé about the election. Most were sure it was a slam dunk for Hillary, and they dismissed my response as a mere overreaction. 

I will never forget the evening of the 6th of November 2016.  As the results from each state began to roll in, I watched in shock as all my past premonitions came to fruition. But this time my own sense of growing horror was reflected in the faces around me. My whole family watched with tears in their eyes as Hillary gave her speech late that night. 

Over the following weeks, analyses of voting patterns revealed that several minority voters in key swing seats had sat out the election. Even though I had worked very hard for months, it was only now that I fully understood what my son had meant when he’d said that more people like ME needed to become active participants in our democracy. 

 So, after giving myself a few weeks of rest, I set to work. Using Facebook, I contacted other like-minded people in my area, and we began to organize a local chapter of the Indivisible movement and our little grassroots group of “resistors” was born. 

On a protest march

The day after Donald Trump was sworn into office, we collected on the National Mall for the Women’s March. Following this, we met on a monthly basis and continued to grow our ranks. In April, we joined other groups with homemade placards to attend the Tax March, followed by the Climate March. 

Soon, the newspapers started reporting about how grassroots groups such as ours were mushrooming all over the country. The Resistance became a household term and our homemade signs got featured on magazine covers. 

With speaker Nancy Pelosi

The last three and a half years have seemed almost Sisyphean to the members of political grassroots groups. Through our advocacy, networking, boycotting, and protesting, we’ve won some battles and lost some.  The two feel-good highlights were lobbying to save the Affordable Care Act with just one vote in the Senate and then flipping forty-one House seats in the Blue Wave in 2018 (which handed Speaker Pelosi the gavel once more). Unfortunately, the failure to secure the release of immigrant children held in the detention camps created by the Department of Homeland Security or to secure support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) were difficult setbacks. 

Through other ups and downs of this political roller coaster, such as the regretful withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accord, the reneging of the Iran Accord by America, the non-consequential findings of the Mueller report, and even the failed impeachment trial, the grassroots groups have continued their work –  increasing voter registration (especially among immigrant communities), phone-banking and letter-writing to prospective voters for either regular elections or special elections. 

We’ve helped gather support for progressive legislation at the state, local and federal levels. Now with the upcoming 2020 election, the groundswell of activism is beginning to gather force once more. 

Even with the advent of this unprecedented pandemic, our enthusiasm hasn’t waned. Circumstances have taught us to adapt and almost all our efforts from fundraising to phone-banking to letter-writing are being organized through virtual meetings and zoom calls. A month ago, a virtual fundraiser organized by the Biden campaign was attended by a hundred and seventy-five thousand supporters. It raised over $11 million.

I often tell my friends that in the last few years I have morphed into a new me. Despite the decline in America’s standing on the world stage, I now stand taller as an American than ever before; not because I agree with the turn our country has taken, but because I now understand how much behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing about real change and how much is at stake for not just our generation but also the next. 

The next generation of Indian-Americans is coming of age and for their sake, I hope that our community begins to be more active in political engagement. Many of us came to the US to make better lives for ourselves but now is the time for us to step out of the immigrants’ cocoon and fulfill our civic duty to a country that welcomed us all. 

This is a time like none other in American history, a time when the very foundation of its democracy has been shaken and this time calls on all of us to become political activists. 

Shabnam Arora Afsah is a writer, lawyer, and short story writer who is working on her first novel based on the Partition of India. She is a committed political activist and also runs a food blog for fun!


Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

Is Dad Doing The Laundry?

As families celebrated Father’s Day in June, I was reminded that a month ago when moms were being feted, some dads were playing true to type – and not the kosher kind.

On Mother’s Day my WhatsApp group chats were overflowing with fulsome messages from male high-school friends who were paying tributes to motherhood and to schoolmates who were mothers. 

Messages ranged from simple salutations like ‘Happy Mother’s Day to all the lovely moms in this group,’ to warm, fuzzy images of new moms holding babies.   

The very next day, the same Whatsapp chats were overflowing with contradictory comments; ‘Party over, back to the kitchen ladies!’ and clever little jokes about ‘witches going back to their brooms.’  I must confess some were funny and made me laugh.  

But without exception all these comments were offensive to women.

In India I went to a small, progressive high school with a small, somewhat homogenous student body. Many of my schoolmates, though well-intentioned, came from relatively conservative and old-fashioned families. In our class of forty, perhaps just two mothers drove their own cars and maybe three mothers worked outside the home.

Given this context, I put the whole Mother’s Day kerfuffle down to ignorance or lack of exposure and moved on.  Over time, I thought to myself, as the younger generation gets more educated and aware, things will change.

But the COVID crisis revealed some uncomfortable truths.

As families were forced to quarantine and share close quarters as well as household chores, I began to realize how deep and enduring the sex-based biases are.  

My Whatsapp chats closely mirrored the reality of real life between men and women, roles and expectations.

There were the usual jokes about men being imprisoned with their wives and corporate big-wigs being stuck washing dishes.   And yes, they had a comedic element and ought to have been taken with a pinch (or mountain) of salt. But nonetheless, the comments struck a nerve, especially as women have long borne the greater burden of child rearing and housework, even in so-called equitable societies.

Many of my liberal friends who went to college with me have competed head-to-head with women, fully respecting their talents and abilities. They have been nothing but supportive of their wives having an independent career and life and have raised their girls and boys to be equally empowered. 

And yet the same open-minded individuals posted artless comments that left me wondering about unconscious biases.  Several complained about helping with household chores that were now a big part of their daily routine. Arguably, in many of these households, couples are taking on responsibilities that usually are left to their domestic help who are now sheltering at home themselves, and who normally are a luxury taken very much for granted. 

But the underlying assumption was clear – household chores were the wife’s responsibility; the husband was only expected to help when he could (even though both spouses had equally demanding jobs), and they were all uniformly proud about being great husbands.

Closer to home here in New York, my ex-husband was visiting our children at my house and started offering me tips on loading the dishwasher – he said he had picked them up from ‘years of experience’ loading that particular appliance.  I was fully cognizant of his dishwashing skills during the course of our marriage and asked how he came by that expertise.  His response – he had done a lot of thinking about the matter (unlike me), while doing the loading during the lockdown, ‘over five days!’

In another astounding episode, a friend who is a longstanding human rights activist and a self-declared feminist, announced on a webinar about the impact of COVID-19, that while he appreciates the many men who have stepped up to help their wives at home, corporations should do more to support the women in remote working environments, as they are primarily responsible for the household. 

He meant well I suppose, but his assumption left me absolutely shocked.  Even as COVID upends roles and responsibilities at home, why is the basic presumption that domestic work is a woman’s job?

This is a man who looks after his own home and cooks for his family. He is fiercely proud of being married to an independent woman who is a highly placed corporate professional.  Coming from a man who sees himself as sophisticated feminist, I expected differently.

Perhaps deep-seated biases are embedded in our cultural DNA. It made me wonder – will things ever really change?

While society seems to have moved forward when it comes to equality between the sexes in the household, some men who espouse liberal views appear to remain fundamentally sexist when gender roles are disrupted, especially in a crisis like this one.  

But then, something extraordinary happened.  Recently I was helping a male friend ‘G,’ with a home renovation project. The building contractor was dismissive of me and flatly refused to answer my questions unless G asked them. He was extremely responsive and respectful to G.  

I asked G to deal with it.  He looked straight at me and said “why do you need me to talk to him?  You have straightened out dozens of people in your life who have been disrespectful.  Give him a piece of your mind – you are no victim.”  

So I did exactly that.  I told the builder that I liked his ideas and budget but his attitude made me hesitate.  If we were to work together, he had to learn to cooperate with me or he was not getting the project.  It took seconds to assert myself and for the builder to reset his attitude, and after that the project went on smoothly 

In the face of deep rooted sexist biases women need to move the needle by asserting ourselves and being firm and direct. The pandemic has created an imbalance in what may have been a level playing field for some but it’s also presented an opportunity to reset our roles and expectations. 

I am used to asserting my position in professional settings but this casual incident was a revelation. As a woman, had I absorbed the same biases myself? It’s not always easy to combat sexism in one’s inner circle, whether it appears in schoolmates, my contractor, my feminist friend or my ex-husband. But it’s important to command respect in all settings in life.

We must take a stand and stick to our guns – not wait for someone else to do it for us.  


Svati K.S. writes about gender inequities and works in the legal field.

Edited by Meera Kymal, Contributing Editor at India Currents
Photo by Félix Prado on Unsplash


 

Ageism is the New Sexism

Ageism is the new sexism that women start facing as early as 30

When I decided to write this article, I swear the inspiration came from an honest place. I turned 30 a couple of months ago and I have had a series of epiphanies induced by the people around me and their invasive commentaries on my life choices in the past few months. At first, that is what inspired me to pen my feelings down.

But to my surprise, there are more than 135K #turning30 posts on Instagram and almost all the top, as well as recent posts, are from women. So, this post is not going to be a personal rant anymore. I am forced to think that in the eyes of the society, for women, is turning 30 an achievement or is it some kind of a (biological) alarm? I don’t understand what it is but one thing is very clear from the thousands of posts on social media and numerous blogs on the internet, and not to mention the mausis of Indian mohallas– turning 30 is supposed to be some sort of a big deal. My question is why? 

Pop culture and its influence

I am a huge Friends fan and data proves that so are millions of other people all over the world. So, I am hoping this analogy will work. 

One of the reasons, they say, why Friends is still relevant is because the characters seem real and the audience resonates with them. Interestingly, all Friends characters had no clue where their lives were headed when they turned 30. Joey had an unstable and barely successful acting career and a series of flings but no serious relationships. Rachel was just starting in her career sorting hangers at a store after resigning from waitressing, Phoebe was a freelancing masseuse who had never had a serious relationship. And, don’t even get me started on Ross- divorced twice with major intimacy issues. Chandler and Monica were the only ones who’d found each other in their early thirties. 

British songwriter Lily Allen talks about a woman approaching her thirties in her song “22”. She sings: “It’s sad but society indeed says her life is already over, there’s nothing to do and there’s nothing to say.”

While this song is barely a decade old, the notion of a woman’s life being over at thirty sounds archaic to me! In fact, I believe that our lives only start by the time we turn thirty. Think about it, we spend our 20s finishing college and trying to find employment. So, how is it fair to say that a woman’s life is over at 30? Or, even to expect that she should “settle down” by that age?

So much for changing times and progressive societies 

We all like to believe that times are changing and that we live in a better and progressive society, but is that really true? 

The advocates of “everything is a bed of roses” will pull out studies comparing the lives of women in their 30s during the 1960s versus women in the present day, to show how women above thirty are now “allowed to go out, have fewer children and even pursue a career”!

But is that real progress? Did you know that it was as recent as 2015 when for the first time, married women were better educated than their husbands? But despite that fact, 72% of the time, a wife earns less than her husband of the same age.

However, instead of focusing on real issues like gender disparity, wage inequality and lack of opportunities in the employment sector for women, society likes to focus on “things a woman should do by the time she turns 30”.

I chanced upon hundreds of articles about women turning thirty. From “are you eating right”, “do you have the right wardrobe” to “did you find yourself a husband” to “here’s why you should bear a child right now”- I found a range of “knowledge imparting” articles. Funnily enough, I could barely find articles advising men on marriage, fatherhood or ageing.

Present Day

From the pressure of being married by this age to the constant reminder of the (oh so annoying biological clock) – the stereotypes associated with women approaching the age of 30 are archaic and need to go away.

I want to believe that we are a “woke” society outside of the virtual walls of social media feeds as well. I want to be able to decide things for myself. And, I definitely don’t want strangers advising me on my personal life and how I should be entirely dedicated to procreation because I am 30 and “it is already too late”!

Can we please stop with all the ageism and sexism, and let women just live their lives; or is that too much to ask?

Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Surabhi’s work has appeared in various publications in India, Singapore and around the world. Website | Blog | Instagram

 

Raising a Feminist Family

Have I raised my daughters to be feminists? An honest midlife self-appraisal.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Congreso Futuro 2020

Impressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We should all be feminists,” I picked up the tiny purple book with the intriguing title, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Eager to understand feminism in the twenty-first century from this articulate young woman who possesses an enviable clarity of thought, I planned to ask my daughters to read the book once I was done. 

As a lifelong bookworm who turns to the written word for knowledge and guidance, I had picked up “What to expect when you’re expecting,” during my pregnancy. Considerate colleagues gave me the sequel, “What to expect the first year,” at my baby shower. I referred to the book constantly. Like a child reading a mystery novel, I occasionally jumped ahead to read up on the next developmental milestone.

At my daughter’s first birthday celebration in India, seeing the book in my purse, a good friend joked – “You NRI’s bring up children by reading books.” 

I found her comment condescending but she had made an astute observation. Being far from home and lacking guidance from parents, I felt bereft. She, on the other hand, was raising her children in India in close proximity to her extended family.

To me, books had come to my aid when humans had failed.

*****

More than two decades after that conversation, I look fondly at my two daughters. In a few months, the older one will leave home in pursuit of higher education and the younger one will hurtle towards the end of her teens. 

Motherhood has been the most transformative experience of my life and the opportunity to raise two daughters has been a gift and a privilege. 

Adichie’s book is a long, thoughtful response response to a friend’s question about how to raise her newborn daughter feminist. I wondered if I had raised my daughters to be feminists? Would I find myself too outdated to understand this manifesto? I desperately hoped it wasn’t too late to make amends. 

“The solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only.” Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.”

Adichie’s first feminist tool seemed familiar. Not vaguely, but intimately.   

By this measure, I have always been a feminist. Perhaps I was born feminist. Although the word ‘feminist’ came into my vocabulary only after spoken and written language became my primary mode of communication, the inner knowing that “I matter’ must have been poured into my veins and set into my bones at the time of my creation. 

Born between two boys, I was the only girl child, brought up with great affection by egalitarian parents. Despite having a level playing field within the home, I was not immune to the rampant sexism that existed outside. I retaliated by waving the flag of gender equality, fighting for fairness, and arguing for justice at every opportunity. 

During the school years, my brothers and I were expected to wash our respective uniforms, polish our shoes, and keep our designated cupboards clean. But everytime my mother asked me for help around the house, I would protest. 

“You are asking me to do this because I am a girl,” I would pout.

“I am asking you because you are better at it,” she would patiently reply. 

“In life, you will find that the person who does a better job will be assigned more work, even in an office.” 

A part of me agreed with her. But I would have none of her rational explanations. Despite her college education, my mother was a housewife by choice. What did she know about work and career? 

I was academically oriented, bold, and outspoken. Unlike my mother who was content to stay home, I planned to study, get a job, and make my own money. I did not consider my mother a feminist, because feminism to me meant independence, financial security and power. Little did I know then that the seeds to my conviction about equality of the sexes were actually planted and nurtured by my mother’s parenting style.

*****

So much about the world has changed since my childhood. With women becoming astronauts and scientists, doctors and bus drivers, I wondered if Adichie’s suggestions were even necessary. But reading this simply-written, heartfelt manifesto brought forth many self-limiting biases and belief-systems that are coded into our DNA through social conditioning and serve as barriers to women’s’ achievements even to this day.  

In time for International Women’s Day, I thought of using Adichie’s list as an appraisal tool to evaluate myself. I was undoubtedly a feminist, but had I done enough to raise my girls to be feminists?

Of the fifteen suggestions, I scored well in 9. I am particularly proud of encouraging my girls to read. Regarding marriage – they know that marriage may be a part of their life but it is not to be counted as their greatest achievement. Through my own career choices, independence, and pursuit of interests outside prescribed gender roles, they have seen a working model of some of Adichie’s suggestions. 

But I have to admit that I have failed in a few areas. Even though we talk about boys and romance, open conversations about sex have been difficult; attributed more to my own cultural conditioning than to the oft-repeated excuse that such information is easily available these days. 

And there are suggestions about appearance, identity, likeability – important points that I am unable to assess at this point. Much of how my daughters find their way through the maze of conflicting messages and peer pressure depends on their ability to think for themselves, something only time will tell.

I think back to my mother’s unerring sense of fairness and transparent style of parenting. Unaware that the dictionary defines ‘feminist’ as a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, she had instilled in me the core belief that my life is valuable and my choices are valid, even if they veered away from socially accepted constructs.

Parenting is a uniquely personal journey. We undertake it with optimism and a combination of tools – some that we come equipped with, some we borrow from our own parents, and others we learn – from books, from society, from our own experiences.  

The thing that makes this journey incredibly interesting, if not always rewarding, is what Adichie says in the initial pages of her book, “You might do all the things I suggest, and she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing. What matters is that you try. And always trust your instincts above all else, because you will be guided by your love for your child.”

The best we can do is try. I know my mother did. So do I. My hope is that my daughters do the same when they have children. It doesn’t matter if they are raising girls or boys, I know without doubt that their journey will be interesting, and they will be richer for the experience.

Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir.  Connect with her on Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog


Artwork by Feminist Sravya Atalluri.

Go Women Ninjas!

I stepped out for a walk with my elementary school son. He was telling me about a program that seems to be the craze among his friends: Lego, Ninjago.

Ninjaaaa—goooo!”, said the little fellow and spun around on the spot kicking his legs up in the air. “ I wonder why they need to say Ninjaaaa-gooo before doing spinjitzu, but they always do that.”

“Maybe it is a spell. Why do they spin so much anyway? Is it like ballet?”, I asked.

The horror of my ignorance made him open his eyes wide in disbelief. “Amma! It is not like ballet. It is spin-jit-zu.”

I often prance into these gaffes. It was clear that the Ninjago masters did not appreciate being called ballet dancers, even though their spinjitzu-s looked like ballerinas who had stubbed their toes.

Knowledge is the antidote to ignorance

He set about enlightening me after taking a deep breath. “They do spinjitzu to use their powers. Everyone has a power. Jai has?” he looked at me expectantly.

I knew the answer was somewhere. I had nodded along on several occasions when he explained the powers of Ninja masters. I took a sip of humility and came clean. “Oh! I can never remember these powers. Why don’t you tell me again, and I will do my best to remember them.”

Professors can rarely resist such a humble seeker of knowledge, and so my little Professor launched on his ‘Amazing Superpowers of the Ninjago Masters’ class.

A few minutes of Walk-Walk-Talk-Talk later, “Then, Lord Garmadon was bitten by the Evil sorcerer and Evil coursed through his veins.”

“Oh no! His parents must’ve been so sad!”, I said. “What did his mother do?”

The fellow stopped with a quizzical expression on his face. “Umm…he has no mother. I don’t know why, but he doesn’t.”

Women Ninja time?

It was as we continued toeing the Ninjago-Spinjitzu line that I asked him why there were no Women in the Ninjago world. His face crinkled with thought. “ Nya is there. Cole became a Ninja to save his sister Nya.”

I looked at his sincere face, and took a deep breath. I saw it was time for me to become a female Ninja.

I asked him what he thought of his sister. “Do you love her?”

A look of awe crept into his eyes. His older, taller, wiser sister?  She looks after him, plays with him, and tells him the most amazing Greek myths. “Of course I do!” he said, stung by such a blasphemous question.

“How about Amma? Do you like me?”

Affirmative.

I kicked it up a notch. I asked about his friends. There were a few girls in the list. I asked him about his teachers, grandmothers and aunts? Duh! He laughed and said that he liked them all.

“Now”, I said, “I want you to imagine how you will feel without any of these girls in your life! “

“What?! Why?”, he said.

“Because that is what those poor Ninjago master-fellows seem to be going through. Don’t you see? “

His face dawned, and then he gave a sheepish smile.

Gender Stereotypes

Research shows that our attitudes regarding genders are formed between the ages of 5 & 6. Maybe this is the time to look at all our entertainment choices with a critical eye. If Superman does everything by himself, why do we think our sons will discuss their problems with us? If in most shows Men save the world by going to War, how can we hope for future peace and diplomacy? Every evening, homes are flooded with soap operasthat glorify women who suffer at the hands of those who should be their intellectual partners and friends.

The effect spirals over time as well. If you look at the average amount of time spent in unpaid housework, women spend a significantly greater amount of time than men do. In some countries, they spend almost double the time doing unpaid housework as men.  

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes the extent of the problem and has dedicated $1Billion in 2018 towards empowering Women. They recognize that every aspect of life (lower poverty rates, increased health care & life expectancy), improves when women are empowered. In the introductory chapter of the book, Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates writes: Sometimes all it takes to lift women up, is to stop pulling them down.” 

International Women’s Month is here and we will be celebrating all the great achievements of Women in Science, Literature, and Leadership; ​​instead of stopping and acknowledging the Women in our lives. The ones who make life what it is with their friendship, camaraderie and companionship.

Biases sneak in sometimes without our knowledge, and setting it right may start with the simple step of recognizing its existence.

 “Wait!”, said the little fellow. “Nya also became a Ninja later in the series. She is a girl-Ninja now.”

“Good!” I said, and peace was restored in our world.

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in San Francisco Chronicle,  The Hindu and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.