It was back in August 2020 when Melbourne's Daizy Maan and Sehar Gupta launched the Australian South Asian Centre (ASAC). As the world grappled with the unprecedented COVID-19 lockdowns, community and connection was more important than ever. Not only does the organisation provide a space where brown women can come together to speak about issues that they're passionate about, but it's also a platform to elevate the creative, social and career pursuits of South Asian women.
Representation may have become a buzzword in recent years, but it doesn't negate the fact that visibility and authentic representation of brown women in media, executive boardrooms and government is still significantly lacking.
"I was constantly observing the lack of representation of South Asian women, but not only that – the lack of values-aligned representation across creative and entrepreneurial spaces," Maan tells Draw Your Box of her decision to launch ASAC.
"At the same time, I travelled to London and witnessed a thriving grassroots multicultural hub of artists, founders and activists which made me want to move there – so instead I started something here in Australia."
ASAC's marketing manager Reshma Madhi, is a British South Asian woman who relocated to Australia earlier this year from Aotearoa (New Zealand). A longing to "connect with like-minded South Asians" drove her to being involved with ASAC.
"Community and connection are so important – that's universal and can potentially (ideally) cross gender and race/ethnicity lines," says Madhi. "Having said that, with what ASAC provides, it's a safe space. A place to belong, talk openly, feel you can be yourself, share experiences and support one another.
"That's important anywhere, but in Australia with the migration being fairly recent still, that becomes crucial too — to have those safe, supportive, freeing spaces — to find those that just 'get you', to come together and learn from one another and unite through our diverse yet shared experiences and identities."
ASAC's community manager Rumali Kularatne similarly moved to Australia in 2016. While she initially found a "great group of South Asian friends who made the transition of living away from my family easier", it was more difficult after graduation.
"When I moved to Australia to study, I found myself in a group of South Asian international students, which made settling in a new country much easier," says Kularatne.
"However, once I graduated from university, most of these friends moved back overseas or interstate, and I started to notice a lack of South Asian people in my personal and professional networks. In 2021, I found myself losing connection to my South Asian community, and with that came a sense of inexplicable loneliness.
"I grappled with confusion about my cultural identity in an Australian context, and the absence of a community to celebrate cultural festivities left me with a sense of grief. The worry of not being able to pass on the richness of my Sri Lankan heritage to my future children weighed heavily on my mind."
After attending a Brown Women Comedy show earlier this year, Kularatne learnt more about ASAC and began volunteering, labelling the move "one of the best decisions I have made this year!"
ASAC is hosting the 2023 Australia’s Stellar South Asian Women Awards on November 29, with the theme for the night being, "It takes a village".
As co-curator of the awards, Zenia Vasaiwalla says the theme was derived from this idea of community and collaboration, where "we are not able to achieve anything without it, and our achievement means nothing without it".
"I really want people to think about this when thinking about the theme," says Vasaiwalla. "Who is in your village, how have they nourished you and how do you contribute? How does contribution strengthen your own sense of self and ideas of being loved and giving love? And what power has this love had in your life?
"When we think more deeply about this, it is so clear that community amongst people who are like us and have similar experiences as us is so vital to being able to thrive in spaces which otherwise might not nourish us. I process through community, I heal through community, I learn through community, I dream and envision new possibilities through community, and so on."
Keeping with the theme, we asked Maan, Madhi and Vasaiwalla who their brown women role models are. As you take a look at the answers below, remember that the concept of acknowledging 'it takes a village' is timeless. We can only continue to grow ourselves and the community when we come together.
Who are your brown female role models?
Leila Janah (Social Entrepreneur), Valarie Kaur (Author of See No Stranger) and Priya Parker (Author of The Art of Gathering).
My best friends (Sreshta, Shreya, Nidhi) – they move through the world with grace, rage, care, awareness and wisdom. They know how much I love them.
Firstly, my mother. I know today the courage and strength it would have taken to let me go against the grain and pursue the future I wanted even when she did not entirely agree with my decisions. Secondly, Daizy! A woman whose sense of purpose and drive is infectious, someone who can re-energise you in a conversation. I'm very grateful for the opportunities I have gained in the few months I have been with ASAC. I consider it an absolute privilege to be part of Daizy's continuing work with and for our communities.
My late mum for her business sense and bubbly personality – I miss her – alongside her that same generation that came before me and the sacrifices they all made.
Sapna Samant – a GP and filmmaker based in Aotearoa NZ for her values, support and how she stands firmly in her truth. Brown Girl Mag UK editor Sejal Sehmi – the work she does and opportunities she provided when I worked for her. Nahrein Kemp (currently Creative Diversity Partner at ITV) for opening doors for me in TV/film. Of the current generation, I really look up to Daizy Maan – her leadership, energy, what she's achieved so far and what she stands for.