March 8 is International Women’s Day and the entire month of March is designated for Women’s History. These are in place to single out a day or a month of the year to appreciate and holla at the women in our lives or our worlds who are striving and thriving. As peeved as I may be that we need to do that instead of recognizing the power of women every day, I’ll take every opportunity I get to put them in the spotlight.
For me, a South Asian living in America, especially in the current climate, I wanted to shout out to those women who are empowering my community and my fellow women in the diaspora. These women are emboldening many by working hard to leave their imprint in various fields; whether its politics or entertainment or food or science. Desi women are here to stay and these 21 fierce inspirations are only the tip of the iceberg.
1. Sarumathi Jayaraman
Jayaraman is everything/all the goals. The current political state and administration has voiced against immigration but Jayaraman has been fighting them for a long time now. At 26, the Yale Law School graduate founded Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) to help the surviving workers of the restaurant Windows of the World, which sat atop World Trade Center until 9/11. Eventually, ROC turned into a larger organization that works with immigrant restaurant workers. Jayaraman is an important resource in fighting the wage gap afflicting the country, leading several campaigns to end it in states like California, Oregon, Nevada, Minnesota. Jayaraman, who also attended the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is clearly passionate about improving our society. She’s a leader in her own right.
2. Pramila Jayapal
Congresswoman Jayapal made history as the first Indian-American woman to join the House of Representatives. Currently serving as the U.S. Representative of Washington state’s 7th district, she is the perfect example of why America thrives as a melting pot. She moved here at age 16 from Chennai to study, attending Georgetown University and Northwestern, became a citizen in 2000, and went on to work in politics. After 9/11, she founded Hate Free Zone (now known as One Americana), an advocacy group for immigrants. In all her years working here, she’s fought for civil rights, immigrants, debt-free college, and health care. Jayapal is a motivation for women who want to create a change and to be honest, the world could use it.
3. Asha Rangappa
If you think Priyanka Chopra’s character on “Quantico” is badass, Alex Parrish ain’t got nothing on Rangappa. From 2002-2005, she worked as a special agent at the FBI from 2002-2005 at the New York City division, the first Indian-American woman to do so at the time. Her job description included counterintelligence investigations, undercover operations, assessing national security threats. In a world where you mostly see brown men and women being investigated by the FBI, Rangappa’s achievements stand out as extraordinary. She later took her talents to Yale University, where she teaches National Security Law. What I wouldn’t do to attend a class taught by her and imagine myself to be a super sleuth? For now, I’ll stick to admiring her work and watching her on CNN, where she also appears as a national security analyst.
4. Radhika Jones
I’ll be blunt: Jones has my dream job. It’s even better because she is one of the first Indian-American women to lead a large-scale magazine. She created headlines in November 2017 when it was announced that she would succeed the Graydon Carter as the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. It’s no small feat. Her previous work at Time, The New York Times, and The Paris Review makes evidence of her formative and progressive thinking, all of which she brings to VF. Her first major cover as EIC was March, featuring popular actress Jennifer Lawrence. Yet, for April 2018, she’s chosen “Master of None” breakout Lena Waithe, an openly gay African-American. Jones is here to break the usual cluster we’ve seen in magazines and I’m here for it.
5. Samhita Mukhopadhyay
It was announced in February 2018 that Mukhopadhyay would helm the now digital only Teen Vogue as its new Executive Editor. The magazine, which seemed inanely aimed at teenage girls as the title suggests, recently saw an insurgence of great work, especially after the 2016 election. Mukhopadhyay is naturally the right choice to lead this new wave. Prior to her new job, she worked as the Culture and Identities Editor at Mic, leading coverage of vital stories and movements. She’s the co-editor of the anthology “Nasty Woman: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America” and author of “Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life.”
6. Fatimah Asghar
Asghar is known for her Emmy-nominated web series “Brown Girls.” The content, which HBO is hopefully turning into a comedy, holds a mirror to our modern society and is representative of the often less representative side of the diaspora: a queer South Asian Muslim woman. Asghar took it upon herself to portray her story on the screen, much like many POC have to do (Mindy Kaling, Donald Glover, Issa Rae). For her, we’re sure this is just the beginning. Asghar is also a prolific and touring poet, her work has appeared in numerous journals. Look out for her debut poetry book, “Today We’re American,” which comes out later this year. I’m certain her truth will mesmerize you.
7. Jameela Jamil
Jamil, a model and television and radio presenter in the U.K., was fairly unknown in the U.S. when she started appearing on NBC comedy “The Good Place” in 2016. The show was an instant hit and two seasons in, continues to garner rave reviews with Jamil being the clear standout. She plays a high and mighty British-Pakistani philanthropist who is discovering what it means to be a moral human being. Off-screen, Jamil is active on social media and is known for her gutsy and outspoken attitude. On her 32nd birthday this year, she launched an online campaign called ‘I Weigh,’ pointing out the flaws in the way we view beauty. It got a strong response from women all over, who are posting images of themselves and weighing their achievements not in kilograms but with their successes. It’s the movement we’ve been waiting for.
8. Valarie Kaur
There is a lot to learn from Kaur, a remarkable lawyer and filmmaker. She’s also a pioneering voice for fellow Sikh-Americans. Her award-winning documentary “Divided We Fall,” which focuses on hate crimes after 9/11, was just the starting point. Other topics she’s covered include racial profiling, solitary confinement in prisons, immigration and mass shootings like “Oak Creek: In Memoriam,” about the 2012 shooting in a Gurudwara. Currently, she heads the Revolution Love Project that produces stories and films about these same issues Kaur is passionate about. Not to mention, she is a brilliant lawyer who has worked to fight for net neutrality. She’s a symbol of hope for the South Asian community in the U.S.
9. Shamita Dasgupta
Dasgupta is credited with co-founding MANAVI in 1985, the first organization created to help South Asian women in the diaspora who are victims of violence. After realizing that most mainstream organizations lacked the resources and interest to help these women, she worked with five others to form MANAVI in New Jersey to help these women in challenging times by providing legal aid, mental health counseling, and everything in-between. Dasgupta currently is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Law School, having previously taught at Rutgers University. She’s written four books including “A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America.” Dasgupta might just be one of the few women who, during the 80s and 90s, created her own path as an immigrant woman and has opened the doors for many of us to follow in her footsteps.
10. Samina Ali
Ali is the curator of Muslima: Muslim Women’s Arts and Voices, a virtual and global exhibition for the International Museum of Women. It gives a platform to Muslim women so they can present through their artwork their real selves, their identities, and their reality. Ali, an award-winning author, achieved fame when her first novel, “Madras on Rainy Days,” came out in 2004 and is inspired by her own life as she grew up in both, St. Paul, Minnesota and Hyderabad, India. She’s used her success to empower fellow Muslim women, co-founding Daughters of Hajar. It’s an American-Muslim feminist organization empowering the community.
11. Reshma Saujani
Saujani is perhaps best-known for founding Girls Who Code, a non-profit that seeks to give equal opportunities to women in science and close the gender pay gap in the industry. Her achievements in this field are remarkable and also much-needed. She is also the first South Asian woman to ever run for Congress. In 2013, she ran as the Democratic candidate for the New York City Public Advocate. Her life’s journey hasn’t been easy. Her family had to relocate from Uganda during the crisis in 1970. Saujani didn’t let any of that bring her down. She’s served Hilary Clinton in her 2008 campaign run for the Presidency. It’s women leading women, y’all, and Saujani is a champion in doing just that.
12. Padmasree Warrior
Pay close attention to this sentence: A desi woman software engineer who is also the CEO, the CTO, and a member of the Board of Directors at a start-up that’s developing high-performance vehicles. It sounds complicated and even too good to be true but Warrior is acing all these titles like a boss. After studying at IIT, New Delhi, she moved to the U.S. to study at Cornell. She’s worked in senior positions with big brands like Motorola and CISCO Systems. She’s also joined the board of directors at Gap Inc. and Microsoft. It’s an incredible list of accomplishments and an eye-opener to Silicon Valley honchos. Desi women can do it all, as her last name aptly suggests.
13. Indra Nooyi
The CEO and Chairwoman of PepsiCo, Nooyi is definitely one of the most well-known corporate leaders in America. Her work resume is glorious because of its success story in its truest form. She joined PepsiCo in 1994 and was named CEO in 2006. Over 20 years of hard work always pays off is the lesson to be learned. She’s been featured in several Forbes’ and Times lists over the years, has honorary degrees from reputed institutions, and is on the board of well-known brands and organizations. To put it simply: she’s a boss lady.
14. Vijaya Melnick
An Indian-American woman making strides in the field of science doesn’t seem like a novel idea yet somehow, Melnick isn’t nearly as well-known as she should be. The 80-year-old is the epitome of what a trailblazer looks like. An environmental and biological science specialist, she is a professor at the University of the District of Columbia. She was the first Vice President and then Co-President of the UN-affiliated International Health Awareness Network. She has spoken out about women’s issues related to violence and domestic abuse, the patriarchal views of society, pay gaps, living in poverty. She works as a researcher for the Smithsonian Institute, Einstein Institute, and the National Museum of American History. All in all, she is what I aspire to be in a parallel universe.
15. Monica Yunus
A Bangladeshi-American singer of the opera is no distant dream. It’s a reality thanks to Yunus. This young soprano is racking up quite a list of performances, including the New York City Opera. She graduated from Juilliard and went on to perform in “Countess in The Marriage of Figaro,” “Pamina in The Magic Flute,” amongst other operas. She’s the co-founder of Sing for Hope, a charitable organization that aims to make their art more accessible to communities in need. Oh, also, she’s the daughter of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mohammad Yunus, a social entrepreneur in Bangladesh. Yet, Yunus has carved her own path and marvelously so.
16. Anika Rahman
After her parents divorced while she was growing up in Bangladesh, Rahman said she was raised by strong-willed women and it reflects in her work. She moved to the U.S. and began pursuing international relations. It led her to work with non-profit organizations and become an executive leader in the field. She works to reform civil rights and social issues like women’s equality and reproductive rights, conservation of the environment, and global economic development. She has been a catalyst driving change by serving as a President for Ms. Foundation for Women, President of Friends for UNFPA, which supported the UN Population Fund. Her work sets quite a benchmark.
17. Maneet Chauhan
When you think of Indian-American chefs, big names like Vikas Khanna come to mind. However, Chauhan has subtly been infusing her culinary skills into the food industry. After a distinguished education in India and working with big names like Taj and Oberoi, Chauhan became the executive chef at Vermillion in Chicago. At 27! The restaurant received positive reviews and it expanded to New York City, too. Her own restaurant in Nashville, TN, Chauhan Ale and Masala House, has undeniably delicious food. Her expertise is a global mix of Indian food with America delicacies. Chauhan is a featured judge on TV reality shows like “Chopped” and “The Next Iron Chef.” Indian food is truly an art and it’s important to recognize her because she helps spread that word, that we’re more than just naan and curry.
18. Deepica Mutyala
Mutyala is quite the queen of the beauty world right now. She shot to fame when she launched her own channel, Deepicam, on YouTube. Its chock-full of expertly crafted makeup tutorials and tips. However, Mutyala took the skills she learned by working with L’oreal and Birchbox to create something unique and for the South Asian diaspora. She works hard to make beauty inclusive for all skin tones. She is the founder and CEO of Tinted, a community dedicated to highlighting (pun intended) women of all shades and races. Mutyala has made a breakthrough in an industry traditionally serving white folks only. Her very successful journey, made possible because she is openly flaunting her real self, is proof of what brown women can achieve.
19. Mindy Kaling
Yeah, okay, everyone knows Kaling by now and isn’t that a great feeling? Both her iconic TV characters, Kelly Kapoor and Mindy Lahiri, steered from the stereotypical representation of a South Asian woman we had come to see on-screen. She broke barriers with her show six-season comedy “The Mindy Project,” in which she was the lead, and which she also wrote and produced. She’s also becoming a big-screen phenomeneon with two big movies this year, “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Ocean’s 8.” Beyond that, she’s become an idol for desi woman for embracing her body and for showing her hilarious yet vulnerable self to us in both her well-received autobiographical books. Let’s not forget, Kaling is a single mom to baby Katherine Kaling and that in itself is a big desi eye-opener. Kudos are in order, all day and every day.
20. Lilly Singh
At this point, Singh is basically an online revolution that she single-handedly…handled. She is one of the early success stories of YouTube, who rose to fame with her hilarious videos. In it, she acts out not only herself but also a version of her entire family. The Indo-Canadian personality became relatable AF to viewers across the world. Since then, she’s made a documentary called “Unicorn Island,” written a book called “How To Be A Bawse,” has collaborated with big names like Priyanka Chopra, Dwayne Johnson, Gina Rodriguez and so. many. more. Yet, Singh remains grounded and humble, vlogging almost everyday for her fans and connecting with them almost daily. It’s inspiring to see her transform into this bawse mainly because she embodies the whole “if she can do it, so can I” idealism.
21. Malala Yousafzai
Yousafzai is the definition of an aspirational woman. The Pakistani activist has churned an international movement for girls education, which led her to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest in history to get it at age 17. She was shot in 2012 by a Taliban gunman to stop her burgeoning voice and activism. She survived and since then, hasn’t stopped for a second to fight for what she believes in. She wrote her best-selling biography “I am Malala,” founded the Malala Fund and is the subject of the documentary “He Named Me Malala.” She’s currently getting her bachelor’s in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford University. Yousafzai is brave and intelligent and has dedicated her life to improving education for women. I can’t wait to see more of what she does.