A few days before National Organization for Women’s (NOW) annual conference, we sat down for an interview with Chitra Panjabi, the organization’s Membership Vice President.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and how it was growing up in Hong Kong?
A: I often felt like an outsider, because of my race and gender. While I was lucky to be raised with financial privilege, I’m part of an ethnic minority community and race relations were, as they are anywhere, complex. Hong Kong didn’t even have a race discrimination law until 2009. Being an Indian woman in Hong Kong was sometimes stressful, sometimes scary, sometimes rewarding and sometimes downright bizarre. I think my experiences laid a foundation for my social justice activism as an adult, because I know what it means to “othered.” It also means that I strive to ensure that NOW’s work is inclusive across intersections.
Q: You moved to the US in 2008. What were the differences you saw between the feminist movement in the USA and elsewhere?
A: I think what I most noticed about the feminist movements that I’ve been involved in is that it does look different and feel different depending on where you are situated. A lot of the feminist work I did in Hong Kong was very heavily tied to gender and class. Race almost played no role in our work because, largely, ethnic minority rights are still lacking there. That is changing, but it certainly impacted the way we approached our work. In the UK it was very much about gender with a limited lens of intersectionality; I almost felt at times that issues related to race, class and sexuality/gender expression were relegated to their own movements and organizations. When I learned about the theory and practice of intersectionality, that was a huge “click” moment for me because it provided a lot of answers to all of these questions that I had. The great thing about social media is that all of these ideas, theories and perspectives on feminism are now being shared across borders and I feel so fortunate to be witnessing and learning from that.
Q: Now, let’s talk about your role and work with NOW. What is your main focus within the organization?
A: Due to my personal experiences as an immigrant to the U.S., immigration reform that is fair to both documented and undocumented women is very important to me. I’ve seen firsthand how complicated the process can be, and I’ve been privileged in having a supportive partner and a college education. NOW works closely with a coalition group, We Belong Together, to fight for reform that does not come at the expense of women.
I work closely on NOW’s work on ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). A lot of young people so strongly believe in equality, but the history of the women’s movement has been left out of a lot of history classrooms and many young people think the ERA has been ratified. We face the two-fold battle of education and advocacy.
And, of course, reproductive rights have always been an important part of NOW’s mission. The battle for access to abortion care and other reproductive healthcare services is never ending. We must protect doctors and patients from violence – we’re waiting with bated breath for the Supreme Court’s decision in McCullen v. Coakley. Repealing the Hyde Amendment – and making abortion care affordable for women in low-income situations – is necessary to ensure access.
Q: This year’s conference focuses on “Faces of Feminism: Strength in Diversity”. How diverse do you think NOW is?
A; We have chapters across the country. Each one works on national and local issues. Due to their autonomy, they are empowered to work on issues that most affect their community, which allows for activism across a number of issues.
Q: How does the organization plan to continue the conversation about diversity in feminism after the conference?
A: One way to continue this conversation is to continuously engage with our allies and our critics. This is actually a place where social media is key; Twitter has created a place for this conversation to happen in the public eye, so many people are able to engage. The movement has been able to expand the conversation beyond academia.
Q: an you give us a taste of what you will discuss during your workshop at the conference “The State of political leadership for women of color in America”?
A: The proper title for the workshop I will be moderating at the conference is “Building the Pipeline: Recruiting and Electing Young Women and Women of Color to Public Office.” One way we get a more diverse pool of candidates is to start when people are young. While there are programs that engage young people in the process, we must ensure that they reach young people – particularly young women – of color. Unless we put the work in now, we won’t see greater diversity in politics 10, 20, 30 years from now. Diversity is so important when shaping and crafting legislation and policies that are fair, just and equitable for all people. And that’s true at all levels of government.
Q: What other issues will be covered during the NOW conference?
A: Workshops and plenaries at the 2014 NOW conference cover a variety of issues, including: transgender rights, how to engage men in ending violence against women, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, and building the foundation of Allyship. You should check out the fabulous list of workshops and our wonderful speakers.