Changing The Narrative: These South Asian-Origin Women Are Forces To Reckon With

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Lines from Maya Angelou’s memorable poem, Phenomenally Woman, reiterate the strength, power, and beauty of women—‘It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman, Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.’ Despite the generational burden on women, of prioritising the needs and opinions of others over oneselves, a gradual transition into a brave new world has been taking place. A world where women are coming forward to discover their true potential, is becoming evident. The roles and rights of women have definitely evolved over decades, but it is far from being righteously fixed. The conflicting views on feminism is a testament to halfbaked moral ideologies leaning towards inequality and oppression. Women have time and again, taken the onus to rise to various occasions and hold social discourses to smash the status quo.

Their achievements spanning all walks of life, keep the momentum going and encourage others to fight the discord. It’s imperative to celebrate these women, share their stories and get inspired to be the change we want to see in the world. Case in point, the following four disruptors from diverse fields who spoke to us about their journey, purpose and dreams.

Misha Japanwala, New York (US)

Visual Artist & Fashion Designer 

For artist Misha Japanwala, dressing supermodels and celebrities like Gigi Hadid, Cindy Bruna and Cardi B in her nude, wearable body casts is a way to use her art to reclaim the agency of women’s bodies. And to straddle fashion and art with a sense of purpose. Misha’s art has garnered much-deserved global attention and she was recently featured on the Forbes 30 under 30, Asia (The Arts) 2021 list.

Connecting With Purpose 

While studying at the Parsons School of Design, New York, all Misha wanted was to be a part of the design team at a luxury fashion house. It wasn’t until her thesis collection, ‘Azaadi’ that she started to engage deeply with the female corporeal form, intending to subvert the male gaze and reclaim her body. Her nude, wearable body casts received attention of all sorts—good, bad and ugly, but lent purpose to Misha’s artistic expression. She used these compelling sculptures to start dialogues with women on important issues including domestic violence and honour killings in Pakistan. “It has been a crazy, difficult and amazing journey. There is so much I have left to create and accomplish. The imposter syndrome can get real sometimes, but reading messages from multiple women about how my work has reframed the way they see themselves and their bodies, keeps me going,” she reflects on her work.

Swimming Against Currents 

As a Pakistani Muslim woman navigating the intended spaces through her art, it’s been an uphill task for Misha. “Some days are easier than others, she says. “I am open to critique of my work from people that understand its nuances, but my message box is clearly divided between thoughtful critiques and death threats. Yet, it’s also a confirmation to continue amplifying the voices of activists and grassroots initiatives supporting the people worst affected by this rhetoric,” she shares.

Future Plans

“I don’t want to say too much because too often my ideas exit my mind as quickly as they enter,” laughs Misha and adds, “My work will always be rooted in questioning how much freedom women have to exist and exercise control over their bodies freely. And I will always be working towards a future where we don’t have to constantly ask ourselves that. The dream project always has been, and always will be, the downfall of the patriarchy.”

Reeta L OI, London(UK)

Activist, Musician, Writer & Founder of Gaysians

The staunchly individualistic Reeta Loi is driven by her mission to create representation for LGBTQIA+ folks among the larger South Asian community. She was featured in the Forbes 100 Women Founders list, has won British LGBT+ Award, and played an instrumental role in lobbying for the repeal of Section 377 in India. “I grew up witnessing oppression of women in my family and chose to follow the path of self-discovery when given an ultimatum for coming out as a lesbian to my family,” she recalls. It was excruciating for Reeta to lose her family, grow apart from her Punjabi culture and be alienated at the age of 18. “I was on a quest to seek out people like me, be an anonymous voice in the media for years before deciding to use my name and set up Gaysians,” she tells us.

Against Odds 

The music industry is male-dominated and so is the queer scene—with 98 per cent of music producers and 80 per cent of music artists being men, Reeta informs us. “Our suppression is a product of patriarchy and frankly, it’s so pervasive that we can’t even see it. I continue to make art from love and compassion to reverse this,” she says.

Leading Through Change 

Gaysians, a non-profit organisation spearheading the global visibility and representation of the South Asian diaspora and the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, is almost 5 years old, with a team of seven volunteers and a network of 25 organisations in the UK and North America. Reeta considers it to be the labour of love by everyone working in it and insists on maintaining autonomy to be able to pass the legacy on to future generations. She says,“There have been incredible movements before Gaysians, but they were in the pre-digital era so they couldn’t leave us an accessible archive. ”

Artistic Evolution 

Being a Londoner, Reeta is heavily influenced by the melting pot of sounds of the diaspora—from Reggae, dance music like Garage, Breakbeat, Jungle, Hip Hop, to Bollywood soundtracks from films like Bobby and Mughal-e-Azam and Lata Mangeshkar. Reeta tells us, “I queered my collection of Bollywood records—the only memories I have of my dad apart from a few of his old kurtas. I started using samples from Hindi love songs and distorted my vocals to turn them into same-sex love songs or responses that messed with people’s gender perceptions. I released some of this work in an EP in 2018 called Ek under LOIAL, my artist name at that time. ”

A Synergistic Coming Together 

About her recent drop Remedy, she says, “It’s a protest track and a call to arms talking about white supremacy and capitalism. I’m now listed as ‘Loi’ with Apple Music now, as I’ve now brought together the parts of myself that were compartmentalised before to survive.”

Sana Javeri Kadri, Oakland (US)

Ceo & Founder, Diaspora Co.

After studying visual arts and food systems in Southern California, US, Sana Javeri Kadri shifted her gaze towards building a fair and equitable spice trade in the US by sourcing India’s freshest, heirloom and single-origin spices directly from partner farms. “We now source 30 single-origin spices from family farms using sustainable growing practices across India and Sri Lanka. We pay our farmers, on average, six times the commodity price so that they can earn a living wage,” she tells us happily.

The Impetus 

Sana noticed the growing turmeric trend in America around 2016 as she moved to the Bay Area after college. What was available was not only less flavourful and vibrant than what she grew up with within India but also offered no credit to the spice’s origins and culture. Farms and a sense of place had been erased in favour of commoditising this beautiful spice. After a long sourcing trip to India that involved visiting 40+ farms and fatefully connecting with the Indian Institute of Spice Research, I launched Diaspora Co. in 2017 with a single spice (Pragati Turmeric!) and the goal of putting power back into the hands of farmers, changing the rules of the outdated and broken spice trade, and to have fun doing it,” she recollects.

Identity & Intersections 

Deeply inspired by one of her favourite authors, Ocean Vuong, and how queerness saved his life, Sana says, “I spent my whole life feeling like a misfit and finding the labels of ‘immigrant,’ ‘woman of colour,’ or even ‘brown’ to be restrictive to my life experience.” Identifying as queer allowed her to redefine everything. “My team and I recently wrote a queer manifesto about how our identities inform our work. I deeply believe it makes us more creative, more innovative, and more resilient in this big, audacious goal of growing a better spice trade,” she adds.

Ethics Driven 

Diaspora Co. sources from small, multi-generational family farms that are growing regenerative, singleorigin spices with an emphasis on flavour. “Our goal is to put equity, money and power back into the best regenerative farms in South Asia—and we dive into these partnerships for the long term. Currently, we provide healthcare for 20 per cent of all the farmworkers that work on our partner farms; our we are aiming to provide all 1,500 of them with healthcare within 2022,” Sana says. She is currently focused on growing Diaspora Co. as sustainably and positively as possible, “My main focus right now is ensuring the wellbeing, growth, and happiness of my team and farm partners and building new ways of engaging with capitalism and work culture,” she concludes.

Sobia Ameen, Dhaka (Bangladesh)

Model & Content Creator 

Whether it is making the transition from architecture to baking, or breaking the internet by turning muse for House of Masaba’s fashion campaign, Sobia is on a self-exploratory journey that she is realising through diverse creative mediums. There is an innate sense of joy that exudes from her social media feed including the decadent artisanal cakes she bakes, play sessions with her dogs and her vibrant photo essays showcasing her love for fashion.

 Winning Hearts

Sobia received overwhelming love and adulation from across the world for Masaba’s campaign. She has always admired the designer and getting to work with her has been a dream come true. “It was the most overwhelming experience as it happened during the pandemic and I don’t know if I would be able to match it up again. I have always connected with people regardless of race, age, gender, colour or nationality. Studying architecture in Australia taught me to express myself in a better way. It’s now when I have put myself out in the world, that I am being accepted with open arms,” Sobia shares

Truths & Untruths 

As a lover of fashion and with her platform as a model and content creator, Sobia is keen on furthering the size inclusivity rhetoric well beyond its current tokenistic approach. She points out, “It is frustrating when instead of normalising representation, it is viewed upon as a ‘trend’. Growing up, I never thought of being a model as I was chubby and could never match up to the unrealistic beauty standards laid out by the media. We have indeed come a long way but there’s still a long way to go. Sometimes campaigns feature plus-size models but they don’t have size-inclusive clothes in stores or have staff misbehaving with customers of a certain size,” she says emphatically.

Great Minds

It’s the people around Sobia—their stories, music and books that serve as inspiration for her. She looks up to a host of creatives and activists from all walks of life, including Ella Fitzgerald, Maya Angelou and Oprah and the LGBTQIA+ activist Alok V Menon. They’re all role models for her. “I am researching Southeast Asian culture; the textiles of Bangladesh and the Punjabi-Pakistani side of things. I was bullied as a child since my mother comes from an Urdu-speaking family and I rejected that part of me growing up for the longest time. I am slowly coming to terms with my roots and my heritage,” she shares.

Onwards and Upwards 

“If the pandemic has taught us something it’s not to write plans in stone”, laughs Sobia. “I have evolved as a person over time and whatever the future holds, I want to give it my 100 per cent. It comes down to the journey of self improvement and being the most authentic and honest self in the creative space,” she narrows down

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