Before meeting Hawa Arsala, I already felt well-acquainted with her and her curly, triangle-shaped 'do. Like any of her thousands of followers, I had fallen for Arsala through her perfectly curated Instagram, where she wore white tube top bodysuits tucked into pocketless mom jeans and shiny clogs. She was one of those girls that married white borders on her photos (something I could never quite master) with photo shoots she art directed for Nylon Germany — and none of it felt like she was trying too hard.
But there's more to Arsala than just a great social media presence, though, she's the cofounder (along with developer and designer Tonia Beglari) of the six-year-old content platform and media agency Browntourage, which supports socially conscious and diverse culture makers (Arsala calls herself "The Olivia Pope of diversity" in her Insta-bio, and posts about Muslim Women in America panels). The two Middle Eastern women — Arsala is Afghani, Beglari is Iranian — met in an improv and sketch comedy team while in college at the University of California, Berkeley, but their friendship and working relationship really solidified while out in the Bay Area nightlife scene.
“Always at these underground parties and techno clubs, it was a boys’ club,” says Arsala, who often photographed the wild late-night happenings. “We just didn’t see ourselves represented at all. And we both, being women who identify as postmodern or queer, felt like intersectionality also wasn’t represented in the spaces we were occupying.” The duo, who call themselves triple minorities — women, brown, and gay — was even approached by The Guardian at one point for a street style type photo shoot because they assumed they were groupies.
A lo-fi Tumblr by the pair soon followed, with photos of inspirational brown women, like Indian award-winning author Arundhati Roy and Kuwaiti DJ Fatima Al Qadiri. “It was a way to be seen,” says Beglari. Short, pop culture critiques on Gap campaigns came next, as did a guest editorship with Interrupt magazine and Lorde Inc., where the women discussed subjects like appropriation vs. appreciation in fashion, and highlighted local Oakland creatives.
The two, who were still working their day jobs as a software engineer and a creative producer at Everlane, respectively, then started getting approached by bigger companies hoping to increase and improve their own representation issues. For Nike, the duo cast the brand's recent Be True To Equality campaign, which featured a diverse group of dancers; for the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturdays program, they curated a marketplace, DJ line-up, interactive installations, and an all femme vogue ball. “Wherever possible in the shoots I produce, I try to hire women, persons of color, and underrepresented folks in the industry,” Arsala says. "I love supporting independent designers, sustainable brands, and women of color." (For this story, the group worked with Kanika Karvinkop, who they met earlier this year, for a "remixed" aesthetic where you can't tell where one designer's piece ends and another begins. "[Kanika and I] are both are very keen observers of fashion globally and love to highlight designers from around the world who borrow from heritage, but put a contemporary twist on it," she adds).
Today, the group is reaching for even more interconnectedness. During election season, Beglari rallied a group of radical women creators to produce Downtown Browns, an interactive film series that spotlights systemic decisions faced by Los Angeles’ women of color. "Each episode secretly speaks to divisiveness regarding immigration, Islamophobia, and anti-black bias, and we hope the series can provide a way to humanize political issues and complicate the narrative by exposing the complex systems when living life with identity problems that are out of your control," says Beglari. Another project, Good Girl VR, a performance art virtual reality that divulges what it is like to live in Trump's America while being a brown millennial, also elucidates these strange, politically charged times. Visitors navigate the subconscious and encounter performance art personas Beglari designed to map out the social, political, and cultural influences on identity.
It's also grown to include three more people: graphic designer and performance artist Symrin Chawla, arts journalist and screenwriter Neha Talreja, and actor and project manager Jasmine Roashan. Roashan calls the friendship-based organization these women have created “hella RARE,” while Talreja says it is “truly forward.”
“I first met [them] when we all lived in the Bay through an old friend, he'd been trying to introduce us forever,” she remembers. “I think it was around [the] time when I started growing out of the [need I had when I was] younger of constantly trying to pass. I thought Browntourage was the dopest thing ever because I hadn't yet come across a collective like that, even with the diverse communities in the Bay.”
“We have this sense of responsibility to create that sustainability on a cultural level,” says Arsala. Meaning that the Benetton-esque tokenism/checking the diversity boxes that exists in mainstream America will no longer exist if Browntourage has anything to do with it. “We’re so necessary right now,” she continues. “I see Browntourage as phase one, and phase two is I want to see people like me in those executive offices, on those editorial boards, in these positions of decision-making [and] power, because there’s only so much that can be done [from the outside]. It has to also come from within.”
That respect is at the core of what the organization strives for, also reimagines the idea of otherness that these women have felt at times — Arsala, for one, remembers going through puberty soon after 9/11 and having her breasts being called bombs by teenage boys. “It’s a constant uphill battle showing our stories need to be validated,” she says. “But I think we’re consistently framing and positioning ourselves as allies first and foremost across races, across the spectrum of gender identity, and across general ability.” Beglari adds. “We are growing different branches of community that know that they can call on each other at any moment." And that’s what we call real progress.