- The 36-year-old Harvard law grad and activist says she can't be intimidated by threats and backlash, saying “Militant nationalism is just as potent a force in U.S. politics as it is in India or anyplace else.”
She is not an elected official. She is not even a celebrity in a conventional sense. Yet, she seemed to have rattled supporters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who thought it fit to burn her poster after she tweeted support for protesting Indian farmers and decried Indian government’s “assault” on democracy. She happens to be the niece of the ‘second most powerful person’ in the world, the Vice-President of the United States, Kamala Devi Harris.
Two days after Meena Harris first tweet and the backlash that ensued, the 36-year-old activist has defended her support for the farmers. Members of the United Hindu Front burned posters of her, as well as those of pop icon Rihanna, and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg who also tweeted about their support for the farmers. “I won’t be intimidated, and I won’t be silenced,” Harris tweeted on Feb. 5.
A day earlier, she tweeted: “I spoke out in support of human rights for Indian farmers, and look at the response.” She shared a photo by Reuters journalist Danish Siddiqui in which the United Hindu Front members are seen holding her photo and a sign that read: “India will not tolerate interference in internal affairs at behest of separatists.”
It all began on Feb. 3 when Meena Harris took to Twitter to call out the Indian government’s internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against the farmers. Writing that the “most populous democracy is under assault,” she shared an image of a woman farmer holding a placard that said “stop killing farmers.” Her tweet read: “It’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest democracy was attacked not even a month ago, and as we speak, the most populous democracy is under assault. This is related. We ALL should be outraged by India’s internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters. (sic)”
She drew comparisons between the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol and the crackdown on protesting farmers in India. “Militant nationalism is just as potent a force in U.S. politics as it is in India or anyplace else,” she tweeted. “It can only be stopped if people wake up to the reality that FASCIST DICTATORS aren’t going anywhere. Not unless: 1) we organize and 2) THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES FOR THE CAPITOL ATTACK…’Unity’ begins with truth. ‘Healing’ is not possible without accountability. Stay loud. Accept nothing less.” Meanwhile, India’s foreign ministry has not condemned “vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them.”
It is clear that Meena Harris has been following the Indian farmers’ protests from the outset. In an Instagram post on Dec. 20, 2020, Meena Harris posted a photo of women who were a part of the farmers’ protest. Accompanying the photo, she wrote: “My great grandparents and great aunt Sarala lived for many years in Chandigarh, and I spent a lot of time there as a kid on our family trips to India. Farmers from this same city, and more broadly across the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, are now leading massive nationwide protests against proposed laws that would threaten the livelihoods of small farmers in favor of big corporations. Protesters have been met with violence from police and paramilitary forces, including tear gas and water cannons.
As a political issue, this is super complicated and involves not only complex agricultural policy, but also targeted attacks against vocal religious minorities, and the legitimization of militant nationalism and fascism. In recent months I’ve personally experienced relentless online harassment and threats from these extremist groups, and it’s fucking scary. But if I’ve learned anything from the rise of these same issues in the U.S. over the last several years (YES IT’S A GLOBAL ISSUE, PAY ATTENTION) it’s that I won’t allow anyone to silence me, in part because that’s exactly what they want. I stand with the farmers, and I stand with peaceful protesters, ALWAYS. Finally, I want to highlight the many courageous women who are also leading these protests. They’re on the frontlines and deserve recognition too.”
This is not the first time that Meena Harris has faced criticism from Hindu groups. On Oct. 17, 2020, the first day of Navratri, she shared a photo of Kamala Devi Harris, then the Democratic vice presidential candidate killing then President Donald Trump with a trishul or a trident. Trump was depicted as “Mahishasura,” the buffalo demon, while then Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was portrayed as a lion that serves as Durga’s vehicle. “I am actually speechless, other than to say that the first day of Navaratri was LIT,” Meena Harris captioned the photo. She later deleted the tweet.
Representatives of Hindu American groups and supporters of President Trump took objection to the tweet, and told American Kahani that it was offensive and hurtful to the community and created Hinduphobia in communities that already have very little knowledge about the Hindu Dharma.
Who is Meena Harris?
A lawyer, activist, entrepreneur and author, Meenakshi Ashley Harris, popularly known Meena Harris, is the founder and CEO of Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, a female-powered organization that brings awareness to various social causes. She is also the best-selling children’s book author of “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” and “Ambitious Girl.” She is mother to daughters Amara, 4, and Leela, 2, whom she shares with her partner Nikolas Ajagu.
In a 2019 interview with Mother magazine, Meena Harris described her daughters as “incredibly strong-willed and independent but also are so loving.” She said her older daughter, Amara, is “more serious, and loves books, but she also has a great sense of humor,” while Leela, the younger one is “is very playful, smiles constantly, and tickling her elicits the most delicious giggles.”Her partner Nikolas Ajagu is a full-time dad. “[In our house,] we have a unique situation where traditional gender roles are flipped,” she told Marie Claire. “My partner, Nik, is a full-time dad and I am working on Phenomenal (production studio) full time…I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without him because laundry, work, Zoom — everything is a full-time job.”
Previously, she also served as Head of Strategy & Leadership at Uber and worked for international law firm Covington & Burling, Slack Technologies, and Facebook. During her aunt Kamala Devi Harris’ 2016 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Meena Harris served as a senior advisor on policy and communications. From 2016 to 2017, she served as a commissioner on the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. Last December 2020, it was announced that she and producer Brad Jenkins, would launch a production studio called Phenomenal Productions.
Meena Harris has a pedigree of strong women and path breakers. Her grandmother, the late Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was a prominent breast cancer researcher, civil rights activist, and single mother of two daughters; her aunt, Kamala Devi Harris broke many glass ceilings to become the county’s first woman, first African American and first Indian American vice president; and her mother, Maya Harris is a civil rights lawyer and public policy advocate, who once led the nation’s largest ACLU affiliate.
Meena Harris has been vocal about how the lessons she has learned from and inspired by her grandmother, mother, and aunt. When she’s not posting about her work, her activism, or her daughters, there’s a good chance she’s sharing pictures and videos of her aunt on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Her social media handles are flooded with photos of her family at all stages of her life. There’s photos of her with her family at the Jan. 21 inauguration, a photo of a young Meena Harris with her grandmother, mother and aunt; or a photo of her aunt reading to one of her daughters.
“I grew up surrounded by these strong, brilliant women who showed me what it meant to show up in the world with purpose and intention,” Meena Harris told Glamour magazine in a Jan. 20, 2020 interview. “I just idolized them — these incredible women who were all around me.”
“Beyond the cultural heritage I inherited from my family, I also know that I am the descendant of immigrants, civil rights activists and strong women who broke glass ceilings,” she told NBC in an interview last November.
The Growing Up Years
Meena Harris shares her birthday with her aunt. According to Oprah magazine, Maya Harris became pregnant in 1984, during her senior year of high school, “a part of her life that she’s private about.” On Oct. 20, which also happens to be her older sister’s birthday, she gave birth to her daughter, Meena.
Maya Harris stayed home while getting her undergraduate degree at the University of California-Berkeley and putting herself through Stanford Law School. Growing up, Meena Harris spent a lot of time with her grandmother, “who taught her many of the same lessons that she previously instilled in Maya and Kamala,” Oprah Magazine says. “She was deliberate, and I know this may seem cliché, but she was deliberate about teaching us that we could be anything, that we could do anything,” Maya Harris told Glamour. “And we were really made to believe that.”
She told Essence magazine in an April 2020 interview that her memories are a household full of joy and laughter and lots of humor. “If I were to distill my household, it was a passion for social justice and a love for food and laughter,” she said. “And what I loved including in the story was just learning about how they were as kids. And Kamala was definitely the troublemaker and much more mischievous. Whereas my mom was a bookworm. She was a rule follower, kind of nerdy.”
In an Aug. 26, 2020 interview with Harper’s Bazaar, she spoke about her growing up years. “I had a 17-year-old single mom,” she said. “So I got to see her go to law school. I got to see her go through her first law firm job. And same [with] Kamala. I saw so much of my mother and my aunt, and them becoming powerful women in the world starting in their 20s. I had a front-row seat for all of it.”
On her first day of classes at Stanford Law School, Meena Harris, then four, introduced her mom to fellow law student Tony West after engaging him in a game of hide-and-seek on the campus’s Arthur E. Cooley Courtyard. The two quickly became close friends, but it wasn’t until a few years after graduation that they started dating. Nearly a decade after they first met, the pair got married in 1998. “We waited for the most inconvenient time to actually get together—he was in D.C. and I was in the Bay Area,” Maya Harris told Stanford Lawyer at the time. “It’s a family joke that Meena knew we should be together long before we did.”
Like her mother, Meena Harris went on to pursue law, graduating from Harvard Law School after getting her bachelor’s degree at Stanford. However after a brief legal career, she went on to other things.
In an interview with NBC News last November, Meena Harris talked about how her family encouraged her to find her own calling. “Aunt Kamala always emphasized this lesson to me by urging me to make my own unique contributions to issues I care about,” she told NBC. “Sure, she’s always encouraged me to run for office, but she never pressured me, and she also let me know that I could make an impact in other ways.”
She told People magazine that watching her own mother’s journey “as a young, single mom inspired her to push for excellence and face challenges head on.”
A ‘Phenomenal’ Rise
In the wake of the 2016 election, she worked as a senior adviser on policy and communications for Kamala Devi Harris’ U.S. Senate race. It was then that she first printed T-shirts that said “Phenomenal Woman,” inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem.
“She thought she’d sell a couple hundred and donate the profits to organizations like Planned Parenthood and Girls Who Code,” Oprah Magazine said. However, on the first day, she sold 2,500, he magazine said.
Something that was meant to be a side project, bloomed into a full-fledged enterprise. It has now branched out to include the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, founded in 2017 as an organization that brings awareness to social causes.
She told Harper’s Bazaar that the Phenomenal brand is “political with a lowercase p in terms of women’s equality. It’s universal and broad, and it has a huge, inclusive, diverse community under it. But I also think that it can be so personal. It’s tangible, it’s concrete.”
In a recent interview with People about her brand, she said she wants to continue to “amplify the work of activists, who “have been doing this work day in and day out for decades” and “continue to fight for change — during the 2020 election and beyond.”
Meena Harris is also the author of two children’s books: “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” and “Ambitious Girl.” She told Glamour that once she became a mom and started looking through children’s literature for her daughters, she noticed “this burst of literature” around historical women. “I think that’s super important, but I also had this feeling like, Well, wouldn’t it be great if we had actual stories and real character development around girls—girls that look like mine, that were black and brown children?”
And then when she took matters in her own hands, literally. She published Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea in June 2020. Earlier this year, her second book, “Ambitious Girl” was published. She told Essence that her books are “about two little girls who have this big idea and decided to go do it. Its lessons are around community organizing, and persevering in the face of people telling you no.”
Though this book is focused on children, Maya Harris told Glamour that “the overarching message is relevant to people of all ages.” She talked about how “many young adults,” how “many grown adults” have asked her over time, of what they can do, how they can help. The notion of activism or taking action is just something that’s foreign, and it seems specialized and unfamiliar and big.”
Meena Harris told Essence that the book is also about realizing that, “especially little girls, little Black girls and girls of color, have a lot to offer the world. And we should look into them and follow them and follow their lead.”
The first book tells the true story of how sisters Maya and Kamala turned an unused courtyard in their apartment building into an area for kids, while in the second one, the protagonist decides to reject the labels and embarks on a journey where she learns to not only reclaim words meant to knock her down, but also to take up space and own her power.
“I was raised to believe that ambition was a good thing. That it was something to be celebrated. It meant purpose, it meant power, it meant determination, it meant having a dream and going after it, even when other people tried to tell you it couldn’t be done,” she told Oprah magazine. “That’s all I knew, because my whole family was this little unit of me, my grandma, my mom, and my aunt, and it’s what I would see every day.”
There is no doubt social justice and empowerment are Meena Harris’ callings. As she rightly summed up in the NBC interview: “For me, what started as a pantsuit drive after the 2016 election has evolved into a digital startup, organizing social justice campaigns, and writing children’s books. And I’m just getting started.”
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.