Shamita Das Dasgupta

Post by Jenny Chi and Matthew Kartanata

Shamita Das Dasgupta is known as a premier expert on the intersecting history of oppression and colonialism of South Asians in America. Not only is Dasgupta a professor of Law at New York University, but she has written and edited books, articles, and volumes of stories on the South Asian experience, all to critical and scholarly acclaim. However, while Dasgupta is renowned in her writing about  gender, immigration and domestic violence, she should be best known for pioneering community based organizations for South Asians. Rather than focusing solely on her celebrated work in academia, Dasgupta’s groundbreaking efforts in formalized activism after 1985 requires a special kind of attention that illuminates a storied yet often untold history of South Asian women in the canon of Asian American activism.

Dasgupta emerged as an activist in the 1970s when she was involved with mainstream feminist organizations, but quickly found they were uninterested in her struggles as a South Asian woman. Dasgupta left mainstream feminism, later writing: “Until then, my relationship with my Indian community had been based only on my birth; now my relationship became an act of choice” [1]. As a symbol of her discontent with non-inclusive Western feminist culture, Dasgupta relinquished all Western dress and prioritized issues immediately in her locus [2]. To Dasgupta, calling out the colonialism that had impacted South Asians’ current experience was of tantamount importance. She believed that relationships between South Asians and whites, and even South Asians among one another, were informed directly by the dominion of colonialism. Only by acknowledging this history (and striking it down) would she and other South Asians be able to move forward in making policy changes or claiming demands. Of equal importance was her South Asian heritage, vilified by mainstream feminism as too niche, for which Dasgupta felt guilty and even responsible. To her, one’s heritage and the effects of colonialism were universal. It governed relations on both interpersonal and macro levels. It’s important to note that although Dasgupta’s efforts followed the groundwork laid by the Asian American Movement and its constituting organizations, Dasgupta was very much a trailblazer in her own right.

Dasgupta’s name is most synonymous with Manavi, a nonprofit she co-established in 1985 dedicated to ending gender-based violence in the South Asian community. As the first of its kind, Manavi provides both education and intervention, both with the goal of forming a cohesive violence-free South Asian community. What is especially novel about Manavi is the extent to which Dasgupta integrated the concept of intersectionality, not only in relation its constituent body but its very operations: Dasgupta recognized that abuse against women “should not be looked at in a vacuum” and went so far as to “not seek or receive any government monies because… accepting such funds would prevent them from being able to express opposition to all systems of oppression” [3]. Though focused on its feminist founding, Manavi rose as a cultural and political organization by instituting a broader definition of feminism– one that acknowledged internationalism and men, and spanned class and space. Author Sandya Shukla describes Manavi as an “unorthodox” feminist organization because of this purposeful intersectionality; their decision to allow men on their board and their demonstrated their stance as an ethnic-based feminist organization that is not meant to solely be gender-based, but cultural and political as well. The point of including men in their board is to involve men in the discussion on domestic violence, and how men can stop committing violence against women. Manavi also proves itself to be a transnational organization; the group not only reports on legal cases and women’s projects in South Asian countries, but has also donated funds to women’s development project in Bengal and supports various South Asian women’ collectives [4]. Now, decades later, Dasgupta continues to be an advocate and leader for the South Asian community, having used her academic prowess to  publish research on the impact of the preventative measures employed by Manavi and similar organizations. In addition, through her professorship at NYU, Dasgupta is a role model for South Asians seeking a place in the erudite and often enclosed community of academia.

manavi
Manavi organizers conduct Silent March during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in 2005.

Currently teaching as an adjunct professor at NYU Law School on criminal justice in regards to domestic violence, Dasgupta has also continued her activist work through the medium of academia. After receiving her PhD in Developmental Psychology from Ohio State University in 1983, Dasgupta focused her academic specialities on issues related to ethnicity, gender, immigration, domestic violence, and Bengali folktales [5]. Her largest academic works, such as 1998’s A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America, and 2007’s Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America, both focus on highlighting the narratives of South Asian women in America, who often juggle gender-specific social problems in South Asian immigrant community environments [6][7]. Dasgupta has also written many reports and articles in regards to improving legal standards to domestic violence [8]. Similar to Dasgupta’s motivation for social activism, the limited number of South Asian and South Asian American voices in the field of psychology were pivotal in veering Dasgupta’s academic interests into researching the treatment of women in a South Asian context [9].

Although Dasgupta started her activist career through various 1970s feminist organizations, her activism continues today in both academia and Manavi-related social work. When Dasgupta is not teaching at NYU law, she is leading cultural competency workshops to public health professionals on the experiences and struggles specific to South Asian women [10]. Dasgupta reminds us that behind the accolades and academia, despite the exclusion of mainstream feminism, change is marked by commitment to one’s community– one that has benefited immensely by the work of this South Asian trailblazer. Shamita Das Dasgupta’s work organizing the South Asian community and establishing the basis for a feminist, cultural, and indeed political organization will not soon be forgotten, and neither will it be finished.

Works Cited:

[1] Madhulika S. Khandelwal, Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community in New York City (New York: Cornell University Press, 2002), 126.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sandyha, Shukla, “Feminisms of the Diaspora Both Local and Global: The Politics of South Asian Women against Domestic Violence,” in Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader, ed. by Cathy J. Cohen, Kathleen B. Jones, and Joan C. Tronto, (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 269-283.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Shamita Das Dasgupta,” The Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University, accessed September 11, 2016. http://heymancenter.org/people/shamita-das-dasgupta/.

[6] Shamita Das Dasgupta, ed. A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asia Women in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998).

[7] Shamita Das Dasgupta. Body Evidence: Intimate Violence against South Asian Women in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007). http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj900.

[8] Shamita Das Dasgupta. “Towards an Understanding of Women’s Use of Non-Lethal Violence in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships,” National Electronic Network on Violence Against Women (2001): 15.

[9] Sonia Shah, ed. Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire (Boston: South End Press, 1997), 183.

[10] “Advancing Cultural Competence in the Public Health and Health Care Workforce,” School of Public Health University of Albany, accessed September 11, 2016. http://www.albany.edu/sph/cphce/advancing_cc_webinar_asianseries_feb17.shtml.

 

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