hen you think of a feminist, who comes to mind? Susan B. Anthony? Gloria Steinem? Naomi Wolf? Whoever you think of, chances are, she doesn’t have a desi face. And while it’s disappointing that some schools of feminism fail to include the experiences of women from the Subcontinent, that is slowly changing, one South Asian feminist at a time. Take, for example, Samhita Mukhopadhyay, one of the editors of popular feminist blog Feministing. Intended to be an “active online resource for women,” the blog offers all women “the opportunity to speak on their own behalf on issues that affect their lives and futures, and a platform from which to comment, analyze and influence.”
Mukhopadhyay became involved with Feministing after serendipitously running into current executive editor and former women’s studies classmate Jessica Valenti on the bustling streets of New York City. At the time, she recounts, blogs were beginning to rise in popularity, and the two discussed the dearth of feminist resources on the Internet and Valenti’s plan to change that. “The goal was for young women to have a place to talk about, analyze and discuss issues, policy, pop culture that are affecting our lives in a way that the traditional media doesn’t allow.” Mukhopadhyay’s posts on Feministing run the gamut, from topics that are South Asian focused (Rape Laws in Pakistan Causing a Stir) to those that have a broader appeal (Record Number of Women Running for Office). One thing, however, remains consistent: her deep belief in feminism. “To me, feminism means acknowledging that we live in a society that is sexist, racist and classist, and actively seeking to understand and change that.”
It’s not that Indian society is uniquely patriarchal; Western society is just as much so.
And while she doesn’t want to be the poster girl for South Asian feminism, Mukhopadhyay makes a concerted effort to report on issues that are relevant to South Asian communities and communities of color in general. “I’m very interested in third world women and the way media repress women and feminists from other countries,” she says. She knows whereof she speaks: having obtained her undergraduate degree in women’s studies from SUNY Albany, Mukhopadhyay is now working on her master’s in equity and social justice in education at San Francisco State University with an eye toward an eventual doctorate. One of her interests involves transnational feminism, which, she explains, is an “attempt to understand feminism as other than a Western movement.” She goes on, “Look at the feminist movements in other countries that don’t look like they do in the West. Women are resisting all over these states and countries, displacing the hegemonic control that Western feminism has.” Essentially, she concludes, “feminist movements have different meaning to people around the world.”
One of the big things facing South Asian women is media representation. What kind of stories are being told? Is the stereotype of the
“nerdy Indian girl” being reinforced? Are we being fairly represented—in government, in culture, in the workforce?
So what does feminism and Feministing mean to Mukhopadhyay on a more personal level? And as a South Asian woman? “I usually write about what’s in the news,” she says, “but every now and then I’ll write something more personal.” She continues, “When my family emigrated here, they brought traditions they were committed to enforcing, maybe more so than if they had stayed in India. Some of those patriarchal notions of what the woman’s role is in the family, differences between the treatment of my brother and myself, freedoms that ‘American’ girls had that I didn’t.” When she was younger, she may have resented the traditionalism and considered Indian society repressive in comparison to the West. But through her feminist viewpoint and the lens of transnational feminism in particular, Mukhopadhyay has reached a new perspective. “As an adult, I can look back and see what my parents were trying to do. It’s not that Indian society is uniquely patriarchal; Western society is just as much so.”
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Feministing has sparked applause, controversy, discussion and, now, even scathing parody. A crude caricature of the original site attempts to lampoon the focus and goals of the women behind Feministing. How did the editors respond to the anonymous authors behind the mock-up? “Looks like someone has a little crush on us. You know boys, you could have just sent flowers.”
It’s not just the traditionalism of our parents’ generation which concerns Mukhopadhyay. “I think one of the big things facing South Asian women is media representation. What kind of stories are being told? Is the stereotype of the ‘nerdy Indian girl’ being reinforced? Are we being fairly represented—in government, in culture, in the workforce?” These and many others are the issues which Mukhopadhyay tries to bring to light on the Web pages of Feministing. She clearly takes her duties as an editor seriously. She posts “anywhere from five to 12 entries per week,” in addition to going to school and being active in the social justice movements in the Bay area. And in the future, she has even loftier goals, for both the site and herself. “I would like to make money for Feministing. Right now we are all working for free. If not that, then I’d like to be writing in general.”
Samhita Mukhopadhyay has worn many hats: Americorps volunteer, teacher, sister, daughter, social activist and blogger. And in the end, isn’t that the message of feminism? Women can be anything they want, do anything they want and do it well? Samhita Mukhopadhyay sets the bar high.