HERNDON, Va.— Philanthropist, art collector, and Democratic Party stalwart and fundraiser, Dr. Mahinder Tak was honored by ASHA for Women at its 30th anniversary gala reception and dinner on Sept. 30 at the Center for Innovative Technology, which also featured a live art auction to raise funds for ASHA’s mission to provide support South Asian women survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence.
The keynote address was delivered by Brooklyn.-based feminist and ‘political artist,’ Jaishri Abichandani, who, in a powerful, controversial and raw speech, spoke of the sexual violence and rape she had experienced at the ages of 5, 9, and 25, and why she had renounced Hinduism.
Priya Kulkarni, president of ASHA, in her welcoming remarks, said, “ASHA for Women, has been working tirelessly for the last 30 years, to provide guidance, help and support to domestic violence victims from the South Asian community.”
“Our clients come from the five countries of subcontinent — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal with diverse religious, socio-economic and language backgrounds,” she said. “ASHA draws its resources from the county and state as well as from the local community.
“The core of ASHA’s work would not be possible without our dedicated and compassionate volunteers, client services manager and Senior Services coordinator, who channel the spirit of our founding members,” she said, and spoke of how they all endeavor to live by ASHA’s mission “to provide the support that empowers South Asian women to become self-reliant and live in an abuse-free future.”
Kulkarni introduced Tak, and spoke of how she “was one of the first Indian American women to serve in the U.S. Army and is a retired U.S. army colonel.”
Kulkarni said that Tak was being honored by ASHA because “she has always encouraged and inspired an entire generation of young women of color who followed in her footsteps.”
Tak in her brief remarks, said she was “not just honored, but humbled” to be felicitated that “one of the pre-eminent South Asian women’s group in the country that in its three-decades history has empowered several hundred women,” particularly in a community that was still patriarchal and remained in denial about what a problem domestic abuse and sexual violence was in the South Asian community.
She thanked in particular “all of the ASHA volunteers for all of the work and time all of you put in” to help and assist the survivors of abuse and violence, in what is essentially “is a labor of love.”
Abichandani, at the outset of her remarks, said, she was “overwhelmed and grateful to be here and this is the first time I’m being honored by the South Asian community, and I’m deeply grateful because I’ve spent the last 25 years, surrounded by the most amazing South Asian Americans.”
She said that she had moved to the U.S. at age 14, “and for a long time, I was a very proud Hindu, and then I realized that my pride in Hinduism was actually rooted in oppression of other people and so I gave it up and I am no longer Hindu.”
Abichandani declared, “What I do consider my religion to be is now, feminism and social justice, and so, I am really grateful to be in a space that is founded on the principle of feminism and social justice. And, that is where my entire life has been spent.”
She said, “The first time I was sexually abused, I was five years old. The second time, I was sexually abused by a gang of boys when I was nine years old. The last time that I faced sexual violence was when I was 25.”
Now, 50, Abichandani said, at the time, “I was one of the few women who went public about my rapist and it was probably the most difficult thing that I have done.”
She said that “I don’t think I could have taken that step without the support of women who run organizations like ASHA and SAKHI, because when I was 22 and trying to find my way in America, it was only through finding women who were affiliated with organizations that served survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence, that served domestic workers.”
“I was only then that I found a home and a community that I could call my own,” she said.
Abichandani reiterated, “this work that you do is life transforming, life changing and integral, and I am just in awe of all the volunteers—all the women here who have made a difference in the lives of these survivors,” she said, and declared, “So, I am here to support those women who rebel, who stood up.”
She also showed portraits of South Asian women activists she had done and said they were “from across sexualities, from across genders, and religions and castes, and the thing that bring us together is the tremendous impact that they’ve had on American society.”
These included Shamita Das Dasgupta, who co-founded Manavi in 1985, Mallika Dutt, one of the founders of SAKHI, Bhairavi Desai, the founding member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Menaka Guruswamy, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India and a B.R. Ambedkar Research Scholar and Lecturer at Columbia Law School, New York, who along with her partner Arundhati Katju, who won a landmark LGBTQ rights case in India in 2018.
But Abichandani got emotional when she showed the portrait of Davani Soundararajan, whom she said, “is one of my most inspiring friends and who has said, ‘We are all untouchable until no one is.”
“She is the one who inspired me to give up Hinduism. She is the woman with whom in every conversation, I understand my caste privilege, my life privilege, my able body privilege, my hetero privilege, my marriage privilege, my motherhood privilege.”
Abichandani said that “she is the woman who helps me to come to terms with all the rage that I feel and brings it to a productive space, because you know, we were all raised with an idea of a secular India that has long been lost.”
Abichandani, whose inter- disciplinary work focuses on the intersections between “art and feminism” is an alumna of Goldsmith College, University of London, from where she received her master’s in fine arts (MFA) and her work has been exhibited internationally including at the Museum of Modern Art, the Queens Museum, IVAM in Valencia, Spain, House of World Cultures in Berlin, and several other international locations.
In 1997, she founded the South Asian Women’s Creative in New York and did the same in London in 2004, and currently she is engaged in organizing a trilogy of exhibitions at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice where she’s the curator.