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Former Miss India USA Takes on Federation of Malayalee Associations of Americas with Allegations of Sexual Harassment

In a culture that trains women to curtail male sexual aggression, former Miss India USA fights back


Angela Suresh never set out to become the face of survivors of sexual assault in the Malayalee community. It was a role foisted upon her when she called out the men who sexually harassed her and demanded accountability from the organisation that protected them. Her allegations set off a firestorm in the North American Malayalee community that has reverberated back to the shores of Kerala.

 

A true “thani naadan penkoche,” pure Kerala girl, Angela loves her heritage. Preserving Kerala culture in the diaspora has been her personal mission as a second-generation Indian American, “there is a lot of beauty in our culture, I want to bridge the gap between the younger and older generations.” Angela is also classically trained in Bharatanatyam (classical South Indian dance) and relished the opportunity to perform. Her passion for dance and love of culture motivated her to get involved in a local Malayalee organisation at a very young age. With most of her extended family in Kerala, these community organisations provided an outlet to speak Malayalam, engage in the culture and perform. To Angela, “this was my family” and yet, as she grew up in these spaces, she learned that casual misogyny and arrogance in leadership came with the territory.

 

Angela’s talent in classical dance drew her into the Indian pageant scene where she won three titles, Miss India Washington (2014), Miss India USA: Miss Popular (2014) and Miss Auburn (2016). Her pageant wins got the attention of the Federation of Malayalee Associations of Americas (FOMAA), one of the largest Malayalee organisations in the US. She was recruited to join the organisation and invited to participate at FOMAA events. When talking about her initial experiences attending events, Angela recalls, “you always had to be aware, I always sensed I was being ogled, looked up and down.” Objectification was something she was familiar with having competed in beauty pageants and it is something that she says continued during her tenure at FOMAA. 

 

Angela described the harassment and predatory behaviour she experienced by male leadership, past and current. She talked about lewd and suggestive comments about her appearance, unwanted touch, explicit text messages, and sexual advances. She claims that in 2018 the then Joint Secretary followed her to her hotel room at a conference making comments about her body as he trailed behind her calling her “voluptuous” and saying that “he could show me a good time.” In 2017, she was assaulted in her own apartment by the current President of the organisation (who at the time held a different role). He arrived uninvited and forced his way into her home. As she recounted the night of the assault, she talked about wanting to diffuse the situation without getting her attacker in trouble with the law or the community finding out. In those few seconds that she could have called the police, she instead called friends who remained on the phone with her until they arrived. Angela was eventually able to get him to leave but as she shared her story, I saw in her that familiar look South Asian women give each other, the one that says they know it wasn’t ok, but they took one for the team to protect the other person, their family, the community. So many women can relate to this denial of self in favour of the community. “I thought about everyone else, except my own safety.”

 

In the absence of any formal anti-harassment policy or conflict resolution, Angela was left to fend for herself in an unsafe environment. When she tried filing complaints internally for being verbally accosted, she was instructed to “just forgive and forget before taking this to the next level..." and was sent memes to make light of her complaint. With an organisation unwilling to deal with interpersonal conflict, how could she trust them with something more severe? Angela completed her volunteer commitment and left the organisation.

 

 

Since coming forward with her story on social media, starting a petition on Change.org and being granted a “right to sue” by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Angela has experienced intense backlash from the community. A community that prides itself in being the epitome of model minorities in the US. Angela’s accusations challenged that perception, and it made her the target of gossip, harassment, and public scorn. Salacious memes are circulating community WhatsApp and FB groups calling her a “Saritha” or temptress with a honey trap. There are conspiracy theories from FOMAA supporters saying she is plotting “to take down FOMAA and doing it for money.” What makes all of this particularly despicable, is that no one is denying the credibility of her claims (except for a few faceless, nameless, and spineless internet trolls), in fact, some of the men in question have reputations for being womanizers and excessive drinkers known to act out. 

 

As a woman and mother of 2 daughters in the Malayalee community, I am disgusted watching this scenario play out. It is shameful how FOMAA and its supporters have responded. Their smugness is enraging and their behaviour harmful. It is as though it is beneath them to answer to a woman and take her seriously. People have been critical of how Angela has shared her story but fail to admit that no example exists of how to deal with this issue holistically as a community. I think of the survivors among us listening to this scrutiny and believing that their stories must remain hidden. Who would want this abuse when you are already traumatized?

 

To date, none of the accused have publicly addressed the allegations directly. 


FOMAA has issued a press release and a few self-aggrandizing YouTube videos offering zero insight into their stance on sexual harassment or violence against women specifically. The culture of victim-blaming has shielded them from any form of accountability. But their recent elections provide some insight into the value of men in the organisation over women. The newly elected chairman of the FOMAA Kerala convention was convicted in a Brooklyn Federal Court for falsely reporting that his ex-wife (who was visiting the US from India) was a terrorist. At his arraignment in 2014, he admitted to being upset that his ex-wife was visiting the US and deliberately lied to authorities about her being a terrorist. So, when FOMAA claims to be an “organisation that stands for women’s rights, equality and empowerment,” one must examine reality versus empty sentiments.

 

Angela is actively pursuing justice and was not at liberty to disclose the specifics of her case. She did share that she wants the men who harassed her to resign or be removed from FOMAA, she wants a public apology, she wants accountability and anything in addition to that is her right and her business to demand.

 

In Kerala, these things are oftentimes dealt with discreetly if at all. Shame forces the victim to bear the full weight of the abuse under the shroud of secrecy and as they suffer in silence, the abuser remains unbothered. We expect women to always be soft-spoken and agreeable, we never give them license to scream when they have every right to, and we malign them for fighting back. There is no smooth road to justice for a sexual assault survivor. We comment on the cut of a woman’s sari blouse, her midriff showing, or pictures on social media to insinuate that victims should know better rather than condemning predatory behaviour. Some women brag about having cracked the misogyny code, figuring out how not to get harassed as if that is what we should aspire to. Being too clever to get sexually assaulted is not the goal. Women must be able to freely exist without having to accommodate patriarchy and reject the notion that we are responsible for sexual violence.

 

This moment is about more than just FOMAA, it is about who we are as a people, what we believe about women and how they are allowed to exist. When a woman chooses to compete in a pageant, post pictures on social media, or live however she chooses, she does this by having agency. A choice. When she is sexually harassed for how she exists in the world, she is being sexualized without her consent. Consent is key. When you are trained to believe that women exist for your pleasure and service, one can understand why this concept is foreign to most of the men in our community. Things won’t just get better for us over time, we must stop shrinking ourselves in service of patriarchy and divest from it entirely. It is a remnant of colonialism that must go. Its oppressiveness has prevented the flourishing of women that not only harms us but the entire community.

 

Our women deserve to speak and be heard. They deserve to be believed. They deserve our righteous indignation and the strength of our solidarity. We can’t wait any longer, the time is now.

About the author

Rebekah James Lovett is a Tamil - Malayalee writer and proud Dravidian living on Turtle Island. She is a member of Malayalees for Social Justice. Her activism explores the intersections of culture, Christianity, race, gender and sexuality through a decolonized lense. Her feminism centers the voices and wisdom of Black, Brown, and Indigenous Women.


Instagram: @malayaleesforsocialjustice

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