Jaspreet Kaur’s teachings in brown self-love

Sharessa makes a photo of the event her own

Image: Sharessa Naidoo creatively represents her response to the event; pictured from left to right Jaspreet Kaur, Dr Kaveri Qureshi, Pooja Marwaha, Sharessa Naidoo and Dr. Radhika Govinda discussing ‘Brown Girl Like Me: The Essential Guidebook and Manifesto for South Asian Girls and Women’ co-sponsored by GENDER.ED. Credit:Tulsa Moosa.

When I think about my unique journey as a South African woman of Indian origin, my mind brings on flashbacks from my childhood. I picture six-year-old me’s little body positioned right in front of our living room’s big TV screen, virtually emerged in the displayed landscapes that swirled with colour, but yet stood firm in their impressive depictions of natural formations spanning the globe. For the Bollywood lovers fated to be apart, their love could not be stopped in these fantastical surrounds. My parents and grandparents would sit me down religiously until I was four-years-old to witness these Bollywood love stories. They could barely hold me still. I’d run to the screen as soon as a dance sequence began, wanting to escape into the lovers’ world where their love was celebrated and they were invincible. I couldn’t get enough of the feeling that I was invincible because I was just like the lovers in the movies. We had the same deep brown skin, same thick black hair, same hearty food and same noble gods.

I’m deeply appreciative of my Indian heritage that till today never fails to cause an overflow of warmth and affection in me every time I think about it. However I’ve found myself in my most recent years at university for the first time, away from my family, craving the strong, all-consuming feelings I used to associate with my Indian heritage when I would spend time watching Bollywood movies with my family. It’s not been easy keeping my love for my heritage strong as a brown woman, while living in an environment that continually generates disproportionate obstacles for me to overcome specifically because of my brown heritage.

Jaspreet Kaur recognised this in herself and the brown girl students she taught as a history teacher in London. Brown women needed a resource that outlined the unique set of obstacles they face in the UK as well as genuine ways to overcome these obstacles. This prompted Kaur to write a book like no other: ‘Brown Girl Like Me: The Essential Guidebook and Manifesto for South Asian Girls and Women’. Once her book was published at the beginning of the year, Kaur set out on her first university book tour. The tour has allowed Kaur to host workshops and have candid and restorative conversations with brown women students from many well-known UK universities. She’s since travelled right through the UK on her tour visiting Oxford, Manchester, Birmingham and more.

Kaur’s tour ended at the University of Edinburgh. GENDER.ED, Girl Up Edinburgh, Centre for South Asian Studies and the university’s Feminist Society joined forces to host a panel discussion on Kaur’s book. The panel explored the unique experiences of brown women and brought together Kaur, Dr Kaveri Qureshi, Pooja Marwaha, myself and Dr Radhika Govinda , as the panel’s host, to talk about Kaur’s book. Discussions touched on Kaur’s chapters which related to family relationships, the stigmatisation of mental illness, queer romantic relationships and how social media can be used to unite brown women together against the obstacles they share but individually experience. In addition, Kaur hosted a workshop for University of Edinburgh brown women at the Chaplaincy Building on campus which I also attended. The workshop lasted two hours and consisted of Kaur asking attendees questions and having discussions based on their responses.

Poster for Jaspreet Kaur event

Discussions at both events were liberating. Never before in my four years at the university was there an opportunity to have events that deliberately centred my obstacles and existence as a brown woman. I felt it difficult at first to think about the obstacles I experience as a brown woman. But after I started peeling back the many layers of social conditioning I had accumulated over the years, I couldn’t stop. Social conditioning had predisposed me to automatically minimise the importance of my brownness and Indian heritage as a way to quickly recover from anti-brown racism. Like most workshop attendees admitted, I used social conditioning as an armour to protect myself against white people ascribing hurtful stereotypes to me. My armour was dual-purpose, it protected me during times I was forced to study people who never thought like me or looked like and in every single situation I’ve been in where I felt my opinions or achievements were intentionally ignored because I was a brown woman.

The workshop has changed how I see many things. It communicated to me that the armour of social conditioning we as brown women tend to use as protection removes our brown heritage from our lives. But this means we remove any chance of finding immense pride, solidarity and self-fulfilment in our brown heritage. We remove any chance that our brown heritage has of making us feel invincible. Kaur’s visit was a massive success and to end, I would like to express my gratitude. Jaspreet, thank you for revitalising the need within me to work against what society wants from me, and to work towards what I, like most brown women, really want – to live a life as celebratory, full of love and empowering as the lives of Bollywood lovers whose determination to profess their love has no bounds.

Ever since the workshop, I’ve challenged myself to regularly develop and profess my love for my Indian heritage. Brown women reading this, I extend this same challenge to you.

Author Bio

Sharessa Naidoo is currently in her 4th Year studying Maths and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She was born and raised in South Africa as a 4th generation South African of Indian-origin. Much of her experiences as a South Asian woman are shaped by her South African upbringing and time spent in her Johannesburg-based all girls’ high school. She has served as Girl Up Edinburgh’s President at the university since 2020. Girl Up Edinburgh is a student club a part of the global Girl Up UN Foundation Movement aimed at empowering young girls and women to be society leaders. She is passionate about racism, gender equality and how discrimination can be identified and solved most effectively.