Gaza reveals racial hypocrisy of South Asian feminism

By: Sarah Awan

On May 11, a ‘Stop the Invasion of Rafah’ rally was held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The police presence was noticeably larger, perhaps due to the recent student encampments across American universities. The NYPD were in riot gear with zip ties in hand and immersing themselves into the crowd. The protest took a winding path, it appeared a deliberate zigzagging to keep the NYPD alert, while they had buses along the route ready for arrests. That same day, Padma Lakshmi, Indian American TV host of ‘Taste the Nation’, posted a video to X, formerly Twitter. It was titled, “Once more for the people in the back”. She says, “I tried to explain this” and explains that “Chai tea = tea”. There is no need to say “Chai tea” because the direct translation would be, “Tea tea”. This is a phrase that many of us in the South Asian community have heard and used ourselves. The sentiment behind it, captured in Fariha Roisin’s book, “Who is Wellness For?”, intends to stand against the co-option of cultural practices, norms and traditions including culinary practices. The issue with chai tea activism is it seems to be where most public South Asian activism starts and stops.

At this moment, celebrity culture is under scrutiny. Young people, confronted with a helplessness to stop a genocide are steadfast in reclaiming their power and doing whatever they can to peacefully protest against the American-backed Israeli assault on Gaza. The next phase of this reclamation appears to involve acknowledging that the sustainability of celebrities, their brands, and their wealth ultimately relies on the purchasing power of individuals. The celebrity “Block Out” was sparked as pictures on the internet emerged of the Met Gala while American-supplied bombs were falling on Rafah, the last ‘safe zone’ in Gaza.

An influencer in an elaborate, 18th-century-style gown and headdress produced a Met Gala promotional video, saying, “Let them eat cake”. These notorious words, linked to Marie Antoinette, the queen of France during the French Revolution, have come to symbolize, an elite so out of touch with the struggles of citizens that they propose cake as a substitute when bread is scarce. As protestors outside the Met Gala were being arrested by the NYPD and as the world watches Gaza starve to death, this post has sparked significant debate on celebrity culture overall. While a handful of prominent South Asian voices have been consistently vocal on Gaza, most have opted for neutrality or total silence, even when South Asian civilians have been killed. Exemplified by the death of Waibhav Kale, an Indian man, who was targeted by Israeli tanks even while in a UN-marked vehicle.

Over the last decade, a wave of South Asian influencers, artists, and creators have championed ‘Brown girl’ feminism, South Asian feminism, or ‘Desi girl’ feminism, all used interchangeably, to challenge the narratives and stereotypes imposed on South Asian women by various communities. This moment is birthed from the recognition that traditional feminism is not intersectional, meaning it does not account for racial, class or economic differences between women and that movements to progress the rights of women have historically prioritized white women first.

Koa Beck, the author of ‘White Feminism’ writes, that the ideology and strategy of white feminism “focuses more on individual accumulation, capital and individuality”. She explains that white feminism is not about altering systems that oppress women, the systems of patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism, but to garner power and succeed within these existing systems. South Asian feminism is an invitation to understand the exoticization, ridicule, stereotypes, systemic challenges, barriers and hurdles experienced by South Asian women. However, a closer look at South Asian feminism in America would reveal a striking superficiality and glaring racial hypocrisy, not just in its outcomes but in its motives.

Rather than addressing pressing issues such as caste discrimination, Islamophobia, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, colourism, political marginalization, or the clear rise in fascism in the region, to name a few – prominent South Asian feminist discourse prioritizes the concerns of upper-caste, heterosexual, cisgender women, effectively silencing voices at the margins and perpetuating existing hierarchies. When will Desi influencers and celebrities shift their focus to more meaningful endeavours? This perpetual fixation on trivial activism does little to advance the cause of liberation for South Asian communities.

It is undeniable that South Asians, namely those of upper-caste & class background in India in particular, have accumulated significant social capital in the United States. In 2023, Indian Americans were the highest-earning ethnic group in the United States, earning higher than white households. In popular culture, characters like Seema Aunty on Indian Matchmaking are gaining popularity and traction, the white man finally picks the Brown woman to be his lover in shows like Bridgerton, and Indian Bollywood stars are invited as guests to the most exclusive fashion event in America, the Met Gala.

In political representation, Kamala Harris made history as the first Indian American to be elected as the Vice President of the United States in 2021. Indian-origin, Vivek Ramaswamy and Nimarata ‘Nikki’ Haley can run for nominee for the American Republican party. The pursuit of genuine representation across intersecting racial and economic identities is important, irrespective of the politicized and oversimplified portrayal in current American discourse. Though both Ramaswamy and Haley teach us that you don’t need to be white to be an upholder of white supremacist ideologies.

Desi influencers have amassed an enormous following on TikTok and other social media channels, promoting an image of success and upward mobility, usually through the lens of “glow up” culture and promises to ‘decolonize’ beauty. There are thousands of “Desi girl glow up” videos on Tik Tok and the formula for this transformation is consistently the same. An influencer will share a photo of themself as a child, they appear darker skinned, have curly or frizzier hair, with some facial hair and a childlike body with no muscle mass. Usually accompanied with a quote, an example including, “Me being shocked no one wanted to talk to me when I looked like this…”, and then a sharp cut to a video of themselves in their 20s with noticeably lighter skin tone, less facial hair, a blow-out and a thin body. It’s unclear what kind of feminism this is, if not the original white feminism. To deem this a process of decolonization is deeply dishonest.

UNICEF’s Deputy Chief has described the Gaza Strip as the most dangerous place in the world to be a child, calling Israel’s assault, “a war on children”. Two months after Israel started decimating the Gaza Strip, UNICEF Ambassador, Priyanka Chopra, shared a post stating “Children need peace” on Instagram. In her role as UNICEF Ambassador, Chopra was vocal from the outset as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Two weeks into the Gaza genocide, Chopra at the Mumbai Film Festival, shared on stage with a fellow Bollywood actress, to “do activism when you can” and “to not do activism when you can’t”. It is unclear what this means outside of ‘do activism’ when it is advantageous for your career and don’t do it when it could be detrimental to it. It is easier to have empathy for such sentiment for those on minimum wage or low-income jobs with no generational wealth.

In October 2022, Vidya Krishnan wrote an article stating it was hard to imagine a feminist more disingenuous and double-dealing than Priyanka Chopra. At the time, Chopra was in “awe” of Iranian women removing their hijabs after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was brutally killed over a dress code violation. As Muslim women face similar moral policing for choosing to don the hijab in India, Chopra has chosen silence – perhaps because in this case, it would not be advantageous to her career. Krishnan was drawing attention to what she called hypocrisy in the diaspora, that while some advocate for gender equality in Western contexts, they remain complicit in or actively perpetuate oppressive practices in their home countries that harm women and minorities.

Chopra, a champion of democratic values in America, could only be described while in India as a nonofficial ‘soft’ campaigner for policies of the Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi, the incumbent Indian Prime Minister. In March 2024, Chopra unveiled a carefully curated video featuring a family excursion alongside her husband, Nick Jonas, at the recently inaugurated Ram Mandir temple in the Indian state of Ayodhya. The template was erected where a mosque, the Babri Masjid, once stood. It was destroyed by Hindu nationalist terrorists in 1992. The BJP had long promised to build a Hindu temple where the mosque once stood. It is a controversial site where thousands of Muslims were massacred. Human rights organizations have denounced Narendra Modi, a guest at Chopra and Jonas’ wedding, for his leadership resulting in the erosion of human rights, and press freedom, an increase in hateful rhetoric against India’s minorities, and preferential treatment to India’s billionaire class, all to the detriment of civil rights.

Chopra is not the sole Bollywood star to share jubilant photos alongside Modi; there are many others. A recent image of Bollywood stars posing with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has also reemerged online. While there’s clamour surrounding Donald Trump and the rise of fascist ideologies in America, South Asia presents a stark contrast with its silence punctuated by cheerful selfies, even as fascism gains ground. Taking note of Modi and the BJP’s current rhetoric on minorities amidst India’s challenging election landscape inevitably draws comparisons to the depth of animosity exhibited by the Ku Klux Klan towards Black Americans or by Nazi Germany towards Jewish minorities. It’s troubling: celebrity advocacy transcends political and social boundaries. Even when supporting right-wing conservative governments in India, Bollywood stars are celebrated as feminist icons in the United States.

Chopra entered the American market as a singer with songs such as, “Exotic”, featuring American rapper, Pitbull. The opening lines which are “Cool me down, I’m feeling so exotic”, are a trope most South Asian women are trying to curb. Chopra also had a history of selling skin-whitening creams in India and in 2014 donned facial prosthetics to amend her features to play a North East Indian minority. The actress played Olympian boxer Mary Kom who hails from the state of Manipur, a place ravaged by ethnic violence over the last twelve months. In 2014, there was mild uproar that a North East Indian was not cast as the lead and that Chopra did not deliver dialogue as the real Mary Kom would. In response, Chopra said, “We wanted everyone to see it because it is a Hindi film. We are not making a Manipuri film here.” In 2022, she admitted that the role should have gone to someone from North East India and that she was “greedy” as an actor. Stories of minorities make for compelling and profitable films, but real-life support for these same communities is lacking.

A few days after the Met Gala, an Indian-diasporic filmmaker, shared a behind-the-scenes film on social media made with Bollywood star, Alia Bhatt, for Vogue magazine. The caption explains the discomfort of sharing a Met Gala-related video knowing what was actively unravelling in Rafah at the time. This same filmmaker organized an event in New York in June of 2023 that raised awareness of eroding democracy in India under Narendra Modi. The post is conflicting, not because of the Rafah invasion, but because even “diaspora for democracy” will celebrate, promote or align themselves with those from the ruling class who are silent as genocide unfolds against minorities in their own home countries.

In Alia Bhatt’s case, actions may speak louder than words, with her presence at the inauguration of the Ram temple and her involvement in films like “Darlings” where Muslim men are depicted as violent characters contributing to existing tropes. In an era, rampant with conspiracy theories of ‘love jihad’ across India, these cinematic choices reinforce harmful stereotypes.

Comments on the post encourage to share your wins, categorizing a genocide of children as “acknowledging a loss” juxtaposing creating a video for Vogue magazine as, “a win vs a loss”. Another comment from a South Asian follower celebrated Alia Bhatt’s presence as a win for “Asian women representation”. What do these women stand for and what do they represent when they’re not on an American red carpet? When will we have an honest conversation about this? While it may be argued that burdening South Asian women with this responsibility is unjust, it’s worth noting that these same celebrities and influencers leverage diversity and the call for inclusivity and representation to advance their own status as minorities in America. Despite outwardly championing diversity, some prioritize their own interests above collective progress. For individual and independent creators who strive to succeed within a white supremacist framework, it prompts questions about the role of individual agency in decision-making and when, if not now, will we confront these discrepancies.

Pakistani Education activist turned producer, Malala Yousafzai, recently came under scrutiny for co-producing the Broadway musical, “Suffs”, with former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. Clinton, an exerciser of imperial feminism, was involved in overseeing and implementing the U.S. drone program in Pakistan, which resulted in numerous civilian casualties, including hundreds of children. While Clinton has words of affirmation to share with Barbie lead actress, Margot Robbie and director, Greta Gerwig, stating that they are both “Kenough”, she has little to say on the plight of the thousands of women in Gaza enduring C-section surgeries without anaesthesia and facing the devastating consequences of a relentless bombing campaign, supplied by her former colleagues.

Clinton boastfully declared that American students protesting against the genocide in Gaza, “Don’t know very much at all about the history of the Middle East, or, frankly, about history, in many areas of the world, including in our own country.” Maryland Democratic Senator, Chris Van Hollen, knocked Clinton’s controversial comments as “quite dismissive” stating that, “The great majority of protesters were well-informed.”

In 2022, Indian-Americans in New Jersey issued an apology for including a bulldozer in a parade commemorating 75 years of Indian independence. The bulldozer has become a symbol of anti-Muslim hatred due to its association with the demolition of numerous Muslim homes and mosques across India. The New York Times stated, “To those who understood its symbolism, it was a blunt and sinister taunt later likened to a noose or a burning cross at a Ku Klux Klan rally”. The seeds of hatred planted in India have proliferated like a malignant tumour, infiltrating corners of the globe where South Asian communities reside. The realization that Indian diasporic households are among the wealthiest in America intensifies the discomfort of reconciling this reality. The essence of ‘reaching the summit’ lies in striving to improve it, there is little cause for celebration in reaching the pinnacle only to perpetuate the same oppression.

If South Asian influencers and celebrities perpetuate harmful stereotypes about minorities in their country of origin while masquerading as progressive voices in America, what does this say about their integrity? Why do they continue to evade accountability or receive a platform? This feminism is no different to what Roa Beck described as feminism for individual gain. On April 18, 2024, Fatima Bhutto’s scathing piece for Zeteo News, “Gaza Has Exposed the Shameful Hypocrisy of Western Feminism,” not only laid bare the glaring double standards of feminism in the West but also unearthed the uncomfortable truth that much of what passes as ‘Desi girl’ feminism is merely white in disguise. Now is the time to reassess every system, institutional body, social sphere, UN Ambassadorships, and celebrity access, each that has played its role in allowing for a genocide to continue, whether in Gaza or elsewhere.

One of the key challenges facing Desi feminism and the broader South Asian diaspora is the need to reconcile conflicting identities and navigate complex power dynamics. South Asian influencers find themselves torn between asserting their cultural heritage and assimilating into Western societies, sometimes resorting to performative activism that prioritizes personal gain over collective liberation. In a reality where every part of our identity can be commodified, breaking free from a system that calls for individual power built on the toil of those lesser than you is the true process of ‘decolonization’.

Sarah Awan is a Kashmiri-Australian writer, Social Innovation Practice Fellow at the University of Cambridge and Board Member at Brooklyn-based non-profit, Girl Be Heard.