Bhagwati ‘s SWAN is working to end harassment and assault in the military

3 years ago / by Seema Kumar
Anu Bhagwati

Pic courtesy: Anu Bhagwati, MAKERS.

As a young girl, Anu Bhagwati was a rebel, an identity that set her on a path to the Ivy League, the Marines and advocacy leadership.

Growing up in America in a very traditional Indian household, Bhagwati, like many Indian girls, was pressured to overachieve in academics. Basketball and other fun activities were discouraged. And, her sexuality—Bhagwati is bisexual—was an issue.

An only child of highly accomplished academic parents, “I didn’t have much of a voice in my family,” says Bhagwati in an interview with the Literary Hub. “As [my parents] were navigating what it was like to be American and assimilating, I was also navigating what it meant to have Indian parents but being surrounded by mostly white kids in my schools, and not really feeling Indian, not really knowing what that meant.”

In addition to her struggles to come to terms with being different as a “brown girl” in school and college, Bhagwati, who self-identified as a bisexual at 19, struggled to come to terms with her sexuality in a household that was hyper conservative.

After finishing her schooling at Yale, Bhagwati joined Columbia to do her graduate studies. “There was just a lot of pressure on me,” she says in the interview. “I wasn’t really allowed to do the things that made me happy. I was just supposed to go to school and get straight A’s.”

Pic courtesy: Anu Bhagwati.

In 1992, Bhagwati dropped out of Columbia and joined the United States Marine Corps, rebelling against her upbringing and seeking an escape from the shackles of the deep conservatism.

She served as a Marine Officer from 1999 to 2004, and became the second woman to complete the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor trainer school, earning a black belt in close-combat techniques. She held posts in Okinawa, Thailand, and Camp Lejeune, and became a skilled marksman.

During her training and as a young officer, Bhagwat faced sexual harassment and a culture of misogyny, racism, and homophobia, as she describes in her book Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience. Bhagwat writes frankly and openly about how she coped with and stood up to discrimination and sexual harassment. She also stood up for the right of women in her chain of command. However, her advocacy had mixed results, and she left the Marines as a Captain in 2004, disillusioned by the lack of willingness to address these issues head on.

Today, Bhagwati is an activist and an advocate who speaks up about the need to end sexual assault and gender violence in the military. Bhagwati founded the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an organization that “aims to become the nation’s largest, most influential and effective network of service women.”

Under her leadership, SWAN works to engage policy makers to bring positive change in the military, such as opening all military jobs to service women and expand access to services for reproductive healthcare services.

But significantly, SWAN is also spearheading a national movement to end sexual harassment and assault as well as domestic violence in the military, holding sex offenders accountable in the military justice system and eliminating barriers to disability claims for military sexual trauma.

Recently, a human rights law firm in Washington D.C. filed a historic lawsuit against the US Department of Defense for failing to prevent rape and sexual assault and mishandling cases brought its attention.

“It was the first time that the Department of Defense in the United States ever responded in the proper way, not making excuses for itself, finally recognizing that it has a lot of work to do,” Bhagwati says in an interview with Makers.

Today, Bhagwati continues work tirelessly to advocate for military veterans and uses her voice to effect positive change on challenges faced by military women.

We salute Anu Bhagawati for her service to the military and for being a champion for the rights of women in the military. Read more about her at, and visit for more information.