In Her Footsteps

“To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then, indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage? Without her, man could not be. If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with woman. Who can make a more effective appeal to the heart than woman?”~Mahatma Gandhi

[To the Women of India (Young India, Oct. 4, 1930)]”

I was deeply moved by the exhibits at Mani Bhavan in Mumbai. Mani Bhavan is the home where Mahatma Gandhi’s friend insisted on hosting him when his political activities brought him to Mumbai. The exhibits themselves were simple shadow boxes with a line or two highlighting the key events in Gandhi’s life. But they told a powerful story of a truly iconic leader. In my opinion, Mani bhavan is the #1 site to see in Mumbai. I wished I could spend a whole day reading in the library and just being immersed in the life and story of Mahatma Gandhi. It’s emotional just thinking back to the 30 minutes or so I did get to spend there.

Picture a delicate golden rose pattern being sewn in to a lush red silk fabric by a deft artisan. He starts with one thread and slowly, stitch by stitch, a pattern of a beautiful rose emerges as he embroiders the fabric. I liken my experiences in India to this. Each snippet of what I see, hear, learn and know from my past, are tucked away in my mind or so I think…and then slowly a beautiful delicate pattern emerges. As it did last night… I decided to pamper myself to a shampoo and blow dry, followed by a pedicure at the Oberoi spa. It’s a hard life! Picked up the thick October 2014 issue of Vogue India magazine. For the next few hours, I was lost in the inspiration that is the Indian women. The 558 pages of this Vogue India featured a campaign #VOGUEEMPOWER, a platform to respond to the current state of women in the country. In the editor’s own words:

“I sleep well at night. It’s the morning news that brings nightmares. I wake up to reports of gender inequality in various forms – from brutal crimes against women on the street to statistics of skewed ratios in the boardroom. As a woman, as a mother, and as the editor of a fashion magazine largely produced by women for women, I can no longer turn the pages and heave a sigh. Women’s issues in India can no longer be relegated to debates. It warrants action. And it warrants action from each of us.”

Hit me right in the chest. I had wanted to write a piece for York University’s newspaper Excalibur for the last issue before I graduated. I never did write it. But the thought always crossed my mind. The central idea of what I wanted to write is that in my experience, apathy is our biggest challenge as a society. With apathy, we read about real life horror stories, of injustice, or brutal violence, we learn of poverty, and feel sorry momentarily. Then we turn our heads away. We get lost in our daily hustle and bustle.

I built up a mental armour of steel. I can turn away and pretend the little girl banging on my taxi window asking me to buy some flowers from her isn’t there. The woman with her baby pointing to how hungry she is isn’t really hungry. That violence against innocent people is just normal – I am desensitized. I’ve seen and heard it all. That’s why I don’t watch or read the news. And then the armour cracks …occasionally and with vengeance. And I am lost in an overwhelming sense of despair. I can’t rescue the world! Where would I begin?

This issue of Vogue India wasn’t causing despair. It was seeding inspiration.  Their idea was “to raise awareness that draw focus to powerful, emancipated women. But this seed of an idea germinated to glorious proportions” with collaborations with actors, musicians, doctors, human rights activists, and anyone and everyone that came on board. I won’t go into too much more details. But I will highlight some of the pieces that stood out. While the issues I read here were focused on Indian women, I would say they apply to women in general. Numbers don’t lie, so here are some “unfortunate ones”.

In India, a crime against a woman is committed every three minutes. (National Crime Records Bureau)

1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime (Sexassault.ca)

Of every 100 incidents of sexual assault, only 6 are reported to the police (Sexassault.ca)

In a single year, an estimated 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence. (UNIFEM, 2011)

50% of sexual assaults in the world victimize girls under the age of 15. (UNFPA, 2005)

66 million girls are out of school globally. (2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report)

If India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. (CIA World Factbook, Global Campaign for Education, andRESULTS Education Fund.)

Less than 6% of CEOs in Fortune 1000 are women. (Catalyst)

Amid this despairing stats are lights of hope. However, tiny they may be. Late last year I had the privilege to be part of an initiative with Care Canada to screen a movie “Girl Rising”. Girl Rising is a powerful story of the strength of the human spirit. Here’s a trailer to give you an idea of the movie. I highly recommend it.

Now for some of my favourite picks from the Vogue India issue:

“Whatever you want to do, do it now.” Gloria Steinam

“My culture worships the feminine divine, yet commits heinous acts of misogyny with alarming regularity. As a performer, I believe it’s my duty to portray the feminine energy of Shakti in all its glory. I sing songs written by Indian poets and ministrels and tie it to contemporary music at venues where testosterone rules. I hope that performances like mine play a role in altering perceptions about my gender. When I started, I found myself marginalized in a culture trying to ape the West. I wanted to reinvent my ‘desi’ sound, but with one condition – it had to be me. I found my partners in crime in music and fashion, and suddenly I wasn’t alone.

So I say, celebrate yourself, your culture, your freedom, your individuality. It’s the first affront to ignorance, conservatism and mediocrity. Don’t dress to blend in, don’t sing just because you can be in key. Tell a story and mean it. It’s the only way to make good noise.” Sona Mahapatra, singer and music producer.

“There is no big answer here, much as we might want it, but only a collection of small ones. In the end it comes down to an individual struggle that every single woman faces. It helps to have role models as sources of inspiration and the collective thinking of women leaders to lean upon. But in the final analysis, every woman must fight for her own rights, one step at a time.” Madhur Jeffrey, actor and chef.

This one was funny….

“Sanjay is very mature. He believes that life is bigger than work. For me it’s personal. If I lost a deal to him, I wouldn’t serve him breakfast the next day” – Manisha Girotra CEO of Moelis India, says of her husband MD Deutsch Bank and direct competitor in business.

“Change your definition of giving. Donating Rs. 100 crore isn’t more valuable than teaching 100 children, believes Murty. She illustrates with the story of a woman she met recently: “Vaishali is a housewife from Latur and the empty hours at home were gnawing at her. She created a module on personal hygiene and started teaching this at four government schools around her home. So every morning, when her children leave for school, she hops on a scooter to teach pro bono. It’s this kind of drive that can change society.” Sudha Murty on the Power of Giving.

“Mark your territory…I have a friend’s daughter who is working at an investment bank that expects her to be plugged in round the clock. At the end of every week, she makes it clear that she’s not going to be accessible over email but always leaves her cell number. The other day, her boss singled her out as a leader. Because not only is she doing a great job, she also stands up for what works for her. I think we are going to see more of that.” Ariana Huffington.

My favourite section was one called “Notes to my sons” which portrayed the country’s most influential women and their sons with an ask “to put in to words their hopes and aspirations for their sons. “We cannot just blame men. Mothers have to raise their sons differently” Susan Sarandon’s provocative remark on a visit to India.”…Mothers are the gatekeepers of change – and through their sons, their responsibility extends to the women around them and generations to come. With actions and their words, as the first women in their son’s lives, they set the moral codes that transform young boys into respectful adults.”

Finally, from the guest column by Aaker Patel in “Dear men of India”,

“..I came across a stateman’s views on how to get Indian men to behave better with women on the street. The initial approach, as might be expected of an elderly Indian man.. however enlightened, was to blame the woman. It was her modern outlook, freeing her of traditional captivity and dependence, that was the problem…It is our habit here in India to think the female as responsible for the mischief that we men get up to. Certainly we see her as a willing participant…(Having come under attack)..the man wrote another piece, this time aimed at men,..”when you walk in the bazaar,..keep your gaze down. Wear a hood so that your eyes don’t light upon the faces of young girls.”… This is no solution of course. Even if it were possible, it is insulting to assume that this is something women want, this total shutting out of men from their lives. So what are we to do then? The problem of interaction of the sexes exist…Male visitors to India never complain about how badly behaved Indian women are (indeed, most of them are struck by the Indian women’s many qualities). It is the Indian man who gives India a bad name. We must heal ourselves.”

“Always remember that a working woman is the same as the working man. Yes she looks better and certainly smells more fragrant than you, but this outward difference doesn’t really affect the quality of her work or her ability to think and reason.”

He goes on to list a number of practical actions men can take and encouraged them to cut the list out and put on their fridge.  🙂

Change is happening…the signs are here.

When we arrived in Delhi, we were ‘greeted’ by airport security just like any other airport, nothing out of the ordinary. Except, I noticed as many security staff were women as there were men. Dressed smartly in their sarees or pants uniform. On the streets among the bustling traffic in all parts of India I saw women in their helmets and shalwar kameez making their way through the myriad of cars, buses, tuktuks in their scooters. Even in the overdramatic soap operas, women play strong dominant roles and essentially hold their families together. The Hindus worship many deities that are female. I have grown up knowing of as many prominent Indian women as I have of men. Jer picked up a newspaper in one of the cities and showed me feature stories of global women Indian leaders. Their expertise span in every discipline and are remarkable. I happen to work for a company run by one of those prominent leaders. Subtly and not so subtly, glimpse by glimpse, story by story, a beautiful pattern is emerging; much like the delicate, golden rose on a lush, red silk fabric, that is the story of the Indian women.

I am reminded of a powerful woman in my own life, one who I learnt to appreciate only recently, my Naani (my mom’s mom). She was petite, but she was a powerhouse of a woman. We lost her early, at a young age in her 50s. Naani was incredibly hospitable. Everyone was welcome in her home. I distinctly remember the last night I saw her, she was hosting a huge feast for our extended family. Hours later I learned she suffered a stroke. She passed away within a day or so. But her legacy lives on. I would say I have a bit of it in me. In her few short years, she raised 9 kids, she ran her own business from her home, she had her farm in the city (cows for milk, chicken for eggs) and she ran an association that taught women how to knit sweaters and do stitching work to earn a living. I often relive in my mind those afternoons with Naani watching old Bengali movies by Uttam Kumar. Only now after I can no longer reach out to her have I realized what an incredible inspiration she was. May she rest in peace.  Ameen.

 

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