by Aditi Mehta – Houston, TX
A few months ago, a friend of mine turned me on to the online feminist forum, feministing. I loved their content and devoured their stories about women, women’s issues, and various other social issues. When I found out their Executive Editor was a fellow Brown Girl, well, I was blown away. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, as described on feministing, has spent the last seven years writing and speaking about race, media, technology, and gender. Now Samhita’s resume is impressive (I highly suggest you look her up), but when she agreed to do an interview I wanted to focus on her thoughts on feminism and especially what feminism can potentially mean to South Asian women all over. Without further ado:
Were you always interested in gender and race issues? When did you decide to make it a career?
From a very young age I was questioning my parents assumptions about how I should talk, what I should wear and what chores I was responsible for, as opposed to my brother. I was a rabble rouser, but didn’t really ever plan on making it a career. I had originally wanted a career in politics but then detoured to women’s studies classes that got me interested in writing about gender and the importance of telling authentic stories and analyzing the world around me. This eventually lead to becoming a writer with a focus on gender issues.
You probably get this question a lot, but how do you define “feminism”?
To me feminism is about treating all people with respect and dignity. It’s about human rights for historically disenfranchised communities and seeing the self as a loci of introspection and site of change that will lead to larger social change as well. Finally, I think feminism is about eradicating gender oppression in all it’s forms whether it be through racism, classism, xenophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc.
The term “feminism” tends to have a negative connotation and women who are labeled as “feminists” tend to receive backlash from the community. What can women do to advance their concerns and issues without being automatically labeled and then tuned out?
Well the first thing women can do is stop being afraid of being labeled feminists. All the lies and negative connotations spread about feminism are to keep feminists quiet and to intimidate women from realizing that many of the laws and rules of our society don’t serve us. One of the most effective anti-feminist tactics has been to suggest the feminism is unsexy. But it is worth the temporary risk to align yourself with a global social movement that is dedicated to justice. Feminism isn’t perfect itself and it is constantly evolving and the more people identify as feminists unapologetically, the more public perceptions of feminism will change.
Do you think removing the label of “feminism” could help to better advance women’s rights?
No, I think getting rid of sexist policy and fighting for increased rights will advance women’s rights. If you are asking if I think removing the world “feminism” will get more women involved in women’s rights issues, maybe, but not enough that it is worth abandoning the term and philosophy. At this point, as much as I encourage young women to embrace feminism, I don’t think it really matters if people identify as feminists or not, what matters is that we are aware of the things that are impacting our lives and fighting against them or educating ourselves against oppressive conditions. Whether it be taking a stand against domestic partner violence or rallying to ask Congress to not repeal funding from Planned Parenthood, where we put our energy determines feminist outcomes more than if we identify as feminists.
As a fellow feminist, I read the news, watch TV and movies, or see how individuals talk about women or other races, and I sometimes feel its too hard to change society and just get so angry at the world. Have you ever felt that rage? How do you combat it?
Yes, that rage fuels my writing and I combat it by writing about it. It is really easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when you have stories like Donald Trump asking for the president’s birth certificate as national news, that’s it’s not even worth it. But really it is all the more reason people need to be writing, shouting and taking action.
In other interviews, you’ve explained the concept of transnational feminism. How are feminist movements in South Asian countries different than here?
Feminist movements vary based on the context they have come out of. The lineage of South Asian feminism is really diverse and has been sparked by different moments in history. It’s hard to say what is explicitly different, because there are forms of feminism indigenous to the United States that also focus on ecological justice, public space or sexual assault, but I do think the strong history of feminism in South Asian counties is often overlooked as though they have it worst in some way. I think it is hard to compare so directly like that and a transnational feminist analysis allows us to look at those differences in a more nuanced manner.
Do you think widespread change for South Asian and Middle Eastern women is possible?
Absolutely, I think many of the most vibrant feminist movements are in South Asia and parts of the Middle East.
How do you think Brown Girls can improve the welfare of South Asian women here and abroad?
By highlighting stories people can relate to and interrogating the ways that the mainstream covers the topics you think impact the lives of South Asian women.
If you could pick one book that you’d recommend to the budding feminist, which one would it be?
Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism.
On a lighter note, what do you think makes you smart, hip, and beautiful?
I appreciate that you think I am smart, hip and beautiful! I would say that feminism has given me the tools to be confident and recognize that the power of my person does not come from what I look like or what I wear, but the person I am and how I treat myself and those around me. That said, it has also allowed me to embrace fashion and femininity in a way that I can decide that is something I want to do for myself as opposed to something that is imposed upon me. Can we ever get away from the pressure we face to look or dress a certain way? Doubtful, but recognizing and making educated choices is a step in the right direction.
Samhita’s upcoming book is titled: Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life. You can now pre-order on Amazon!