The Identity Series
SEASON 1, EPISODE 2: NISHMA JETHWA
In our second episode, Inaya Hussain speaks to The Rights Collective’s co-founder and director, Nishma Jethwa. A lawyer by training, Nishma now works across the anti-oppression and social justice spaces in both London and Mumbai, with a focus on gendered oppression and transformative forms of justice and healing. She shares how her upbringing and experience as a British Indian woman have informed how she engages in community and activist work.
Nishma grew up in North London with her sister and parents. She recalls how her dad moved to London from Kenya with no qualifications, jumping head first into the world of work to provide for his wife. After starting a string of businesses, including buying and selling clothes, a laundromat and a mini cab service, his hard work paid off and they could finally start a family.
Nishma muses on how different his experience of London is to hers, due to the hustle and grind he had to put in to provide for his family, and is often surprised by the rogue bits of knowledge he has about the logistics of business and working life.
“I used to be quite judgemental of my mum, and not understand her experiences, and why she would talk about the things she's experienced in the way that she did...it was such a simplistic lens I had on the world, and I didn't really have that nuance of thought. I definitely sought to distance myself from my mum's life... I don’t want to be in a marriage and that be the whole of what I do.”
On intergenerational differences, Nishma shares how her and her mum often comes from different perspectives on topics such as feminism and social change, which has caused misunderstandings between them in the past. As she's grown up, Nishma has learned the importance of engaging with and honouring the wisdom and knowledge that our elders possess.
ON WORKING IN INDIA & BEING SOUTH ASIAN
“When I was younger...we would go every year in the summer...and I didnt like it...things were quite different, it was too hot for me, too humid, I didn’t love the food, I just didn’t really like any of it. I think a lot of people who grew up around the same time as me remember that feeling, and that’s a combination of India being so different, but we also grew up with the idea that being British Asian is different, and we didn’t want to be different, we just want to fit in and be like everyone else. It's such a contrast to how I am now and a lot of people around me are now.”
After she graduated, Nishma stumbled across a programme targeted at British Indians who wanted to go to India and explore their identity, history and social change. It was the first time she travelled there without family, and she recalls how different this experience was, especially being able to interact with Indians who were engaged in social change and community impact work.
“It really opened my mind to - one, what India was, which I obviously had a different perspective of, but also my relationship to India, and at that time, it made me question a lot about my identity - Who am I? What’s important?...It was mind blowing to me that there were people doing this work in a country which is often relegated to the “developing world” and the Global South. My relationship with India changed then, but it was still very separate; India and Indians are like this, and they're over there, and I’m over here, and there's a connection between us, but we’re not the same...If I fast forward to more recently and living in India for the past few years, that shift has been huge for me, being able to situate myself as a member of the diaspora within the Indian context, what that looks like - my privileges and positionality.”
On her experience with moving to Mumbai, Nishma shares how she naively thought she would fit in a lot better there, and perhaps find parts of identity she couldn’t in London. She soon learned, however, that her positionality as a British Indian in India was a lot more complex than she had anticipated - from popular references to community work.
“Working in social development and change, in those contexts, rightly so, people are suspicious of a random outsider coming in and claiming to be able to make some positive change, that is like the definition of colonialism. Even if I look brown, I still am an outsider.”
This reality has shaped Nishma’s understanding of community and belonging, teaching her that community is multi-faceted and identity is constantly changing in response to the environment.
ON COMMUNITY WORK & THE DIASPORA COMMUNITY
“We have the opportunity to frame our wellbeing and our healing for ourselves, and not have someone outside of us explain that back to us, or save us from ourselves.”
Looking back, Nishma identifies her similarities with her mother as one of the motivators for her work within the gendered inequality spaces. Despite their similarities, they have lived extremely different lives, which Nishma believes is a consequence of small ‘t’ trauma, which manifests as harmful expectations, restrictions and ways of being which are imposed onto the lives of South Asian women.
“As diaspora, we’ve moved across and bought our culture, our values and our belief systems, but those haven’t grown and developed with time.”
This was especially apparent to Nishma when The Rights Collective was launched, originally focusing on the British Hindu community:
“There was a strong desire to throw [the problem] somewhere else...to another community in the South Asian space, throw it back to India, anywhere but near us...that’s everyone, but I’ve definitely seen it in the South Asian community, it makes people really uncomfortable.”
From her experience, Nishma finds that this happens across generations, and that the more specific her work becomes, the more resistant people become to engage with it.
She has learnt that the best way to overcome this is to create positive and hopeful spaces where people can come together, talk and imagine a better future as a community.
“One reason I’m hopeful is actually because of this whole pandemic...so many things that I never would have expected could come to the ...forefront of the conversations that we’re having as a world are now being had...I hope and I feel that that will be an accelerating factor in redesigning what we want the world to look like.”
“There’s no point in us shouting from the rooftops about oppressive structures and oppressive systems and dismantling xyz...if we’re not everyday trying to practice that in ourselves. How do I manage conflict day-to-day in my life.? How do I interact in my relationships, in my family, with other people? What about your immediate desire to punish someone who has harmed you? It comes back to day-to-day.”
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.