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Interview

Ashley Raju.

Namaskaram, I’m Ashley, a second-generation Fiji-Indian woman born and raised in Aotearoa New Zealand. I love all things art and creativity is the foundation of my practice, including research! Dance and music have been strategies of resilience I’ve used throughout my entire life and they are such powerful practices of recharging for me. Currently, I use the creative arts and Ancient Indian arts in my work with storytellers and my own personal life. 

I see that you’re the founder of Maharani Movement. Could you tell us a little about the initiative and your long-term goal(s) for it?

Maharani Movement is a holistic trauma healing space that I founded in 2020 while I completed my research project in counselling. I am constantly appalled at the lack of culturally safe services available to the South Asian diaspora and many minority groups. So Maharani Movement is my way of contributing to the work of indigenising the therapy and wellbeing space so that we can start healing holistically and collectively while speaking up about the issues that are often covered up in the culture of silence in South Asian communities. My long term goal is to hold a safe space which the South Asian diaspora may use as a resource for healing and wellbeing.

I read your interview with The Purple Diary Project and learned that you studied psychology for 10 years. Could you tell us about how learning psychology helped you in your daily life? Furthermore, do you believe that psychology related courses should be mandatory to take at school? Why or why not?

Studying psychology was probably the biggest reason why I was able to identify my own struggles with mental distress and go on to ask for help. I was always an observer and a people-watcher. I liked learning about what makes each individual uniquely themselves, so studying psychology allowed me to understand a bit more about humans and the different ways in which we work. But I did find that a lot of psychological theories and models are predominantly based on Western populations and therefore weren’t as effective or appropriate from members of different communities. This only pushed me to pursue psychology and counselling so that we could get more South Asian and Fiji Indian representation with all things mental health and trauma related. I absolutely believe psychology related courses should be mandatory at school, however we need to change the narratives and theories we use, because one size does not fit all! Last year I went along to a yoga in schools program and I heard the language 7-8 year olds were using and it was inspiring! The body awareness and vocabulary they had already learned at such a young age were things we are only now learning as adults. Imagine the world these children will create one day through having access to psychology related courses at school. Just wow.

I also learned that you are an advocate for sexual violence against womxn, especially within the South Asian community. Could you tell us a little about the trauma that most victims face on a daily basis and how we, as a society, can support and care for them?

I prefer to use the term survivor for myself, but I know there will be others who prefer the term victim. Sexual violence impacts almost 25% of women worldwide according to the World Health Organisation yet these numbers are unknown in South Asian communities because of a lack of reporting and culturally safe services for our womxn. As a society, we need to seriously look at the victim-blaming attitudes we have all been conditioned to hold and change these. When someone discloses their abuse, we need to make sure we listen, we do not jump straight to anger (whether at the perpetrator or the victim-survivor), don’t start problem solving or say the classic “that happened so long ago. You should just try to move on”. We also need to start supporting victim-survivor advocates and hold spaces in which they can make changes to the way that we currently support victim-survivors because in many parts of the world, the support available to them are designed by people who have no lived experience of healing from sexual violence. The system needs to be “for survivors, by survivors”. Lastly, victim-survivors have different ways of coping and the consequences of trauma manifest in numerous ways. What might be one persons experience could be entirely different to another persons. The best thing we can do for them is to be there for the journey to wellbeing, and not rush them to do anything they don’t want to do – give them time and space to make their own decisions about what they want to do with their bodies and the actions they want to take. This is how we begin to restore the agency of victim-survivors. 

I saw one of your posts on your Instagram page that talked about the identity crisis Fijians with Indian descent face. How do you believe identity crises in general affect one’s psychological well-being? Moreover, what advice would you give to anyone who feels as if they don’t fit into a certain nation’s standards because they’re associated with another nation? For example, ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis) and Fiji-Indians.

The identity crisis is so prevalent for many all over the world. I strongly believe that our identity influenced how we see our world and how we move through it and without this we can start to feel untethered. My advice would be only you get to choose what being a Fiji Indian or ABCD means to you! And I know it’s not easy because I’ve had to navigate it myself. I do believe that if we don’t know where we come from, it’s hard to see where we’re going. But for many, myself included, going back and looking at my roots has also meant unpacking and processing intergenerational trauma, trauma associated with colonisation, war, poverty, violence, displacement and oppression. What I’ve found is that many of us had to assimilate to Western society in order to survive in it but as a result we end up losing our own connections to our culture which makes up our identity. And after years of this, we can experience an identity crisis. Remember, your differences make you uniquely you. These are your strengths! And it’s about time we make White culture an option rather than the norm. I believe the only way we can do this is by reclaiming our own cultural identities and wearing them proudly because the strategy of the west was always to divide and conquer. But if we all start reclaiming our cultural roots and stand together to support one another, there is great power in numbers. Find the people who you can be wholeheartedly authentic with and draw strength from these people. This will make it easier to navigate Western society.

How has the pandemic affected you mentally? What things did you learn about yourself during the course of this pandemic that you didn’t know before?

It was hard to be honest. It was my first year working as a therapist and I feel as though the pandemic really highlighted the many wounds in our society. I had to really choose where I poured my energy mentally so that I could continue supporting my storytellers and I really had to be vigilant with my own self-care and rest time. I also really had to make sure I had a solid support system so that I could debrief and ask for help when I needed it. Knowing that we were supporting each other really helped me get through it. What changed for me was my definition of success and the importance of community. Before the pandemic, my definition of success was very much based on western, individualistic and capitalistic values, but I feel I have moved back to more indigenous, collaborative and collective based values of success. Making a meaningful contribution to the world we live in is more important to me than wealth and competition. Most importantly, success without having a loving and safe community to share the wins with means little to me now.

What self-care practices do you recommend? Furthermore, why is it important to scope out time for yourself each day?

Gosh, this is so difficult without knowing what works best for each person. For example, creative practices such as dance, music, writing, yoga and movement meditations are part of my self-care rituals but they may not work for others. So perhaps taking the time to reflect on the things that truly bring you joy, or allow you to feel recharged afterwards may be important tools in your self-care basket. If you’re an extrovert and get energised from being around others then your self-care practices may revolve around social interactions. But if you’re an introvert like me, you might benefit more from having scheduled spaces where you spend time by yourself. It’s important to scope out time for yourself each day because this is a way of honouring your own boundaries. This is a way you teach yourself that you are worthy of love, compassion and attention. It allows you to become more aware of how much you can actually give to others before you are depleted. And allows you to find a balance between giving and receiving (even if the receiving is from yourself!).

Are there any specific psychological conditions/disorders that mean a lot to you? Why do they hold importance and how can we, as a community, help and provide support to people who go through them? 

Too many to name! Probably the most important to me is understanding that there is no one way to describe the experience of trauma and it should be viewed as being on a scale rather than a definitive category. Trauma manifests in different ways for different people, and often some people don’t receive the help they deserve because they “don’t fit the criteria”. Not only is this unhelpful, it’s painfully damaging. I say this because my own healing journey has allowed me to learn how many of the labels that were given to me were all manifestations of trauma. As a community we should be challenging myths about trauma such as, “they had it worse than me so mine isn’t trauma”, or attitudes such as those who have experienced trauma are “just seeking attention” or “are crazy”. We have a very good way of marginalising and ostracising those who are trauma survivors. Another thing is the expectation that the trauma survivor will be able to teach you more about trauma – this is unfair because it places more responsibility on the individual to explain and validate their experiences to you while they are already allocating their resources to their own healing. We need to start doing our own research and learning so that we can know how to support trauma survivors rather than expecting them to teach us.

Why do you think prioritizing mental health is so important, especially for youth?

Because it’s quite possible that our parents or older generations did not have the time, space has meant that our youth have not been taught how to prioritise their own mental health. Unfortunately, with the fast paced society we live in today, it’s not possible for us to thrive without prioritising our mental health. The focus on success leads to overworking, burn out and more severe consequences. For youth, this could mean that the mind-body-soul has incorporated and developed around things like overworking and burn out. The mental health crisis is enough to show that these old ways are not healthy and they are not working. The youth are our future, so instilling the importance of looking after mental health is vital to a healthier and happier future.

Who have been your biggest role-models or resources in times of unsureness, grief, and healing? 

Brené Brown for sure!! Her authenticity and vulnerability has really been a big influence on who I am today. I came across her TED talk on vulnerability when I was at my lowest point and hearing her talk allowed me to really start shifting how I viewed vulnerability, wholeheartedness and authenticity. I then read her books and followed her work. Since this light turned on, I’ve never looked back. Harry Potter was also my escape throughout my life. I think the story of how someone who experienced so much pain and suffering and yet had nothing but love for the people who mattered to him was a powerful reminder that being loved and loving others was the greatest gift someone could experience. It was love that saved him time and time again. And just like the books, I believe it is love that will save us all (including self-love). I returned to this world through books, audiobooks and movies for 22 years (however, there has been a lot of hesitation around returning since the JKR chaos).

What does mental health mean to YOU?

Interestingly enough, I cannot speak only to mental health because that is only one of the pillars of health that we need to be focussing on. In Aotearoa, there is a beautiful Māori model of wellbeing called ’Te whare tapa wha” which highlights the importance of looking after our mental, physical, family and spiritual health for our wellbeing. They are not separate nor exclusive, rather form parts of the whole. So if I was to stop looking after my physical or spiritual health and became disconnected from my family, my mental health will suffer. Just like when I don’t do things to look after my mental health, my physical, spiritual and family health suffers. Similarly, if we look at the chakras, we cannot separate mental health from other areas of wellbeing. They all form parts of a whole. If we don’t feel as though we are able to safely exist, desire, control, love, express, witness or be all that we are, our mental health (along with others) suffers.


Check out Ashley & the Maharani Movement!

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