The Identity Series
SEASON 1, EPISODE 1: SHANI DHANDA
In our first episode, Chandrima Ganguly speaks to disability specialist and gender equality advocate, Shani Dhanda. Born with a brittle bone condition, Shani has founded the Asian Disability Network, the Diversability card and the Asian Woman Festival. She shares how her Sikh upbringing, advocacy for universal accessibility and passion for raising the voices of South Asian women has shaped her identity.
“Not only do I face challenges from a societal perspective but having them culturally as well is difficult.”
Brought up in a Sikh household, Shani credits her open-minded family for not creating any barriers based on her condition or gender. While the wider community often lowered their expectations of her, Shani explains how she used this as motivation to do anything she wanted.
During her mid to late teens, Shani found she was still being treated as a child and was met with shock and surprise when she wanted to do things such as learning how to drive or going to university. Some people suggested she doesn’t have to work and can sit at home and claim benefits. Luckily this wasn’t hers or her family’s mentality.
ON SOCIETY & SOCIAL STIGMA
“I was born with a condition but my condition doesn’t disable me. It’s only when I’m faced with barriers or bias that it actually disables me. So it puts the onus back on society…I think disability is a social construct. Until we talk about it and familiarise ourselves with it, the perception of disability changes.”
When treated differently, Shani explains how she is forced to question each of the unique facets that make up her identity to understand why. Is it because she has a visible condition? Because she’s Indian? The fact that she’s a woman? Or is it none of those factors and something else entirely?
According to Shani, one way of tackling the social stigma is through accurate representation and portrayal of people’s stories. However, this is currently lacking and consequently, disability is currently viewed negatively. In the media, people with disabilities are often viewed as villains and rarely play positive characters.
People with disabilities are the world’s largest marginalised group and brands and businesses need to do more to change the narrative.
ON MENTAL HEALTH
“I broke my legs six times by the age of 14…so my childhood was very unpredictable but it also made me very resilient and a good problem solver.”
It’s these two skills, which Shani believes helped and motivated her to do whatever she wanted to. This was helped with the support of her Mum who didn’t treat her differently and continued to encourage her to do the chores even when her leg was broken.
Lockdown has also taught her to be more kind to herself and take time out when she needs it and learning how to find the right balance.
ON SIKHISM & BEING SOUTH ASIAN
“Sikhism is a beautiful religion…what I really appreciate in the values of Sikhism is equality. Whoever you are, whatever you are, whatever gender you are, it doesn’t matter. Equality is first and we’re one human race. That’s helped me to accept the fact that I have a condition. To accept the fact that I’ll always be a little different.”
Living in a devout Sikh household, Shani also talks about how these values not only shaped her parents raised their children but also shaped Shani’s identity and acceptance of her condition.
Being brought up on the knowledge of the injustices Sikhs have faced as a minority in India means that fighting for causes and advocacy was also a large part of Shani’s childhood and something that encourages her to continue to do that to this day.
However, disability within the South Asian community is still surrounded by shame and stigma, particularly when it comes to the often spiritual reasons behind why a person is disabled.
Shani explains that in Sikhism, it’s believed a person behaved badly in a past life if they’re disabled – something people have said directly to her. This has caused her to feel guilty and burdened with this notion, even though she may not believe in the idea of past lives.
“Certain people think they have a pass to ask anything because I look different. Whether I like it or not, that’s what it is. If I constantly rejected it, it would make me a really angry person and that isn’t me. But what I realised is that when you are different, it’s easier to make a difference.”
Having always been brought up to fight for injustices and providing a service to others, Shani talks about her passion for advocacy. She’s now turned that passion into a career, after working in event management.
Being brought up learning about the injustices Sikhs have faced as a minority in India means that fighting for causes and advocacy was also a large part of Shani’s childhood and something that encouraged her to continue to do that to this day.
However, it can sometimes feel exhausting to fight on a daily basis and always be the educator and advocate, says Shani. She’s learned to pick and choose her battles, especially if she’s not mentally prepared for that.
“I went to businesses for sponsorship but people didn’t really get it. They questioned why we needed an Asian Woman Festival. Why do women need their own space and their own platform? Then I realised I’m talking to people who don’t understand the challenges of being an Asian woman.”
After working hard in disability advocacy, Shani talks about her inspiration to start the Asian Woman Festival as she started to explore the other parts of herself, that shape who she is. Her search for events including like-minded Asian women only resulted in Asian wedding fairs and so she decided to use her background in events management to create her own.
After only expecting a few hundred to show up, the first festival attracted 1000 people, including those from abroad.
“I want people to understand how marginalised people in their communities as well as wider society are feeling and how exhausting it is to constantly feel like you’re having to fight battles just to go about your everyday life. We all have a collective responsibility as society to change and we can change it, but it starts with everyone understanding what the issues are.”
Thank you to the Podcast team who worked on this series, including Inaya Hussain, Tasha Mathur, Nishma Jethwa and Chandrima Ganguly.
Music produced by Substeppers
Substeppers are British Asian bass music duo combining the precision of Sunny Banger, with the mastery of Vxks. After a long hiatus, they are back to capitalize on their early success and send ripples of their new sounds all around the world. With consistent support from the likes of BBC, MTV & Mixmag, their newest EP entitled Bollywood Trap led them to become the BBC Introducing's first British Asian production duo. The Substeppers project aims to take people to another world with their latest single & explore eastern themes combined with progressive ideas, through the lens of electronic world music.
Artwork produced by KakiKasi
KakiKasi is currently based in the Bay Area, California with roots in the American Midwest and Punjab. They are an artist, writer and overall community-centred creature. You can find some of their artwork @KakiKasi and some of the work they’ve curated of South Asian queer and feminist art @popadumart.