Fiercely independent and unapologetically bold, Farah Billah is a force to reckon with. This 22 year old Bangladeshi-American took the Internet by storm with Coriander Cats: Bengali Girls in the Wild, a photoseries depicting deshi-American women as they break free from stereotypes and social expectations. "These Photos Show The Badassery Of Bengali-American Girls Raised In A Tradition Clash," reads the BuzzFeed article featuring some of the bold photos by the Bengali belle and her friends. One photo shows Billah in a mint Anarkali, seated atop the pivot point of a seesaw, nonchalantly munching on a half-eaten burger. With a large black teep and flared anarkali, she looks like a typical deshi girl until you notice the bold black lips and bright green converse shoes dangling from her feet. "I'll show you my son's biodata," reads the text above her head, while below, there's a simple "No, thanks."
The series goes against the unnecessary commentary on deshi women's lives: "When are you getting married?," or "smile pretty!" or even the classic "what will people say?". What started off as a fun photo session with her friends has now graced news outlets around the world. From Tumblr to BuzzFeed to NBC news - her series has been featured over and over for its in-your-face response to some of our most nagging stereotypes.
"I made this for us, for me. And then one day it went viral and before I knew it, people started reaching out to me from magazines and media outlets, and most importantly- from girls around the world." These girls reached out to Billah with similar stories, but one letter in particular, was especially moving – from a fellow South Asian origin girl from New York."She was surprised I responded to her. She told me about her life and how all the stresses in her life come from being stuck between two worlds. There are different, conflicting expectations and it's difficult to know which is right, or if both are right, which is right for her. Or if that matters. Or if it doesn't. Her letter hit home," Billah shared.
Identifying herself as a Bengali-American, Billah was raised in Oregon, USA, where her Bangladeshi parents immigrated 25 years ago, but lived in California for most of her life. A blogger and painter, as well as author of Wrong Turns Lead Here, Billah identifies herself as simply being an "artist." When asked which identity she feels closes to - a poet, painter or a writer, she said - "I consider myself an artist only because all of the above fall under the arts and they make up who I am."
"As Deshi-American women, we deal with a lot of unnecessary commentary on our lives, and I threw that in here because, well, why not. More importantly, I noticed that these vibrant souls I grew up with defied stereotypes, broke rules, and still came out on top. I’ll give you that they’re beautiful, strong, and independent. I’ll even give you that they’re intelligent and driven- but what I love about them the most is that they’re all inexplicably insane. These girls are the silliest, most unexpectedly disgusting, most vulgar cats and that’s what I wanted to show you. If you’re looking for a blooming, delicate flower of a woman, you won’t find one here," reads Billah's blog post introducing her series.
Growing up in America with her friends, Billah was also surrounded by a large Bengali community that taught them about their language and culture. This multicultural identity that they were socialised into comes "with both perks and downfalls for any first generation American," she believes.
"For me, it was a subtle and not so subtle oppression of my female identity while also having very high expectations of me, regardless of my female identity. I wanted to combat this through art, through something fun and humorous, so I created Coriander Cats," she shares.
Despite the social and cultural advancement of female rights, Billah believes women are still fighting against the social pressures and stigmas that are imposed on them, all across the world. "This photo series depicts us as our exaggerated selves, kindly but aggressively saying we will be individuals regardless of what is said to us."
Interestingly, every quote in the series is inspired by real questions and comments. "All the quotes that are written in the photos are real and have been said to us and from the first generation American woman's perspective, it is all too familiar."
"I have done my best to capture the beauty of being from the Indian subcontinent while fighting to show that as women, as first generation Americans, as a people from a small country on the other side of the world we are strong. That both worlds come with stereotypes. They come with walls and barriers telling us who to be and where we stand but I don’t care for that. I want to make things, art, words and combat the negativity through the resilient quiet of something grand and beautiful. Coriander Cats was made because there is something so soft in a fight like that. That art can reach the other sides of the world like that. That beauty and strength can be felt through a screen. That I am you and you are me and we are fighting together," reads a blog post by Farah Billah titled “Remembering Coriander: The photo series from my life to yours.”
With several photos featuring her closest friends, Billah said they are all "powerful women, incredibly intelligent and individual," and that she is proud to have them as part of her work. Her favourite photo from the series too, is one that states "You shouldn't be friends with girls like her."
"This is very important to me because there has been so much control over our lives at times, even with regard to who we can be friends with. But despite all of that, we have stuck together and that means everything."
When asked about future plans, Billah says she will continue to work and make art in California. As a woman who believes in the power of being a woman, she will strive to "make things to keep herself sane, and won't apologise for any of it." And we are the last ones to complain.
Rapid fire with the fiery Farah
Your project in three words.
Eclectic. Individual. Female.
Your favorite lines from a poem.
I couldn't choose.
One person, living or dead, that you'd like to exchange lives with.
That's a hard one. MIA, probably.
One phrase that defines how you live your life.
One vice you wish you could give up.
If you had an autobiography, what would you name it?
"As we Rust"
Your personal style in one word.
If you could teach one subject at school, what would it be?
History of ancient civilisations.
Three things no one knows about you?
Well, that's why no one knows!
Any guilty pleasures?
Binge watching television.