Long before her hilarious and candid debut novel about a Pakistani-American family started making waves across the country, author Jabeen Akthar made waves with PETA US. Yep, that’s right, we knew her first! A former “Tiger Lady“ who bared her stripes in a PETA US circus protest, Jabeen is now a member of PETA US’s Regulatory Testing Division. Recently, we sat down with our old pal to talk shop about her new book, her thoughts on animal rights and much more.
Tell us about your book.
Welcome to Americastan follows a young Pakistani-American named Samira Tanweer, who, through a series of misadventures, learns her name is on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. After losing her job and losing her boyfriend to her best friend, Samira returns to her dysfunctional family in North Carolina to make sense of what happened to her life. The novel is a snapshot of life in the US for typical Pakistani-Americans. It addresses serious topics such as racism, assimilation, failure and generational differences, but in the end, I just hope it makes people laugh.
Do you also write about animal rights?
My involvement in animal rights is the most important aspect of who I am, so it will always find its way into my writing. There is a scene in Welcome to Americastan in which Samira goes to a party full of Muslims and criticizes the practice of slaughtering lambs during the Muslim festival of Eid. I’ve been asked repeatedly if Muslims are offended by this scene. On the contrary, lots of compassionate young Muslims have been thanking me for putting it out there.
Tell us about how you got involved with animal rights.
I’ve been around forever. I was a PETA US volunteer back when the organization had a single office in an old warehouse! It all started with a PETA US newsletter in the 1980s. There was a black and white photo of a cow on the ground, her eyes wide and terrified. She was a “downed” factory farm cow who had been kicked in the face, ribs and back repeatedly by farm workers. Not only was this story devastating to read, it also shook my entire worldview and marked the beginning of my journey to change how we view and treat animals. I shared the newsletter with my family, and we stopped eating meat overnight and never looked back.
What inspired you to go vegan?
In the 80s and early 90s, being a vegetarian animal rights activist was considered hardcore. The concept of veganism hadn’t reached the mainstream. For many years, I was under the false impression that I was doing enough by not eating meat. I soon couldn’t deny that I was contributing to the meat industry as much as any meat-eater by continuing to eat dairy products and eggs, so I rid my diet of those products altogether. It’s awesome – I’m savings animals by being vegan, and my diet has never been more diverse and exciting. And going vegan is a downright blast – check out my new favorite vegan chef.
What do you do for PETA US, and what does the department you work for do?
As a former US government employee, I found the perfect home in PETA US’s Regulatory Testing Division – a team of highly credentialed and dedicated scientists and researchers who push the US government as well as international organizations to develop and use incredibly effective and sophisticated non-animal testing methods in their testing programs. I manage research projects by helping the team navigate through complex federal regulations, help publish research articles in scientific journals, and generally keep the department running as smoothly as possible given the heavy workloads our scientists have.
What achievement are you most proud of in your work for animals?
So much of what we do for animals is teamwork, so I can’t take credit for any one thing. Over the years, I’ve participated in numerous campaigns that closed fur stores, saved animals from painful and lethal experiments, and banned gestation crates for factory-farmed pigs. On a regular basis, I look out for injured wildlife on the roads and get them medical treatment, and I have rescued countless stray cats. Most importantly, by just showing people the video “Meet Your Meat” and fixing them yummy vegan meals, I’ve helped a lot of people go vegetarian and vegan!
What would you say are some of the most pressing issues regarding animal experimentation in India?
I’m pleased to see Indian educational bodies like the University Grants Commission and the Pharmacy Council of India finally embracing sophisticated non-animal teaching methods in the classrooms. No student should ever have to use an animal for dissection or research when there are so many alternatives available. In the US, some states even have laws protecting the rights of students who refuse to dissect. It’s also time to see cosmetics testing on animals banned in India – something we’ve already seen happen in the European Union. With India’s booming economy and growing presence on the world stage, there’s no reason it should fall behind the West in moving away from animal experimentation and toward cheaper, more efficient and humane methods.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I knew a girl in college who constantly debated my views on animal rights and said my activism was a waste of time. Fifteen years later, I see her running toward me at an animal rights conference with a T-shirt that says, “Vegan,” and she tells me I’m the reason she’s there. I’m still not sure what I ever did or said to make her change her mind, but the bottom line is this: you never know whom you’re encouraging to help animals, so don’t give up on anyone!