Though last year witnessed several highs when it came to feminism and gender equality finally getting pride of place, it goes without saying that women in India are still fighting the tide — in most facets of life. Despite the odds stacked up against them, there were several who defied expectations — even their own — and came out flying.
Be it societal norms, patriarchy or beating the system, these fabulous ladies, who hail from all walks of life, not only broke convention by making statements, but also inspired many to follow in their wake — one progressive footstep at a time. This Women’s Day, we arc the spotlight onto their lives, and how they have bounced back with brazen spirit and sheer chutzpah.
Bhavana: Much has been written and discussed about the traumatic experience south Indian actress Bhavana went through recently, that had everyone from co-star Prithviraj Sukumaran vowing not to do misogynistic films again -— to colleagues like Varalaxmi Sarathkumar speaking out about exploitation in the film industry (and even start an anti-harassment campaign titled #SaveShakti today)
But far from being deterred, the 30-year-old rose past all the ‘breaking headlines’ and stated with characteristic gumption that she would get back to work in no time at all. “Life has knocked me down a few times; it showed me things I never wanted to see. I experienced sadness and failures. But one thing is for sure — I always get up!” she posted recently, sending goosebumps to all her fans and well-wishers across the nation.
Sofia Ashraf: This rapper and musician occupies cult status in the hearts of several youngsters across the country — from her ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ exploits against Dow Chemicals to playing an active role in the Justice Rocks social movement. She was most recently in the news again for using her music to protest peacefully against the proposal of Sasikala Natrajan to become Chief Minister of the state, urging the generally ignorant younger strata of the society to become more politically aware.
Shares Sofia, who is currently in Japan, “2016 was a great year for women-centric communication — be it films, TV, digital or advertisements. I am quite excited by the prospects 2017 holds for me as a woman creating digital content. I am hoping to focus my attention this year on creating videos about body positivity. Through my series ‘Sista from The South’, I hope to address the issues, insecurities and ideologies of a modern South Indian woman. I began the year with a video that normalises acne and tells you that it’s ‘no big deal’.”
She adds, “I have also planned college workshops where I hope to get young girls to start believing in themselves more. My greatest challenge has and always will be the fact that my family still doesn’t take me seriously. Until I get married and have a child, most of society is unable to see me as an actualised adult. My challenge is getting people to understand that I might not have a child, but that does not mean I don’t have a purpose in life. That, and trying to find lip-gloss that doesn’t stick to my hair!”
Priyanka Chopra: It seems like it’s going to be just a matter of time before Pee Cee wins an Oscar — not just presenting the awards! The Jharkhand native won the Miss World title 17 years ago — but even that career-defining honour seems like just another accomplishment on Priyanka’s ever-burgeoning CV — such has been her rise to international stardom of late. Watching her hobnob effortlessly with the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Chrissy Teigen backstage at the Academy Awards last month, it seemed difficult to imagine even the slightest chink in her armour.
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Baywatch star, as mother Madhu Chopra reveals, “When she won the Miss World pageant, she had not yet gained all that confidence. She had to battle a lot of personal issues, including low self-esteem. She also lacked confidence as she had embarked on a journey without taking any charted lessons. It was only after years of grooming that she was able to stand straight and tall, style herself and dress in accordance to the occasion. Strength was induced within her only because she kept her eyes, mind and ears all wide open — and kept learning at every occasion. But it wasn’t a cake walk for Priyanka always.”
The proud mom adds, “She is doing a lot for the girl child; she has gifted sewing machines through her foundation to girls in order to enable them to be able to survive on their own. She wants girls everywhere to stand on their own and not depend on anyone for their living.”
Rupa Singh: The first and only women jockey in India in the male-dominated sport has won about 720 competitions including seven international tournaments. In a sport which has negligible women presence, Rupa has set a clear precedent, proving all the nay-sayers wrong.
Initially, it wan’t an easy ride for her with unwilling trainers —”When I started out, they were not confident in coaching me. They were hesitant since I was a woman, and considered weaker than men. But, more than physical strength, you need the mental power. In horse riding, though physical fitness is required, your strategy and mind power is more important.”
Rupa says support from the family will make all the difference to a woman if she wants to prove herself in any field. “I think families do not support their girls to take such risky professions,” she says, adding, “That’s why I feel there aren’t many women jockeys. My father, who was a jockey, wanted to me to become the first women jockey in the country. So, I strongly feel that backing of the family is a must for a girl.”
What’s next for her? “The Chennai season is going on. I recently completed one event in Bengaluru, and will next head to the Ooty seasons. As far as international events go, I am looking forward to getting calls.”
Nikita Hari: A scientist, social tech entrepreneur, science communicator and STEM ambassador — Nikita is currently a Cambridge University Nehru Trust Scholar pursuing her doctoral studies in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. She is also the co-founder of interesting enterprises like Favalley and Wudi Technologies, and is the consulting head for Care to Teach, an initiative to teach Syrian refugee kids. Favalley is a social enterprise aimed at engaging, training and teaching coding to marginalised youth in slums. The company is in the process of forging partnerships and acquiring funding for starting the pilot and has been a winner in the Cambridge Entrepreneurial Competition 2017.
Speaking about the challenges she faced both in her education and career, she says, “Though a gold medalist in both B. Tech and M. Tech, when I was applying for a PhD in IITs (during her time as a lecturer), I was constantly criticised by colleagues, neighbours and relatives for not getting married and going after a PhD which they claimed was an over-qualification for a woman in the marriage market! As if all that should matter to me was marriage and kids, and to fulfil societal obligations. I have not attended any personal social gatherings for about ten years now due to this continuing ridicule and harassment — and I don’t wish to be part of any discussions that are an encroachment on my personal decisions about my life.”
Sharing her thoughts on Women’s Day and feminism, she states, “Feminism is about equal human rights for women and not about more rights for women, like being falsely propagated by prejudiced people who feel threatened by this challenge of patriarchy. The larger purpose is strongly simple — equal rights for women in all aspects — especially in a country like India, where safety and respect for women is shamefully low. The need of the hour is to stand tall along with women in their fight for women’s rights — a woman’s right to choose what she will do with her life — her education, her body, her career, for equal pay, equal respect and for a right to live without fear of humiliation and
Meenakshi Vijayakumar: Meenakshi started off as an assistant professor at Chellamal College in 1990 and worked as a lecturer in New Delhi. While she cleared the Group 1 service exam in 1998, she had to wait until 2003 before the decision for women officers to be included in the fire service was made. Now, she is the first woman fire officer of India, who led an all-men contingent in the Republic Parade held at Chennai Marina in 2005.
Apart from this, she also has the credit of being the first Indian fire officer, who has won medals at the World Fire Fighters in 2010 and 2012. Recently, her work during the Vardah cyclone and the jallikattu protests brought her into the limelight again. Meenakshi is extremely vocal and also gives motivational talks to young Indian women to pursue careers after marriage.
Rupa Devi: Rupa Devi’s journey towards becoming a FIFA-qualified referee is a story that will inspire tons of people. Beating several obstacles, she had to quit her teaching job to keep playing in the national-level tournaments. However, in 2011, when she lost both her parents, she struggled along with her siblings. With the support from her association, she was able to take part in matches.
While the number of matches drastically reduced, she was asked to take up the job of a referee by her coach. Clearing the exam, she began her new career as a referee in national sub-junior and junior level games.
Once Rupa cleared the All-India Football Federation, she was all set to make history. Three years later, she cleared the FIFA examination and became the first woman referee from Tamil Nadu. Apart from this, Rupa also coaches young football players.
Shalini Visakan: After realising that the ready-made garments were no longer providing comfort for her husband, who uses a wheelchair, Chennai-based designer Shalini Visakan took on the challenge of creating adaptive clothing head-on. With her designs now receiving acclaim from across the nation, it was not an easy task to introduce the concept of adaptive clothing in the fashion industry, she says.
“Being a designer, I started off designing for my husband so that I could find him the right fit. Gradually, I started getting requests from a few of his friends as well, and that’s when I thought I could take adaptive clothing ahead for all. I wasn’t sure if the fashion industry was open to this at the beginning. I wasn’t very confident I could do it, since each disabled person has a different kind of body. When making clothes for the disabled, it requires many trials and alterations continuously to get the final result right. For this reason, it was also extremely hard to find tailors who would be patient enough throughout the process and not charge too high a price for the alterations. It took me a lot of time, facing all these challenges to establish myself. I’m not in this business for any profits either, as I only charge minimal charges. But the satisfaction when a disabled person feels comfortable in my clothes is unimaginable. People from across the country are placing their orders with me and and it’s a great feeling,” Shalini explains.
This year, she says she plans to open her boutique which would showcase her adaptive clothing designs as well as bridal wear for the disabled.
Kangana Ranaut: Queen K, Miss No-Nonsense, star of Koffee with Kanga... erm, Karan. The list of monikers Kangana keeps adding to her repertoire seems never-ending, and we love her for it! As self-made as they come, the 29-year-old has battled fire with flame all her life — nothing more epitomised by her recent altercation with Karan Johar on his chat show.
Accusing the director of nepotism and being ‘movie mafia’, Kangana spelt out what many in Bollywood would never dare to say. Karan was visibly unnerved and chose not to take her on immediately (what if he got embarrassed further on his own show?!) It was only later during another interview that Karan lashed out at her for ‘playing the woman and victim card’ — to much mockery from Twitterati all over.
But then again, that’s nothing new for the outspoken maverick who’s always stood her ground when it comes to opposing men — even certified film royalty like Hrithik Roshan could not make this outsider cow down! But what sets Kangana apart from the list of forthright heroines in the country, is that her career is also a massive success story — and audiences seem to have only just peeked into her abundant pool of talent. Garnering a vociferous fan base (as Shekhar Suman found out recently) despite going against every rule in the ‘traditional heroine’ playbook, Kangana is fast becoming the quintessential ambassador for women to not just be the leading lady of their films — but also their own lives.