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Gurpreet Singh: Why we need an Arundhati Roy Barbie doll

Arundhati Roy
Author and essayist Arundhati Roy speaks up for persecuted Indians. Photo by Gurpreet Singh.

Recent news of Mattel, Inc. honouring Canadian soccer star Christine Sinclair was really heart-warming.

It’s a matter of celebration to see Sinclair joining the inspiring women series of Barbie dolls, which includes Rosa Parks, a towering civil rights hero. It’s amazing to see this company recognizing non-white female figures with motivating stories. After all, we need our daughters to grow up not only as career women, but also as social justice activists.

When Barbie was initially introduced decades ago, it was more like a fashion doll catering to Eurocentric tastes and environments. This was something that people of colour like me, coming from a country with history of colonial repression, couldn’t relate to. It represented predominantly white blonde beauty that ruled the Hollywood and the modelling industry.

In the last few years, the company has really evolved by creating dolls with features of other races, such as Black, Asian, Latino and Indigenous groups of Australia and North America. In an era of decolonization, it makes perfect sense.

Then there is a growing list of inspiring women, who cannot necessarily all be white. The Barbie club rightfully includes Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and Parks, a Black American activist who refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger for the sake of a segregation law.

Other prominent figures on the list are Eleanor Roosevelt, the U.S. first lady with a legacy of activism; Jane Goodall, a famous anthropologist and an expert on chimpanzees; prominent poet and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou; Madam C.J. Walker, a self-made entrepreneur who broke many barriers; Bessie Coleman, the first African American pilot; Ida Wells, an African American journalist; Anna Maya Wong, an Asian American actress; and astronaut Sally Ride.

Gurpreet Singh’s daughter Shaista launched his newest book, 1984: When they came for the Sikhs.

Parks doll ignites interest in civil rights

Parks, who was introduced in 2019 by Mattel, was our Christmas gift for our daughter, who was an 11-year-old back then. Not only did it bring a smile on her face, she was carried away by the brief story about Parks written on the box.

Our daughter later wrote an essay about her, and Rosa Parks remains her favourite among her private doll collection. Thanks to the legacy of Parks, her interest in the civil rights movement has increased. Our daughter turned 16 this year and she now reads books about Black history with lot of curiosity. The positive impact of such initiatives on young minds was noticed firsthand by our family.

Now, I wonder if Mattel can consider including Arundhati Roy in their list. The world-renowned, award-winning Indian author has written two novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and several political essays. She has always stood for the underdog and challenged power. The God of Small Things fetched her the 1997 Booker Prize that gave her international recognition.

Roy has been under constant attack for questioning the status quo. Her difficulties have grown under the current right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP government, whose political base is highly intolerant to religious minorities and any voice of dissent.

Some scholars close to Roy have had to endure imprisonment on trumped-up charges, and yet she has remained steadfast in her resolve. One of them, physically challenged former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, was thrown behind bars in 2014 by the previous government. The present BJP government not only refused to let him go, but did not allow him to see his mother when she was on her deathbed.

Saibaba Roy article
Arundhati Roy advocated for the release of former Delhi University professor G.S. Saibaba (above). Photo by Gurpreet Singh.

Standing up for jailed intellectual

Saibaba was wrongfully convicted for merely advocating for the rights of the Adivasis or the indigenous peoples of India who were facing eviction from their traditional lands by the extraction industry looking for rich minerals. After having suffered in jail for a decade, he was acquitted by a court early this year and is now a free bird.

Roy wrote a very powerful article about his incarceration in the face of possible criminal action by the vindictive Indian establishment. She was slapped with criminal complaint in the past for speaking her mind, but perhaps her international fame saved her from any action on the part of the government.

She has been in the forefront of a campaign against the Narmada River dam in Gujarat that threatened the livelihood of many. Moreover, Roy returned her national award in 2015 following the murders of scholars and the lynching of a Muslim man on suspicion of consuming beef by supporters of the Hindu Right. She was given this award in 1989 for writing a film screenplay.

In 2023, Indian authorities unsuccessfully tried to prosecute Roy for sedition in an old case. Back in 2010, she had participated in a conference on human rights abuses in Kashmir, which led to a police complaint accusing her of treason.

Roy has been vocal against ongoing repression of Kashmiri Muslims who are asking for freedom. Not only that, she previously travelled widely in the heartland of Maoist insurgents in central India to understand their side of the story and wrote a very long essay for Outlook magazine.

During the COVID 19 crisis, she reported on the plight of the poor right from the ground.

Roy doesn’t play favourites

Roy has been consistent in her criticism of power and privilege without taking sides. This is whether it concerned the previous more liberal Congress government or the present one with an ultra-nationalist agenda.

She has even been critical of Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated by Hindu fanatics. Roy pulled no punches while criticizing Gandhi, who is considered as father of the nation. This came over his belief in the caste system even as he challenged untouchability.

Furthermore, her first novel was also critical of the communist government in Kerala for doublespeak on caste-based oppression and discrimination against Dalits. Her second novel is a moving story of the marginalized in India.

She definitely deserves to join Maya Angelou and Ida B. Wells, considering her work in area of social justice. Barbie has already created a space for female writers and journalists; they only need to make a little room for Roy, so that the girls of my daughter’s generation can be inspired by Indian icons like her and make tyrants across the globe accountable for their misdeeds.

It’s high time that the world shed more light on people like Roy. She stands in harm’s way, raising her voice against state violence in India, whose image as the world’ s largest democracy is often taken for granted. In spite of so much intimidation, Roy has not remained silent and continues to tell the world what India really is.

Gurpreet Singh is a B.C. author and co-founder of Radical Desi. Follow him on Twitter @gurpreetonair. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Gurpreet Singh

Gurpreet Singh

Gurpreet Singh is a B.C. author and cofounder of Radical Desi.



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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.