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‘I showed the world the real Priyanka Chopra’ – activist Ayesha Malik on why she confronted the movie star

13 Aug 2019

Photography via Ayesha Malik / Twitter

Over the weekend, a video of Priyanka Chopra went viral. In it, the actor was speaking at Beautycon in LA, when an audience member – Ayesha Malik – asked a question pertaining to Priyanka’s support of India’s military. Only, Ayesha’s question was cut off – her voice silenced by security, as Priyanka spoke to her, “I hear you. Whenever you’re done venting. Got it? Done? Okay, cool… The way you came at me right now, girl, don’t yell. We’re all here for love. Don’t yell. Don’t embarrass yourself.”

Some context: back in February, India carried out airstrikes on Pakistan – it was the first time fighter jets had crossed the unofficial Kashmiri border since 1971; accordingly, it was also the first time fighter jets had crossed the border since both India and Pakistan had become nuclear powers. Following this, Priyanka tweeted “Jai Hind”, which translates as “Long live India” or “Victory to India”. 

When you are 1) a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and 2) tacitly encouraging the kind of conflict that will cause devastation to millions (on both sides), not least with the potential of nuclear war, possibly you need to think through this kind of endorsement just a little more.

With the revocation of Section 370 in Kashmir last week, tensions around Indo-Pak relations are running as high as ever. Jammu and Kashmir has been disputed territory since Partition, and India decided to remove the state’s special status, imposing a lockdown curfew and cutting off all lines of communication while it “reintegrates” the state (at the time of writing, Kashmir has been nine days without communication with the outside world). 

And so it’s no real wonder that Pakistani-American Ayesha felt incensed enough to call Priyanka out when she heard her talking about “loving your neighbour” at Beautycon. Based in Anchorage, Alaska, with most of her family back in Lahore, Ayesha works at a used car dealership with her dad and brother, having previously founded an interfaith non-profit back in college to deal with escalating hate crimes in Spokane, Washington. Many assume she’s a beauty influencer, however, because, in her words, a picture of her curls went viral. It was as a result of that she was at Beautycon – her annual break to meet up with the influencer friends she’s previously made from branded trips.

Priyanka’s response was so condescending – so not in keeping with someone who claims to be “all love” and a feminist – that it felt extremely jarring to watch. Also, please can we take a minute for Priyanka answering the accusation with the statement that she has friends in Pakistan – way to reinvent “I can’t be a racist, I have black friends”?

I had a quick phone call with Alaska-based Ayesha to find out more about her decision to call out one of the biggest stars in the world.

gal-dem: Can you tell us about yourself? You’re known for your hair, right?

Ayesha Malik: So when that photo went viral, I started getting all these deals with brands, saying ‘hey, you get a lot of likes online, come on this trip with us!’ A lot of people like to label me in the ‘influencer’ group, and I can understand why, but I only post on Instagram like once a month, I only have six videos on my YouTube channel, and I haven’t posted in a year and a half. But I never gave myself vacations, so I liked getting offered these trips because it forced me to take a break. And that was where I would meet these influencers – and I love them, these girls are amazing. And the one time of the year we all get to meet up is at Beautycon.

Okay, so where does the story begin?

I’m walking towards one of my friend’s meet and greets, and as we’re walking past the big centre stage, Priyanka Chopra was there. I hadn’t intended on seeing her because, since February 26, I’ve been upset. It was a pretty scary day because my family in Pakistan were messaging us in Alaska saying, ‘Hey, we’re getting food and water. We’re trying to find shelter running for the hills. We fear bombs outside.’ India was about to attack. And I’m terrified. I don’t think I’m ever gonna see my family again. Because 99% of my family lives in Pakistan. And what was running through my mind at the moment was that we are what’s left of our lineage.

And then she did the tweet.

So there are many Bollywood stars that tweeted the exact same thing. But the difference between Priyanka Chopra and them is that she was Miss World. Yes, Mrs Jonas, she had an ABC TV show. She’s not just a Bollywood star. She’s a global star. And her platform is very different. So for her to tweet that was massive. She is the Unicef ambassador for goodwill.

So what happened?

As I was walking past, I see her big, beautiful face on the screen, and she has a microphone and she says, ‘I consider myself a humanitarian. I think we should love our neighbours.’ My friends were like, ‘Ayesha, no, let’s keep going’, and I said, ‘No, no, no, we need to hear this’. So it was the last 20 minutes, I did not hear the whole speech. And I got the microphone – I’m never rude. But at that moment, I was like, I need this mic. And the guy was looking at others to give it to, but I was very aggressive and like, ‘I have something to ask her’. I’m looking at the crowd before I speak to see, is there anybody here that looks like me? Are there any South Asians? And from what I saw, no. And that’s why I had to say what I had to say. I had no intention to speak to her whatsoever. A lot of Hindu nationalists are coming after me saying it was a plan to come back down here for it. And I know, my voice wasn’t the kindest, but I was upset. I was getting flashbacks from thinking about being the last of my family.

Prior to February, would you have been a fan of Priyanka?

Oh, of course. So in Alaska, I have nobody to speak Urdu to – my parents were working all day, and so I would wait months on end back in the 90s to get Bollywood VHS tapes mailed out to me with English subtitles. My uncle specifically had to find films with English subtitles for me just so I could learn. So Bollywood is so much more to me than just films – it connected me to my heritage, even though India’s the other side of the border, what, that’s not my country? I’m trying to quote that one Bollywood movie…. ‘Why does it feel like you’re one of my own?’ Is that Veer-Zaara?

A classic. For me, there was a time where I liked Priyanka Chopra and a lot of the films that she’s in – but I don’t feel like the media has ever really held her accountable. And I guess I get worried in the West we get so excited about representation that any singular brown person who makes it through to that level, it’s like, we can’t criticise them. Did you feel like no one had called her out for that tweet?

We have been, on Twitter. We, when she posted ‘Jai Hind’, everyone was coming at her. And she went radio silent. Because she thought, you know, if I don’t address it, then it won’t be a thing. And as months went on, it just kind of got worse, because every time I would see her pop up on my feed, all I could think was ‘Jai Hind’. She popped up on my feed a lot – she’s one of the biggest stars of all time. And so when am I ever going to be that close to a Bollywood star, a deity in South Asia? I live in Alaska. I sell used cars. I’m nobody. So I had to take that opportunity. Because if I didn’t take it, then I felt like it was never going to be addressed.

How do you feel now, listening back to her response?

If you listened to this 20 minutes, or even the full talk, she was putting on Miss World voice like she was on a pageant, and it was fluff words, empty promises, like, ‘We’re here for love, guys, love one another’. But in that moment, where she’s talking to me, that was raw – that was the real Priyanka. And she didn’t have her PR team in her ear. She didn’t have any prepared speeches. And I’m glad the world got to see who she actually really was.

I saw that [rapper] Heems tweeted about how, thanks to this, even though it’s a really shitty reason for Western media to pay attention to what’s happening in Kashmir, maybe people will actually start talking about it now. 

All my life I’ve been hearing about Kashmir. It’s always been an issue. The only people I’ve ever heard speak about it were Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri. And even though I may have made a fool of myself in front of millions and let everyone know I’m an emotional mess, at least Kashmir was in the headlines for one day and that’s all that matters to me.

How are you dealing with virality?

People are coming at me saying I was a liar, but I knew I was speaking my truth. I’m on the right side of history here.