Back in my younger mutinous days, when I was the youngest in the bunker, I wrote this post on “cool” desi women under the age of 30. I wrote it because I wanted to highlight other Desi American women in my age range who were “doing something”. A list like that didn’t exist then. We have since had many more young folk added to the mutinous blog roll in the bunker and there are even more Desi women than ever doing amazing things.
I too am jumping on the ’00 decade list making band wagon. In the past decade, I went from being a nascent 20 year old to a pseudo-mature 30 yr old. But more significantly, I think of how in 2000, as a desi girl in the U.S., I didn’t have any South Asian American females that I could turn to – as role models, as women breaking barriers, as women in the media. It was alienating and isolating, to not see Desi women breaking glass ceilings. I didn’t realize that there were things that desi girls could do outside of the “model minority job list” – I had no one really to look towards. In these past ten years, the South Asian American community has grown with leaps and bounds. Strong desi women have coming out of the wood works. They are on big screens, on the shelves of major book stores, and profiled in the news. Desi women are running for office, going to space, starting and directing non-profits, and running companies. I am so proud of to be a Desi woman of this decade, to be a part of a community giving the next generation of Desi girls role models to look up to.
So here is my mutinous list of the top 20 most influential South Asian American Women of the Decade (in alphabetical order). Please vote on the woman that you feel has been most influential to you in the poll at the bottom of the post. – Alpana Singh – She is the youngest female master sommelier in the country. Based in Chicago, Alpana hosts a local PBS restaurant review show (started in 2003), has published Alpana Pours: About Being a Woman, Loving Wine, and Having Great Relationships (2006), and has a regular weekly wine column.
Bhairavi Desai – In 1998, Bhairavi founded the Taxi Workers Alliance in New York. This organization was one of the first labor organizations that fought for a largely South Asian American clientele, and really founded a model for community organizing in the Desi community in the past decade.
DJ Rekha – This Brooklyn based DJ is noted as the woman that brought bhangra beats to the music scene in the U.S. She helped start and DJs at the monthly NYC event Basement Bhangra (since 1997), and released a Basement Bhangra CD in 2007.
Deepa Iyer – Deepa is the Executive Director for the South Asian Americans Leading Together. SAALT was founded at the begining of this decade, but really started to come together when there was a need for advocacy in the post 9/11 backlash our community experienced. Deepa transitioned into E.D. in 2004 and SAALT has slowly turned into the premier national advocacy organization for the Desi community, working on voting rights, immigration rights, and to coordinating the National South Asian Summit.
Indra Nooyi – In 2006, Indra was named the Chairperson and C.E.O. of PepsiCo. A Yale graduate, she joined PepsiCo in 1994 and moved up the ranks to CFO in 2001. Forbes named her #3 most powerful woman in 2008.
Jhumpa Lahiri – Lahiri’s short story book Interpreter of Maladies (1999) was arguably the first piece of South Asian American literature to really catapult the Desi diaspora lit scene of this decade. She had since written The Namesake (2003), which was turned into a feature film, and the book Unaccustomed Earth.
Kalpana Chawla – the first Indian American astronaut to fly into space, Kalpana not only pierced Abhi, she was one of the seven astronauts that died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Her life even inspired a graphic novel.
Kashish Chopra – In 2003, Kashish competed in the Miss India U.S.A. pageant – and in turn won the category for Miss Congeniality. She was the first openly gay competitor in a Miss India pageant, which is no small feat in the Desi community. Kashish speaks out on her story of being a member to the GLBTQ community, and continues to inspire.
M.I.A – From Sri Lanka to England to Williamsburg, NYC. M.I.A. is a musical MC that really needs no introduction to The Mutiny. From her concerts, to her fashion line, to her baby’s name, I would not hesitate to say in SM’s lifetime she has been the most blogged about woman on our site.
Mindy Kaling – Otherwise known as Kelly Kapoor in the hit NBC TV show The Office (2004) for the past four years, Mindy is a comedian and a writer who just happens to be the funniest (and only) desi woman on primetime television. And she has a two year contract to produce her own television show in the near future.
Mira Nair – With Missippi Masala in the distant past, NYC based movie director and producer Nair broke some serious barriers in this decade with Monsoon Wedding (2001), Vanity Fair (2004), The Namesake (2006), and Amelia (2009).
Mohini Bhardwaj – Mohini you may remember from the 2004 Olympics, where she won a Silver Medal for the U.S. gymnastics team. She is the first Indian-American gymnast and second Indian-American athlete overall, ever to medal at the Olympics.
Padma Lakshmi – Supermodel and Salman Rushdie’s ex-wife, in the past decade Padma has rebranded herself as a Top Chef judge, selling her Easy Exotic wares and a soon to be baby mama to a papa who we know not yet. All while being really hot.
Parminder Nagra – The 2002 film Bend It Like Beckhem featured Parminder as a soccer loving Desi girl that fall for her White boy coach. It was one of the first movies of the Desi diaspora genre, and definitely one of the most well known. Parminder came state side soon after and was on E.R. from 2003-2009 as Dr. Neela Rasgotra, possibly being the first Desi doctor for that show.
Rinku Sen – is the President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine (founded in 1999). Her prolific writing on race and her work at ARC has placed her at the forefront of racial justice work this past decade- she’s also published two books, Stir It Up (2003) and The Accidental American (2008).
S. Mitra Kalita – Former president of the South Asian Journalism Association, I think it’s fair to say that her role at SAJA (founded in 2003) helped catapult the South Asian American journo community to where it is today as well as how Desis are written about in the press. A former Washington Post, Newsday and Associated Press reporter, in 2008 she accepted a position at the Wall Street Journal. She’s written Suburban Sahib and is working on two forthcoming books, Get To Work and My Indian Dream.
Sonal Shah – Most recently known for her controversial (and highly blogged) spot on the Obama-Biden transition team, Sonal is a long time activist and economist. She and her siblings are the founders of IndiCorps, an NGO formed at the start of th decade that provides Indian American young people with year long fellowships in India. She had been at the advocacy arm of Google, but as of April 2009, she was appointed director of the newly created White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.
South Asian Sisters – Not one woman, but these women took The Vagina Monologue and re-appropriated the format for South Asian women with Yoni Ki Baat. First performed in Berkeley in 2003, Yoni Ki Baat has taken the nation by storm this decade, giving space for Desi women to dialogue and have stories be told.
Sunita Williams – Sunita is the second Indian American woman to fly into space. An astronaut that was assigned to the International Space Station in expedition 14 and 15, she holds the record for the longest space flight for female space travelers, 195 days.
Swati Dandekar – A democratic Iowa State Senator (elected 2008), she had been a member of Iowa House of Representative from 2002 – 2008. I don’t think I’m mistaken in saying that she is the highest ranking longest running elected Desi-American woman politician.