My Superwomen

As a child, I would often wonder who my role models were. What did someone have to be, in order to qualify for becoming someone who I could possible aspire to be like? Over the years, I’ve come to draw parallels between the people who I admire.

 

First of, while there are many men to inspire me, I usually myself relating more to succesful women. Second, I find people who have achieved success on their own terms, extremely irresistible. And finally, an element of authenticity is crucial too. Real women. Who, despite their professional achievements, are still women with families and children.  As someone who has herself stumbled many a time the road to her destination, I relate way back to someone who has faced highs and lows, as opposed to someone whose journey has been all uphill.

So, after much thought, I’ve been able to put together a list of all these women, who I regard as my superwomen.

  1. Sheryl Sandberg : A leader with a heart and a passion for breaking glass ceilings, that’s what this tech COO of the world’s largest social networking platform is. While I developed a sense of admiration for her from the day I read Lean In, a book -cum-platform encouraging women to active take up leadership in professional settings, what made me truly fall in love with her was the manner in which she handled the untimely demise of her husband. And she didn’t just stop there, rather she took on a new mission to allow people to publicly mourn. Through her other initiative, Option B, a mission to help people recover from loss and adversity.

 

2. Melinda Gates : A successful engineer, entrepreneur and now philanthropist, Melinda Gates is simply goals. After all, at a life stage where most people who step back and revel in the fortune that they’d build (especially if your fortune happens to e a company called Microsoft!), Melinda and her husband Bill decided to take on a completely new challenge – The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The painstaking work they do through the Foundation, across the globe in the field of rural development, is heartwarming.

3.  Michelle Obama : Whoever said first ladies had to be boring, and shadows of their presidential husbands, clearly hadn’t met Michelle Obama. Nothing about Michelle is stuffy, run-of-the-mill or boring – and that’s what I absolutely love about her. A successful lawyer herself, not for a moment did you lose her within the rather magnetic of her famous former President husband Barack Obama. She maintained her own. If there’s one leaf we can all take out of her book, it is that one can do exceptionally serious work, while still having fun.

4. J.K. Rowling : Who better to inspire a writer, than another writer herself? A woman who despite being a single mother, with absolutely no security or support system, took up a dream. Of writing her way to success. Of showing the world the power of a pen and a good story. In creating the magical world of Harry Potter from scratch, one that invited everyone from adults to children, to enter and never leave. A classic rags to riches tale, her story clearly teaches you to dream beyond imagination, and do everything it takes to fulfill it.

5. Sudha Murthy : What never fails to amaze me about this pathbreaking entrepreneur is her enthusiasm, her childlike, and her ever grounded nature. And her love for breaking stereotype. whether it was t becoming the first female student in her college and the first female engineer at TATA, to founding the juggernaut called Infosys with her husband, or to establish the Infosys Foundation, she’s left her mark everywhere.

Who are your role models, friends? Eager to hear them!

Women, go to work, please!

It was this article that got me thinking. And maybe it’ll get you thinking, too.

And if you don’t read the entire article, you can read just the first two lines.

LAKSHMI, the goddess of wealth and fortune, is the closest thing Hinduism has to an economic deity. How poorly her earthly sisters in present-day India are faring. 

Not that I was unaware of the scenario, but this mainly reaffirms what the reality is. This time, with real-life examples and figures to support the claim.

Ironic, very ironic. In the land where the ardently worshipped deities of wealth, education and power are all female, India is losing out a major chunk of its talent only because so many women are at home. A loss that converts into economic deprivation in terms of becoming a significant contributor to the nation’s poverty by a staggering 27%

Whats even more ironic that the only reason isn’t just the lack of education, it’s also the never-ending social pressures that collectively surmount to keep women actively out of the workforce. In-laws demanding the their daughters-in-law stay at home despite their education and desire to earn. Organizations that don’t support working mothers forcing women with children to quit their jobs and take a hiatus, which very often means that they don’t get back to work at all. Women entrepreneurs struggling to keep their ventures afloat, with collectively only around 2% of total venture capital financing going to women.

Of course there have been game changers within the society, in terms of women among the likes of Indra Nooyi, Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Chanda Kocchar, who have risen up the corporate ladder as well as gone to create successful companies of their own. And business models that supported women employment. AMUL and Lijjat Papad. And little proliferations of self-employed women with regard to the good old Tupperware and Amway aunties, the waxing ladies, the tuition teachers and the neigbourhood ladies with their pickle and tiffin businesses. Yet, the number of women who collectively remain unemployed still outnumber them.

Growing up, I was fortunate to be born to parents who viewed education and having a career equally important for both sons and daughters. Which meant that I never thought of myself not having a full-time job, ever. Yet again, that does not mean that I am biased towards stay-at-home moms. The point I’m trying to make, is that not every woman has to have a full-time job. There are women who stay out of active employment out of choice. But that doesn’t mean that the women at the other end of the spectrum, that is women who want to work, should be held back in any form. It is the birthright of every single woman, to have access to education, economic freedom and empowerment. So that when they fo genuinely want to go out and make a living, they are not are obstructed by  financial, physical or social barriers. From more education opportunities,  self-employment and work-from-home options, to child-friendly workplaces, maternity benefits, more microfincnace options and venture capital funding. We need them all.

Maybe this could be a wake-up call, and our mantra for the years to come: Sending more women to work. Hopefully our daughters and granddaughters, shall look at boardrooms and corner office aspirations as normal, instead of glass ceiling achievements, like our generation does. And we will have a fuller, richer economy, that thrives from the collective effort of both men and women.

(The article cited appeared in The Economist : Why India needs its women to work. https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/07/05/why-india-needs-women-to-work)

The World Seems Unsafe Tonight

Ma, my tears go unnoticed
My cries, unheard
My dignity, hurt
I’m sorry you brought me into a world
That doesn’t even pretend to care
Ma, can I climb into
Your womb for a while?
The world seems rather unsafe tonight
I’m tired, Ma. I’m tired
Of fighting,
Of struggling,
Of begging the world
To for once, be kind
Please let me climb into
You womb, just for a little while
The world seems just so unsafe tonight
I feel like I’m being punished
For a mistake I never made
I flee like a wounded animal
Only to find a spot that’s safe
But alas they find and hunt me
However hard I try
Ma, I promise I’ll only
Stay in your womb for a while
But please do let me
The world seems
Very unsafe tonight
(On account of India being declared the most unsafe country in the world for women)

Evolution of the Bollywood Heroine – From Darling to Daring

A week ago, I had the absolute pleasure of watching a Bollywood film, Raazi, one based on Harinder’s Sikka‘s book Calling Sehmat. I term the experience a pleasure because it had all the elements of what great cinema should comprise of – a crisp storyline put into place with splendid direction, stellar performances by the cast and finally, that feeling that lingers on after you’ve left the movie theatre. One that starts as a lump in your throat, and stays on as that tug in your heart.

For me, that feeling entailed, a sense of unadulterated admiration for Sehmat, the protagonist. At the tigress esque spirit of a patriotic 20 year old woman, who decided without a slight inch of hesitation, to become a spy, cross borders and carry an entire mission on her shoulders. An female character which completly comflicted with my internal image of the quinesstinal Bollywood heroine. Remember, I was the 90s kid growing up in India, who was fed on a staple of Bollywood films which followed a cookie cutter plot. Girl and Boy fall in love. Girl gets kidnapped by villains. Boy recuses her and wins her heart. In a nutshell, it was the always the male version that was doing everything, while the female revelled in blushing, dancing and flaunting her designer wardrobe. No wonder we called him the hero.

Yet, over the last decade or so, the trend has reversed. Films aren’t just being made with women, rather, about them, with an entire list of exemplary films and characters who we’re not forgetting anytime soon. Jab We Met, where Geet a bubble, feisty woman decides to take her destiny in her own hands, and even bear single handedly, the consequences of  her actions. Or Rani from Queen, the jilted bride-to-be, who instead of shedding tears at being left at the altar, decides to fulfill a dream of a European honeymoon, sans her husband. Or Veera from Highway, who confides in her kidnapper about her childhood trauma. Or a daredevil Kaira from Love You Zindagi, who’s not afraid to confront a therapist about her dejection that stems from life’s many setbacks. Or even Shashi from English Vinglish, who takes on a seemingly mammoth of a challenge, one of learning a foreign language, within the realms of a city that’s alien to her, and waking up to a confident, capable version of herself in the process.

And the list can go on. In my opinion, what makes these films winners is that they don’t necessarily focus on feminism, girl power, or even on making a statement of sorts. The protagonists aren’t exactly superwomen, rather refreshingly relatable. Real women living in real times. Ones in whose stories, we often end up finding our own.

The female protagonist has evolved, and how. She no longer is the Damsel-in-distress, who waits for her Prince Charming to rescue her from a bunch of villains. She fights her own battles, her own demons, sometimes even entire social institutions that dictate what she should do, wear and behave. Neither is she Miss Goody-Two-Shoes. She flaunts skin, drinks, goes on solo trips, even loses her virginity without being apologetic for any of it. And finally, she is an individualistic woman of substance. One who is comfortable with creating and living her own sense of identity, claiming her own sexuality,  and pursuing her individual dreams and aspirations. None of whom are dependent on labels, stereotypes, or man. She isn’t just part of the tale anymore, she is the tale. One she’s not afraid to write, rewrite and live. Herself. In her own words. On her own terms.

 

We Forgot Our Men

As a society, culture, and the world, here’s where we went wrong.

We empowered our girls.

Inspired, motivated, informed them.

Equal opportunity, we called it. 

We sent them to schools. To ballet class. Yes, even karate lessons

We taught them to break stereotype, day, after day, after day.

To rewrite their own fairy tales. To play with guns if they wanted to. To wear blue and not pink if they preferred that instead.

Yet we forgot our boys. 

While we stood up for the girls, we forgot to sit beside our boys.

And tell them, that the presence of a y chromosome, wasn’t their key to success. That it made them biologically different, yes. But not necessarily superior

That it was okay to cry. And shed tears. And weep, and wail. Convince them of a man’s right to a heart, emotion, and feelings.

That laying their hands on a girl’s womanhood, didn’t make them more of a man, it made them less human.

We taught our girls to fight. What we didn’t do, is teach our boys to not attack them in first place.

 

Feminism is unnecessary

When I was a little girl

I learned a world

I’d have to say for the rest

of my life.

Sorry

Sorry, for wanting to be more

than a daughter, a mother, sister and wife

Sorry for not having a penis

and having breasts instead

Sorry for demanding to be in places

which did not lead to a man’s bed

Bitch, slut, whore are what I become,

Should I wear my skirt above my knee

And then they tell me

Feminism is unnecessary

 

All the numbers in the world

Show that the equality has a dent

A man makes a dollar,

a woman, 77 cents

A woman can work as much as a man

Still not get equally paid

When she rises to the top, all they say

She must have gone back down on him

She must have gotten laid

Stand up for what I want

And I become assertive and bossy

Even then, they tell me

 

Feminism is unnecessary

Clutch your heart and tell me, folks

if there’s even one day that’s gone

Without the news channels telling a story

a woman who hasn’t been wronged

Abused, murdered, raped and burnt

Openly stripped on the streets.

Feminism isn’t just women, helping women

We need the men here too, you see

Your sisters, mothers, daughters, wives are in danger

Its time you stepped up, and expressed your anger

The day we can gift our daughters and granddaughters

The gift of equality

That day, you can tell me

Feminism is unnecessary

 

On being Indian. And feminist.

Yes, I’m feminist. And I’m Indian. And in my opinion, the two make a rather interesting combination.

The dictionary definition of the term feminism defines the term as advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. Yet I think that given my culture and background, the term feminist takes on a slightly different meaning.

Because in my part of my world, being feminist also means fighting the additional baggage of culture, tradition, occasionally even religion.  A community that practices paradox like second nature . Where an endless number of female deities are worshipped. Yet women are being abused in every single form possible. One which has produced no dearth of female leaders, yet where misogyny and patriarchy still prevalent. One which doesn’t oppose objectification of women in popular culture. Yet conversation around natural biological processes like menstruation and safe sex are considered taboo. And if this environment doesn’t call for one to be feminist, I don’t know what does.

My biggest reason for choosing to become a feminist was the understanding and appreciation that in this scenario, I was truly, genuinely, one of the fortunate ones. To have never faced discrimination in my personal or professional life. On the contrary, to have been supported by an entire army of men who encouraged, propelled and drove me to scale heights in my professional and personal life.  And it is this sense of gratitude that drives me to be feminist.  Feminism, in my opinion, is about fighting the social evils against women that exist in society. But it’s equally about fighting the internalized misogyny that lives silently in minds, yet constantly surfacing and displaying its murky self. It’s about believing that as a woman, you are capable of anything. But above everything else, it’s about building a longer table. About not treating feminism like some kind of elitist club, rather a collective sisterhood. Where both women and men acknowledge first, that a challenge does exist, and consequently working collectively towards uplifting women who, through some twist of fate, didn’t have the opportunities you did. Without being judgmental, opinionated or biased.

So yes, I’m feminist. And an Indian woman. And I will continue to be both. For both these badges, are ones that are part of my identity, and ones I wear with utmost pride.

 

This Woman’s Day, lets Thank the Men

Behind every successful man, is a woman.

In this era, where we’re fighting for equality,  and inclusivity, this adage seems passe. People support people. Gender doesn’t necessarily have to play a role at all. And I’d like to change the narrative to simply saying that behind every successful person, there is an someone else, or even an entire village. Especially because as a woman, I’ve been fortunate to have had the support of many women, and men, who’ve added to my flame, propelled me and driven me to rise strength to strength. And as much as I’ve created my own sisterhood, I’ve also had an army of men that’s played a crucial role in helping me to rise and create a niche for myself. And this Women’s day, I’d like to specially thank all those men. For as much as I’m grateful to the women who’ve acted as mentors, confidantes and friends, I’ve also been associated with men who’ve made me a more confident, stronger and better version of myself.

So the men whom I’m thanking this Woman’s Day:

1. My father : For making me his princess. His warrior princess. One whom he taught to fight her own battles, kill her own demons and be her own heroine, instead of waiting for some hero to do so.

2. My male friends : For the back slapping, the banter and the company. For making me feel part of the gang, never the outsider.

3. My male teachers & mentors : For teaching me lessons of life, I will not forget in a jiffy. For constantly sharing inspiring examples of women leadership and pathbreaking efforts, in turn, allowing me to dream of becoming a trailblazer myself.

4. My colleagues : My male bosses, for believing in me, for valuing my capability over my gender.  Male colleagues who’ve been great support systems, and friends at work. Who have only allowed to challenge myself constantly as a professional, and in turn sharpen myself in the process.

5. Global leaders : There are some great examples of male leaders, who’ve paved the path forward for women to gain access to opportunities like education, social and economic independence, that have only allowed to succeed in their personal and professional spheres.

In this era of endless stories about men that have exploited, underestimated, and even suppressed women, lets not forget the ones that have done just the opposite. To inspire and uplift women, you don’t have to be a female yourself. And to all the men that have practiced and preached this, I extend my sincere gratitude. More power to you, boys. For we need more folks like you in here.

 

 

Women & Entrepreneurship. New best friends? Not really.

In the Bollywood movie English Vinglish, I remember a scene when everyone in the first session of a crash English course is introducing themselves. Sridevi a.k.a Shashi, mentions that she runs a tiny ladoo-making business from within the confines of her kitchen. ‘Oh, so you’re an entrepreneur,’ the English teacher exclaims. And Shashi’s eyes light up, for all of a sudden she’s now learned a new definition of her identity. One that enhances her own self-esteem in her eyes. In the blink of an eye, she’s gone from someone who thought she didn’t do anything exemplary, to an ‘en-tre-pre-neur’, a word she herself has to practice a few times before she gets it right.

As an Indian woman, there’s probably never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. As far as the glass ceiling of entrepreneurialism is concerned, the ceiling hasn’t just cracked, it’s been broken, even shattered. Repeatedly. In a nation that has traditionally seen a male-dominated entrepreneurial scenario, there is no dearth of women who’ve built and led successful ventures And that’s good news.

Yet, if I look back to my growing up years, it does strike me that female entrepreneurship is no new phenomenon. Rather one that’s been around since the last few decades. And there are several instances of this.

A prime example that comes to mind is the cooperative company structures Lijjat Papad and AMUL built. Allowing women to a taste of financial independence through employing household skills that they had anyway learned by default.  A win-win situation for these commercial ventures and for the women. Many of these business models even went on to become case studies at B-schools, for they were pathbreaking attempts at employing latent talent in women that had otherwise been traditionally ignored. And in the process allowing women, who had mostly been financially dependent on menfolk, to earn their own livelihood.

Or, another regular character in my growing up days, the women I called the Tupperware and Avon aunties. The ones who usually were female acquaintances of my mother through her personal network of friends, family and kitty party members. Ones who would come home with glossy catalogues of kitchen ware items and cosmetics, trying to make use of salesmanship trainings they had acquired through becoming representatives of these companies, almost always convincing my mother that the products advertised in the catalogues were far better than their retail counterparts. And each of these women ran her own show as a company affiliate, growing her clientele, and sales volume through her own efforts. Some of them even managed to employ other women under them, creating their own sales hierarchies. And running them profitably.

And then every neighbourhood most likely had a pickle and tiffin aunty. The ones who ran tiny ventures out from home. Making pickles and lunches for those who didn’t have the time to make their own. And becoming indispensable in most cases.

Each one of these women is an entrepreneur. Irrespective of the size of the venture they ran.

And the trend hasn’t stopped, for even today, there are several many women who run successful small-scale businesses, from within their homes. And we’d all probably agree that they are as important as are the women who build unicorns. For they contribute in many ways, to our social economy. And personally, I have an extra element of respect for them. Because even without B-school degrees, venture capital and sometimes even a basic education, they did everything that is included in the definition of an  entrepreneur. Take risks. Create value. Solve pain points. And in the process, earn identity and profit.

Making Feminists, in the kitchen

Misogyny (more laymanly known as an emotion that exudes hatred for women) comes in two forms. One, which publicly brings down, demeans and degrades them. Through abuse. Through objectification. Through inequality.

And then there is the other kind. One that is the silent, invisible kind. Yet, it is also the more dangerous kind. The internalized misogyny.

If you’re wondering what exactly I mean by this, I urge you to watch this commercial. A father visits his married daughter’s house, only to realise that the son and husband play no role in the household chores. While his daughter juggles a demanding career and domestic responsibilities simultaneously. And the realization hits him, that her husband is not to blame for this. It is he, who by never helping his wife in household chores, set the wrong example for his daughter. By allowing her to believe that cooking and cleaning in only a woman’s job. A social norm she probably never questioned. A classic instance of internalized misogyny. And sadly, there are many more.

Look around you. When you think of abusive language, pretty much every abusive word is targeted at mothers, sisters and their private parts. Every poem we learnt as kids taught boys to be ‘little men’, and girls to be ‘sugar, spice and everything nice’. Every 90s kid growing up in India will remember a handful of popular Bollywood songs and lullabies, where parents sang different dreams to the children, based on gender. The boys would make their parents proud with their accomplishments, and the girls would grow up to meet princes, who would come on horses and take them to castles. Possibly things are changing, but even the ideal portrayal of what how certain objects, colour and actions have been segregated into sexes, making us categorize them as masculine or feminine.

Blue for boys. Pink for girls. Toughness for men. Crying for girls. Guns for boys. Dolls for girls. And the list goes on.

In the era we live in, if a more equal, tolerant and inclusive world has to be promoted, it cannot be only done through posters, social media hashtags, or commercials preaching women empowerment. Like charity, it too must begin at home. Possibly beginning in the kitchen. By working on instinct, not bias. By telling our boys that cooking and cleaning is as must their job as it is of their female counterparts. By telling them that even they have a right to tears, for there is a reason both men and women were born with a tear duct. By telling them that the next time to hurl an abuse directed as somebody’s mother, they might as well abuse their own, for rarely does slang language not meet with something equally crass in response.

And as for our girls, for us to be able to take them from the kitchen (a domain traditionally expected to belong to them), to the boardroom(a domain that traditionally excluded them), that confidence has to be imparted to them at home. Where they have to to be made aware of the world that lies beyond the confines of domestic life. For this is not at attempt at reverse migration – make more men stay at home, and make more women go to work. The core idea is to make both worlds accessible, and accepting of all people, irrespective of gender.

This is not me romanticizing what the ideal world should look like, but being optimistic about it. For I know every long journey starts with a single step. And creation of feminists (which includes both men and women) in the kitchen is possibly the first.