Indian Women in Melbourne reflect on heritage, identity & influence

By Indira Laisram
From top left to right: Shwetali Sawant, Michelle Pariat Mehta, Dr Nisha Khot, Harsiddhi Mody, Valentina Irungbam // Pics supplied

As we mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, we turn our focus to the vibrant city of Melbourne, a melting pot of cultures and ideas. In this celebration of diversity and strength, we’re privileged to hear from five extraordinary women, each with a unique journey and perspective. We asked them two important questions:

How has their Indian heritage influenced their identity and experiences as women in Melbourne?

What role do they believe Indian women play in shaping and enriching Melbourne’s cultural landscape?

Let’s hear from them.

Valentina Irungbam // Pic supplied

VELINTINA IRUNGBAM is originally from Manipur, northeast India. She migrated to Melbourne in 2017 and currently works as Data Management Analyst.

“Growing up in the close-knit Indian community, and as often is the case, Indian heritage instilled a strong sense of cultural identity and bonding. I’ve always cherished connecting with fellow Indians from various backgrounds. Attending community festivals, cultural events, and gatherings has been a source of joy and belonging for me. Moreover, being part of a community that shares a profound love for food, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring Melbourne’s diverse culinary scene and discovering different cuisines. With Melbourne being a diverse multicultural society, it is much easier to become part of Melbourne and its culture.

In Melbourne, the Indian community serves as a vital support network, particularly for women, fostering a sense of togetherness and unity. Being an Indian woman with a strong work ethic and unwavering dedication, I’ve found that these qualities have been invaluable in navigating both my personal and professional endeavours here in Melbourne.

Indian women significantly contribute to Australia’s cultural diversity by bringing their rich traditions, languages, arts, and cuisine, thus enriching the multicultural society. Their active participation in community events, festivals, and initiatives promotes cross-cultural understanding and strengthens bonds within the broader Australian community. This is evident in the genuine enjoyment and participation of non-Indians in Indian festivals and celebrations.

Moreover, Indian women are actively engaged in various fields such as sports, corporate, health, finance, and more, making significant contributions to Australia’s economy and innovation landscape. Through their endeavours, they drive better cultural understanding and contribute to economic growth and diversity.”

Shwetali Sawant // Pic supplied

SHWETALI SAWANT initially resided in the United States after migrating from Ahmedabad before relocating to Australia from the US in 2008. An entrepreneur, she set up The Indian Bazaar in 2017.

“First of all, it is an honour and a privilege to live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Having resided here for almost 15 years, I can honestly say that Melbourne is a place where you can dream as big as you want, and this city and its amazing people will help you achieve it.

Being born and raised in India, my heritage is something I am incredibly proud of, and it has definitely shaped my identity, personality, and thinking. Since 2017, I have had the privilege of showcasing my heritage through my social enterprise, The Indian Bazaar, providing me with opportunities for cultural exchange and enrichment.

Embracing and celebrating cultural diversity while also navigating the complexities of cultural identity has been a dynamic and enriching journey for me as an Indian woman living in Melbourne.

Through my social enterprise, I’ve witnessed the significant contributions of Indian women entrepreneurs to Melbourne’s economy and innovation ecosystem across diverse industries like fashion, hospitality, and retail. Their blend of creativity, resilience, and cultural insight drives innovation and fosters economic growth.

In addition, I’ve observed the artistic impact of Indian women on Melbourne’s vibrant arts and cultural scene. Through music, dance, visual arts, literature, and fashion, they bring diverse perspectives and storytelling techniques that enrich the city’s cultural tapestry.

Indian women also play a crucial role in introducing Melbourne to the flavours, aromas, and culinary traditions of Indian cuisine. Through restaurants, food festivals, cooking classes, and food blogs, they share their passion, enriching the culinary landscape and fostering cross-cultural appreciation.

Their contributions to educational institutions, research centres, and advocacy groups promoting cross-cultural understanding and inclusion are immeasurable. As educators, scholars, and advocates, they challenge stereotypes, promote gender equality, and advocate for social justice within both Indian and Australian communities.

Lastly, Indian women uphold and transmit cultural values, traditions, and languages within their families and communities in Melbourne. They play a central role in passing down cultural heritage to future generations, ensuring the continuity and preservation of Indian identity and traditions in the diaspora.

In my role as a social entrepreneur collaborating with councils, non-profit organisations, cultural groups, and networking enterprises, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside incredibly talented Indian women in Melbourne. Their multifaceted contributions across arts, cuisine, community engagement, and entrepreneurship make Melbourne a more diverse, inclusive, and culturally vibrant city.”

Harsiddhi Mody // Pic supplied

HARSIDDHI MODY made the leap from Mumbai to Australia in 1997. Transitioning from her career as an accountant, she has since embraced a dynamic journey in the arts, excelling as a theatre personality, film producer, and writer.

Coming from a family predominantly comprising doctors, engineers, and accountants – mainly professionals – we challenged conventional thinking while also honouring meaningful traditions. This “think outside the box” approach fostered debates on various topics, accompanied by a deep respect for differing viewpoints.

I entered the workforce at the age of 20, gaining experience across diverse industries. This journey not only granted me financial independence but also imparted invaluable job skills and instilled in me a strong work culture and ethics. I later applied this knowledge and experience to both my personal and professional life after migrating to Australia.

India stands as a nation united in diversity, boasting a rich tapestry of languages, cuisines, arts, customs, and more. Our deep-rooted respect for family, culture, and traditional values, coupled with a diverse skill set, provides a multifaceted approach to decision-making, enriched by varied perspectives.

Indian women contribute across a myriad of domains, ranging from education, family support, and gender equality to tackling issues such as domestic violence, performing arts, and policy making. Currently, numerous Indian women are actively engaged in these endeavours, working tirelessly to make a difference in their communities and enriching the cultural landscape of Australia.”

Dr Nisha Khot // Pic supplied

Dr NISHA KHOT, originally from Pune, made her mark across continents before settling in Australia in 2010. A gynaecologist, she also leads as Chair of the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, championing diversity and empowerment in healthcare.

My Indian heritage has shaped my values and beliefs. These values have helped me navigate both personal and professional life in Melbourne successfully. I have made meaningful connections with my colleagues from diverse backgrounds who share my beliefs.

Indian women play a pivotal role in preserving their unique traditions, languages, foods, and festivals. Together, these elements contribute to the diverse tapestry that makes Australia one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world.”

Michelle Pariat Mehta // Pic supplied

MICHELLE PARIAT MEHTA’s journey spans from the serene hills of Shillong to the vibrant streets of Bangalore before finding her home in Melbourne in 2006. As a devoted housewife raising three children alongside her busy husband, she embodies the essence of nurturing and resilience.

“Living in Melbourne as a married woman with three children and being of Indian heritage, I have been able to experience the best of the Australian community spirit. I have found that, generally, the other moms within our school and local community are not only supportive of each other and willing to help whenever someone is unable to do their bit, but also supportive of each other’s children.

In shaping the cultural landscape of Melbourne, I believe Indian women can make their presence felt in various ways. Whether it’s being a good neighbour, extending our warm hospitality in familiar ways, or instilling in our children the importance of self-representation at school and during playtime, we have the power to be positive influences on others. By actively engaging in local sporting or school communities, we can lead by example and contribute to the evolution of a multicultural society. It’s crucial that we represent ourselves authentically and pave the way for a new norm of inclusivity and diversity.”

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