We all go through a time in our lives when we try out different versions of ourselves – we experiment with the way we look; our hairstyles, fashion sense, makeup and body language, as we continuously change with each revision. Identity, in this manner, is a complicated and highly nuanced concept, in that is isn’t constant. It can take years, months and many trials and errors until we reach a state in which we are finally comfortable in our skin – if at all. Whether it’s a ‘teenage rebellious phase’ of bangs and black nail polish, or ‘drunken kisses’ with a same-sex friend, introspecting and exploring the many sides of being human in today’s world would be a lot easier without the veil of tradition and rigid gender roles that Indian society dictates.
The heteronormative gender binaries may be comfortable for some to mould themselves around, but when it becomes a suffocating noose of shunning and discrimination against anyone who that doesn’t fit what’s ‘acceptable’, we know we have a problem. It is far from an easy reality in India, but it hasn’t stopped Indians all over the world from furthering the conversation around sexuality, gender and identity. Be it through activism or art, these are people that are challenging traditional roles when it comes to the concept of gender and sexuality as people of colour on an international scale. They serve as role models for countless individuals, in India and abroad, by wearing non-conformity on their sleeve and unabashedly being themselves and a voice for others.
As a child, Harnaam Kaur was bullied even before she was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries. Following that diagnosis, she was constantly harassed for her excessive facial hair. While at first she dealt with the constant facial waxing, threading and plucking — her raw skin said otherwise. At the age of 15, she was contemplating suicide, which is when she said was her real turning point, “If the bullies are allowed to live, why shouldn’t I?”
Today, Kaur proudly showcases her facial hair and is a body confidence activist, anti-bullying activist, public speaker and life coach. Kaur is an inspiration to every woman who’s ever been made to feel self-conscious due to her appearance, which is quite possibly every single one of us. A living example of one who is truly walking the talk. And after looking at her photographs, we’re sure you’ll agree: it is her happiness, and the sense of how comfortable she is in her skin, that makes her truly beautiful, and beatific.
A powerhouse of talent, Alok Vaid-Menon has travelled the world as a dynamic and formidable voice of an inclusive LGBTQI movement, captivating audiences with issues of gender, social justice, trans politics and sexuality in today’s globalised-yet predominantly traditional world, when it comes to aspects of alternative sexualities and gender.
Having grown up in a conservative Texas town, a non-binary, transfeminine writer, entertainer, and performance artist is how they describe in their own words. With a collection of work that voices global trans politics, they attempt to change the narrative of LGBTQI movements and create a space for queer people of colour that are searching for an identity, while also calling for a better understanding of what true ‘visibility’ is for an entire generation that falls left of centre means in the midst of the dominant heteronormative societal standards.
Born and raised in New York City, Mohammed Fayaz has been expanding the boundaries of what it means to be a queer Muslim artist. Through his illustrations, he explores and documents what it means to be a queer and trans person of colour in today’s digital world and the community’s realities in a spectrum of colours. He is also one of the organisers of Papi Juice, a Brooklyn-based dance party and safe space for queer and trans POC to “find visibility, friends, partners, and joy,” as reported by The Fader.
You’d recognise Sanam Sindhi from Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ music video. But even before she was scouted by Rihanna on Instagram, her following was pretty huge and for good reason. Exploring everything from race to sexuality, beauty and identity as a first-generation immigrant kid in the US. Her art, aesthetic and unique fashion style has drawn in countless people and has become an inspiration for South Asian girls everywhere. Her badass East meets West and athleisure avatars are just some of her forms and when she isn’t at her gig at Jeffrey Campbell, the writer and DJ hosts a radio show on NTS to discuss South Asian identity, art, music and culture.
Her bold amalgamation of traditional Indian culture and modern aesthetics not only attracts the fashion forward but wearing culture on her sleeve inspires others to do the same in unapologetic ways.
An award-winning blogger, Halima Khan, better known as Lima or by her social media handle Fashionicide is a fashion and beauty blogger from the UK. “I started blogging purely to share the things that I like, whether makeup or fashion, as at the time, there weren’t many South Asian bloggers around and I’d reached the point where I was fed up of magazines telling me what I could and couldn’t wear,” she writes on her page.
Out of frustration and lack of visibility of the brown aesthetic, she took it upon herself to defy the societal norms and take control over how South Asians were represented in terms of style, beauty and fashion.
The spectrum of gender nonconforming people is incredible and since we don’t see a lot of their representation their lack of visibility is why people like Harmeet Rehal are important. 18-year-old Rehal is trans non-binary and queer and their art reflects their identity as well as their Sikh-Punjabi heritage.
Rehal was also part of Karishma Pranjivan’s ongoing photo-series addressing body image and hair, challenging notions of femininity and “exploring South Asian representation, experiences, and the visual language of social identity and diaspora,” as stated by the photographer.
The 21-year-old UK native has been breaking barriers and taboos with tattoos in Leicester. Growing up in a Gujarati household she spent her childhood surrounded by Indian art and artefacts. These elements are clear inspirations in her creations as she combines two cultures – the one she’s grown up with and that which she inherited – into art. As a brown South Asian girl, she has broken into an industry that rarely sees tattoo artists of this breed, and that too creating works that are so representational of who they are.
“I don’t feel like an icon, I’m just a normal Indian girl, but I really wanted to show brown girls that we are not confined to our skin colour and gender, we are capable of doing whatever we want to do,” she tells Kajal Magazine in an interview. “It’s really humbling to see that other SA women have seen/heard my story and it’s pushed them to do what they want to do.”
With bold colours, flowers, traditional Indian motifs and Mughal imagery, Mistry’s works are as beautiful as they are memorable, and we’d be lucky to wear one of her inked designs on our skin. She strives to show a different side of the South Asian community – one where it’s okay to be different, not conform to your parent’s wishes and still hold on to your ‘Indianness’ with pride.
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