The Asmi Project: Asha Dahya

Asha Dahya is a host and content creator. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of GirlTalkHQ, a women’s news media site focused on female empowerment. Prior to GirlTalk, Asha spent more than a decade hosting and producing TV shows in Australia, the UK, and the U.S. She has worked for Disney, Fox, MTV, Nickelodeon, ABC, TV Guide, and more. Asha is passionate about discussing feminism, women’s reproductive rights, the representation of women in film & TV, diversity in the media, and gender equality measures. She lives in Los Angeles.

Tell us a bit about your childhood

“I always felt like I didn’t 100% fit in the different worlds that I operated in, whether it was family, church, school, or career, because there weren’t enough people who looked like me.”

I was born in the UK and moved to Australia when I was about eight. Back in the UK, my family was part of a really big Indian community and although we still had that community in Australia, it wasn’t as large. Granted, Australia is very multicultural, but I always felt like I had one foot in one world and one foot in the other. At home on the weekends we’d get together with my few Indian relatives and during the week I was with my majority white Australian friends. On top of that, my family was Christian, so we went to a church where we were pretty much the only Indian family. I often felt at odds with my Indian heritage and it wasn’t until my late 20s that I started to embrace it.

I moved to the U.S. in 2008 to further my career in media. I’ve been in digital media and broadcasting TV for about 15 years now – mostly doing hosting, writing, and a few other things. Being in that world also opened my eyes to the lack of representation of women of color outside a Bollywood-type setting. Bollywood was really my only reference for where South Asian women were dominant and outside of that it felt like “well I guess we don’t fit in because we don’t have the right skin color.” I always felt like I didn’t 100% fit in the different worlds that I operated in, whether it was family, church, school, or career, because there weren’t enough people who looked like me.

How and when did you realize what you wanted to do professionally?

I always wanted to be in entertainment in some respect. I remember loving drama classes and being part of theater productions in school. I had an ambition to be an actress and move to Hollywood, but eventually my specific passion morphed into TV, news media, and journalism. I seemed to be drawn to that space a lot more and it encompassed other passions of mine.

What has been your biggest professional challenge so far?

My biggest professional challenge is always feeling like I’m not good enough, mostly in the way I look, not necessarily my ability. LA has such a huge industry, so while there are more opportunities, there’s even more competition. I’ve had a lot of work but there have also been many jobs that I really wanted and didn’t get. I would see other women in my network get job after job after job and it would make me feel a little jealous and insecure. Sometimes I would get notes from a casting director saying “Oh, they’re going for a more midwestern American look” and I’m like “Yeah I know what that means – I have the wrong skin color and the wrong accent.” My biggest challenge has been getting past the fact that in this industry you can have all the qualifications, credits, and contacts but how you look is a major factor. This is especially true for young women. Being South Asian in an industry where we’re not the default makes it even more difficult and so you have to think, “How do I get around that and create more opportunity for myself?”

Can you describe a moment where you felt most proud of yourself?

I’ve had amazing jobs and I’ve travelled all over the world, but the things that have made me feel very proud are the opportunities where I’ve used skills I didn’t know I had, whether it be editing a video, writing and producing a segment from scratch, operating a camera, or pitching an idea. Those things have probably made me feel proud because they mean, whether I’m qualified on paper or not, I’m able to learn new skills and be a valuable team player in whatever setting I’m in.

Has race influenced the way you’ve approached your career and if so, how?

Initially, it didn’t. I was 19 when I started and I was so ambitious when it came to my career goals that I didn’t think of race as a hindrance. In Australia, mainstream TV was very white, but the actual society was so multicultural that there was a huge disparity. Yet, for some reason, I didn’t see race as an issue until I started getting older and I moved to Hollywood. As I matured, I became interested in women’s issues, feminism, and politics. I also started to see the statistics of women in entertainment and experienced it myself when I would get feedback for roles that wanted a certain type of woman to look a certain way.

“Being South Asian in an industry where we’re not the default makes it even more difficult and so you have to think, “How do I get around that and create more opportunity for myself?””

Can you name a woman in another industry you admire?

I’m a really big fan of Melinda Gates and what she’s doing with the Gates Foundation, especially in the area of women’s reproductive health and family planning. The way she raises awareness and speaks about those issues is something that I really admire. I’m also a huge fan of Mindy Kaling and Issa Rae in the entertainment industry. Having to forge pathways for themselves because the roles they wanted didn’t exist and then to become respected creatives with their own primetime award winning shows is so badass. I really admire the way they’ve pushed past barriers and created room for themselves and other people around them.

If you could go back, what would you tell your 18-year-old self?

Stay strong and don’t quit. I would tell her to expect that there will be difficult times, but we’ll get through it, and to keep working hard because it’ll be more rewarding than getting everything handed to you.

What is your biggest pet peeve?

Maybe this sounds a bit cliched, but I think stereotyping is my pet peeve. Working as a South Asian women in the entertainment industry, it seems like you have to prove yourself as a woman and as a woman of color before you can even get to the point where you show you have the talent. How is it 2018 and that still exists? I also hate the idea that there’s only so much room at the table for us because it pits women against each other. If that’s the case, then we need a bigger table. How many straight white men are running the show? They don’t have limited space, so why should other demographics?

“The world needs more loud, fierce, and determined women to change things up.”

What’s something that never gets checked off your to-do list?

Mundane things like “call my insurance and update my details” or “get my car serviced”. I usually have a notebook where I write down a to-do list for the following day and I always put down things I intend to do, but they never get done in favor of bigger, more important things. Now that I have a baby, that stuff is definitely not getting done on time! I’m usually very diligent, but clearly those things aren’t a priority to me or they’d be done already. This is definitely something I need to work on.

What are some things you do that help you to de-stress or relax?

I love doing yoga and I also love reading. If I could have a book and sit somewhere comfortable with a cup of tea or coffee for a couple hours uninterrupted – that would be the ultimate bliss! I’m a fairly low maintenance person and I don’t need a lot of things around me. The older I get, the more I value time to sit, think, meditate, and just hear my thoughts.

What’s the last great book you read? Why was it great?

I’m constantly reading two or three books at a time. I just finished reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. She’s just a fantastic author and it’s like reading the most colorful, flowing poetry in a novel. My parents have been telling me about all these different Indian authors for so many years and I finally started reading them a few years ago. Reading this book was a “wow, this is so cool” moment and I know she’s a huge feminist and writes about women’s issues as well, so I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

What would be the title of the film version of your life?

I don’t know if I have a complete title, but something with the words restless and passionate. I’ve always been a very intense and passionate person about whatever I’m interested in – it’s all or nothing for me. I’ve also always been very restless. Once I’ve achieved one goal, I’m like “What’s next?”

So, what’s next?

I’m working an a docu-series, Life at All Costs: Going Beyond Pro Choice vs Pro Life, about finding common ground between the pro choice and pro life movements. I don’t particularly like either of those terms because I think they’re too narrow and there’s a lot more common ground to be found. My docu-series aims to show that we can’t look at abortion as its own microcosm. Instead, we need to zoom out a few levels and look at the social issues that lead women to make that choice. The series asks questions like “Do women have access to birth control?”, “What’s sex education like in America?”,  “Why don’t we have paid family leave?”, “What about the maternal mortality rate?”. If we really want to be a culture that values all lives and promotes life at all costs, we can’t only look at abortion because that doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it happens because of so many other reasons. Ideally, I’d like to change people’s minds about legislation, but, ultimately, I just want to challenge people to think broader.

Is there any advice you’d give to a young South Asian woman starting out in your industry?

I’d say to a young woman in my industry, or in any industry, to be passionate about what you’re doing and pursue that first and foremost. Don’t do it for the fame or the money. If you don’t know what you’re passionate about, try different things and figure it out.

Specifically to South Asian women, even if you don’t see people around you that look like you, just know that you’re meant to be where you are and it’s not a mistake, so keep going and work hard. Don’t let others dictate who you should be. Take control of your narrative and be the one to determine where you should go. Also, stay ambitious. Still today in many South Asian families you’re supposed to aspire to marriage and babies and house. None of those things are bad, but we should determine those choices for ourselves. No one should push us into those predetermined roles. So if your desire is to never have kids or never get married and instead travel the world or be a CEO or whatever it is, then do that and be unapologetic about it.

“Who I am is who I am and I’m not going to apologize for it or find ways to conform to other people’s expectations of what I should be.”

Anything else you’d like to add that we didn’t touch on?

One thing I’d add to that last answer is to also be loud and be fierce. That’s not everyone’s personality, but that was something I had to grapple with as an outspoken kid. I was constantly being made to feel like I should tone it down more and not talk out of turn, and that left me feeling like there was something wrong with me. I think it’s important that if it’s your personality to be loud and dominant, then don’t let anyone tell you that’s wrong. I didn’t have enough people telling me “the way you are is alright” and it took me close to 30 years to figure that out. Who I am is who I am and I’m not going to apologize for it or find ways to conform to other people’s expectations of what I should be. And that came from being an Indian girl and growing up in Evangelical circles. It definitely put a lot of expectations on women and it took me a while to grow out of those. The world needs more loud, fierce, and determined women to change things up.

The Asmi Project celebrates diversity among South Asian women. We strive to encourage creativity and ambition while honoring the dreamers and explorers. Most importantly, we empower girls to be the truest version of themselves. If you know someone who could benefit from these stories, please share with them! If you’re interested in learning more, please contact us!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s