10 Desi Women We’re Obsessed With (Who Aren’t Bollywood Actresses)

Because I love Bollywood movies, but there are just too many dope Desi women in history who weren’t in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, or Dhoom 1-3.

The women included here are drawn from across time, discipline, and visibility levels. Some may be incredibly familiar, and others are everyday Sheros. There are many, many others, but hopefully each of these gets you to spend time on a worthwhile rabbit hole in the Internet.

Here they are, in no particular order.

Tarfia Faizullah

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Tarfia Faizullah is a Bangladeshi-American poet, editor, and educator currently based in Detroit, Michigan. Her poetry collection, Seam, was published in 2014 and is a beautiful and harrowing account of the lives of the women in Bangladesh who were victims of rape, violence and torture by the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War.

Tarfia lived in her ancestral land for a year and compiled the stories you experience in her collection. She’s an incredible artist and storyteller, and she owns some dope cowboy boots.

Valarie Kaur

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Valarie Kaur has gotten some viral visibility recently due to this video. She is a powerhouse woman, so passionate about the stories of communities she serves that she seems to have mastered every method of communication available to send a message. Valarie is a civil rights activist and lawyer, as well as a celebrated filmmaker and Sikh-American interfaith leader.

Sarojini Naidu

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Sarojini Naidu, popularly known as the “Nightingale of India,” was a poet and a politician. She was the first woman to be elected as a governor of an Indian state.

As a politician, she was a powerful voice in the Civil Disobedience Movement in India (“you mean it wasn’t just Gandhi??”). As a poet and writer, she was deeply moved by the beauty of the natural world and could hardly contain her inspiration. Her first collection, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

I’ll leave you with some of Sarojini’s unpublished poetic words of wisdom: “A country’s greatness lies in its undying ideals of love and sacrifice that inspire the mothers of the race.”

Sita

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Yes, the Sita.

In the epic Hindu poem The Ramayana, Sita famously accompanies Rama to the forest for a fourteen-year exile from his own kingdom. She is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana and eventually rescued and reunited with Rama. Shortly thereafter, Rama begins to suspect that Sita was unfaithful to him in her time as a hostage, so he demands she prove her purity, which she does successfully. In time, Sita becomes pregnant, and the suspicions of her infidelity resurface with a new fire. Rama banishes pregnant Sita to a forest. Sita accepts this fate, sets up shop in a hermitage, and births two baby boys. She cares for them and herself for years, until finally her sons reunited with their father—and not once do her children look back. After this, Sita asks the Mother Earth to take her back (since being a human woman was such a complicated ordeal), and thus she transforms into a tree. Que será, será.

Anisha Singh

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Meet Anisha Singh, the Campaign Manager for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. Singh’s track record is an insanely badass collection of successful grassroots organizing campaigns, national-level campaigns for anti-bullying and anti-discrimination, policy and project work for the organization United Sikhs, and casually being listed as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” for law and policy in 2016. Plus, look at the necklace she is wearing in this picture, and her strong eyebrow game. #DesiLadyEyebrows

Malala Yousafzai

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How can I make this list and not include Malala? Thanks to the power of branding and the media blitz, many of Malala Yousafzai’s recent accomplishments are well known to folks, so I thought I would offer some details about this young women that we might not all know.

Malala began speaking publicly in Peshawar about women’s rights and education access in 2008 with encouragement from her father, a poet and an education activist in Pakistan who was Malala’s primary educator. In 2009, Malala became a peer educator in Open Minds Pakistan’s youth program.

In 2009, Malala was 11 years old. When I was 11, I was “speaking publicly” about the poor quality of the ranch dressing that came with the pizza at Julius West Middle School. So, there’s no bad time for a privilege check, friends.

Gulabi Gang

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Alright, so these guys are one of my personal favorites. The Gulabi Gang is a group of intergenerational women activists founded by Data Satbodh Sain in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh.

They gathered as a response to ubiquitous domestic abuse and various other violences against women that plague their home state. The group has grown and expanded in recent years, and it now has members all over Northern India. A large number of members are Dalit women, who are easily the most affected targets of violence in their communities.

The Gulabi Gang isn’t an actual gang, but rather a vigilante group of women who respond to harassment issues within their communities—the kind that are largely ignored and neglected by local law enforcement. They all wear pink saris and carry around bamboo sticks to defend themselves and beat perpetrators. They are trained in various other counter-aggression tactics, but sources say their bamboo sticks are their weapons of choice. Now that’s what we call grassroots!

Rani Lakshmibai

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Also known as the Rani of Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai was the queen of the Jhansi state of north-central India during the occupation of the British Raj.

She was an incredible horseback rider, fencer, and shooter. As a leading force during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, she fought intensely against the British Raj insisting that they would “never take her [state of] Jhansi!” In her final advance, she dressed up as a cavalryman and was severely wounded. Her dying wish was telling a hermit to burn her body because she would refuse to have her body be taken the British. She was often found riding her horse, wielding a sword, and being a totally fierce badass in the face of white dudes trying to tell her what to do.

Huma Abedin

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Huma Abedin is a successful, shrewd U.S. politico who worked as Vice Chair of Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She was listed in TIME Magazine’s “40 under 40” list in 2010 as part of the “new generation of civic leaders.”

Abedin is a proud practicing Muslim-American woman of Pakistani and Indian descent. In her time as a visible public leader, she has been publicly smeared and accused of having close ties to the Muslim brotherhood. Abedin has always used her position in the public sphere to respond to such allegations and be a voice of reason and compassion for the Muslim-American community.

Huma Abedin is also famously and unfortunately recognized as the ex-wife of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner. Not unlike Sita, this lady has been through some shit. But she hasn’t had the luxury to turn into a tree (yet).

Your mom

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The final Desi lady on this list of badass desi ladies is…your mom!

Never underestimate the power of the shero in your own backyard. It’s possible that she married someone she didn’t know very well. It’s possible that she changed occupations to accommodate being a mother and a wife upon moving to this country with your father. It’s possible that she taught you your mother tongue and English (while yelling at you in a healthy combination of both). It’s possible that she pushed you in school but was always the first to hear if you were nervous about a test or a subject. It’s possible that she got you the freshest outfits to wear to the temple, mosque, or gurudwar, but also helped you find a prom dress that fit the ticket (“That’s too low cut, beta, pick a different one”). It’s possible that she always made the best daal or sabzi but also was no amateur in the Western fare department (“Ma, do you have to put chili powder in the spaghetti?”). It’s possible that she always made sure you knew you could talk to her about boys, even if she wouldn’t let you date (“Kanna, but what will he do for a living with an English degree? You should find a nice boy with a practical degree.”) It’s possible that she really misses her life and family back home, but she never makes you feel like you can’t make a home here.

Maybe some, none, or all of these are true about your own mother. But I firmly believe in the power and necessity of learning, honoring, and uplifting the stories of our own mothers, however complicated our relationship to their womanhood might be. Loving and sharing our homes liberates us—and your mother has probably worked her hardest to make sense of that fact. Be proud of your mother, be proud of her triumph and struggle, because without it, your world would be a dull one.


Raji has trouble with her inside voice. On a typical Saturday night, if she is not performing some kind of dance or theater thing, she is journaling about a free lecture she just attended and ranting to her roommates about digital technology, education or Arizona politics. She’s likely sipping herbal tea, but has also been known to enjoy a proper shot of Tequila (with salt and lime).

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