Tanzila Ahmed

Desi Power Online

She asked me what Friendster was. I stuttered. She was a high school friend of mine, and we had met up for coffee when I went home this break. Our lives took drastically different paths since high school, and when we had gone shopping that day, I was excited to buy a braided belt and she a Dyson vacuum cleaner. She's a fourth-grade teacher now, goes to bible study every Thursday, and is a married homeowner. We are both 26. And, she asked me, "What is Friendster? What's a blog? How do you date online?"

I was floored. This alternative web world is so much a part of my daily life -- I connect with friends online, write stories online, found a place to live online and, yes, even date online. Most importantly, I have a sense of South Asian American identity because of online. In the past couple of years, I have witnessed an explosion of South Asian American youth subcultures on the web.

"We've gone through many different phases in terms of the internet," says Sumaya Kazi, co-founder of the website The DesiConnect, a new weekly e-magazine and website directed at South Asian youth. "Now we're in what's called the Participation Age; young adults are actively and without hesitation using the internet as not only a resource pool, but a tool to make change with," Kazi added.

With the advent of listserves, online communities, political blogs, we have learned that the web is a great activism tool and a great resource to national organizing. We saw this during the election 2004 with successes of viral fundraising efforts by MoveOn.org and text messaging GOTV efforts by Rock the Vote. But is web organizing of South Asian Americans different than general web organizing?

First of all, who are "Desis" exactly? They are South Asian Americans with heritage from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Bhutan and Tibet. The migration of this ethnic community into the United States increased when the immigration laws changed in the late '60s and contributed to the technical-professional wave of Desi immigrants. Our ethnic heritage, as well as the common experience of living isolated in the Diaspora, compels us to unite under a united political identity of South Asian Americans.

But how is political organizing done in this community different from others? Here I come with the stereotypes. How many brown people do you know that are IT (information technology) folks? I know, there are a lot of brown folks who are not HTML savvy -- I am one -- but there are a whole lot of South Asians who have a knack for technology.

In addition to being tech-savvy, they are young. According to U.S. Census 2000, there are 2 million Desis in the United States, and their median age is 29, making half the population a part of the youth demographic.

These youth, (time for stereotype No. 2) have a larger tendency to be college-educated, and thus have more opportunities to access the web. In addition, South Asian Americans usually don't live in borough-like neighborhoods outside of New York City; they are more scattered, making traditional community-organizing methods -- such as door-to-door communication -- less effective. Taking all of these things into consideration, one of best ways to connect and politically mobilize South Asian American youth is by using the web.

In the past few years that I've been involved with the South Asian American youth culture, I've noticed an explosion of networking uses online. There are now 412 groups for the keyword "South Asian" in the Friendster groups, 1,286 listserve groups pop up under Yahoo Groups: Shaadi.com linking Desis that want to get married. Desiclub.com links Desis that want to get wasted together, and Ratedesi.com links Desis that simply want to rate Desis on a scale of 1 to 10. We are creative, I'll give us that.

But there's also a burgeoning alternative Desi subculture that has been using the web for the betterment of our society through political action (not that marriage, clubbing and judging don't better our society).

Connecting and mobilizing on the web

One of the most common places where we see this Desi subculture unfolding is in the "Blogosphere." "Blogs are the place to be," says Abhi Tripathi, founder of SepiaMutiny.com, a South Asian cultural blog. "Bloggers can often go at a story from angles that would get mainstream media in "trouble." To be fair, without real journalists out there who are doing their jobs, most bloggers would have no material to work with. But a blog can provide you with that extra bit that a conventional news source can't."

Personal blogs talk about their experiences of being a Desi-American and can create online communities of like-minded people and stories. There are many blog sites serving the Diaspora audience, Deepak Chopra's site, or the popular DesiPundit.com.

The one that is most relevant to the South Asian American youth community is Sepia Mutiny. With 10,000 daily hits, the site is an open forum where people from the South Asian American community learn about politics, Bollywood, literature, and experiences. "If Sepia Mutiny ever lives up to its ambitions," comments Tripathi, "the people that read us will spread something they have learned on our blog to others, and they will in turn pass it on to still others. Soon there will be a lot of South Asians aware about issues that affect all of us. Then the real mutiny will begin."

The most innovative site to hit Desis by storm in 2003 was Badmash.org. It features comic strips, animations and videos to connect the South Asian American community through witty and relevant humor. Their site first exploded with peer-to-peer passing of "The Singhsons" animation. During the elections, "Amitabh Bachan for President" also created a viral storm. The rest, as they say, is history, and now their comic strip enters over 160,000 email inboxes a week, with over 40,000 visitors to the site daily.

Sanjay Shah of Badmash.org says, "We are definitely among that group of sites that is exploring how to use the internet to directly deliver entertainment to viewers without a whole lot of middle people." As far as how the site has changed the South Asian American community, Sanjay comments, "It's made them a little less productive at work, I hope."

There aren't many print magazines catering to the South Asian American diaspora (at least those not dealing with beauty), and the e-magazines that do relate to the Diaspora are mainly on the internet sites like Nirali, Samar, and others. Last fall a new weekly e-magazine hit the scene, The DesiConnect. By profiling a nonprofit and a young professional in the Desi community each week, they are networking the youth community with people and do-gooders all over the country.

"One of our goals with our magazine is to really put the spotlight on South Asians so that others are able to identify and learn more about what others like them are doing," says co-founder Sumaya Kazi, "It also highlights those individuals that step outside of South Asian "stereotypical" roles of being a doctor, lawyer and engineer." With a readership of 5,500 in the short span of six months, you know that they've hit on something hot.

"South Asian American youth have greatly benefited from the internet and specifically from this new era we live in. The agenda is now set by the youth. The youth can have an idea, act on that idea and make a world of difference," says Kazi. "By bridging other young professionals with each other, and young professionals with nonprofits, we have created a larger, stronger network of individuals that are set out to create and set the agenda in their community, country and world they live in."

Protests and marches move online

And why are online tools especially effective to engage young South Asian Americans politically? The stats are in from Harvard's Institute of Politics survey of college students. It found that this new politically active generation uses technology to further their political agenda. Namely, 36 percent have signed an online petition and 30 percent have written an email or letter advocating their position, and 18 percent have contributed to a political blog. If this doesn't prove an opportunity for a new way of bolstering political movements, I don't know what does.

Using the web to organize youth online has been especially beneficial for South Asian American Voting Youth -- the nonprofit I founded to mobilize young political voices nationally. As a virtual organization, the web helped us network within our board and with our fellows that were on the ground all across the nation. Our listserve continues to nationally disseminate information regularly on trainings, conferences and articles to youth. Our online 'Vote SAAVY' kit provided materials to run a voter campaign -- the first web resource of its kind for the Desi youth community.

In that perfect world, I would also have a SAAVY podcast of South Asian American weekly news, an online action center to send out emails to representatives at a moment's notice and an online organizing resource center mapped out regionally for trainings and leaders in that area.

So back to the friend who didn't know what Friendster was -- I couldn't explain what it was exactly. I tried -- trust me -- but it's surprising to see just how fast technology has caught up with us, and how easy it is to get behind the web craze. But I'm not running away from it, I am embracing it. I am now connected to a larger community of South Asian Americans that, in addition to reading blogs and enjoying witty humor, also want to connect with other do-gooders. Through this virtual community, I no longer feel alone. And then, to quote Abhi Tripathi, "the real mutiny will begin."

100% Indian Hair

Every time I drive down La Brea here in L.A., I always do a double take when I cross Pico. There is this huge red sign in front of a store in a strip mall that says, "100% Indian Hair." As a South Asian woman, I find this sign ridiculously strange and wonder just what exactly would happen if I walked into the store. Would they turn me away? Would they kidnap me into the back room for a hair hijacking? Should I start collecting the hair out of my drain and bring it in for some extra money to pay for grad school? What is it about my kind of hair that makes beauty shops so excited about advertising that they have "100% Indian Hair?"

I am reminded of a former African-American co-worker of mine every time I think of hair weaves. I remember the first time she told me she was getting hair extensions in her hair, how she was so excited and ecstatically told me, "I'm paying more money for my extensions because it's real human hair!"

I was mortified. "Whose human hair is it?!?!"

She thought about it for a minute. "You know, I don't know. I just know it's human hair."

I was seriously grossed out by this thought. I likened it to using old nail clippings and glueing it onto someone else's nail. You see, in the process of getting hair extensions, one gets long strands of hair, sometimes fake, some times real. These strands are then placed into people's hair to give the appearance of longer, fuller hair overnight. The hair can be braided in, glued in, sewed in, or clamped in. People pay a lot of money to get this hair placed into their own. But the thing that they don't know is where this human hair comes from.

Why Indian hair? Because our hair is the best. No, for real, that's what the research shows. Indian hair is thicker than European hair and thinner than Chinese hair. Once treated, it is less prone to breaking. The best kind of hair is long and untreated, with all the cuticles in the same direction. It is collected in plaits. Where, oh where, can you find such hair?

Well, the web research show that plaits of hair in India are cut off for weddings or offered to god at religious temples. This hair is then collected by "hair factories" that buy it for 15 rupees (25 cents) per gram. This one hair retailer based out of Chennai says, "Indian women donate their hair as an offering to their god as a sign of modesty. It is their understanding that it will be sold by the monks for a substantial sum of money that will be used to finance schools, hospitals and other publicly favored facilities."

I have some serious problems believing this. First of all, I don't remember an Indian wedding I’ve attended or a Bollywood movie I’ve seen where the hair was cut off the women. Secondly, women in India are ridiculously vain about their hair and will spend hours going through the ritual of soaking their hair in warm coconut oil and shampooing twice. A woman would have to be desperate and really in need of the 15 rupees per gram to cut her hair. Thirdly, supposing that women cut off their hair at the temple as an offering to a god. I'm not so sure that they'd be happy in knowing that their hair is really going around the world to be weaved into someone's hair for $50 a plait.

OK, here comes the speech. The thing that disturbs me about the whole hair trade is the "south corrupts the south" mentality, i.e., women of color in the United States are the ones benefiting from the exploitation of woman of color in South Asia. How can women consciously get human hair weaved into their own without knowing where the hair came from? Or that it came from the exploitation of other women of color? It's the same way people of color will go to Wal-Mart to buy their clothes without consciously thinking of the people of color who created the clothes in sweatshops. Where's the solidarity, people?

I'm all about looking good and spending the money on making that happen. I'm also totally aware that I have cream of the crop hair that is the envy of all, and whatever I say will be met with, "What do you care, you have 100 percent Indian hair." I also understand that there is a whole culture of getting hair weaves that I am not a part of, and that by telling people not to get hair weaves anymore, I am inflicting my cultural values on theirs. I get it. But I do think that, as one woman of color to another woman of color, it is important to know the truth about 100 percent human hair, that this hair was actually alive and had a life before it entered into a weave.

As for me, I'm going to start collecting the hair off my pillow and see if I can make some money with my 100 percent Indian hair.

Fighting for a Voice

saavy"Something happened last week, but I don't want to tell you about it because you'll get mad," my mother told me over the phone. My mind was reeling -- what could it be? I was a year out of college and living 3,000 miles away from my parents, working as a youth organizer in Washington, D.C. It had been a difficult adjustment, magnified by the events of 9/11, which had happened only a couple of months after I moved. But I had no clue what my mother was talking about.

"Homeland Security came to our house. They knocked on the door and asked about your cousin! They were asking all this stuff, but I just kept quiet. I don't know why they were asking about Nabil. He was born in the same hospital as you."

My mom was right -- I was pissed. For this to make a little more sense to you, let me explain about us. My parents immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh and gave birth to me soon after. Our family practices Islam. Our last name is Ahmed (which is like saying your name is Smith in this country). The reason Homeland Security singled out my straight-laced American-born cousin? His name was similar to a name on the terrorist list Homeland Security was circulating.

"You know," my mother concluded, "it doesn't matter that I got my citizenship or live and work here. I will always feel like a second-class citizen."

That broke my heart. Here I was an activist in the nation's capital, where my job was to empower young people to have a political voice, yet my people's voices were not being represented. There are over 2 million South Asians in the United States, and all of them felt some impact from the post-9/11 backlash. My family stopped going to the mosque, a friend of mine stopped wearing her head covering and all my South Asian friends were too scared to call their representatives to bring to light how these issues were affecting them.

I felt that if the South Asian community had been able to unite and represent their power in a political voice, we could have avoided the wrath of the Patriot Act. As a youth, a Muslim and a South Asian American, I was tired of being ignored and knew that things had to change by the 2004 elections.

There was only one solution I had to address this problem: organize. It's what I've been doing for the important years of my life. In junior high, I organized school dances; in high school, I organized campus rallies; and in college, I organized voter-registration drives. I've been involved in the youth voting movement for the past four years, and it's the most effective way I know how to organize and to create a united voice.

There are two things that the people in power pay attention to: the power of money and the power of the vote. Since we don't have the money, we need to do everything possible to influence our power of the vote.

In my eyes, youth voting isn't just about getting more voters to the poll. It's about shifting the political paradigm that stifles our voices from being heard. It's about educating, organizing and mobilizing to create a united voice and increase political participation as well as civic engagement. My research showed there was nobody doing this for South Asian American youth, and I saw a niche that needed to be filled. More importantly, I saw that my voice, as a South Asian Muslim woman, was not being heard, and I was tired of being ignored.

So I did some research about first-generation South Asian youth in America. I learned that South Asian Americans have ancestry in the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives. I read books like The Karma of Brown Folk and Born Confused. I talked to cool South Asian organizations such as Indian American Leadership Initiative and South Asian Network, and I talked to young activists who were excited that someone wanted to help them organize more effectively.

I learned that there is a new generation of American-born South Asians in this country, and this mass of youth has just reached voting age. The 1970s immigration boom led to a South Asian American baby boom, which has led to the biggest generation of South Asian American youth in this country to date. I also learned that this generation of American-born South Asians felt very disconnected from all the surrounding movements, and if we could mobilize them to get involved politically, we had the potential to be very strong. With the post-9/11 strategy in play, we have the potential of harnessing the emotions in the South Asian movement in a very progressive way.

I knew that to make an impact in time for the 2004 elections, I had to start mobilizing quickly. I took the biggest risk of my life and quit my job to move back to Los Angeles -- my hometown -- to pursue this dream. I don't really understand why I took such a giant risk for something I believe in. I can say that if I hadn't had my past experiences and seen as much as I had, I probably wouldn't have taken the risk I did. My office is my parents' kitchen, and my computer is whatever is available at the local public library. I have been pretty nervous. After all, what 24-year-old college graduate moves back home to live with her parents?

South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY) is the name of the new nonprofit organization I am creating to address these issues. The mission is to empower South Asian American youth to be a unified voice and create a voting bloc that will push our issues to the forefront of American politics. We will do this by educating, organizing and mobilizing South Asian youth to create a national united progressive voice and to increase political participation. The goal is to train South Asian American youth leaders in political organizing skills and mobilize them to run electoral campaigns in their communities. SAAVY's core is built upon the importance of training youth -- after all, most youth have the skills they need to organize, training just confirms skills and instills a process. We hope to train 300 young leaders and have an impact on 20 South Asian communities across the nation in time for the 2004 elections.

I understand the social justice movement is an uphill battle, and even more so for new immigrant communities. I also know that I want to live in a world where hate crimes are documented, racial profiling is annihilated and freedom of religion is true. I want to live in a world where the South Asian community can call their representatives without fear of the FBI tracking them, and where politicians start addressing the issues important to South Asians. Call me hopeful, but I think SAAVY can make a small dent in social injustice. I challenge you to do the same.

If joining the SAAVY fight is something you'd be interested in, please check out www.saavy.org and email taz@saavy.org.

Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed graduated from the University of Southern California and has been an organizer in the youth environmental movement for four years. She is currently the Executive Director of South Asian American Voting Youth and is working to get the organization off the ground.
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