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Illustration by Batool Al Tameemi

Should nationality-based South Asian SIGs exist?

The creation of more and more national SIGs begs the question of whether diversity can be encapsulated in a single project.

Feb 12, 2023

Has the construct of the South Asian region broken down on campus as well? The rise in the number of cultural Student Interest Groups on campus indicates exactly that. The most recent example of this is the emergence of several South Asian SIGs. This semester has seen the formation of the Bangladeshi Student Association and the Sri Lankan Student Association, while the Nepali Student Association was created in Spring 2022. The three countries’ cultural identities were formerly considered to be represented by Tashan, which started as a holistic platform for South Asian cultural understanding.
My intention is not to state that certain SIGs should exist or not exist because the existence of such SIGs shows that there is a need to provide a particular group of students with a safe space and a sense of community that they might not have been experiencing before. This piece is not meant to make a sweeping statement regarding these SIGs, rather it attempts to dissect the gaps that lead to the formation of independent SIGs for every South Asian country within the NYUAD community. It can be pointed out that the founding members of the new South Asian SIGs felt that Tashan failed to encompass the diverse cultures of the entire region, and there was a need for a more inclusive representation that appreciated this diversity.
For example, a student born and raised in Nepal shared their concern regarding Tashan focusing on Hindu-specific events and not giving much leeway to the other countries or cultures being represented. Looking back, the split of the Pakistan Student Association from Tashan can also be attributed to similar underlying reasons. Therefore, the emergence of five South Asian cultural SIGs on campus raises the question of whether the region can even be grouped under one collective identity. Should cultural SIGs on campus be encouraged to work as a collective of various regional identities, or is the formation of separate collectives inevitable?
However, having separate student associations may give rise to ethnocentric approaches that privilege the culture of one ethnicity within a country over another. For example, the PSA holds its annual hallmark event, the Mock Wedding, in the spring semester of every year in the name of showcasing Pakistani culture to the student body and is organized on the premise of inclusion and community spirit. However, most traditions that are followed in the event originate from Punjab, the province with the majority population in Pakistan — this is to say that other local cultures, such as Sindhi, Balochi, or Pakhtun, are conveniently ignored. This is because we have internalized Punjabi customs to such an extent that we see them as a national norm and Punjabi culture is posited as a representation of Pakistani culture as a whole. Speaking in a much more holistic manner, the overpowering Punjabi culture is a result of how the politics of the country have played out — for more than 40 years now, Punjab has been the main battleground in the general elections of Pakistan, with every political party concentrating its campaigns within this region. Further, this appeal to the majority tactic has its negative effects with the active marginalization of minority groups, which deserve a say but are hardly represented on the national stage.
Another issue that comes to light with Mock Wedding is the propagation of the broader society’s heteronormative ideals and how a South Asian SIG thought that a wedding, of all possible festive occasions, was an example of true cultural representation. Personally, as the president of PSA, I am to blame as well for not doing much in terms of breaking down these stereotypes and moving towards a better, more progressive identity. However, I would like to point out that attempts are being made this semester for PSA to collaborate on events that may not have anything to do with Pakistani culture to mitigate some aspects of the SIG working with a nationalistic agenda.
On the other hand, the most prominent events of Tashan — a SIG that brands itself as the association for South Asian cultural representation on campus — are Diwali, Holi, and Navratri, usually considered to be purely Hindu festivals. This is where demographics also come in; we do not see Tashan involving itself at all in Islamic festive events, even though Bangladesh and Pakistan are Muslim-majority nations, and India itself is home to approximately 200 million Muslims. It is understandable that at some point, the Nepali, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan students on campus would reach such a number that they would either demand that Tashan include their events or form their own organization if Tashan failed to do so. Even though Tashan had implemented this representative system where two members of their E-board were Nepali and Sri Lankan representatives, this initiative still fails to encompass the needs of those communities. And it needs to be pointed out that there was never an Indian representative because the rest of the Executive Board was Indian anyways: a fact that speaks for itself.
Now that Tashan has effectively become an Indian association, it is important to note that South Asia is the only region where students feel the need to cling to national identities to come together instead of looking at shared experiences or uniting factors that are more transnational in nature. Anchorage and Sahana are model counter-examples, where a group of students came together on the basis of something other than where they were born or raised to create a safe space and serve the purpose of community engagement. Sahana, specifically, serves the purpose of uniting South Asian students across the region, which is exactly what ignoring national identities and focusing on transnational similarities is meant to do.
A point worth exploring is how many South Asian students on campus take courses exploring the consequences of colonialism which includes the creation of different nation-states but still fail to recognize that this is exactly what we are also doing through these SIGs. The colonial powers’ divisive policies left the colonies separated by this sense of national identity, which has not turned out to be as cohesive as we may have thought during their formative years. Furthermore, this overarching title or category — South Asia — is a Western idea because European or American countries might not recognize the intricate differences that form the basis of our independence.
The same can be said about student organizations as well. It is high time that we mitigate this trend of associating identity solely with one's place of birth, especially in a place like NYUAD. The admissions team here prides itself on having students from 170 different nationalities. Therefore, let us not take away from the slogan of diversity and inclusion by creating or promoting SIGs that exist primarily to serve their national student populations instead of encouraging a more transnational dialogue. Coming together under the banner of hobbies, interests, or identities outside of nationality is a great place to start for the entire student body.
Abdulla Yusuf is a Staff Writer. Email him at
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