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No Country For Brown Women

When I left India for America fourteen months ago, I'd assumed that freedom and safety would be part of the package. On November 9th, I learned that I'd been wrong — when you're not safe in your homeland, you're not safe anywhere.

The first signs of panic came around 9pm.

I could feel my palms starting to sweat. I caught glimpses of the flashing signs on the TV in my Washington, DC, newsroom, the drone of voices mingled with a buzzing in my ears.

We were told to start putting together some ideas in case of a Trump victory.

We were told to start putting together some ideas in case of a Trump victory.

He was at an unreal 137 to Clinton’s 109 – but he couldn’t possibly win.

My mind refused to register what was happening.

On the Slack chat with my editor, new messages popped up every few seconds.

I opened my Hillary Clinton folder, filled with pictures of previous women who had been elected to some form of political power.

And I started deleting.

Growing up, I had a wild imagination. Playtime meant creating new games rather than sticking with hide-and-seek and tag.

I was the ruler of my sandcastle, the chairperson of a make-believe office.

I was the ruler of my sandcastle, the chairperson of a make-believe office.

I would come home, my skin a shade of copper in the hot Mumbai summers, always ready to go back for more.

I realised there were rules for being a girl during a game of doctor-doctor. I was a pregnant lady and my friend was operating on me. Once done, it was his turn to be pregnant and mine to be the surgeon.

His father walked into the room, and promptly rushed to his laughing son’s aid when he saw me pulling a stuffed rabbit out from under his T-shirt.

“What are you doing?” he said, towering over my 4-year-old figure. “Behave like a girl.”

My friend followed his father out of the room, looking back only once.

I wonder what he saw in my bewildered expression as I stood there clutching my rabbit, not sure what I’d done wrong.

At 12:30am on 9 November 2016, the nervousness had spread way beyond my sweaty palms.

“Is it over?” I asked my editor.“It’s going to be over.”

While feverishly trying to create a “Donald Trump has won” video, I prayed for a boost in the blue line indicating the number of Clinton votes.

The newsroom was bustling, everyone around me scrambling to change tracks and prepare for what would still be a historic election.

As a journalist, my job was to report facts without letting my feelings get in the way.

But that knowledge couldn’t stop my fingers from shaking.

“Is it over?” I asked my editor.

“It’s going to be over.”

When I was 11, a teacher in my private school in New Delhi once made us write short essays on topics in the news and read them out to the class.

I read out my paragraph on the harmful influence of fairness creams, hoping for some feedback from the poker-faced teacher.

“Choose a more interesting topic next time beta,” she finally responded. “Tum itni chhoti ho, itni serious hone ki kya zaroorat hai?” (You’re so young, what is the need to be so serious?)

My mother was as easily dismissed as my cry for fairer beauty standards.

Just two months later, I was walking back to my school bus with a group of female classmates. We were discussing our biggest inspirations and I promptly named my mother.

My response was followed by a snigger and a snarky, “Oh, so you want to be a housewife?”

My mother – the source behind my feminism today – was as easily dismissed as my cry for fairer beauty standards.

That was my introduction into the frustrating world of an Indian woman, where nothing we do, or don’t do, is enough.

At 2:30am, I tuned into C-SPAN to watch president-elect Donald Trump’s victory speech.

As a journalist, and an Indian citizen, all the signals in my brain told me to remain detached.

“Grab ‘em by the pussy” rang in my ears.

“I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me…”

I watched his jaw move, but I could only hear “Grab ‘em by the pussy” ringing in my ears.

I excused myself and rushed to the bathroom. While dabbing my tears with cheap toilet paper, I locked eyes with another woman of colour in the mirror. She looked over, and nodded her head once.

December had never felt as cold as it did in 2012.

“She could’ve been one of us” echoed in my head, over and over again.

All I could think about was the number of times I’d been told by people not to go somewhere, not to wear something “provocative”, to act more feminine.

“She needs to learn to raise her voice.”

The brutal gang rape of an Indian woman in New Delhi led to a blur of events – a combination of watching the residents of Delhi rise to the occasion with protest marches, demonstrations, and candlelight vigils, and taking part in the very same. There was an energy in the air unlike any I’d felt at previous protests.

I remember my aunt’s decision to take her 8-year-old daughter to a candlelight vigil was questioned by her neighbours. “Why expose such a young child to the horrors of the world?” they asked.

“She needs to learn to raise her voice,” was my aunt’s reply.

When you are not free in your homeland, you are not free anywhere.

As someone born into privilege, I side-stepped the maze of foeticide, dowry, marital rape, "honour" killings, child marriage, and every other violent custom and crime that women in India are still, to this day, oppressed by.

I was given an education. I was told to follow my dreams. I have always felt lucky for it.

But 2012 came as a reminder of society’s fetters: a reminder that even studying in the country’s most liberal college, voicing my opinions online, calling myself a “feminist” doesn’t change the fact that no matter where I go, I will always be a brown woman. I will always be unsafe.

When you are not free in your homeland, you are not free anywhere.

Fourteen months ago, I packed my bags and flew more than 7,000 miles from New Delhi to Chicago to chase a decade-long dream of telling stories.

I remember my first week at journalism grad school. Walking into the auditorium where our orientation was being held was like walking into a painting – white, black, brown, male, female, short, tall – creating a rich, beautiful canvas.

“It’s on us to make newsrooms more diverse. It’s on you to make your voice heard.”

I spent the next year writing and filming stories on immigrants, refugees, the LGBTQ community, and women. Safe in a bubble that contained America’s most open-minded individuals, I turned blind to the existence of an alternate reality.

“Are you afraid of Donald Trump?”

My last two months as a student were spent filming the generational story of two Palestinian-American women. When my team, which consisted of three brown women, conducted our final interview with our protagonist, we asked her to bring her daughter into the picture.

“Are you afraid of Donald Trump?” asked a Muslim mother to her shy 9-year-old.



“Because he won’t let us go out.”

The day after Trump’s election, I was home. When I stumbled into the kitchen, delirious from my inability to sleep, my roommate from Hyderabad looked at me quizzically.

We had assumed that freedom would be part of the package.

“Why do you care about this? Why are you getting emotionally affected by who is going to be the president of this country?” she asked.

The real answer is this: When we moved to America to study and to work, we had assumed that freedom would be part of the package. I care because, with Donald Trump as president of the United States, that assurance has been snatched away. There is no country for brown women.

I want to look out for every brown woman in my life.

“This man doesn’t see us as equals,” I told my roommate.

On election night, I finally tore my eyes away from the computer screen at 3:30am. I looked up to see the face of every woman in my newsroom reflecting confusion, disbelief, and pain. And I saw a strength and determination unlike any other.

We’re used to things being taken away from us.

Our tears were a silent warning that no glass ceiling could hold us caged.

The hope that America had represented for thousands of women around the world had been threatened.

We’re used to things being taken away from us, but it feels more important than ever to stand up against this global tidal wave of oppression.

There might not be a country for brown women yet, but there is no one in this world who can stop us from making one.