Two men save a women’s group


Garuab Bansal (left) and Tariq Remtulla

Photo by Candace diCarlo

This is a story about a discussion group founded by women for women, and how two guys ended up running it.

But it’s not a story about how the patriarchy co-opted women’s issues. That’s because the two guys in question took the reins to keep the group alive.

The men are Tariq Remtulla (C’00) and Gaurab Bansal (C’00), and the group they saved is called Sangam, which now bills itself as the only South Asian progressive activist organization on campus. And they ended up running the group purely by chance.

Sangam, which takes its name from the area where India’s three sacred rivers meet, was established four years ago by a group of women enrolled in a class on the South Asian experience in America. They started out discussing issues raised in the class, and soon expanded into a collective of 15 to 20 students.

Remtulla found out about Sangam last year, when he attended a few meetings (which have always been open to men as well as women). “I thought the issues they were talking about were relevant to more people” than women only, he said, “and I wanted to have more people come in to the discussions.” Bansal, who also had attended some meetings, felt the same way.

Late that spring, the two got the chance to put their thoughts into action, for it turned out that the founders were all graduating and had made no provision for successors. To solve this problem, one of the founders called a meeting with 10 Sangam participants to find new leaders. Of the eight women and two men she asked, only Remtulla and Bansal were interested in actually running the organization.

The two did not rush right in, though. “Gaurab and I both had struggles in the beginning over whether we had a right to do this,” Remtulla said. “But we had a talk with one of the founding sisters, and she gave us her blessing.”

The founders also gave them a big book describing Sangam’s history and its mission, which Bansal described as “mainly to raise issues that haven’t been raised” among South Asians in a safe space for women to talk freely.

The two said they remain true to that mission. Women still make up the majority of Sangam’s 30-plus members, and subjects of concern to women are still a mainstay of Sangam’s biweekly “Chai Chats.” But the two have also widened Sangam’s horizons, tackling issues such as homophobia and interracial dating.

Remtulla admits that Sangam’s wider interests could be a reflection of his own cosmopolitan background. Born in Kenya to parents who were part of the South Asian middle class, his family has lived in Calgary, Alberta, since the 1970s. He shares his parents’ interest in politics, which he said was a rarity among South Asians in North America.

Like the revamped Sangam, Remtulla defies common stereotypes about South Asians. He’s a vegetarian, but not for religious reasons: His family belongs to the liberal Ismaili branch of Islam, headed by the Aga Khan. And when people ask him if he has ever visited India, he replies, “I know as many Indian people as that kid over there — zero.”

He and Bansal have also made sure the organization will continue after they graduate. And the composition of the new leadership team — five women and one man —reflects both the founders’ vision and their own.

Originally published on March 23, 2000