The sisterhood of South Asian women FIGHTING BACK: Sangeeta Pillai
SANGEETA PILLAI’S SOUL SUTRAS TACKLES CULTURAL TABOOS
by MITA MISTRY
THERE are negative aspects of social media, but it has also been a force for good by providing a space for women from diverse backgrounds to come together and connect with a common interest, including private forums.
One group that has been growing in popularity is Soul Sutras, which is a feminist network that tackles taboos within cultures head on.
Soul Sutras is the brainchild of London-based Sangeeta Pillai, who grew up in a Mumbai slum and used her experiences to create something that brings together women globally.
“I was the first girl in my (traditional) family from Kerala to ever have a job. I had to fight for everything – from the right to cut my hair short to not having an arranged marriage. Like so many other South Asian women, I grew up surrounded by shame and taboo – particularly, shame around my body, my sexual self, periods and the list was exhausting.
So I have experienced the damage that is done by taboos in our culture,” explained Sangeeta Pillai.
With Soul Sutras she wanted to create safe spaces for South Asian women to tell their stories, express their pain, connect with each other and explore common cultural identities, as well as tackle taboos.
“I wanted to create that space not just to tackle taboos around sex and sexuality, but around getting our periods, growing up, sexual harassment, mental health and much more. I’m hoping that young South Asian girls can see the work we do and no longer feel that sense of shame or taboo that I felt growing up.”
She has combined the Soul Sutras work with her award-winning Masala Podcast, live events and theatre project Masala Monologues.
The activist and writer, who has worked in the advertising space in India, Singapore and the UK, wants Soul Sutras to be a safe space for South Asian women to express themselves openly. “The magic happens when we open up, share and connect. We realise that we’re all fighting similar battles, that we all feel alone, but we’re really not. Once we start sharing our stories, the sense of sisterhood and support we get from each other is everything.”
Sangeeta believes South Asian women need an even louder voice because cultural demands have kept them quiet for too long and programmed them to not question anything. She says this has brought untold suffering and intergenerational trauma.
“We need to give ourselves space to tell our stories; stories about our lives, told from our unique cultural point of view. There have been no spaces for South Asian women to talk about taboos like sex, sexuality, periods or mental health openly. Certainly not in the culture we come from nor in modern British or American cultures where we’re either seen as asexual creatures or fetishised. Now’s the time to change that, with so many international movements like Me Too changing the dynamics of patriarchy. Now’s the time to be loud and proud South Asian women.”
www.soulsutras.co.uk and Twitter: @Soul_Sutras, Instagram: @soulsutras,
ADVICE TO MY YOUNGER SELF
SANGEETA PILLAI asked some Soul Sutras contributors what advice they would give their younger selves.
Ambica G: “Don’t stop speaking your mind. Don’t bow to emotional blackmail. Take chances, it’s okay if you fail. It’s no big deal if you are tagged with ‘a reputation’ because having that ‘tag’ is better than being stamped as ‘socially approved’.”
Savraj Kaur: “Put your goals in a frame on the wall, seeing is achieving. And no person should change the doors you want to open. Stay aware of what flutters your senses, stay excited about your purest decisions and overcome your shyness to meet those you admire. You are everything that you need.”
Bolly Ditz Dolly: “You never needed to be ‘that girl’ and you stayed weird and wonderful. You met hate at every corner, but forgot that people only hate what they don’t understand. Here’s a hug for the time they screamed ‘beast’ and you screamed ‘I’m a beautiful mess’ – maybe you were ahead of your time. You will prove that you don’t need to be educated or ‘housewife material’ to be listened to. Education never stops at certificates, you validate your world by speaking your truth and there’s no brick, stone or words that will shake that.”
Jaskaran Sahota: “Young Jaskaran, there is so much that you have no choice about inheriting from your family; genes, a history of colonialism and migration. These things will inevitably form part of your identity. But you can choose your value system, where you exercise your boundaries and your views on gender roles. You can choose to deconstruct and reconstruct who you want to become. Be bold, be brave, be brilliant.”
Anuradha Gupta: “Be you at all times. Do not worry about being liked or not liked. In the end, it does not matter what the world thinks of you; only what you think of yourself. Be happy. However bad things get, there is always something to be happy about. Live fully everyday. Life is fleeting. You are more beautiful, strong, brave and loving than you think.”
Jane Cheliah: “I wish I had been told that independent thought was the biggest gift that I could give myself. Critical thinking, critical questioning and an analytical thought process is what will help you develop your individuality. The Asian culture teaches us to be, largely, conformists. Rather than living by what I couldn’t do, my advice to my younger self would be to, ‘live by what you can and want to do’.”
Rittika Dasgupta: “If I could turn back time, I would ask my biology teacher at school to teach us the chapter on reproduction that she skipped. It’s important that teenagers in India are taught how not having a period could imply having serious health issues, and there is zero shame about being a woman on her periods and just kissing someone from the opposite gender does not make you pregnant.”
Tina Mistry: “The advice I would give to my younger self is don’t rush your life even though people are rushing you. Listen to your instinct because she is right, she is right for you, not anyone else. Read, learn and be with people that inspire and open your eyes, not close them.”