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Roots Episode 01: First Asian Woman Festival of the world

Listen: In conversation with Shani Dhanda, founder of the Asian Woman Festival


Shani Dhanda wanted to meet fellow Asian women in the UK and all she could find was Saree or Wedding shops. No events, spaces or get-togethers curated for the community.

And so, she took one of the biggest financial risks of her life and self funded the Asian Woman Festival (AWF) - a one day festival comprising of panel talks, workshops, art exhibition and live performances. 

Shani is also the founder of Asian Disability Network. 

Let's know her a bit more and understand her motives behind these projects in the first ever episode of Roots with South Asian Today.

Transcript:

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

You're listening to Roots with South Asian today. This podcast is being recorded in Australia on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging, sovereignty was never ceded.

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

Hello, and welcome to the very first episode of roots with South Asian today. My name is Dilpreet and I'm very excited for our guest Shani Dhanda. She is the founder of the Asian Woman Festival, a first of its kind in the UK to be specially curated for South Asian women. The festival is a jam packed day of panel talks, workshops, art exhibitions, live performances, festival, bazaar and much much more. 

A very warm welcome Shani. 

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

Hi, thank you for having me. 

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

Thank you so much for joining us. First of all Shani. I must come gratulate you on starting the Asian Woman Festival. It looks incredible.

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

Thank you, thank you. It's definitely a labour of love. It's something that I enjoy not only founding but being part of as well. And it you know, it allows me to connect with people all around the world like you. So, here we are,

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

Indeed, could you walk me through why and how the idea of the festival first hit you?

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

I met Sikh Punjabi woman living in England in in the West Midlands who and were a very multicultural place in England. We have a huge Punjab community as well as Pakistani Bangladeshi. I was looking to meet like-minded Asian women. I was just surrounded with people that were valuing a woman's work on the fact of them getting married or having kids. And I thought this can't just be me that thinks we can value women just on that fact alone though. I started to try to, maybe, you know, events that were happening or any groups and I really couldn't find anything. And the only thing that I could find were events like Asian wedding fairs where you'd go to book a wedding venue or like where you'd go and buy a sari. And I was like, I'm not interested in any of that. And right, and I'm sure there are other women out there that like, what if they've already done that?  

Or what if, like me, they're not interested in that, maybe not now or not ever, like whatever. So, I just kind of thought, well, this is just reinforcing that stereotype that Asian women are just seen as objects for marriage and making babies. So where can we actually go and meet? So, my background is in event management, and I thought, well, if anyone has the right skills to do this and set up an event for Asian women to come and meet, then it's me. So, I when and I thought maybe, you know, maybe 200 people would come We actually had over 1000 people on the day. But you know, it was after many months of hard work, in addition to all of my other things that I do, really pulling in a lot of favours. But yeah, it was it was definitely worth it definitely worth it.

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

I'm sure. And it definitely goes on to show that there are women around us who want to explore their lives beyond the ideas of just saris and weddings.

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

Absolutely. But, you know, like, to me, they just didn't have that space to come together, because that space didn't exist. So it's a huge honour to be able to not only create, you know, an annual festival, but to bring together now, which is an international community. And we're not just a community of women, but also their allies. 

So, we have seen a huge growth in men interacting with our content and at our festival. We had so many different people. They were weren't just South Asian, you know, we had grandparents, we had people of all different faiths and cultures, because we can't change the narrative of just speaking to South Asian women. We have to speak to all of our allies and everybody else that that exists with us. 

 Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

So, the festival might just be in the UK, but you do have a reach outside of it to was having a global audience one of the purposes when you first began?

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

No, absolutely not that I did with very modest aims and objectives. I have to say, I, I'm being totally honest, I thought, you know what, I'll do this first event, and I'll see how it goes. I'm not you know; I'm not going to put any pressure on myself and say it has to be this or it's going to be an annual event. But once we achieved the first festival, I soon realised that I had a huge responsibility to continue this and it is what people wanted. And you know, people travelled from abroad.  

To come to the first ever festival. So, we had people come from as far as Singapore to, you know, to the UK just just for this festival. And it wasn't until the festival started. And I sat there in the audience next to my mom and I just burst out in tears like, Oh my god, it's fine. It's happening. It's now it's like all this month, months of work has accumulated this in people came and people came in huge numbers. And so yeah, definitely, you know, it was not meant to be a global community. But we're so happy that it has been

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

You believed in it, you gave it a shot, and it was fortunately a huge success. So I'm curious to learn if you ever felt not supported by other creatives and leaders in the lead up to launching the festival. Was there a moment when you thought, Oh, this this might not work?

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

Yeah. See, I think this is a really good question, because I think sometimes you only ever see the outcome of things and we don't really understand the journey of how You know, that got to be. It's everything that takes place behind the scenes that people don't really see they only see the outcome. So yes, it wasn't an easy road. 

It wasn't an easy journey. Essentially, it was an entirely new concept. It was a new brand people that I was talking to, unfortunately, especially men were like, why do you need this? Why do Asian women need this? So not only was I having to sort of picked an entirely new concept was having to educate people as well, people that I didn't think I would have to educate. And it was difficult because I didn't get any sponsorship, although I've tried them this day, and I ended up South funding the entire festival and it literally felt like I was planning my own wedding reception. I'm not gonna lie. You know, I'm very fortunate that I have a job that allowed me to have savings that allowed me to put them into the festival.

So I do want to really make clear that it was a huge financial risk. He literally put my money where my mouth was, but I felt so strongly about this. And, you know, if if if it didn't work, it didn't work and I would have taken that loss. But I'm a person who is a really strong believer in if you don't try then you'll never know. And you know, I tried and I I've gained massively from this from connecting with so many like-minded women from creating a global community. But yeah, the road to that it was definitely bumpy. Now we've got the first festival and about now we've just hit a huge milestone of 20 k following on Instagram, we've got a hugely successful website and blog. We now have things to demonstrate and to, to show to people when we're going to, to approach them for support.

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

Yes, that was my next question. I can see the festivals Instagram has reached 20,000 followers is a large following on social media something that you consider a goal. How much does it personally matter to you?

 Shani Dhanda (Guest)

I think what really matters to me is always quality over quantity in anything that I do. Like, there's really no point in having a lot of followers if they're not engaged, if they're not getting anything out of the content if they're not learning anything from our platform. And I can wholeheartedly say that isn't the case with us? Yes, it's important that we have, you know, a following. But what we don't want is people to not engage with what we're doing because we're interested to share people's stories, you know, really personal stories of them, either, you know, that it could be from being disowned by their family, it could be their journey of infertility, it could be, you know, something really triggering something really traumatic. And we have to guard that and reassure people that we are the platform that they can safely do that with. 

 So to me, we have created a community of supportive, encouraging. And again, I'm going to use a word like minded women and not only women, but allies. And that is the most Paramount thing that's important to me. And don't get me wrong, you know, as with anything online, we have to moderate some comments, we've had to remove some people from the platform. But that just goes to show that we do have a good reach. And we are making it a safe space not only at our events, but also online, I guess in order to really sum up having a huge following. It's not the be all and end all. But what is important is that we have an engaged community, which we absolutely do have.

 Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

Absolutely. And we do live in this digital age where social media really is a massive tool of communication. And I feel your following is also a data point that tells you insights and helps you tailor your future goals.

 Shani Dhanda (Guest)

Yeah, and you know, I'm gonna be really honest here. Our main offering used to be Yeah festival and then COVID came and kind of scuppered the plans for that this year. So unfortunately, we weren't able to go ahead with this amazing festival that we planned for a second year. So we did have to look at ways of connecting with our community online and then and still keeping that conversation going despite the pandemic, despite, you know, social distancing. So we have had to relook at our strategy, but we are really looking forward to when it is safe to reorganising our festival.

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

Have you considered doing the festival online?

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

We have. So we've explored lots of different options, but we decided to not replicate the festival online because it's just wouldn't be the same and I can't describe the atmosphere, the buzz, the electricity, the vibe, like if anyone wants to read any feedback from people that left us feedback from the festival. That's all on our website. But we know we just wouldn't be able to recreate that. And that is what we want to do.

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

So Shani, I see you're also the founder of Asian disability network. And I understand the stigma around disability in South Asian communities can be massive. Is that something you think is changing?

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

I think it's changed our mental health. But I don't think it's changed for many of the things that's due to a lot of reasons. But I guess just to sort of explain, so I set up the agent on the vessel because it's something that I wish existed. I set up the agent disability network, again, because it's something that I wish existed. And I know that both of these platforms are going to help people because these are platforms and networks and communities that I was looking for that were there, but they didn't have a collective space to come together. So we were just all people being lonely in silos, and I've just essentially created a vehicle to help bring people together and with disability, it's a topic that nobody ever wants to talk about, generally, whether you're South Asian or not, because people are very fearful, they're afraid that they're going to offend someone, they're afraid they're going to say the wrong thing. And genuinely, as a society, wherever you are in the world, we have very low or negative perceptions about disability and disabled people, which makes us have huge misconceptions about the experience of disability. 

It makes us have huge misconceptions about people's ability and their needs and desires, then that trickles into service provision for disabled people. And then when you layer on multiple identities, such as you know, ethnicity, or sexuality, then that creates even more inequality. So for me, I'm using my experience of not been represented feeling, you know, disadvantaged or discriminated. I'm challenging that I'm sharing the stories through myself through other people that I know, in a similar situation, because I don't want future generations to have to go through the same things as me. And you know, being really honest, I'm 33 years old, and there's not been enough change in the South Asian community on the topic of disability. And it's sad. I mean, it's not right. And if we don't start talking about it, if we don't start addressing it, then nothing's gonna happen. Nothing will change. Hmm.

 Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

How do you suggest allies can help D stigmatise the taboos around disability? Do you have any tips for those who are listening?

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

I think that, again, that's a really good question. I think first and foremost, we all have to educate ourselves. We all have to really understand the reality of what it's like to live with a condition or an impairment. Anything that you do really interrogate Am I being representative is everything The day that we live in society with here around this table.

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

Wow, kudos to you, Shani, I am so thankful for all your work. And I can imagine the effort behind it. Because when I came to Australia three years ago from India, I found no media outlets for South Asian women or non-binary folks. And that's why I decided to launch South Asian today. It's a lot of work. But there's also this thrill and sense of achievement like we discussed earlier. So, before you go, I just wanted to ask you, if you had to define representation in a single sentence, what would you say,

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

Having a presence and not having to fight for that presence, it's being represented in a way where whoever you are, whatever your identity is, it's acknowledged as the representation of society. So you know, for example, like in the UK, in all of the advertising, for example, out of that, say, 10,000 people, only one or two of those people will have a disability, whereas we know one in five people In the UK are disabled. So you can clearly see the lack of representation there by banging down doors and build tables and chairs all day every day, you know about representation and inclusion. But for me, I think that the true meaning of representation really is where I don't have to do that, where everybody else is thinking of those other people that aren't there. And that do need that representation. And it's really important because, you know, growing up, I never saw anyone of colour on my screen who had a physical condition or impairment. And, you know, I'm a massive believer that you can't be what you can't see.

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

Hmm, you can't be what you can't see. And that not Shani Dhanda everybody - founder of the Asian Woman Festival. We wish you the very best for all upcoming ventures. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Shani Dhanda (Guest)

Thank you so much. It's a great honour and really good luck with South Asian Today.

Dilpreet Kaur (Host)

To stay tuned with all our upcoming episodes, subscribe to our Spotify, Apple podcasts, or give us a visit on www.southasiantoday.com.au

 

About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.

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