Helen Cox interviews Shasha Ali, women’s rights activist and advocate for communities of colour.

The world is a mess and we need to keep ourselves sane, sharp and put in more effort in loving our bodies and selves to keep doing what we do.

Shasha Ali

Shasha Ali

Perhaps you could talk a bit about the kind of work you do, both paid and unpaid?

I’ve never really considered myself an activist until someone told me I was. In a nutshell, I work in international development for a women’s rights NGO, Shakti, focused on ending domestic violence and discrimination against Asian, African and Middle Eastern immigrant women in NZ and Australia. Most of that involves lobbying, writing submissions on policy issues and generating funding, but I did start out dong a lot of frontline crisis management work and supporting victims of violence in the community.

In my generally unpaid labour capacity, I write and perform for a hardcore punk feminist band called Melting Pot Massacre, and co-found and organise events in a support group collective called the Young Asian Feminists Aotearoa Sisterhood. I also sporadically rant/write articles for a radical activist blog/zine called Mellow Yellow Aotearoa. I have had various affairs with either organising or speaking at protests, participating in campaigns and doing media advocacy. I also practise an animal cruelty-free lifestyle.

Sometimes we say that ‘the personal is the political’, what strategies do you have for sustaining personal motivation to engage in emotionally demanding political projects?

In the NGO world, there are people who do the work to feel good about helping others and then there are the crazy ones who really believe they are making a difference just by being and doing. I think I am definitely one of the latter. I am a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence, so for me, it is SO personal is political. Personally, the strategies I use to keep my sanity (in check) are hanging out with like-minded people; that’s how I started the YAFA sisterhood and my music. Music helps release all sorts of tensions and frustrations, especially hardcore punk. I also like water – washing anything to relax – dishes/laundry/myself. As a Muslim prayer and having conversations with Allah works for me at times too. But I hate exercise/gym culture – so I just do stroll for fresh air walks whenever all else fails and I feel mellow.

Sometimes as activists we can get a bit run down and burned out, what do you think gets in the way of activists, and people in your community, being healthy?

Melting Pot Massacre

Melting Pot Massacre

I think there’s definitely a very strong anti-health attitude in the activist circles I’ve encountered. You know, the smoking, the alcohol-intense culture is politically a big fuck you to the institution of health where our bodies are encouraged to be policed and regulated by calorie counts and fat content. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are all challenged with health issues as we get older. For example, the anti-diet/fat-body love culture which sought to emancipate females from body image obsession had good intent too; but body-positivity doesn’t cure heart disease or diabetes. This applies to everyone.

Personally, my pet peeve is meat-eater activists showing concern for my iron intake as a vegan, but I wouldn’t be so bold to say I am any healthier-than- thou-carnivore. For me, I didn’t turn vegan for health reasons but there have been benefits and setbacks, and it’s really about being RESPONSIBLE that either gets in the way of me being balanced and healthy.

I don’t know, maybe that sense of responsibility over our bodies can be overbearing and tiring for activists who plug out of health rhetoric. Like we do all this work as supposedly “responsible” agents of dissent so we need a time-out somewhere? I am not sure if that makes sense to anyone, but that’s what I feel sometimes when I eat lots of vegopizzas, fried fake meat and soyshakes during a long hard week.

What have you figured out about managing stress and looking after your health while you work for social change?

Having a clean environment, having space to BREATHE in is incredibly important to me when I feel stressed out. What you see around you, the clutter, the mess, can often affect you mentally if you have all this busy stuff in your head. When I clean my surroundings, I tend to feel better. Many of my activist friends think I’m this nanna neat freak but I don’t care. It works for me so much! Also while I do hate exercise, I love people so playing soccer or the occasional hike with a bunch of people gets me excited, novelty-like as that may sound!

One last thing, how can we as activists and campaigners promote good health practices in our communities so we sustain long-term positive change?

I think it starts from having a space where people can have one-on-one conversations with each other and just check in that we’re not losing the plot when it comes to taking care of our bodies. Many activists are friends amongst each other, but many others aren’t, so building a coalition atmosphere where people can form trust and openness, talk about health/ food/consumption as a political and cultural-related thing for example, is incredibly important for those personal linkages to take place also.

So many people burn out or get into self-destructive behaviours with excessive alcohol or drugs or prolonged physical inactivity and then get into this isolated/depressed mode about the world and get into the jadedness or poor me, blame the world mentality, because they don’t talk to people about the causes of such effects. It’s even worse when people encourage other people to excuse such behaviour.

The world is a mess and we need to keep ourselves sane, sharp and put in more effort in loving our bodies and selves to keep doing what we do.

Shasha and colleagues at Shakti Community Council

Shasha and budding young feminists at Skakti Melbourne

Thanks Shasha for sharing your excellent insights!

For more information about Shasha’s work see Shakti Community Council (Aotearoa, New Zealand) and Shakti Migrant and Refugee Women’s Support Group, (Melbourne).

Plan to Thrive will regularly feature profiles exploring the issues of health, well-being and sustaining activism. Want to volunteer for a profile? Or to interview someone else? Please get in touch!