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South Asian Law Student Association’s conference addressed fight for civil rights through solidarity among marginalized groups

March 12, 2021

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA) recently hosted its second annual conference, which brought together the voices of several prominent legal professionals from the entire sub-region of South Asia – a first of its kind.

This year’s theme was centered on civil rights and the pursuit of solidarity between marginalized communities in the fight for equality.

Global perspectives on civil rights

Dean of International Affairs Rangita de Silva de Alwis moderated the first session, “Global Perspectives on Civil Rights” with panelists Shelly Kapoor Collins, founding Partner of the Shatter Fund, a venture capital firm that invests in technology companies started and led by women, and Farahnaz Ispahani, author of Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities and former member of Pakistan Parliament.

Kapoor Collins shared her experiences as a woman working in the field of technology, which is heavily dominated by men. In Silicon Valley, 80 percent of women face some kind of harassment or violence – a result of a systemic issue: just 6 percent of venture capital is led by women and less than 2 percent of venture capital goes to fund women-led businesses. When disaggregated by race, less than 1 percent of venture capital goes to women of color. Kapoor Collins pierces this veil of exclusion by bringing women into the pipeline.

“The economy is a women’s issue,” Kapoor Collins said. “When a woman is financially independent, then she is able to practice her rights, able to leave her abuser, and able to stand on her own feet.”

Farahnaz Ispahani, whose lineage traces back to the founder of Pakistan, also fights to empower women. One of her greatest achievements in her political career was the landmark legislation of the anti-acid attacks law. This provision provided protection to women in Pakistan and inspired similar legislation in Bangladesh.

Acid attacks happen all over the world but 90 percent of them take place in South Asia. Ispahani shared the story of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan and the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority country, and how her murder led to the creation of a women’s parliamentary caucus that embodied cross-party representation. This caucus made bills such as the anti-acid attacks law possible among other bills that criminalize various forms of harassment.

“For the first time, women who were not listening to their political parties came together as a coalition and found common purpose,” said Ispahani.

She emphasized that if these history-making moments are possible in Pakistan, similar alliances can be made in the United States, particularly, among women, for women.

Identity, intersectionality, and activism

In the following session, Speakers and Conference Co-Chair, Maya Reddy, moderated a discussion about identity and activism between keynote speakers Sunu Chandy, a poet and Legal Director of the National Women’s Law Center, and Swethaa Ballakrishnen, a socio-legal scholar and professor at UC Irvine Law. Chandy and Ballakrishnen are queer-identifying South Asian legal professionals who have done extensive work in advocating for gender orientation and race issues.

When asked about how we can best navigate or claim our identities especially in solidarity, Chandy shared, “The question is two-fold, what is your work and who must be included when you are doing your work for freedom and liberation? When thinking about the Equality Act and LGBTQ rights, my message to racial justice groups is: if we aren’t being inclusive on disability, race, immigration, sexual orientation … then we aren’t doing our jobs. You have to be for the rights of Black people and for the rights of queer Black people. These identities are not separate.”

Conversations around identity and claiming identities became more crucial and prominent during the Trump administration.

“I didn’t have ‘daughter of immigrants’ in my biography until Trump became president. What you highlight depends on what is under attack. It’s authentic and genuine but strategic about what we need to foreground and who we need to spotlight,” said Chandy.

Moderator Reddy pointed out that intersectionality is not just crucial to social equity work. We are living in a world where there are many social justice movements blossoming and gaining traction, which can place tension on those in the legal profession regarding impact litigation or corporate law. The question that rises is, “How can we combine the two?”

“Being comrades and building community between both entities starts with recognizing that it’s a false dichotomy,” said Ballakrishnen. “Law students can go into a range of different fields of law that can result in truly equitable forward movement no matter how they are placed.”

Chandy added, “If we think about the last administration, we relied on the employer community to do what is right even if our federal government wasn’t pushing for it. We still fought for family leave policies and rights for working women. Employers were on the cutting-edge for doing that work. This involves internal and external advocacy. If you are at the table in one of these spaces, you can impact change there too.”

Chandy and Ballakrishnen wrapped up their conversation with dissecting the term “people of color” and its adoption after 9/11 in the South Asian community.

“If you don’t acknowledge the deep-rooted caste privilege that affords you even the chance to occupy the spaces that you do, then it doesn’t matter if you’re radical,” said

Ballakrishnen. “You can’t think about the local without the global. Sitting with this difficulty of recognizing privilege is central before you can start building solidarity. It’s easy to stand with Black Lives Matter here in the U.S. but then not consider Modi’s policies in India.”

Chandy agreed.

“Without acknowledging our privilege, any sort of solidarity work doesn’t feel authentic and is offensive,” Chandy said. “We have to keep grappling with these questions, educating ourselves, and being good partners with marginalized groups.”

Civil rights in the legal profession

Speakers and Conference Co-Chair, Moushmi Patil moderated the third session, “Civil Rights in the Legal Profession.” Panelists included the Law School’s Neil Makhija, Lecturer in Law; Nipun Patel, Partner at Holland & Knight; Rahul Munshi, Partner at Console Mattiacci Law, LLP; and Executive Director of IMPACT, and Ann Jenrette-Thomas, Stinson Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.

South Asians work in every sector of the legal profession but are still significantly underrepresented in the leadership ranks of major law firms. This marker leaves law students and legal professionals alike questioning how to break down existing barriers and cultivate a more inclusive profession.

“Underrepresentation is due to a myriad of issues,” said Jenrette-Thomas. “Belonging and inclusion is one of them, but we have to remember that this entire profession was built by the elite for the elite. Bias is baked into many aspects of the entire profession so that at every turn we are constantly trying to navigate these issues. Ultimately, it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

Although systemic issues are relevant, part of the solution lies within future cohorts of South Asian lawyers.

“This generation and the next need to be more intentional about helping one another out, referring each other at work, and building one another up,” said Patel.

As diversity and inclusion efforts grow across all sectors, Jenrette-Thomas, who increased attorneys of color at her firm by 120 percent in fours years, provided insight into her success.

“Looking for disparate outcomes allows us to ask ourselves is this a systemic issue … if so, is it fixable and what can I leverage to address it?” Jenrette-Thomas said. “There is a spectrum of allyship and awareness. Laying the foundation, understanding strategically the interests of the stakeholders involved, and building strong relationships will allow you to find an ‘in’ with those at the table.”

Solidarity in civil rights

The final session, “Solidarity in Civil Rights,” included panelists Bakirathi Mani, Professor at Swarthmore College and author of Unseeing Empire: Photography, Representation, South Asian America; Samip Mallick, Co-Founder and Executive Director of South Asian Digital Archive (SAADA); and Meher Dhaliwal, Civil Rights Program Manager at the Equal Justice Society and a core volunteer with South Asians for Black Lives.

Panelists engaged in a discussion about where South Asians stand today in the context of civil rights and civil rights movements and the passive acceptance of racial injustice outside of the South Asian community.

“As much as South Asians in the United States are working to craft sustainable political relationships with other communities of color, it is important to recognize ourselves as separate colonial subjects in the United States,” said Mani. “We are immigrants, but we are also participating in a project of settler colonialism. I also think of South Asians as transnational subjects. If we are invested in civil rights projects in the United States, we also need to be invested in the civil rights projects in the countries of our families’ origins. Civil rights in those contexts means recognizing our participation in projects of internationalism or anti-Muslim political movements. How can we work progressively on both fronts here in the U.S. and across the sub-continent?”

Dhaliwal recognized that it is essential for South Asians to revisit old camaraderie and do more to be a part of a cross-racial solidarity movement. She reinforces this allyship through applying and promoting anti-racism practices through Equality Labs, a South Asian technology organization dedicated to ending caste apartheid, gender-based violence, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance.

“There is a rich history of interconnectedness and South Asian and Black solidarity but when you take a deeper dive, there are signs of model minority sentiment,” said Dhaliwal. “There are four steps to working against anti-racism starting with awareness, then education, self-interrogation, and finally, community action.”

However, this process of unlearning and learning is not easy. There is an existing generational divide between South Asian youth and their parents causing tension and misconstruction of long-lasting injustices.

“There is a lot for us to learn from our parents’ generation,” said Mani. “For example, how did they experience partition? We can connect their stories to the kinds of political movements happening in the United States now.”

Mallick agreed.

“I am fully convinced of the power of storytelling. It is important to note that we don’t have to convince everyone. The fact that we are a part of this movement is considered to be a success,” Mallick said.

“This is a project of a lifetime, but my hope is that in one or two generations, the South Asian solidarity movement will reach the same momentum we are seeing in other social movements,” said Dhaliwal.

The South Asian Law Students Association 2nd Annual Conference was sponsored by Jenner & Block LLP; Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; Akin Gump; Hogan Lovells; McDermott Will & Emery; Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP; Morgan Lewis; Paul Weiss, Debevoise & Plimpton; and Skadden.

Read more about SALSA and its resources and programming.