Manju Patel-Nair on unticking the box on 'Womanhood'

This March, we will be paying special attention to the changemakers re-shaping how womanhood is defined. Manju Patel-Nair is a prime example of that, and that’s why we were honoured to have her and her family take part in our Despora shoot.

Having lived and worked all over the globe, she embeds all these cultural experiences into her work as an ‘EdActivist,’ to guide others on unlearning their bias to disrupt the social systems that oppress them and others. We talked to her about the incredible work she does in social justice, as well as her experience as a Desi woman, often being put into a narrow, and usually heteronormative box.


Photo credit: Lou Jamine for Despora, 2019. Manju Patel-Nair (centre) with wife, Rakhi Patel-Nair (right) and father, Rajan Nair (left)

What's your name and what do you do?

My name is Manju Patel-Nair, and I use ‘EdActivist’ to describe the work I do.

How does your identity affect your work and your life in general?

I was born in Kerala and raised in Kuwait before moving to London in the ‘80s, via a 2-week road trip through Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France! My mum navigated well while dad drove the old family Volvo. They didn’t lose their way once until they arrived in Poplar! I’ve since lived in France and Iceland, before settling back in London.

My mother studied law and my father was a self-taught adventurer. They were both wonderful storytellers who entertained my brother and I with diverse stories drawn from Satyajit Ray to Star Wars! They instilled in me the belief that I have an unlimited potential for growth! My teenage years were spent growing up amongst the South Indian community in East Ham. I was encouraged to pursue creative subjects, to be of service to my community and to raise my voice against injustice, which became the cornerstones for my identity as well as my studies and working life.

I studied Hindu temple architecture alongside French at University and took an active role in the Black Students Group. That laid the foundation for my working life in education and community building. (In between dabbling as a tour guide around East London's South Indian temples, as a cashier on a ferry and pointing out interesting looking fish to visitors at an aquarium!)

What does your work as an ‘EdActivist’ entail?

Following several years as a teacher in an inner-city secondary school, I set up ChangeMakers UnLtd to deliver training and consultancy which focuses on action for social justice, community development, race and resistance.

I am actively involved in the process of change-making, using education methods to raise awareness of social inequities. My work centres on pedagogies for 'community building', bringing diverse groups of people into shared spaces, particularly around challenging issues, to engage hearts and minds, and create change. This involves deepening participants’ critical thinking, disrupting narratives and challenging long-held beliefs, while acknowledging we are all at different points in the journey of unlearning bias and confronting forms of oppression.

Practices include reflection, experiential and empowered learning, using questioning rather than telling and using the expertise of participants. I enjoy considering new ‘wisdoms’ to bring to my work – be it a chance encounter on the Tube, Dani D’Emilia’s ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ or a Tagore poem. My practice is informed by philosophies both within and beyond familiar western thinking and incorporates the best parts of my upbringing.

Can you tell us about any exciting projects or events you are working on?

I’m currently working on a Community Cohesion project which places students as change-makers ‘@The Heart of Communities.’ The objective is for them to be involved in the cohesion process by working with local community members and leading solutions for local issues. The project brings together schools from Turkey, Finland, Spain, Italy and the UK, working across communities with differing needs, sensitivities and cultures. Children as young as 6 are working with adults as old as 76 to bring about sustainable connections, to foster respect and understanding, and eventually celebrate diversity.

What book would be your must-read for any (women, desi person, queer person, any person etc.) to pick up today?

First is a picture book ‘I walk with Vanessa’ a story about a brave girl and her simple act of kindness which inspires her community to stand up to bullying. I adore this book and often use children’s picture books in my workshops, to help participants of all ages to reflect on our shared values and beliefs.

The second book is on a somewhat related theme, ‘When Strangers Meet’ - How people you don’t know can transform you. I was thrilled when I found this book, via a Ted talk by the author Kio Stark. I usually enjoy striking up conversations with people I don’t know and then I found this book which puts into ‘clever words’ why I enjoy it so much: “Talking to strangers pulls you into experiences of shared humanity and creates genuine emotional connections. It opens your world. Passing interactions cement your relationship to the places you live and work and play, they’re beautiful interruptions in the steady routines of our lives.” Isn’t that the best??

Who have been your role models and why?

My mum for modelling, consistently, that, in the end, there is only love. Also, today, I am lucky to be surrounded by superpowered creative women, comfortable in their own skins, who make noise, enjoy sex, take up space, challenge the status quo, love fiercely, raise families while writing a PhD thesis, drink good whiskey and hold me tight when its been a crappy day ‘out there.’ These are my sisters.

Do you think other people see you differently to how you see yourself?

I usually dress in kurtis, dupattas, jimkis, sarees and glass bangles, whether at work or play... Usual comments I get are ‘Are you not used to wearing jeans?’ or ‘is it a special Muslim festival today?’ ‘Does your husband prefer you wearing traditional clothes.’ So people (Asians and non-Asians) are quick to put me in some narrow, always heteronormative box. South Asian women are represented in media as either submissive wives, or ‘bad girls’ ostracized from their ‘community’ – and that doesn’t reflect who I am. I dress as I do because the clothes give me joy and, to a degree, I choose to ‘dress to resist.’ I am married to Rakhi because I fell in love with her. I still often feel the pressure to identify as a ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’ but those words just don’t speak to who I am and I'm cool with not having one word for 'all that.'


The other thing is that generally South Indians are often lumped together, and there is little understanding, even amongst Asians, of the different states in South India.

Growing up, throughout my teenage years, I never saw girls like myself in the British media – and that coupled with the racist attitudes of white teachers and pupils at school in 80s East London was so frustrating! At secondary school, I recall how myself and my Asian female friends were told we didn’t need to make appointments to see the Careers Officer! That didn’t stop any of us – with a wicked sense of humour and fire in our bellies, we reached for the stars.

If you loved meeting Manju as much as us, check out her platform, ChangeMakers UnLtd, or go follow her on Twitter.