Every time one writes about Indian-American women’s achievements, the tendency is to focus on those whose names appear in mainstream media, national figures like former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Randhawa Haley, former PepsiCo head Indra Nooyi, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris; astronauts like Sunita Williams and the late Kalpana Chawla; in the entertainment field, Mindy Kaling, Padma Lakshmi, Mira Nair, Priyanka Chopra; authors Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai; politicians like Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington state.
There are other notable women such as State Reps. Padma Kuppa of Michigan, and Nima Kulkarni of Kentucky; Saru Jayaraman, advocate for restaurant workers, political organizers like Sayu Bhojwani of New American Leaders in New Jersey; Seema Agnani, executive director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, Mallika Dutt of Sakhi and Breakthrough, judges … the list goes on and on and to name some and not others is an injustice best avoided.
However, these are apart from the scores of Indian-American women working in every corner of this country, from the conservative free-thinker in Boulder, Colorado, to the ordained Hindu priest in greater Washington, D.C., who make an impact on American society, who push the boundaries of cultural adaptation, and broaden the horizons of communities outside their own.
There has been real change going on at the grassroots since Indians began immigrating in large numbers after the 1965 Immigration Act, and those home-makers and professional women, engaged in community activities, formed organizations, and got busy in local temples and gurdwaras; they need to be brought to the front burner as they touch the day-to-day lives of not just other women, but the families and communities that surround them.
Most exciting is the fact that they are not cut from the same cloth, nor do they adhere to the same political ideology, though a majority may be Democrats, even if not necessarily a Liberal- a sort of amalgam of tradition and modernity. Then there’s the second generation of women who have grabbed the expanding space for women in numerous fields – from space exploration, to standup comedy.
“We need to celebrate the unsung heroines,” says Ann Kalayil, founder of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute in Chicago. “Most of our community service organizations around the country are led by women. Don’t misunderstand me – we are very proud of the Indra Nooyis and Kamala Harrises, but we also need to pay tribute and honor the women who really define our community,” Kalayil said. “If we were to create a nationwide map of community organizations – they would reveal the difference Indian-American women are making to this country.”
Her views were echoed by Preeta Bansal, a pioneering woman in the Indian-American community who in 2001 became the first South Asian American to argue a case in the US Supreme Court. “It used to be there were few acceptable routes to pursue achievement, power, success. Now pursuing your passion is success.” Her unsung heroes are Sujatha Baliga, a national leader in restorative justice who works extensively with victims of child sexual abuse. “She has an unwavering commitment and is a national leader,” notes Bansal; and Pavithra Mehta who bring out a good-news portal (Daily Good), since 1999, and is the author of Infinite Vision, about the Aravind Eye Hospitals in India.
Bansal says she is also inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, the first female graduate from Bombay University, the first woman to study law at Oxford University, the first female advocate in India, and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain.
“Amazingly, we hear so much of Gandhi and Nehru qualifying as lawyers in England,” but not of Sorabji, Bansal notes, “This is a classic case of history erasing her-story.”
“She did extensive work on behalf of the purdahnashins, women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. In many cases, these women owned considerable property, yet had no access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it. It is estimated that Sorabji helped over 600 women and orphans fight legal battles, sometimes at no charge,” Bansal noted.
“These are just amazing, amazing women, connected to their souls,” says Bansal, who a former constitutional lawyer and former Solicitor General of New York State, now committed to grassroots social change.
The variety within the community of Indian-American women is significant. There are those who campaigned for President Trump, like Nilam Desai, of Boulder, Colorado, director of Free To Be Coalition which aims to promote free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses. “We are bringing forth a suite of free speech initiatives on college campuses to expand thought diversity,” she told News India Times. “I’m also putting together a free thinker’s suite of speakers. Our goal is to feature high profile speakers from both sides of a variety of hot button issues facing the country so that universities can select from them in order to feature debates on campus to help students learn how to think and not what to think…and eventually make up their own minds instead of being indoctrinated into one way of thinking.”
Where Desai is fed up of ‘political correctness,’ former Maryland State Assembly member Aruna Miller is a Liberal through and through. A civil engineer who decided to go into politics. She urges empathy with one and all, unity with the African American community without whose struggle the 1965 Immigration Act that followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, would not have been, and Indian immigrants would not have come to this country in the numbers that they did.
Miller, who lost her bid for the U.S. Congress, has not given up on public office and intends to return for another try for public office, she told this correspondent. “Even though I didn’t win, I cast a wider net with my campaign and got more people active. I owe it to every individual who believed in my campaign and to every women who wants to get into the political lane,” she asserted.
Anju Bhargava, founder of Hindu American Seva Communities, has seen the evolution of Indian-American women of successive generations over the last forty years or so. “Role models for Indian-American women, depend on the generation she belongs to and her exposure. If born here, our children will naturally have role models they can relate to here. For those born in India, they could have religious or other figures,” Bhargava says. For her, it is Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, from the Ramayana, who is an icon. “I have written about her, run a blog about her, sitayanam.com, and I see her as a woman of strngth. She chose togo into the forest, she brought up her children after her husband went into exile. As a single woman myself, I see her as a model for today’s families and what they are going through,” Bhargava says. An ordained Hindu priest, Bhargava has broken the mould in several ways, a risk and strategic business transformation management consultant, who brought up her daughter single-handedly, was part of the Obama administration’s Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She has worked to increase participation of Dharmic traditions and faiths in civic engagement, to increase and promote volunteering and interfaith collaboration.
Trump appointee Dr. Vanila (pronounced Vuh-neela) Mathur Singh, chief medical officer at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services who chairs the Congressionally created Interagency Pain Management Task Force, sees America’s unique environment as the reason Indian-American women achieve their aspirations.
“What’s amazing is that in this great country, regardless of background and gender, people who have the talent and the passion and desire, could make a difference. So it is no surprise to me that so many Indian American women have excelled in so many areas,” she told News India Times. “They are laying the pathway for the next generation.