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Roots with South Asian Today: On Kamala Harris, Islamophobia and Bangladeshi Grassroots

Season 01, Episode 04 with Sharmin Hossain

In the fourth episode of Roots with South Asian Today, we speak with Bangladeshi-American Muslim organiser and artist, Sharmin Hossain. Sharmin is the political director at Ambedkarite organisation, Equality Labs, and the co-founder of Bangladeshi Feminist Collective.

We dig deep into US elections, Kamala Harris, Islamophobia among South Asians and how grassroots organising needs to grow now more than ever.




Welcome to Roots with South Asian Today where we bring you diverse, progressive and brave South Asian voices from across the globe. today. I'm so excited. And more than that, honoured to be speaking with Sharmin Hossain. Sharmin is a Bangladeshi American Muslim organizer and artists from Queens, New York. She's also the political director at one of our favorite organizations, Equality Labs, Jai Bhim into that, and also the co-founder of the Bangladeshi feminist collective, we will be talking about the US Islamophobia, and how South Asians can organize to create change. Thank you so much for joining me, Sharmin. It's a pleasure to have you.




Thank you so much for having me, Dilpreet. I'm excited to go deep with you.




Me too. Well, on that note, let's start with the US elections, shall we? Trump has been defeated, even though with scarily minimal margin. And we have Kamala Harris who was being celebrated because she's the first Black and South Asian woman to take the second-most top job in the country. Her identity is being talked about more than her policies here. So I would love to know, what are some of your thoughts as a Muslim woman in the US on this transition of power? Are you happy? Are you proud? Or are you sceptical about fundamental changes?




Yeah, yeah, I think, you know, we saw that beating Trump was a multi-racial, multifaceted struggle that involved some of the most vulnerable populations across this country, primarily Black folks and young folks. And that means that millions of people came out to vote really shifts the conversation around this country and the priorities that even those that haven't benefited from the electoral system, are participating in democracy in new ways.
There was a lot on the line this election. And I think we all were united against Trump for a very strong, multi-racial coalition that was talking about the issues that were most near and dear to the communities most impacted. So in one way, I definitely was really excited to defeat Trump. And now that we are almost about a month out, we are watching Biden's appointments. And we are seeing that he has not even waited to show his true colours as an establishment Democrat. He has some of the most problematic folks across multiple weapons, manufacturing industries, ice industries, being promoted in his cabinet. And his administration raises a lot of questions for folks on the ground. And, you know, there was obviously different facets of our movement that talked about it differently, right.
There were people that wanted to hold Biden's feet to the fire, right to talk about moving him left. And then there were those pragmatic realists that saw eight years under Obama, right. And we saw what was possible with our first black president and what didn't happen under our first black president. So you know, I think looking into it, most of the organizers that have done this work for decades, know that politicians and elected will not save us, you know, and we know that this country, in particular, has a very deep commitment to the police, the military, and the industries of capitalism, that are going to take a long term strategy to defeat. So you know, in many ways, I am pragmatic, but I'm also trying to be hopeful, right, because Mariame Kaba taught me that, like, hope is a discipline. And if I as a frontline organizer, I'm not practising different ways of organizing within and outside the electoral system, I won't be able to bring material changes to my community's life because that's what we need right now.


Hmm, absolutely. So you mentioned the police. And we are aware of Kamala Harris's background as a prosecutor and some of the problematic decisions she has taken when she was in power. Does it bother you that people have sort of forgotten her work as a government official and are only focusing on her identity? Is that something that as a frontline organizer that doesn't settle well with you or did you just see it coming?




Yeah, you know, I think it's both and situation for many of us. So many South Asian people and Black folks have not been in positions of power historically in this country. And so when an elder Black woman is celebrating Kamala Harris, you know, I'm never going to be like, how dare you celebrate this right? I think, for her, and within her generation, this represents something meaningful to her. se And I know the underlying representation is actually policies and the way we embody our politics. So for many of us that are sceptical of identity and representation being a win, we have always talked about the limitations of identity being the angle under which we look at success in this imperialist country, right. So I think, you know, there's so many ways in which I've seen, for example, Indian uncles and Aunties, and people from the Bangladeshi community talk about this differently, because there is a South Asian in the picture now. And there are so many South Asians that have anti-caste organizing experience, and folks that are working diligently on the frontlines to talk about caste apartheid, who are bringing up her identity as a Tamil Brahmin. So I think questions are reappearing on the surface in different ways. And I see people, depending on how you move through the world, whether you are, you know, a full-time worker at, you know, a low wage job versus like being a movement organizer, you know, talking about it differently. And, you know, I feel like for many of us, being in the room is a success. And then for many other people, what you do in the room is actually the conversation we need to have.




Right, right, absolutely. So that brings me to a question where I would love to discuss multiple identities with you. You are a Muslim, South Asian woman. And as among South Asian communities, we've been seeing growing Islamophobia for a lot of years now. And as someone who hails from India, I can definitely see a huge shift after 2014 when Prime Minister Modi got elected to power, the kind of media narrative that has been following the Muslim communities in India is much, much worse. How do you navigate your Muslim identity along with your South Asian identity, given the growing Islamophobia in the community?




Yeah, yeah, you know, I was very lucky to grow up in Queens, New York, which is one of the most diverse places in the world. So I grew up with actually, my first interactions with white people was in school. I grew up in a multi-ethnic, diverse community of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepali folks, that all look like me. 
So the first time I was faced with Islamophobia was my third grade teacher who said that I had a stupid thing on my head because I used to wear hijab. So you know, I had always known that I was going to be perceived as a dark-skinned Muslim woman wherever I went. I was visibly Muslim growing up. And, you know, we saw a rise of hate crimes happening in Queens against Bangladeshi Muslims, particularly, and, you know, a few Hindus that have been attacked by folks that were Islamophobic. 
So we did the interlocking of identities where South Asian folks were being targeted, either because they were perceived to be Muslim, or because, you know, there was anti-immigrant hatred. So, I always saw my identity as like a Muslim South Asian woman, having an analysis of what it means to really talk about imperialism and the war on terror and the impact of surveillance on Muslim communities. Because in Queens, we saw an uptick of FBI surveillance, we saw an uptick of informants that were infiltrating MSAs, which are Muslim Student Associations. We even saw entrapment of different Muslim young people are really a prominent case was of Shifa Sadequee, who is a Bangladeshi Muslim man that was abducted by the FBI in Bangladesh during his wedding. And those stories were things that I grew up with, you know, that it wasn't just that I was Muslim, right? There was an added layer of South Asians who were being targeted by surveillance programs like the NSEERS registration program and Countering Violent Extremism money. So all of these programs were things that were specifically targeted to South Asian, Muslim communities. 
And you know, across the country, we saw Somali folks and Minneapolis fighting against surveillance technology, and other communities standing up again. against the state. So, you know, I have always experienced, like being a Muslim, South Asian New Yorker, as this matrix of which issues do we think are the most important? You know, like, at the time, you know, there was like, while, you know, Islamophobic hate crimes were rising, there was also this ongoing crisis of Bangladeshi street vendors being attacked by the NYPD, right, there was also an ongoing crisis of undocumented workers not being given their rights in New York State. So all of these struggles are really important to be intersectional around because for some reason, I'm sure because you know, the powers that be benefit from this, our issues are siloed. And it's seen that like worker justice isn't seen as racial justice. And that Islamophobia is somehow not correlated to the ways that the state funds, different anti-terrorism programs, right. So all of these things are deeply interconnected. And I think defund the police demand, for example, really sheds light on infrastructure and communities of care that are centred around these values of fighting against surveillance, policing, racism and violence.




So what are some of the ways that say non-Muslim South Asians can organize in order to live in a world where there's less and less and less of biases like Islamophobia?




Yeah, I think so, Islamophobia exists interpersonally, institutionally, in ways that we have to be able to study the way that state surveillance and technologies have infiltrated our communities. And so I grew up in the movement, a lot of people were just unaware of the levels of the war on terror. 
Many people knew that we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. But many people didn't know about the levels under which communities were being deported. Or they were choosing to self-deport, or the ways in which entrapment and surveillance just became the norm for Muslim American young people. So for many of my friends that I grew up with like I had to be the political educator around what is the Islamophobic Empire? And how, how vast is it? And so for many allies, I feel like understanding the ways in which Muslim communities are actually not a monolith. Right, that there are class, caste, gender hierarchies that are really important to, to siphon through, study and look at in order to understand the difference, for example, of a Rohingya community that's settling in Detroit, versus a Sylheti community that lives in the Bronx, you know, and those types of ethnolinguistic differences are so important to understand because, for many South Asians, especially those of us, like my family, that have survived genocide, we don't ever get to have the understanding and a critical analysis of the issues that our communities face, because of Indian hegemony, because of dominant caste hegemony, it has become so that our stories and our political histories are invisibilized, and then those that are in the academy, get to write books about the lived experience of poor undocumented workers becoming literate in our issues is one big thing. And I think South Asian working-class organizing specifically in New York is an example that should be followed. 
We have some of the strongest Bangladeshi and Pakistani worker organizers in New York City, you know, Desi Rising Up and Moving is a phenomenal organization that's led and founded by members that are workers that are committed to tackling issues from militarism, all the way to worker justice. The other organization that I really learned from growing up was Andolan. Domestic workers that were trafficked and exploited by their employers organized against their employers. And they won some of the largest lawsuits for domestic workers. They also wrote domestic workers, Bill of Rights, right. So these wins are things that I think we as like a community need to look at for examples of like, what is a liberatory politic for South Asians to engage in that isn't performative activism, what is a type of activism that actually shifts the relationships of power and wins material goods for communities that are losing their jobs, their food security, as well as their livelihoods, you know. So I also like, you know, worker justice issues, like evictions, rent, cancellations, those are all issues that we need to be mobilizing around because those are the issues that impact our communities the most.




you know that is so interesting to me, because the way you're picturing New York to me sounds like New Delhi, for example, you know, the stomping ground of activism. So that really takes me to a very important question, which is, how can South Asian diaspora media push the conversation because as a journalist who didn't grow up in the West but now works in the West, I see a lot of, you know, Bindi-only feminism in South Asian media, like a lot of romanticization of cultures, but dead silence is on the issues of biases. So how do we navigate this? And how do you think the media can do better?




Yeah, I love that question. Because I think there is an emphasis sometimes of like telling our story as the way forward all the time. And for many workers and people who are actually heavily surveilled, telling our story isn't always liberatory there are so many people that actually feel like media attention serves an organizing purpose. And that purpose must be straightforward to attack the powers that be in order to get the goods. So for me expos, for example, are really helpful. And I think Rashmee Kumar at the Intercept did an amazing job with her series, like really tackling the ways that diaspora and right-wing networks operate in this country. And those types of exposes allow the story to be about the people who committed harm, and the people who continue to consolidate power, wealth and resources in order to subjugate our communities. And so for me, like the media must serve as a voice for movement workers to really amplify and also mitigate some of the issues that we have when we're trying to attack a target. 
So let's say we're trying to organize against an employer who has exploited all his workers, it's so important for the media to not necessarily be a neutral voice in this struggle, and instead, take the sides of workers and expose the ways these networks operate. And so you know, in the Bangladeshi community at least we similar to most communities have a very male-dominated media industry where the local patrikas - which are newspapers - are all serving the interests of either Awami League, the Jamaat-e-Islami, or the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party. And those types of political affiliations determine the story of what our people read, and how our people are activated. 
So I think it's so important for journalists to really see this moment as we can't be neutral in a time where not only is the media being annihilated by the conglomeration of all of these corporations taking over independent media, but we're also seeing a rise of neoliberal rhetoric coming out of what used to be independent media. So for example, we've seen a rise of anti defund the police rhetoric where everything from like New York Times to The Atlantic, they think now is the time to push establishment democrat rhetoric around how defund the police is too radical of a demand. And unfortunately, those things shift public opinion, you know, those things, make people who are already on the, you know, fence about these issues. They radicalize them into being anti-progress. So I think it's really important for people to weave their politics into their writing and make it so that we are not necessarily trying to just report on something. We're actually trying to shift power, and we're trying to challenge power.




That's right. And that reminds me of this incredibly massive 'me too movement' that has been happening in Bangladesh. And I really have to, I really have to use hashtags and search for content because all these massive, you know, brown magazines that have 1000s and 1000s. And 1000s of followers and Instagram are mostly silent on issues beyond India or Bollywood. So that sort of, you know, smoothly transits my curiosity into Bangladeshi Feminist Collective, what is the purpose of the collective and why did you start it?




Yeah, yeah. You know, I love that you are naming how hard it was to find even media on me too movement. Because, you know, Bangladeshis are not on Twitter as much as they are on Facebook. And so when we look for credible resources that are from the ground, you have to dig 10 times harder to even find a piece from, let's say, the Dhaka Tribune, which is a prominent publication. And, you know, I think the the Bangladeshi Feminist Collective came precisely from that sentiment. Like I said, being in Queens, New York, and most of us are situated in each borough, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens being the main ones with big Bangladeshi populations, where we are all organizers that, you know, in our day jobs are fighting day in and day out for the rights of Bangladeshi folks. And so we have worker organizers in our collective, we have lawyers, we have Gulnahar Alam, like I mentioned earlier, one of the founders of Andolan and we have mutual aid organizers. And so all of us come from different experiences as Bangladeshi feminists, but we represent a radical politic of like anti-imperialist feminism that is intersectional, and also queer, you know. And so when we started going together as friends, we realized how unique it was for us to be in a room together when dominant caste people were publishing books on organizing, and actively erasing the contributions of the people in the room. 
So when that started happening, we all looked at each other, and we were like, oh, Bangladeshis have survived for genocides, you know, we went through the English imposed feminine in Bengal, we went through partition, then we had our independence movement from Pakistan, 3 million people died, then we have like massacres that happen all across our region. And then we have the looming crisis of climate change. All of these issues are things that Bangladeshi people are situated to organize around because we live in intersectional life, we live a life where our worker organizing is not separate from anti-domestic violence, organizing, our organizing around the rights of queer and transgender people, is not separated from our battles against Islamophobia. 
And so we were intentional of being a group of trusted feminist leaders that would build over the years to really amplify and build trust with each other. Because that was another thing that lacked in movement spaces - unless you worked together, or unless you were part of an organization, you rarely had spaces to politic, engage, debate, and even have long term intergenerational relationships. 
So Bangladeshi Feminist Collective was really intentional and not being necessarily like a service organization, right, we didn't necessarily want to start, let's say, a legal clinic, we wanted to, in relationship to each other because we felt like the dominant caste networks in this country are really unable to articulate the types of issues that we were working on. And they were unable to represent the type of politics that we were cultivating in our respected city. So you know, we've been meeting for over three years now, and our relationships are super strong and grounded and a politic of care and love. 
And I have to say, it's so unique to have elders that, you know, are looking out for you while also having younger folks in the room who are trying to find our way through, you know, this apocalypse of a moment to build around this like a beautiful thing that we have, which is like care and trust for each other. 



Yeah I mean, that does sound beautiful. Having a community that evolves together in a room is very powerful. Lastly, Sharmin a question that I ask all my guests and I would love to ask you as well. If you had to define representation in say, a single sentence, what would you say?




Mm hmm.

I think I would say that, in order to shape and define representation, we have to recognize that it's not just about where we've come from, or the traumas that our communities have survived, but also where are we going and what is the vision that we're moving towards? 




Mm hmm. Yeah. I love that. Thank you so much, Sharmin. it was such a pleasure to have this in-depth conversation with you and I truly had a wonderful time listening to you and listening to your powerful, incredible voice. I just can't wait to see what you do in the future. Thank you so much for joining me.




Thank you so much Dilpreet It was my pleasure.




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About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.