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Shirin Gul Zaidi and Neha J. Babbar   |   11/ 8/ 2020   |   Reading Time: 5 Minutes

We are MENASA in STEM. We Belong.

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Editor's note: MENASA in STEM (@MENASAinSTEM) is a Twitter group helping Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian (MENASA) women and under represented gender students in STEM to network and connect with mentors. Two of their organizers, Shirin Gul Zaidi (@ShirinZaidi) and Neha Babbar (@nehathemartian) share their personal stories of overcoming racism, sexism, and homophobia.



Shirin Gul Zaidi

I shouldn’t have gone to my lab the day after Donald Trump had been elected president.


I had to quickly come to terms with the struggles faced when I moved away from my family to initially pursue a degree in physics, as they were posted in Saudi Arabia and I had been accepted into Penn State. Moving to the US on my own after living overseas my whole life was a larger culture shock than expected for me, despite my being an American citizen. I anticipated feeling a little bit left out culturally and in physics, but I did not expect the level to which it affected me.


It should be shocking and unacceptable to anyone with a sound mind that the white supremacist group Identity Evropa was seeking new recruits on campus with flyers throughout 2017.

Penn State is a speck of blue in the sea of red that is rural Pennsylvania. I wish it was a safe space but it was not. It should be shocking and unacceptable to anyone with a sound mind that the white supremacist group Identity Evropa was seeking new recruits on campus with flyers throughout 2017. Penn State’s administration said they didn't support the organization as they were not registered or affiliated, but refused to get in the way of the group posting flyers and calling for meetings. Students posted on social media and spread the news about it, but a lot of it was hush-hush, in true Penn State fashion.



White supremacists carrying Identity Europa flags march in front of clergy as they arrive at Emancipation Park for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. during August 11-12, 2017. The rally was notable for the murder of a peaceful counter-protestor and President Donald Trump comments that there were "very fine people on both sides". (Anthony Crider/Flickr)

What made that worse was when I experienced a lot of microaggressions from my peers. The group of students I started my first-year physics classes included a group of men who excluded the few women in the classes from group work. They also often vocalized their racist beliefs to each other and many of us that weren’t friends with them. That fateful day, my white lab partners were spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric. I felt cornered — I didn’t feel like I could open up to anyone about this. I learned that I had found a coping mechanism by shutting off my brain. A lot of my immediate reactions towards the events of the night and the rhetoric of the following day still remain quite blurry to me. I kept my fears to myself and didn’t even tell my parents. Being the child of Pakistani immigrants, and being the first child (and especially, girl) in my family to leave home to study forced me to reframe a lot of my worries in the context of my family. I never wanted to burden them with my concerns because there was the looming fear of casting doubt on my family’s tough decision of sending me alone.


Being the child of Pakistani immigrants, and being the first child (and especially, girl) in my family to leave home to study forced me to reframe a lot of my worries in the context of my family.

These sorts of events eventually distracted me from my personal goals but I kept quiet about my pain – all because I thought I was overreacting or no one would believe me. I switched majors to avoid these peers and had to work for an extra year for my degree in planetary science, but only after going on Twitter did I realize that my experiences were real, horrible, and worth discussing and reporting. Through Twitter, a friend and I realized there weren't too many platforms we knew of for people like us — people who need resources like education and community support to boost our personal freedoms. As I mentioned above, telling my family about my struggles would work to make them reel me in. In more extreme cases, education has kept many South Asian women from being married off. We realized we needed a space for people to be able to approach us and ask for help. MENASAinSTEM has many reasons to exist, and a fundamental one of them is to provide the kind of space I could have used when I was experiencing horrible behavior from my peers. A space to discuss and explore possible solutions without the power dynamic-related fears in departments felt by many underrepresented people of color in STEM.




Neha J. Babbar


Being a person of color is hard enough in STEM but being a gender minority is even harder.



Since childhood, I only saw wizened white men commandeer the tables of science and barely a couple of women. As a kid, this was bad enough because this was a clear indication that there won’t be enough people like me in STEM. As an unsure undergraduate student who had to fight for a career in STEM, I was lost in a department dominated by male professors. It was an isolating experience and I had to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my capabilities as a good researcher.


The experience that changed my view of how academia is biased when it comes to anyone who is a non-male was when I was told to hand over my research project that I had spent months on over to a male classmate because apparently I won’t be allowed to go out of my city for presenting it because I was a “girl”. I come from a small town called Nasik in India, a place simultaneously progressive yet painfully conservative in a lot of areas; especially when it comes to women and their education, a place where they are expected to get married the moment they turn 24. And the thing was that this incident was one of the many times I was put down because of my gender.



Jayesh Patil/Unsplash


Two things were terribly wrong here, the first being the sexism and the second that I wasn’t being accepted for not being cisgender and heterosexual. It was a lonely place to be. As a person who identifies as non-binary, it is hard to navigate these spaces because of the compulsory heteronormativity. I have faced countless microaggressions in international spaces as well, where even after specific instructions on the pronouns I prefer, I was misgendered and many spaces such as applications, conferences, and workshops didn’t even have an option other than the given male/female. This only goes to show how the existence of people like me is either ignored or just not acknowledged in the first place and for people of color this hits the hardest because we don’t have our own communities to lean on in the first place.


I have faced countless microaggressions in international spaces as well, where even after specific instructions on the pronouns I prefer, I was misgendered and many spaces such as applications, conferences, and workshops didn’t even have an option other than the given male/female.

To address this problem it was important to have a safe space where we have enough power to challenge these gender disparities. This, in addition to helping young academics of color find their way in academia, gave way to create MENASA. Although in its initial phases still, all of us co-founders of this community aim to help undergrads with a strong support system and give them a platform where they feel safe and seen. We have had a lot of individuals — mostly first-generation academics who want a community that supports and cherishes them — reach out to us for grad school applications, general life advice among many things and that is one of the many things that makes MENASA worth all the work. We do have a long way to go and to bring forth a support system to the people who never had one in the first place is a big task. But it is worth it, it’ll always be. It’s a small step to make a difference that truly counts.





Shirin Gul Zaidi and Neha J. Babbar

Shirin (top) obtained a B.S. in Planetary Astronomy and Science from Penn State University and is now applying for graduate school in the United States. She is also currently working towards a private pilot license.

From Nashik, Maharashtra, India, Neha (bottom) is an undergraduate student in Mathematics and Physics at the University of Pune, researching into gravitational waves and solid state Physics. Neha hosts her own podcast where she talks about science, feminism and LGBTQ+ issues; she is also an artist that deals with surrealism using acrylics.

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