South Asian Sisters

South Asian Sisters is a diverse collective of progressive South Asian women dedicated to empowering our community to resist all forms of oppression through art, dialogue, conscious alliances, and grassroots political action. We are dedicated to organizing “Yoni ki Baat,” an annual performance that encourages women to speak out against violence and end the stigma around our bodies and our sexualities.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Why South Asian Sisters?

Ask this question to any member of our collective and you will probably get a different answer. South Asian Sisters is about providing a safe space for Desi women to express their desires, frustrations, and whatever else makes them who they are as individuals. We have a book club, we have performances, we have lunch-time discussions and workshops, we have political and social campaigns, and we are open to having much more. Perhaps most controversially, we have rage. Certainly not all of us get worked up about the same things, as was probably best reflected in this year's production of "Yoni Ki Baat." Many of the pieces seemed to conflict with each other: what some woman found deeply offensive, others embraced and reclaimed, and yet others thought to be relatively trivial. That diversity is what makes us whole, human, and multi-dimensional. There is no singular identity for a "South Asian Sister." But what does unite us is a common struggle to find empowerment as South Asians and as women. We, along with our Desi brothers, stand up against atrocities committed against our community- whether they be political repression, racism in general, or stereotyping in the media. But we, as Desi sisters, also stand up against atrocities committed against women- whether they are committed by the government, by the media, or, or more tragically in my opinion, by our own brothers.

But why should it be controversial to demand that we have rights as women within our communities? Why, if many of us would oppose movies that normalize whiteness and stereotype/marginalize South Asians, for example, can we not voice criticism regarding movies that normalize masculinity and stereotype/marginalize women and members of the LGBTQ community? I have seen a number of web sites and blog spaces that claim to be "South Asian," yet systematically exclude or ridicule women who critique sexism that is considered too close to home, viz., the sexism of "assimilated" South Asian American men. Isn't that just as bad as white people telling brown people to "lighten up" and trivializing/mocking/satirizing our desire to see fair representation as "PC"? I see it as very sad when people who fully understand the need for mobilizing and empowering South Asians against racism cannot make a logical parallel between that desire and the desire of women to do the same against sexism -- or, for that matter, for people to assert rights as members of a particular class, religion, or other axis of identity.

At various times, I have sought out community in "South Asian" spaces, and when I found those to be problematic in numerous ways, sought out "feminist" spaces. Unfortunately, I found that many of those spaces were not very inclusive of my needs as a woman of color. This is because identity politics, rallying around a single axis of identity for a common struggle, are too often prone to essentialism:

In the case of identity politics, two claims stand out as plausibly “essentialist:” the first is the understanding of the subject that makes a single axis of identity stand in for the whole, as if being Asian-American, for example, were entirely separable from being a woman... The second form of essentialism is closely related to the first: generalizations made about particular social groups in the context of identity politics may come to have a disciplinary function within the group, not just describing but also dictating the self-understanding that its members should have. Thus, the supposedly liberatory new identity may inhibit autonomy, as Anthony Appiah puts it, replacing “one kind of tyranny with another” (Appiah in Gutmann ed. 1994, 163). Just as dominant groups in the culture at large insisted that the marginalized integrate by assimilating to dominant norms, so within some practices of identity politics dominant sub-groups may, in theory and practice, impose their vision of the group's identity onto all its members.

And hence, in my opinion, the need for a space like South Asian Sisters: to ensure that an androcentric vision of unity does not dominate the South Asian discourse. Granted, our group contains considerable diversity in itself, and it will be a continuous process to ensure that each voice gets heard and respected. I know that many people who read about our activities will still be prone to attacking or pigeonholing us in one way or another, especially due to the safe harbor of anonymity that the Internet provides. However, I challenge you to meet any of our members in person or attend a "Yoni Ki Baat" performance and not be completely blown away by the talent, brilliance, beauty, humor, and strength that exists in each member of this group.