People Who Inspire Us: Soniya Munshi

This month (February), we feature Soniya Munshi, NYC based queer South Asian writer, researcher and community activist about her 15 years of work and commitment to gender based violence in the South Asian community.  We asked Soniya what led her into the field of gender based violence, and how she and her work evolved. Here is what she had to say:
We asked Soniya what led her into the field of gender based violence, and how she and her work evolved. Here is what she had to say:

I came into the field of gender based violence, through an experience I had in college in Minnesota. I was looking for spaces to meet other women of color, and found Casa De Esperanza, an organization that responds to domestic violence in the Latina community.

Volunteering there really helped me understand things I saw in my personal life but could not articulate.

My time at Casa helped me to better connect violence that happens in intimate or family relationships with larger forces, like how the isolation of moving to a new country and economic conditions impact family dynamics, and how these factors create barriers to our collective wellness.

When I moved back home to New York City in 1999, I wanted to continue working on issues of gender-based violence in my own communities. I found work at Manavi, the South Asian women’s organization in New Jersey. I enjoyed my work, and spent most of my time advocating for women, offering support and helping them maneuver the legal system.

Then 9/11 happened. That was a turning point for me in the way I did and thought about my work. 

Because of the perceived racial and ethnic similarities to the hijackers, South Asian families were beginning to be severely racially profiled. Many Muslim and some non-Muslim South Asian people were suddenly disappearing and being picked up by ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement).  I started to get more involved in other community organizing projects.

After 9/11, after my daytime work ended at Manavi, I spent evenings and weekends volunteering with DRUM, which was the only organization in the South Asian community that was offering direct support and resources to people who had been picked up by ICE and were being held in detention/jail as well as to family members of people who had been disappeared.

At Manavi too, we saw  a spike in calls from women who wanted support not as much with domestic violence, but state violence. They were struggling with the disappearances of their husbands and brothers, and figuring out how to work around their increasing economic instability.

I really began to feel conflicted and felt I was having a split-experience. During the day I advocated for women to get what they needed from the legal system, and in the evenings, I was working to support people who were being abused by the state and the legal system.  

We had many hard conversations about how we, as a South Asian women’s organization, should respond to the changing conditions in our communities.

During this time, I realized I had to take a few steps back to see the fuller picture.

I moved away from the frontlines and enrolled in graduate school, which helped me to learn more about the larger history of South Asian migration, racial politics, and social justice movements in the U.S. I explored how domestic violence, state violence, race, gender, legal status and economics impact people’s lived experiences every day, and the strategies individuals and groups use to respond to it. It became increasingly clear to me that it is critical for us to invest in growing alternatives to the criminal legal responses to domestic violence.

I think there is an urgent need to centralize folks in our communities who are most marginalized. When we do that, then the way we think about violence and the way we think about justice also changes.

When we move towards community-based responses, we can see possibilities of a collective safety, healing, and wellness – that a system based in policing and punishment will not be able to bring us. There is so much important work that organizations do to help people navigate systems, but the changes we want to see are broader than these systems.

And, when going to systems becomes our automatic response as the only or best option, we can’t always see the possibilities that exist in our immediate surroundings, and in the relationships we already have, or can build, with each other. 

This work is challenging, as we are working against powerful forces that have determined that the best way to respond to domestic violence is to make it criminal, which means that services and other resources are often tied in to criminal processes and legal evidence. And, this is why I am so excited about the recent work I started with Sakhi’s Transformative Justice project. 

It is so hopeful to see Sakhi doing both direct work to help survivor of violence access resources, and build community capacity through its Transformative Justice project. 

I have evolved with my work. On a personal level too, I have shifted from feeling frustration and critiquing to learning and being more generative. Currently, I am working on a book that is a social history of the racial politics of anti-violence work in New York City. My hope is that this project will be a useful contribution to our collective work.

Our series continues here and on Twitter. Tweet @SakhiNYC with #InspiringSakhi and tell us who is a source of inspiration and action in your life.