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Amplifying South Asian Women’s Voices

Nov/12/2023 / by Melanie Fourie

Sangeeta Pillai’s platform and podcast inspire change

South Asian woman wearing white top, red suit, silver necklace and earrings on a vivid pink background
Photo Courtesy of Sangeeta Pillai

Sangeeta Pillai, an activist and award-winning podcaster, has journeyed from a Mumbai slum to become a voice in South Asian feminism. As the founder of Soul Sutras, a platform with a feminist focus supporting South Asian women, she’s created a safe space for addressing cultural taboos.

Her influence extends to the “Masala Podcast”, where for five transformative seasons, she’s fearlessly delved into topics often on society’s fringes. Pillai has earned accolades like the British Podcast Awards and is recognized by several mainstream media outlets. Pillai’s commitment to her goals has made her a speaker at festivals and panels.

Join us for insights from this advocate for South Asian feminism in this interview with SEEMA.

You’ve received numerous messages from women saying your work has changed their lives. How does it feel to have such a profound impact on the lives of others through your activism and podcasting?

The “Masala Podcast” has had a massive impact on my community of South Asian women. It’s quite incredible! I get emails, messages, and DMs almost every week telling me how, because of this podcast, women feel less alone. Women feel like they have the courage to ask for what they need from their partners and families. A woman even told me that the podcast gave her the courage to leave an abusive marriage.

So when I say the Masala Podcast is life-changing, it literally is. I can’t tell you how important these messages from my listeners are. They are what get me out of bed on a tough day. They spur me on to keep going and to keep growing.

Your upbringing in a Mumbai slum and your experience with domestic violence as a child influenced your early feminism. Could you share more about how these experiences shaped your perspective and motivated you to become an activist?

I experienced traumatic domestic violence in my family as a child. I saw how badly women were treated around me. Women in my culture were groomed to look after others from the moment we were born. We were taught that our value comes from pleasing others because we are worth so little. I rejected these ideas, and I battled with my family for decades.

Like so many other South Asian women, I grew up surrounded by shame and taboo. Particularly, shame around my body, my sexual self, periods—the list was exhausting. All of this shaped my feminism early on. And I put that fire in my belly to really challenge the status quo and become an activist. This inspired me to create my feminist platform, Soul Sutras and “Masala Podcast”, to create change for my community.

Breaking traditional norms and being the first girl in your Keralan family to have a job and go to university must have been a significant challenge. Can you tell us more about your journey and the obstacles you had to overcome?

It was hard. I was the only person in my family and my extended circle saying the things that I was saying. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. They thought there was something wrong with me. They tried to get me married off, because neighbors were telling them I would “ruin” the name of the family. And all this because I refused the usual route of marriage and kids that most girls around me were being told to follow.

I stuck to my guns. I stayed at home (because girls only left home on their husband’s arm or on their funeral pyre, I was told!). I continued to voice my opinions and build the life that I wanted. Eventually, I found a career in advertising where I could earn my own money. And after ten years of staying at home and fighting with my family, I moved from Mumbai to Bangalore to build my own independent life. A few years later, I moved to London, which gave me the freedom to live as I wanted. And the opportunity to create the “Masala Podcast” and Soul Sutras.

Soul Sutras is a platform dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women while challenging cultural taboos. How did you come up with the idea for Soul Sutras, and what was your vision when you created it?

The idea for Soul Sutras was inspired by my own life experiences. Growing up in a culture where I was told I didn’t have a voice made me determined to have a strong voice and create a platform for millions of other women like me. I created Soul Sutras as a space for South Asian women to be truly ourselves, to celebrate those bits of our culture that serve us and take control of our narratives, as well as our minds and bodies. 

In what ways has Soul Sutras been successful in uniting women from various parts of the world in the pursuit of dismantling patriarchal structures and promoting gender equity?

At Soul Sutras, we get messages from South Asian women from all corners of the world. Many of them say the same thing: Soul Sutras make them feel less alone. Growing up within this culture means that we’ve all grown up with similar experiences and beliefs. Soul Sutras shows women that it’s okay to challenge some of these beliefs and that it’s up to us to decide what kinds of lives we want to live. And by living a powerful and fulfilled life, we’re not disrespecting our parents or family. Revolutions start with individuals.

Soul Sutras, with its podcast, events, articles, and inspirations, has helped so many South Asian women all over the world start their own revolutions in their own lives. And that is how, slowly but surely, we are changing the rules around gender disparity.

Could you talk about some of the well-known South Asian women who have been featured on your podcast and the insights they’ve brought to your discussions?

I interviewed so many amazing South Asian women, like musician Anoushka Shankar, comedian Shazia Mirza, and TV presenter Anita Rani. But I’ve also featured feminist activists working within mental health, sexuality, menopause, and so on. I also interviewed incredible Indian feminists in India, like writer Shobhaa De, sexuality expert Leeza Mangaldas, anti-FGM activist Aarefa Johari, and so on.

What are your goals for the future of the podcast?

My future goals are clear. I want to get South Asian female voices heard louder and clearer. South Asian feminism is a broad field. I try to represent as many points of view as possible by interviewing a range of South Asian women, from celebrities to everyday activists. I also try to interview South Asian women from various countries, like the U.K., India, and now the U.S.

I also want to do “Masala Podcast” specials in other countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Basically, anywhere where there are South Asian women, “Masala Podcast” plans to be there talking to them.

Your work with Soul Sutras and “Masala Podcast” has been highly influential. What advice would you give to aspiring activists and podcasters who want to create meaningful change and foster open conversations about challenging topics in their communities?

Here’s my advice to aspiring activists and podcasters who want to create change within their communities:

Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. If you get pushback from a few community members, don’t let it stop you. Remember the bigger purpose of why you’re doing this work. Think of the much-needed change that you’re creating in the world.

Own your voice. Remember, it’s the most powerful weapon you have. Don’t let others make you doubt your voice. You have a strong voice, now use it to make real change in the world.

Start small. Maybe record an interview. Maybe do some social posts. But start slowly and build up. But do make that start. Once you start, you can grow what you’re creating. Remember, your work in the world doesn’t have to be “perfect”—it just has to be real.

Where To Find “Masala Podcast”

Spotify

Apple

Google Podcasts

YouTube

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