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Edition #7
Flames and Storms
Sanobar Sabah
Edited by Faustas Norvaisa

Brown women reclaiming their space through art

TW: Mention of suicide. 


I gravitated towards writing personal essays soon after my father passed away last year. We had just completed his funeral proceedings, and I was still in the aircraft on my return flight from Mumbai to Abu Dhabi when I randomly signed up for a memoir-writing workshop by Natasha Badhwar. Until then, I had no idea what writing personal essays entailed.  


It’s been a year since that last workshop. Even though I come from a reserved, if not a shy, family, I wrote essay after essay revealing a gamut of my complex emotions - fears and ambitions, anxiety and desires, hopes and dreams. Not only did I write, I decided to go public with my writings. 


The more I indulged in writing, the more I discovered bits of me that were covered underneath multiple layers.


Because of the socio-cultural challenges brown women still face today, I learned that sharing our stories - whatever art form we adopt - is difficult. One is constantly worried about what people will think of you and how it will affect your relationships - in a society where female expression even within their own homes can be quite intimidating for many, how does choosing art to challenge female representation publicly affect you and others around you? For many, sharing their stories with honesty remains a dangerous threat even today.


Intrigued by the transformation writing enabled in my life, I decided to write for the 7th edition of Journal D’Ambroisie about brown women using art to reclaim their space. I interviewed three South Asian women, wizards challenging patriarchy, gender bias and stereotypes wielding their artistic skills like magic. Natasha Badhwar, memoirist, author, columnist, filmmaker, and a teacher. Mahima Vashisht, creator of Womaning in India (an umbrella brand that includes a newsletter, a podcast and a series of gender sensitivity workshops) and, Namal Siddiqui, writer, poet, mountaineer.   



















Left to Right : Natasha, Mahima, Namal ,

Question 1

How do you see the rise of brown women using storytelling to reclaim their space? 


Natasha: I do believe we are living in the age of memoir. Despite the backlash against women, despite the rise of authoritarianism at a global scale, more and more artists are speaking up – both to tell their own stories and in solidarity with each other. I love it.


Mahima: I think women have always been storytellers – with stories that grandmothers told children, and stories that sisters and friends whispered to one another – it has always been happening. Among all the other caregiving and invisible household burdens that women have shouldered forever, they are also the ones who chronicling family histories. 


I feel fortunate to be alive at a time when this storytelling is making its inevitable foray beyond the four walls of the family home. But I also see that there is also a long way to go.  A majority of women are still suffering in silence within their own families - the rise in incidents of domestic abuse around the world shows that our worst nightmares often live inside our homes.   


Namal: We must speak. We must tell our stories. Women have traditionally been marginalised in the literary world. Then to be of colour has its own challenges. Of course, things are changing, but fundamental shifts take place when change is constant. The more we tell our stories, the less it becomes an anomaly, less of a riot, and more of a conversation to be had. We must take ourselves seriously. We must give ourselves due credit. We must not be afraid of not being nice all the time. We must be opportunistic. There is nothing to be shy about any of that.


Question 2

What does writing mean to you?  


Natasha: I’ve always relied on being able to find meaning and joy in stories - both real and imaginary. Writing is my way of solving mysteries. I am a busy detective, forever trying to map my neurodivergent ways to make sense of what is natural for me and embrace my most authentic self.


Mahima: My discomfort with gender-based injustices used to be a very impotent kind of anger with nowhere to go, and, therefore, it just constantly burnt me on the inside.Writing Womaning in India, for me, has been a way to channel my anger in a productive direction. The tangible positive change I see happening because of my writing is a brilliant bonus! I received an email from a father who said his teenage daughter reads every edition of Womaning in India and then involves her family to discuss how they can implement positive changes in their day-to-day lives. Separately, another regular reader - a divorcee - once sent me an email saying how one of my pieces on society making excuses for male ‘incompetence’ when it comes to domestic responsibilities would have perhaps saved his marriage had he read it earlier. He added that he is determined that his children will grow up knowing better. 

Such messages make me confident that writing is one of the most meaningful things I have done in my life.


Namal: I have been writing poems since I was seven or eight. I inherited the love for writing from my parents, especially my mother. I was able to finesse it with young love’s innocence during teenage years. Whatever phase of life I was in, my poems always accompanied me. I found myself sharing poetry on a common platform with poetry lovers, and when you share and laugh with people eye to eye, word to word, words that you have written and are somehow making someone else laugh or cry, you know that you’re being heard. That there is a kind and tender place in the world. 

Question 3

How has your family responded to your passion for storytelling? What about the men in your family? 


Natasha: My husband is my greatest champion. He is an odd, unpredictable, and deeply loving man, so I am not going to try to analyse this further. For my children, my memoir writing and documenting the moments of our life is an intrinsic part of our family life. They approve of me, so long as I stay busy and happy with myself.


Mahima: I want to add an honourable mention here for my father-in-law. I write routinely about my marriage and the gender roles we unwittingly fall into, especially as we tackle parenthood. My father-in-law reads almost everything I write. I used to wonder how he felt about some of these things I write, particularly about my marriage to his son. But last year, when I launched paid subscriptions for my newsletter, he became one of my first paid subscribers! 


My husband also reads everything I write. He is very proud of my  work and is a rock of support for my writing. My son is too young to really understand what I write, but he loves what I do. He talks about becoming a writer himself. 


Namal: I have been lucky because the women in my family are a force to reckon with; my mother's tenacious will and my father's gentle nature. There was a willingness to understand their children as opposed to conforming to society’s expectations. We were raised through the lens of independence - individual independence, the ability to reason, to make decisions - not just financially - and everyone was willing to learn and move on from redundant habits. It is a work in progress, but having a supportive family helps. 


Question 4

What do you think of ageism against women? 


Natasha: I was 36 when I quit my full-time job with NDTV, which was India’s premier news broadcaster at that time. I worked there for 13 adventurous and very satisfying years. I had a nice official designation and a great salary package, but I needed to grow as a person. I owed it to myself and my very young children at that time to use my time better. It was not an easy decision at all. I stepped out of my comfort zone and felt like I was starting from scratch all over again… but I learnt a lot about myself. I grew into myself, in a sense. 


Mahima: Ageism in the case of women is a very different beast from that against men. Women are expected to retreat into insignificance as they age. A 60-year-old man marrying or dating a 25-year-old woman is called a "silver fox.” But, a woman like Priyanka Chopra marrying a man ten years younger than her… had half the world up in her arms with the need to deal with their age difference. 


Then there is ample evidence that medical science takes the able-bodied male as the default and, therefore, very little research exists about conditions specific to women like endometriosis and perimenopause - while we have spent billions of dollars researching and developing Viagra. 


Namal: I have met a 60-year-old woman climbing Kilimanjaro and a 65-year-old woman climbing Mount Kazbek. I met a 71-year-old woman pursuing her Masters after her husband passed away. I am 35, unmarried, childless, pursuing my passion, and trying to make a difference in my own way, and I have no qualms about it.


Question 5

Your take on the term, ‘brown women’?


Natasha: I don’t bother to use the words “brown women” or even “women of colour”. I’d rather not be privileged by the colour of skin as an identity marker. But I can’t be bothered to feel offended by these terms either. I understand the context in which terms like these have been coined. 


Mahima: I have no problem being called a brown woman – regardless of my actual skin colour being lighter or darker than brown – because I see it as more of cultural identifier than an exact skin shade. I see nothing but internalised racism amongst South Asians in this squabble over being identified as your exact shade on the skin shade card - ranging from ‘fair’ to ‘wheatish’. 


I will be the happiest person when we are able to talk about people without labels. But for that, we first need to focus on building a world where these accidents of birth – our race, religion, gender, skin colour – stop controlling the stories of our lives quite as much.

Sadly, we are not yet living in a world where the colour of our skin has no bearing on our life experiences.



I’ve written about the colour brown - its resilience and its beauty. I don’t care for labels. Human beings are identified by their obvious features. They shouldn’t be judged by them.


Question 6

Your take on the term, ‘superwoman’?


Natasha: Well, I do believe in my superpowers. Like I said, I don’t care for labels. Only for individual agency.


Idolising women's sacrifices is a subtle form of abuse. In my opinion, these terms are used to fool women into a false sense of pride at being abused. I think being ‘super’ at anything needs to be a choice. But in the case of women, especially mothers, there is simply no choice but to be ‘super’ at the job - because no one else will do it if you don’t and to me, that is domestic abuse. Let us stop sugarcoating it. 


Namal: We will always be given labels. It is we who need to decide who we want to be - super or not. What’s important is we are able to decide for ourselves without any pressure and be able to take a step back from the same decision, if needed. 



A very integral part of art for any artist is that it helps you connect with your own roots. A wide spectrum of emotions from joy to grief are intricately woven in one’s works. This is particularly more striking for the closed South Asian communities.    


The Juggernaut, a New York based media publication for the South Asians with over 300,000 followers on Instagram recently reported: 


“About a decade ago, South Asians in the U.S. had a greater stigma toward mental illness than any other minority group, according to the non-profit South Asian Public Health Association, while an international study from 2019 reflected that South Asian immigrants experience high rates of mental health disorders that go unaddressed.”


Pushing the envelope of cultural stigmas in her memoirs, Natasha compassionately yet objectively creates a safe space for a dialogue on  issues like intergenerational trauma: without judgement. In her debut memoir, My Daughters’ Mum, she boldly addresses suicide and therapy based on her personal experience.  


One wonders about the courage needed to go so public about an experience that is private. “What is private about feeling suicidal or attempting suicide? Can there be a more public way to express one’s despair?” Natasha objects. “I speak and write about depression, anxiety, grief and dissonance so that I can triumph over them. So that I can pass on energy and hope to others who may be struggling without support. I will call out the toxic ways of society, family and political systems instead of allowing them to defeat the sensitive and just amongst us,” she declares defiantly. 


Writing makes you probe, rewarding you with crystal clarity. Additionally, one of the common revelations of a writer's experience is that writing helps one come to terms with their own sense of belonging. In an increasingly globalised world, the idea of ‘home’ is ever- evolving. Through her Spoken Word performances, Namal, a Dubai-based Pakistani artist and a third culture kid herself, has consistently flirted with the question - ‘Where are you from?’ 


Challenging the dated homogeneous idea of ‘home’ Namal points out, “Home is my ability to write and love the way I would like to. The UAE is a friend who grew older with me and offered me a space to be myself. It was only natural for me to reach out and share what is dear to me, what nourishes me - my poetry. It is my way to claim my space here.”


….And, many of us will agree, writing is indeed our home. 



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