The Year of the (Brown) Woman
(Left) Mona Das, Senator-elect from the 47th district of the state of Washington, strikes the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ pose to symbolize the strength of Indian-American women in politics. (Cover and this photo: Sara Ranlett Portraits)
As an increasing number of Indian-American women make their way into the U.S. political and civic space, are we looking at some serious shattering of the glass ceiling in the times to come?
Mona Das, Senator-elect from Washington state’s 47th district, clearly remembers the morning of November 9, 2016. It was the day Donald J. Trump was elected as President of the United States of America. She says, “I saw extreme reactions from people around me. Some were shocked, others were angry, and some wallowed in selfpity. ... But for me,” she adds, “it was that moment that defined my resolve more than ever to enter U.S. politics.”
Das, seen here with her father, two nephews, brother, mother, and sister-in-law, believes that one change is that many Indian families are ready to support their daughters entering politics.
Das, who had been diligently carving her way towards a meaningful political career, says that the results served as a catalyst not just for her but for thousands of women across the U.S. to know how urgent was the need for brown representation in current politics. Das, who became the Senator-elect after Washington State Senator Joe Fain conceded to her during the November midterm elections, says both with a sense of pride and optimism, “Despite an ongoing rhetoric, there are thousands of us proving every day to the world that America believes in diversity. … The best part,” she continues, “is that women, and more specifically Indian-American women, are a part of this change more than ever before.”
Das belongs to a new generation of Indian-American women who may be on their way to silently jolting the notions that women from the model minority would only be seen in conventional roles as academicians, physicians, or dedicated homemakers. This change is being seen against an interesting, even ironical, backdrop. The U.S. political scene seems to be witnessing an upswing in participation from the fairer sex. It can’t be ignored that this comes shortly after the country lost its chance of electing the first ever woman President. The statistics confirm the rise—more than 100 women were elected to the United States House of Representatives during the recent midterms—breaking an earlier record of 84. In fact, many have hailed 2018 as a watershed year for women in U.S. politics as it also broke many individual records. If Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women in Congress, the U.S. also got its first openly gay governor with Democrat Jared Polis in Colorado, along with the first Native American women elected to Congress.
As the American public watched, in awe and enthusiasm, this unprecedented female representation, there was another loud cheer from amongst the desi community. In what can be termed as the neodesi feminist political moment of sorts, there were 42 desi women out of a total 118 candidates who ran for the midterms, according to the data collated by the Indian American Impact Project, an organization aimed at supporting Indian-Americans running for office.
(Left) Pramila Jayapal at the ‘Women who Impact’ session at the Indian-American Impact Summit in Washington, D.C., in October.
While Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who won over her rival with a smooth 66 percentage lead, remained the only Indian-American in the House of Representatives, the Indian-American performance in the state assemblies was stellar. More remarkably, desi women seemed to have shown that their place in U.S. politics is poised to grow from here. While Democrat and lawyer Nima Kulkarni became the first Indian-American state representative from Kentucky, Padma Kuppa secured her position as Michigan’s new state representative, and Susheela Jayapal easily won her seat in Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in Portland, Oregon. Other important wins from Indian-American women at state and local levels included Manka Dhingra, Vandana Slatter, Juli Mathew, and Mona Das, amongst others. Commenting on this welcome development in American politics, Dhingra says, “Representation matters. If we are not at the table, our voices, our concerns, our stories are not heard. We are not visible. As elected officials, we bring all our experiences, our identities, our values to impact and guide legislation. When women are elevated, we all win.”
If this does not say something about an increasing Indian-American women involvement in the political arena, then it must be kept in consideration that many political analysts have been predicting another Indian-American woman, Kamala Harris, the junior United States Senator from California as a likely frontrunner for the 2020 Presidential elections.
(Right) Manka Dhingra, senator from the 45 district of the state of Washington—in the Seattle metropolitan area.
So, if desi women always had political prowess, what made it take them longer than usual to make inroads towards the political landscape of their adopted country? Activist and lawyer Deepa Iyer, who authored the award-winning book We Too Sing America, is not surprised at the spurt. She says, “Indian-American women have been in public office at all levels—from school boards to city councils to state legislatures to appointed governmental positions—for decades.” She adds, “It’s not surprising that more recently we have seen more Indian-Americans run for elected office. Many Indian-American women have been catalyzed into action due to the 2016 election, the women’s marches around the country, the #MeToo movement, and the harmful political climate in the country today. Indian-American women want to make a difference in their communities, and running for elected office is one strategy that is being used more frequently.”
A large number of Indian-American women taking the plunge into politics attribute their resolve to their inspirational beginnings. As first- and second-generation immigrants, many of these women have seen their moms adopt and adapt into newer cultures, often wading their way through cultural and patriarchal challenges. Their grit, they say, often comes from home.
Member-elect from the Washington State Senate, Mona Das, recalling the time her parents came to the U.S. with only $6 in their pockets, says, “My mother traveled to the United States carrying me as an infant, to be with my father. The only English word she knew as she flew half way across the globe was milk, as that’s all she thought her baby may need in the journey. She not only made America her home but soon excelled at making other immigrants like her feel at home. Growing up, I knew that if she could rise above the odds, there should be absolutely no stopping me. It was her strength that made me think that I could be a senator.”
(Left) Michigan’s new state representative Padma Kuppa.
Das is not alone. State Rep Padma Kuppa from Michigan’s 41st district also finds her hero in her mother. She says, “My first inspiration is my mother, who achieved the highest education in her family and was a primary reason for me to pursue my Bachelor’s in engineering. My grandmothers were both widowed while they had toddlers, but were strong and faced the challenges that came with their circumstances. The people who inspire me—men and women—are typically not celebrities. They’re the people doing grassroots work, whose names aren’t easily recognized, but they are doing some of the most important community-building work.”
(Below) Kuppa, seen here with Seema Nanda, CEO of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
According to social observers, Asian-American dedication and hard-working attributes may have also contributed towards their notable rise in civic and social lives. Professor Karen Leonard, who has served as the codirector of the Center for Asian Studies at the University of California, Irvine, has been one of the earliest to document the South Asian American immigrants’ trajectory in the U.S. Back in 1997, in her book, The South Asian Americans, Professor Leonard closely examined the South Asian contribution to contemporary American life. Talking about the current South Asian women’s wave in civic and political life, she says, “I always found South Asian women very hardworking, educated, and dedicated. But owing to initial circumstances decades ago during my research there were only one or two women in important positions. Today there are so many, and this rise is to be seen at so many levels.” She adds, “Recently Angela Anand became the first woman to be elected as the president of the National Federation of Indian Associations.” Leonard terms the appointment both as long overdue and an important marker, perhaps hinting at the easing off of the organization’s perceived patriarchal nature.
So, on whether it was doubly difficult for these women, given the patriarchal nature of traditional Indian society, Padma Kuppa says, “Indian-American women face the same challenges as most women, but sometimes it seems like it is even more, because of the patriarchy that we experience in our culture. Recent events in the public sphere make me wonder if we are more critical of our own community, since patriarchy appears to be the norm across social, cultural, or ethnic groups.” However, Kuppa believes that the same challenges have led the way to great successes, too: “I noticed that in 2018, many more women ran for office, and simply got involved in the political arena and in campaigns, including many women from the South Asian community. In Michigan, we had two Indian-American men (Shri Thanedar and Suneel Gupta) and 3 Indian-American women (Aditi Bagchi, Anuja Rajendra, and myself). In June 2018, I served on a very well-received panel titled “The Future is Female” at the IA Impact Summit in Washington, D.C., with several other women candidates from across the country. It was moderated by Mini Timmaraju [executive director of external affairs for Comcast], and underscored the rise of Indian-American women in politics.”
A Long Way Home?
A few months ago, in October 2018, an inspiring session called “Women Who Impact” brought together some of the most powerful, influential, and politically active Indian-American women at the Covington & Burlington offices in Washington. Hosted by Indian-American Impact Project, the event was presided over by Pramila Jayapal and Kamala Harris. There, Jayapal eloquently summarized the changing cultural thought process within the community that may also be bringing in the desired change. She spoke about the new political participation, saying, “This younger generation is really active and quite amazing. Young women and young men are realizing it’s okay to be political. In some of our families, it was not okay.” She continued, “I know, I was not supposed to be a politician, but a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. This is a different generation and to me is so exciting to see South Asians in politics and in campaigns, and we now have role models.”
(Left) Raj Goyle, cofounder of IMPACT and Democratic politician from Kansas says, “My favorite saying is ‘If we are not at the table, we are on the menu!’ It was about time that we as a community and women realized the importance of our voices. It is indeed exciting to see a record number of women candidates and the smashing success they achieved.”
On the importance of young Indian-Americans and women realizing the importance of their voices and participation, Raj Goyle, cofounder of IMPACT and Democratic politician from Kansas says, “My favorite saying is ‘If we are not at the table, we are on the menu!’ It was about time that we as a community and women realized the importance of our voices. It is indeed exciting to see a record number of women candidates and the smashing success they achieved.” He adds, “There is now a gradual excitement about politics in the community and we are seeing more women. It is the most effective reaction to the political dialogue.”
Talking about his personal experiences, he says, “I was 31 when I was elected, and I realized how important are the decisions on the state and county level and how deeply they affect us. The more of us who would get into the process, the easier it would be for everyone.”
(Right) Gautam Raghavan, executive director, Indian American Impact Project, says, “We are very proud of this progress, but it’s worth noting we still do not have gender parity and need to do more work to ensure closer to 50% of our candidates are women.”
Many skeptics have also pointed out that while women continue to grow on the local levels, when it comes to national politics, the change is yet to come. Gautam Raghavan, executive director, Indian American Impact Project and Fund, and advisor to the Biden Foundation, says, “Interestingly, while our women candidates tended to run for state and local office more often than federal or statewide office, they won their races at much higher rates. We are very proud of this progress, but it’s worth noting we still do not have gender parity and need to do more work to ensure closer to 50% of our candidates are women.”
Kuppa agrees that the gap needs to be bridged and says, “Women overall still have much to do to correct the imbalance and we need allies to help us: our families and friends, other elected men and women, and people overall. I have been very fortunate that my husband has been supportive of my activism, and that other men in my networks have been very encouraging.”
(Left) Activist and lawyer Deepa Iyer, author of the award-winning book, We Too Sing America is not surprised at the spurt. She says, “Indian-American women have been in public office at all levels—from school boards to city councils to state legislatures to appointed governmental positions—for decades.”
When President Trump took office, there was a definite anxiety amongst the people about representation. However, in what seems a quixotic move, many were stunned by desi faces on board. From Nikki Hailey to Seema Verma, desis have managed to gain important positions. However, Deepa Iyer, who also co-started the social media campaign Desi Wall of Shame, to call out South-Asian-descent members in the Trump organization for their anti-immigrant stance, says, “It is disappointing to see Indian-Americans become part of the Trump Administration, especially given its anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ agenda. Indian-American appointees such as Ajit Pai, Nikki Haley, and Raj Shah are endorsing policies that separate families, make the internet less accessible, and diminish human rights. It is important that we take them to task for their positions and hold them accountable.”
Raghavan, dispelling another myth about desi representation in the current administration, says, “If some imply there are many Indian-American women serving in the Trump Administration, it’s true that there are a few in prominent positions, but by our count, the Obama Administration had exponentially more Indian-Americans (both men and women) serving at every level, including prominent appointees like USAID Administrator Raj Shah, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Ambassadors Vinai Thummalapally and Richard Verma, Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal, and senior White House staff including Sonal Shah, Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra, Gaurab Bansal, Ruchi Bhowmik, Kiran Ahuja, and Preeta Bansal.”
Those who have been participating in the civic and political process are upbeat about the community’s involvement. Kuppa says, “The number of women and Indian-American women running for office and involved in various ways in the midterm election was higher than I have ever seen. National groups like Emily’s List have been supportive of women running for office for a long time, and several supported me. This time, IA Impact emerged to help Indian-Americans at all levels. SAMOSA, South Asians in Michigan Organizing for Serious Action, a new local group, was formed in 2017 to participate in and support various campaigns and initiatives in southeastern Michigan. It is indicative of the interest of young Indian-Americans in what’s happening in the political arena. There was a significant number of Indian-American women in SAMOSA.”
However, many rue that there are shortcomings within the community, too. Mona Das says, “The biggest obstacle that I had to face when I was starting out was not that I was a woman or a woman of color but the fact that people from my own community were reluctant to fund candidates who want to work for the representation.” She says, “It’s ironic because Indian-Americans are amongst the most financially affluent group of immigrants—still, during the early phases of my starting out, while I got a lot of verbal encouragement and was called beti by many, the same men refused to fund generously to make our presence count.” Das thinks that is another area where the community needs to look inwards and ask if we are doing enough to support our fellow community and womenfolk.
Despite the hitches, the future looks brighter for desi women in politics. Many sociologists think that the ball has been set rolling and people are tired to see the old, divisive rhetoric. A brown woman with zest and energy to create newer ideas is a welcome change for many. Deepa Iyer says, “The future of America is clear: a multiracial nation where communities of color will be the majority population. The challenge is whether communities of color will experience greater equity and inclusion in this new racial landscape. For Indian Americans to be a vibrant and strong part of this new America, we must be fully engaged in civic and political life, be part of social justice movements, and be in solidarity with other communities of color.”
Zofeen Maqsood is a U.S. based journalist who writes extensively on millennial trends and expat issues. She has contributed for the some of the biggest newspapers and websites in India and in the U.S.
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