Former History Teacher Releases Anthology Book Celebrating 13 Powerful Indian Women

Author Shetal Shah grew up to the sounds of Bollywood and the delicious smells of her mother’s Indian cooking in the suburbs of New York City. As a second-generation Indian-American, Shetal hoped to one day see more stories of girls like her fill the shelves of local bookstores. A former educator, Shetal taught world history in all-girls schools where she was reminded how curriculum and literature inclusive of women from diverse backgrounds can have a positive impact on girls’ self-esteem, identity development and belonging.

Instead of waiting and hoping for someone else to write the stories of girls who looked like her, Shetal decided it was up to her to be the change and create it herself. Fast forward to 2023, after running a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2022, she is released a book called “Shakti Girls” on March 6, 2023, just in time to celebrate Women’s History Month, as well as International Women’s Day (March 8).

“Shakti Girls” is a collection of poems illustrating the stories of 13 unforgettable, powerful Indian women that reflect the diversity of India and its diaspora. The book includes representations of over 10 different industries, such as women in science, politics, math, activism and sports. Indian women have been breaking ceilings and ushering in powerful change for decades, and “Shakti Girls” takes the opportunity to celebrate that with girls and women of all ages.

‘Shakti Girls’ author Shetal Shah

Empowering words in Hindi and motivating messages are woven into each verse to affirm each young reader’s identity and self-esteem. A short glossary of English and Hindi words is provided on each page to enhance the experience with uninterrupted reading, as well as activities to empower one’s inner shakti.

Right now as we are seeing a scary trend of books being banned in schools and library shelves across the country, it feels more powerful than ever to raise our voices and use our platforms to share stories that can enrich young minds about culture, history, diversity, and creativity.

We had the chance to chat with Shetal to learn more about the women featured in “Shakti Girls”, and the first-hand impact she has seen in girls’ lives when they are empowered by role models that look like them.

Can you tell us where your love of history and the stories of historical women began? 

My interest in history stems from my love for learning about the world and its people. A sixth-grade history assignment unleashed my curiosity about world history and geography; since then it has only grown. It wasn’t until later in life as a world studies educator at a girls’ school did I develop a curiosity for women in history. Up until then, I wasn’t exposed much to women’s history, so when I saw the impact of learning about these women on my students and myself, I knew there was more work and learning to be done.

As a South Asian woman, and a mom, why is it important to see historical figures from different cultures and backgrounds?

Books celebrating historical figures from different cultures and backgrounds serve as windows into a new world. They help break down implicit biases and stereotypes that we may not even be aware of. Learning about these individuals can help us recognize that people can achieve great things regardless of where they come from. If I want to do my part in raising anti-racist and inclusive South Asian children, then I need to be intentional in exposing them to people and cultures different from their own. 

Where did the idea for “Shakti Girls” come from, and how did you begin to collect and find the stories and poems featured? 

The decision to write “Shakti Girls” came from a desire to see women like myself represented in the books that I read to my children. Growing up as a second generation Indian American, I rarely saw books that featured women from India. And now as a mother and former educator, I continue to see this racial and gender gap in children’s literature. Inspired by some of the female empowered books I’ve seen, I was compelled to create one that highlighted Indian women and their achievements – a book I know the young Indian girl in me still needs and a book I know the next generation still needs. The decision to write in rhyming lyrics came from my experience as an educator where I utilized brain-based strategies, like rhyme, to promote long-term memory in students. 

Including a variety of women from a multitude of industries in Shakti Girls was important if I wanted to help close the imagination gap, when girls have difficulty imagining the full range of career options available to them due to a lack of diversity in children’s literature. I wanted my readers to see that they can follow their passion and that their future is not limited to the messages they receive from society telling them what they should or should not do. Some of these women, like author Jhumpa Lahiri, have been part of my own personal journey and are a source of inspiration for me. Some of these women I learned about for the first time while conducting research, which included talking to family members from India and uncovering their knowledge of inspiring women from India.

What does “Shakti” mean, and how does the book embody this meaning? 

In Hindi, Shakti means “power, energy, force”. In Hinduism, it means the power of the feminine that is responsible for creating and maintaining the universe. There are many manifestations of this energy in various Hindu goddesses that embody creativity, music, art, etc. So in essence, shakti is your inner power that I believe manifests through talent, passion, or skill. Shakti Girls embodies shakti on every page through the uplifting biographical stories of each woman, the illustrations that emphasize the unique contributions of each woman, and the motivating messages woven throughout the book for young readers to grab onto. 

As a former teacher in an all-girls school you would’ve no doubt witnessed first-hand the impact diverse storytelling has. Can you share more about this? 

The benefits of bringing diverse stories into the classroom are immense. As a world studies educator at girls’ schools, creating space for diverse viewpoints, as well as voices of women, was encouraged. It was challenging at times, however, finding the right resources, but it was always worth the effort. It was during these lessons that I noticed an increase in student engagement especially from the students who felt a personal connection to the material. A curriculum that reflects the gender and identity of its students positively affects self-esteem development. They feel that they belong and their identity is seen and appreciated. It is only then where the true magic of learning comes to life. 

How can stories about women and girls also impact young boys positively? 

Inclusion benefits everyone. When boys learn about the experiences of women they are given a window into a world outside of their own. It breaks down stereotypes and opens their minds to seeing and learning about the achievements of girls and women, and that they are capable of achieving, regardless of their gender. As a mom raising two boys, I have the responsibility to raise them as men who will view women as their equal, support them, and be willing to step aside to give women access to more opportunities. It’s my and my partner’s responsibility to raise them to do their part in creating a gender equal world whether it’s through discussion or exposing them to stories they wouldn’t select on their own. Books like Shakti Girls are just as much for boys as they are for girls.

Can you tell us about your Kickstarter campaign and funding the book production? 

I launched a Kickstarter campaign last fall to introduce and promote the book, and fundraise to help cover some of the production and marketing costs. The Kickstarter was incredibly successful with over 100% of the goal reached. The success of the campaign affirmed that books like Shakti Girls are needed and wanted in this world. 

The book is being released during Women’s History Month and just in time for International Women’s Day. What message are you hoping to share with the world through “Shakti Girls” on these special occasions (and beyond!)? 

That women of color, women from India, and their stories are an essential part of women’s history. I hope their stories of breaking racial and gender barriers inspire women and girls to realize that they too can achieve great things, regardless of their gender and racial background. 

You have written about some incredible and inspiring women, but we want to know what makes YOU a powerful woman? 

I’m a thinker and a do-er who is unafraid to do things differently than others. I like to use my mind and my voice to seek justice and fairness and be an advocate for those who are still learning how to use their voice. While I may not be the loudest in a room, I know my thoughts and actions have weight. I’m passionate about doing work that fills my purpose. Staying true to that gives me power.

Perfect for International Women’s Day or a gift during Women’s History Month, you can purchase a copy of “Shakti Girls” by clicking HERE, and follow Shetal Shah on Instagram.

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