Main Bhi Muslim
Main Bhi Muslim
EP26 - Creating safe space for Kerala's queer and other marginalised communities

EP26 - Creating safe space for Kerala's queer and other marginalised communities

Conversation with Vanaja Collective's co-founders, Sulfath Laila and Gargi Harithakam

Image of MBM episode poster

In this conversation, MBM’s host, Mariyam Haider is in conversation with Sulfath Laila and Gargi Harithakam - co-founders of Kozhikode-based NGO, Vanaja Collective. The collective supports individuals and members from historically marginalised communities, closely working with Kerala’s queer community, helping couples overcome their families’ resistance and find systemic avenues to bring them together. One of the successful cases that Vanaja Collective worked on was of Adhila Nasarin and Fathima Noora - who fought familial and legal challenges - to reunite and live together as a couple.

Listeners discretion is advised as instances of suicide are mentioned in this episode. Here are the time stamps - 2.47 and 36.14 min.

As a queer Muslim woman, Sulfath shares their journey growing up in a household that was largely driven by men and followed patriarchal norms and expectations. Over the years, Sulfath notes how they have derived support and strength from the women in their family, fought patriarchal mindsets and come together to tackle stereotypes and Islamophobic rhetoric. Gargi discusses how ill-practices such as ‘conversion therapy’ continue to exist and harm the LGBTQI+ community and despite it being banned, are often used by families against their own kin.

Sulfath shares how queer voices from within Kerala’s Muslim community have been engaging in public dialogues and demonstrations, and how this relationship is further evolving. We also discuss how Malayalam cinema has a long way to go in showcasing stories with feminist characters and queer couples whose love stories do not end in misery or tragic circumstances.

Finally, the co-founders share ways that listeners can support Vanaja Collective’s fundraising efforts and stay connected with them.

Image of Vanaja Collective co-founders with couples they have supported over the past years. Image credit: Vanaja Collective

“As founders, our journey together has been adventurous from the start in 2021 – as we were able to establish a small but real space for people from the backgrounds of multiple oppressions. We created a new kind of news while enabling Adhila Noora (a lesbian couple belonging to conservative muslim families) to start the life they wanted. We have also created a trusted space for people who required mental health healing – and in the last one and half years, we have been able to help a few people recover and grow through our services. Our webinars are lead by important academicians, technicians, activists, artists and people who are experts in their fields. 

We are hopeful about being able to engage more and more people in these works – expand the collective and hence an inclusive political conscience based in love, trust and compassion.” - Gargi and Sulfath

You can support their ongoing fundraiser by donating through the link here: Vanaja Fundraiser

Screenshot of Vanaja Collective's Milaap fundraiser
Screenshot of Vanaja Collective’s ongoing fundraiser.

Bios of Vanaja Collective co-founders*

Image of Sulfath Laila, co-founder of Vanaja Collective
Sulfath Laila. Image credit: Sulfath.

Sulfath identifies themselves as a queer Muslim woman, was already a voice in the LGBTIQA+ community, who actively engaged in politics of the historically oppressed from 2019. They understand first-hand the challenges faced by their community. They have been actively involved in various social causes over the past few years. They are also an accomplished writer, having authored two impactful books. Notably, their second book shed light on the often misunderstood lives of sex workers in Kerala, a subject often overshadowed by stigma and misconceptions.

Through their writing, Sulfath aims to shatter stereotypes, raise awareness, and fight for the rights and well-being of those who have been historically oppressed. Throughout their journey, Sulfath has collaborated with organizations such as Sahayathrika, Kerala Shasthra Sahithya Parishath, and Queer Pride Kerala. By working together with these organisations, they have leveraged their collective efforts to amplify their impact and advance the cause of social justice. 

Image of Vanaja co-founder, Gargi Harithakam at a public event
Gargi Harithakam. Image credit: Gargi.

Gargi Harithakam is a political activist and a writer, who believes in sharing her privileges as well as expanding resources for the benefit of the historically oppressed communities. She started her political work in 2016 as an ally in Asamghaditha Meghala Thozhilali Union (Kerala), which worked fiercely for the rights of women labourers from the urban poor, and was able to play a key role in legislating ‘Right to sit at workplace’ law passed by Kerala government in 2019. Here, she was able to learn about how to use her privileges of language and English education for the community, by writing pamphlets and other materials.

She also participated in protests and other events of the organisation, which expanded her political understanding. She later became an organising committee member of Kerala Queer Pride in 2018 and 2019. She has associated with many small grass-root level organisations such as Sahayatrika, Aadivasi Gothra Mahasabha, Adishakti Summerschool, Anweshi Womens’ Counseling Centre and others. Her debut novel ‘The Land of Lamp Bearers’ was published in 2014.

*Bios and images published with guests’ permissions.

Episode notes:

MBM visual identity design by Sunakshi Nigam || Music by Jupneet Singh


Main Bhi Muslim
Main Bhi Muslim
'Main Bhi Muslim' the podcast is a conversational space for individuality and diversity within the context of being an Indian, a Muslim and everything in between.