Equality

Young South Asian Women in Queens Take on Islamophobia and the Patriarchy

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On a recent Saturday afternoon, after the rainclouds had cleared, a group of young South Asian women gathered under a bright blue sky in Frank D. O’Connor Playground, across Broadway from NYC Health and Hospitals/Elmhurst in Elmhurst, Queens. One young woman climbed onto a fence to hang a banner reading, “Liberated Girls & Womxn’s Zone.” Across the playground, past a fountain, others pinned a clothesline hung with a series of vibrantly patterned cloths silk-screened with fiery feminist messages.

It was the closing event for this year’s cohort of Eckshate Gender Justice, a program run by the Jackson Heights–based group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a membership-led organization composed of low-wage South Asian and Indo-Caribbean workers. (“Desis” refers to people in the South Asian diaspora, particularly those from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.) Every Friday from March to June, about twenty South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers had gathered at the DRUM office on Roosevelt Avenue to meet other young women, educate themselves about sexism and the other forces that shape their lives, and start acquiring the skills to build a different world.

The event was organized by DRUM in collaboration with “Hate Free Zones Queens,” a coalition of groups that came together after Donald Trump’s election to build relationships between marginalized communities. Over the afternoon, about one hundred people amassed on the playground to drink chai, catch up, and silk-screen T-shirts, whose images — such as a fist inside a heart, captioned “I am this because I’m a woman” — drew questions from onlookers. Later, participants, who included women of all ages along with some men, split up into smaller groups to discuss this year’s theme: women’s labor.

Eckshate, which means “together” in Bangla and Urdu, was founded about two years ago by Jensine Raihan, a first-generation New Yorker of Bangladeshi-Bengali heritage who had joined DRUM several years prior. At age eight, Raihan was made homeless when her mother took her and her siblings and fled an abusive marriage. After about a year, the family secured public housing in Astoria, where they have been living ever since.

“I think the primary reason I got involved in the movement was because of the gender-based oppression [I faced],” says Raihan at a café near her home. She has close-cropped hair, a disarming smile, and an easy confidence. “Growing up as a young woman, not feeling like I had anyone to talk to about my sexuality or my orientation or even just how to have a healthy relationship – and then seeing how much violence my mom had to go through with my father.”

Since DRUM’s founding in 2000, its members have addressed surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers by the NYPD, educating the community about informants and supporting people who have been spied on; campaigned for migrants, including Bangladeshis and others who went on hunger strike while in immigration detention in 2015; and pressed the city Department of Education (DOE) to address the disproportionate impact of its disciplinary code on poor youth and youth of color, including pushing for the 2011 Student Safety Act, which requires the DOE and the NYPD to record suspensions and arrests by the race and gender of the offender. It was this work that drew Raihan to join DRUM, but over time she realized something was missing.

“We didn’t really talk about the ways in which women face the different issues we work on,” Raihan explains. For example, she wanted to address the pressures that young undocumented women face to get married at a young age to secure status for their families, as well as the DOE dress code that girls must conform to in order to be allowed to attend class.

Raihan developed the original Eckshate curriculum and led the first Eckshate cohort, which graduated in 2016. This year, the program was run by twenty-two-year-old Talia Arif, another DRUM veteran. A hijab-wearing Pakistani American with a slight frame and a quiet intensity, Arif was a tomboy growing up, surreptitiously borrowing her brother’s bike to teach herself how to ride. During high school, Arif joined the DRUM youth internship program; when her father spotted her doing outreach by speaking to men on the street, he immediately forced her to quit the program. Arif acquiesced to his decision at the time, but has become more assertive about her decisions as she’s gotten older.

Part of the aim of Eckshate is to address the barriers women face to organizing, including pressure from their families not to stay late at meetings, have social contact with boys or men, or be in rowdy public places, like street protests. “I feel like everything that I’ve experienced as a Muslim undocumented young woman led me to be here doing this work,” says Arif.

The Saturday event was dubbed a “dhaba-cito natin,” a multilingual phrase drawing from the Spanish word cafecito (meaning little café), the Tagalog natin (“our”), and the Punjabi dhaba, which refers to the roadside tea stalls that dot the landscape of many South Asian cities. Dhabas tend to be dominated by men, and as such have become one site where desi women can challenge gender norms. One day in 2015, after she’d moved back to Pakistan from living abroad, a woman named Sadia Khatri took a photo of herself sipping tea by herself at a dhaba and posted it along with the hashtag #GirlsAtDhabas. The hashtag caught on and has since transformed into a broader project in which women meet up and intentionally make themselves visible in public space.

It’s a project that also resonates in the South Asian diaspora. In a 2016 Open City article entitled “Men Loiter, Women Cloister,” writer Chaya Babu interviewed young South Asian women in Brooklyn about their experiences in public space such as parks. They told her that to be “good,” young desi women are expected to come home early, dress modestly, and never be seen with boys. When young women do venture out, they face catcalls and incessant and invasive stares.

“Going to the park has always been intimidating for me,” says Arif. For her, too, the power of the dhaba was not just sharing artwork or sparking conversation, but allowing her to be unapologetically present in a venue usually reserved for men and boys.

At the dhaba-cito, after a few opening remarks and performances, the attendees were split into several different groups based on language, age, and gender. The women’s groups spoke about their labor that goes unacknowledged; in the sole men’s group, participants identified the unpaid labor they benefit from in the home. Some onlookers from the park, including several older women, joined in the discussion. Afterward, the women wrote down their dreams for the future or what they hope will change (“I dream of a world in which Desi girls can walk out [of] their homes without being afraid!!!!”), while the men jotted down concrete steps they’d take to support liberation (“I commit to making days off for my mom actual days off from work and not days for domestic labor”). Everyone pinned their notes to a banner designed and painted by Eckshate.

Desi women also have to deal with the Islamophobia and Orientalism that permeate American culture, and challenging patriarchal ideas and gender-based violence in their communities risks reinforcing the idea that Muslim and South Asian women need “saving” from the men in their lives or their culture or faith. “Realistically, those [racist ideas] are still going to exist,” Arif says. “I’m not going to stop organizing my community and having discussions to liberate women in my community because white people feel a certain type of way or are going to use those things against us.”

Navigating the competing pressures of both worlds can be a struggle, she adds: “Even if we’re super covered up compared to other people, we’re still not covered up enough for, like, elder women in our community. It’s just a constant battle that you have to face.”

To that end, another aim of Eckshate is to encourage intergenerational relationships, especially between women. A few weeks before the dhaba, I met up with teenagers Tenzin Tsetan and Sidrah Khan at a Wendy’s near the DRUM office. As we sat across from each other amid the chatter of a busy restaurant, Tsetan recalled one moment at Eckshate when Arif asked the group, “What are things that your mother does for you? And does she get paid for that?”

“Talia really taught us that the elder women aren’t at fault [for policing younger women],” Khan said. “We have to see things like, ‘How are they living?’ They’re doing everything for us, for their children.”

The young women say Eckshate also teaches them to have more compassion for the men in their lives. Arif says her dad usually works more than twelve hours a day and until recently didn’t even get one day off a week. “He’s literally worked most of his life,” she sighs. “It was frustrating for me that I was never really able to connect with my dad. He was physically never there, and when he was there, he felt like he had to be a parent.”

In the fall, DRUM will be starting a new project, a gender justice group for boys and men. “While the work has been, and continues to be, led by women, men also need to be working with each other on creating healthy manhoods and relationships with women,” says Will Depoo, the men’s gender justice organizer. “We need to talk to men about toxic masculinity and patriarchy, and how they hurt not just women, but us as men as well.”

When I dropped in to an Eckshate meeting on the last Friday of Ramadan, the participants gathered in a circle and shared what they liked about the program. Priya Shahi, eighteen, recalled a panel that had been organized for the group a few weeks prior, where she’d met Shahina Parveen, whose son, Shahawar Matin Siraj, is in prison on a terrorism conviction resulting from what Parveen feels was entrapment by NYPD officers in 2004. Parveen has been campaigning on behalf of her family and as part of DRUM initiatives ever since.

In America, says Shahi, desi women are largely politically invisible. “To have that visibility shown, just to let us know what it means to organize,” she says, “it’s been very moving to be a part of that.”

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