Tag Archives: Women’s empowerment

Desi Feminist Men – It Does Not Have To Be An Oxymoron

(Featured Image: Cover of the book, Men and Feminism: Seal Studies by Shira Tarrant)

In its simplest form, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” In other words, because women have traditionally had fewer rights, feminism is about asserting and working to achieve equal rights for women. However, nowhere does this imply that achieving equality should be solely women’s fight or women’s goal.

There are but scarce instances when men made it their business to fight for women’s causes. A shining example is the active participation of Indian men in the many marches that took place all over India in 2012 after the horrific “Delhi rape.” Rather than retreating behind rationalizations such as “men will be men,” or “it has always been thus,” or blaming women for their choice of attire and pursuit of activities outside the safe confines of home, thousands of men agitated for respect and safety for the women in their lives — their daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, coworkers, and neighbors. The men showed that women’s lives matter and that they matter to them.

In taking this proactive stand, the men were following the example set by a few men who came before. In this essay, I want to highlight a few of them.

Dr. Anand-bai Joshee

I am sure many know about Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor, and her heroic struggle to bring medical care to the women of India. I just published “Radical Spirits,” her deeply-researched biography. In the course of my research, I came across a letter that her husband, Gopal, wrote in 1878 to an American missionary requesting help to educate his wife. The letter makes an eloquent and heartfelt case for the importance of empowering women and men’s essential role in making that happen:

Ever since I began to think independently for myself, female education has been my favorite subject. I keenly felt the growing want of it to raise the nation to eminence among civilized countries. It is the source of happiness in a family. As every reform must begin at home, I considered it my duty to give my wife a thorough education, that she might be able to impart it to her country-sisters…. On the other hand, female education is much looked down upon among my people… My attempts have been frustrated, my object universally condemned by my own people. … and yet I cannot give up the point. I will try to the last, there being nothing so important as female education for our elevation morally and spiritually.

Gopal Joshee believed that it was important to educate and empower women, but not just for their own good. He saw that this was an indispensable component of the good of families, communities, and country. Indeed, he went so far as to state that the state of women was a hallmark of a civilized society. And, in pursuit of this goal, he stood alone against his community and defied its regressive views.

Another great example of a feminist man is Ziauddin Yousufzai, father of Malala. In his TED talk, he said:

Ladies and gentlemen, this plight of millions of women could be changed if we think differently, if women and men think differently, if men and women in the tribal and patriarchal societies in the developing countries, if they can break a few norms of family and society, if they can abolish the discriminatory laws of the systems in their states, which go against the basic human rights of the women.

In other words, he made it his personal mission to empower his own daughter and to champion the empowerment of girls and women all over the world. The title of his memoir, “Let Her Fly,” says it all.

These two men, Gopal Joshee and Ziauddin Yousufzai, are separated by almost 150 years. Ironically, both were thrust into the limelight because of the tragedies of their protégés. However, these tragedies now live on as triumphs. Despite Anandi Joshee’s early death, or maybe because of the shock and tremendous loss that it represented, segments of 19th century Indian society took a decisive turn towards acknowledging women’s full humanity and their potential. Similarly, because of the violent attack on young Malala, there is greater awareness all over the world of girls’ right to education and empowerment.

Fortunately, tragedy is no longer a prerequisite to creating fundamental change for women. There can be no better example of this than what Indian states are doing to ensure and encourage access to education for girls.

  1. Tamil Nadu: The government offered a 50% subsidy to girls/women to buy scooters and laptops
  2. Uttarakhand: Girls enrolled in school get free bicycles
  3. Kerala: Sanitary napkin vending machines have been made mandatory in all higher secondary schools
  4. Karnataka: Girls studying in government and aided private degree colleges receive free education
  5. Gujarat: Free medical education to female students

Undoubtedly, there are countless nameless men fighting the good fight within their circles of influence, be it in their families or workplaces, or communities. For example, I know of a farmer who sold part of his land to finance the education of his daughters.

However, the battle is far from over. Many issues continue to challenge women. Starting from the management of menstruation and early marriage to access to education and medical care, they extend all the way to sexual harassment and rape, family and maternity leave, and equal pay.

So, here is a challenge for men to be more active feminists. Encourage your daughter as much as you do your son. Create a safe and welcoming family and work environments. Agitate for equal pay for women. Be compassionate and generous to your women coworkers and your subordinates (including household help where applicable).

Make every day Women’s Day and make every month Women’s History Month. The goal should be to make women’s disempowerment a historical artifact rather than a present-day scourge. Rather than diminish your power, it will only empower YOU more.


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

The Story Behind Oscar-nominated Film Set in India

In a rural village outside Delhi, India, women lead a quiet revolution. They fight against the deeply rooted stigma of menstruation. Period. End of Sentence. — a documentary short directed by Rayka Zehtabchi — tells their story. For generations, these women didn’t have access to pads, which lead to health problems and girls missing school or dropping out entirely. But when a sanitary pad machine is installed in the village, the women learn to manufacture and market their own pads, empowering the women of their community. They name their brand “FLY,” because they want women “to soar.”

Their flight is, in part, enabled by the work of high school girls half a world away, in California, who raised the initial money for the machine and began a non-profit called “The Pad Project.”

 

The Story Behind Period. End of Sentence.
Period. End of Sentence. the documentary, began with a group of young feminist students from Oakwood High School in Los Angeles, who wanted to know why girls in their partner schools abroad — in countries as far reaching as India, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone — were leaving school at an alarming rate, just after they started to get their periods. The Oakwood students discovered there was a severe lack of access to sanitary products and an even greater dearth of educational health awareness in many of these communities. The Oakwood students learned their counterparts often felt ashamed of their periods and would be rendered helpless by this natural process of womanhood. Consequently, period-shaming was reaching epic proportions and stories of suicides in Indian villages attributed to this were increasing. Diving into the statistics, the students learned in developing countries, like India, between 25% and 57% of adolescent girls miss school or drop out altogether because of their periods. If girls receive seven full years of education, they will marry an average of four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. If they attend only one additional year of secondary school, their lifetime wages could increase by up to 20%, consequently raising their country’s GDP by billions of dollars. This means if India enrolled just 1% more girls in school, their GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. This is an example of the concrete economic and social impact on individuals, communities and nations. Just as importantly, a complete education provides young girls in harsh circumstances with financial security, knowledge about the world and a sense of self.

With urgent curiosity and progressive awareness, the Oakwood students wanted to take action. The group was already involved with the Feminist Majority Foundation’s high school program, Girls Learn International (GLI). They worked closely with the FMF to research and ultimately purchase a locally-manufactured machine that can produce sanitary pads for an entire rural village. This business-in-a-box could also offer an additional opportunity for the women of these communities: A micro-business making and selling the pads. The pad machine was created and produced by Indian-inventor Arunachalam Muruganatham, who is affectionately known as The Pad Man. It is easy to operate, only requiring locally-sourced, natural resources and a small amount of electricity to function and can be set up in a home or semi-permanent location. Once the machine is up and running, the women are able to bring pads to the villagers at approximately 5 cents a unit, a stunningly low cost. In addition to the economic incentive, the pad machine makes the product more easily accessible, thus empowering women and girls to feel comfortable with their bodies, avoiding period-shaming and continuing their education.

Armed with this plan, the Oakwood students embarked on a fundraising journey with vegan bake sales, yoga-thons and two successful Kickstarter campaigns in order to fund the machine and its supplies. Aware that their efforts could have a greater impact by sharing this journey on a more amplified scale, the girls produced a documentary that they hoped would encourage others to join this philanthropic effort. Now producers themselves, the students hired director Rayka Zehtabchi, a recent graduate of USC film school and a young female writer, director and producer. Zehtabchi spent a great deal of time with the core group of students who shared their ideas for the film and discussed their fears of being perceived as “white saviors” in the process. Zehtabchi helped craft the narrative and then travelled to Hapur to begin filming. The producers researched and arranged what would become a lasting NGO partnership with Action India to forge educational links with the most needy and deserving women and girls in the villages outside New Delhi, specifically the village of Hapur. They also established an official 501c3 nonprofit to continue elevating awareness about period-shaming and to raise funds to provide pad machines in other areas where a need is identified around the world. Period. End of Sentence. screened across the United States at film festivals throughout the summer and fall of 2018. The film continues to inspire students to realize their power in thinking globally and recognize the impact young women can create. As Muruganatham says, “The strongest creature on Earth is not the elephant, not the tiger, but the girl.”

This article, provided by Netflix, was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

 

A Life of Melodies and Memories.

Every so often, you come across individuals who leave a lasting impact on you. They hold within them the wisdom of life experience – which cannot compare with academic laurels or material worth. Their stories can be likened to a well aged wine of a full-bodied flavor, enriched by many layers of emotions and experiences. But one common trait they share is a spirit of gratitude and humility.

If you met Seetha Ramakrishnan on the street, you’d see at first glance, an Indian woman of mature years, walking along briskly with her two ‘grandkids’, Zook and Miki – her daughter Radhika’s pets. She will greet you with a smile and walk on.

It is only when you spend time with her, that you realize her remarkable attributes. She has the ability to understand the subtleties and nuances of people across age groups. And she possesses a sense of humor that belies the hardships she has faced along her life’s journey. Of course, she will make light of these revelations saying “that was then… this is NOW”. A person could spend their entire lifetime learning this ability to live in the moment.

The youngest of 10 children, born into a family of modest means, Seetha learned to ‘make do’ from an early age. Her story reads like a movie script, when she speaks of long walks to the bus stop to get to school in Kuruvayur, a small Kerala village of her birth. She remembers those times, with a matter-of-fact attitude. Her sisters married early, as was the norm, but Seetha managed to complete her SSLC – 10th grade. When the family moved to Mumbai, Seetha lived with her brother’s family. Learning to live with people of varying personalities and dispositions were part of her early learning experience, and has served her well throughout her life.

Music was a familiar backdrop in her early years. Her sisters could sing, but did not receive formal training. At her brother’s home in Mumbai, Seetha began learning music formally after completing her 10th grade education. Her brother was a respected dance teacher. And in that environment, Seetha received initial training on the violin by Shri. A. Narayana Iyer and his daughter, N.Rajam – who is one of the most renowned violinists of our time. She relates how difficult it was to start training at the age of 17. But she persisted. And so began a musical journey that zigzagged its path from Mumbai, to Coimbatore, and back again.  Her teachers – Smt. Meenakshi Vishwanathan, and the famous Kovai Kannan brothers – helped further her musical growth.

Along the way, music transformed into a teaching career, quite by chance, when a neighbor requested that she teach her kids. And then came the dawning awareness of wanting to be financially independent in order to be able to continue her own musical education. Completing a Stenographers course which led to a paying job, aided the process. Teaching music also enhanced her own learning. Whether it was necessity that created opportunity, or passion that gave shape to it, she found herself beginning to enjoy teaching.

Marriage at the age of 26, brought with it another change of role. And with it came limitations of a different sort. A joint family meant more adjustments, and a need to find her place within its framework. But her passion for music and teaching never waned. They shaped her identity. Later in life came hardships in the form of her husband’s ill heath. Seetha found herself in the position of being the sole earner, providing for the family both emotionally and financially. The forward-facing attitude inculcated through her early life, and a deep abiding faith in her music, got her through those trying times.

Balancing family life and teaching, Seetha managed to accompany many eminent vocalists on stage. And she was also an ‘AIR’, All India Radio artist for 25 years. Despite the recognition and growing fame, she considers her influence on her children as the greatest feather in her cap. Her children grew up around music, learning by listening while she taught. And then beginning their training under her care. Her son, Kumar, preferred the Mridangam. While her daughters, Radhika and Ranjani took up the violin and went on to win accolades, perform and teach – a testament to their mother’s passion, resonating with their own.

Radhika Iyer, is a prolific California based musician. She balances her job as a Finance Strategist, with her musical journey, which has taken her down interesting roads. Radhika plays Western and Indian Classical music on a seven-string fretted violin called the ‘viper’. She is also an author, songwriter, session musician and record producer.

Ranjani Ramakrishnan divides her time between Chennai and the U.S, playing on the Carnatic concert circuit, and teaching the violin. She has performed extensively including the most revered World Festival of Sacred Music at the James Armstrong theatre and the Cleveland festival. The musician visits the US in March-April before the Cleveland Aradhana Festival, to train kids who participate in the events. The sisters have collaborated on albums and play duets occasionally.

As for Seetha, at age 78, the enduring love affair with her violin continues. She now considers her music as a service to humanity. While it brought with it financial help and support when the need arose, she firmly believes that it is a form of the Divine  – enriching her life, and those of many she has managed to touch through the ages. She is known by many labels – Daughter, Sister, Wife, Amma, Aunty, Musician, Teacher and Thaati (grandmother). She gives of herself without hesitation, with loving kindness.

Her parting comment to me was profound – “My learning never ends. It has taken a different route – inwards”. Hers is a life, shaped by circumstance, as much as by her passion for her violin.

A full life – a synergetic union between the bow and the string.

This is a tribute in words during Women’s History Month for a woman I am proud to know.