Women's day special :Five women influencers on what feminism means to them

We asked five women influencers how they fought naysayers

asma Asma Khan

Even as I set out finding influencers for the story, I echoed author Kavita Kane, who (you will see as you read on) asks— What exactly are we celebrating on Women’s day? On one hand, when there are women leaders and achievers to be celebrated, young girls as old as 12 are still being married off several countries including India and Pakistan. If women are being sent to the Moon and women scientists are gaining recognition, there are still girls and women who are isolated because they are on their period.

And so, this women's day, we asked five women influencers what their idea of feminism is and how they fought naysayers. 

Asma Khan

Indian-origin British chef, who runs a restaurant called Darjeeling Express in London. Her kitchen has only women.

First feminist moment

In my immediate family, I never felt I was treated any different from my brother. When my brother was born- there were no celebrations. The only thing I remember was my great grandfather flying in for a day to see my brother and getting a big bag of Poppins (a type of candy) from him. 

The first time I remember being conscious was that outside my family girls were seen as different was when I went to Shishu Bhavan in Calcutta (Kolkata now) which was an orphanage run by Mother Teresa to volunteer in my early teens. I remember the shock of seeing every child in that orphanage was a girl. I realised no one had abandoned a boy. This was the first time I remember feeling upset and angry that the girl child was seen as a liability and was abandoned so easily.

In a man's world

I established my restaurant and have not been through the ranks in kitchens which is how most chefs advance in their careers. It is still rare to see women in kitchens— especially in Indian restaurants, which are more male-dominated in the west. I know of cases of bullying and abuse of women, but I have never been able to convince them to go public with their accusations as hospitality is still very cliquey and women being abused or undermined are afraid to be seen as “troublemakers” or “fussy” and afraid they may not get another job in the industry if they come out publicly and complain. A lot of male chefs get away by making misogynistic comments about women in the kitchen. They are given book deals, time on television and headline food festivals. A very few voices are raised in support of women in kitchens

It was not a conscious attempt to have all women— I just needed to work with women who cook like me. Nearly all male chefs in the West have been trained in culinary school and went on to work in 5-star hotels. I needed to cook with someone who learnt the way I did- by looking and watching, going by intuition. I needed multitasking women who would get the job done!

Are people still surprised when you tell them that you are a chef?

Surprisingly the response I have always got when I began my food business was long questioning on what I cooked! The hurdles I hit getting to open my restaurant were difficult but I think women face this in every profession when they try to enter a space where too few women exist. I overcame this by building a collective of women around me— not just those cooking in my kitchen but also those designing my kitchen, helping me with financial advice, helping me plan my menu and service. To anyone looking from the outside, the journey of Darjeeling Express the restaurant may seem like a feminist project. But I didn't. I surrounded myself with people who believed in me, who cheered me on, who told their friends about me and sent me customers, women who wrote about me in the media with warmth and affection. I built up a network of empathetic people who all happened to be women!

How do you define feminism today and how can we keep the movement alive? 

The prejudice faced by my generation of what “girls could do” has changed in the last 3 decades. Of course, only changed for the microscopic elite living in cities and towns of certain economic background. For the poor, the rural and marginalised communities it is still as hard being a woman as it was decades ago. Progress if any is only happening in pockets where there is a focus on raising literacy in girls, promoting hygiene and health facilities for women and girls and increasing employment prospects for women. The rhetoric you read from some of the political elite still reeks of patriarchy. The road to emancipation for women is still long.

My advice to any woman wanting to enter a male-dominated profession is to build up a network of support- not just with other women but progressive men in the workplace. What is hardest to deal with is the isolation and feeling you do not fit in— the way to counter that is to find a way to build your confidence. If you feel driven and determined, people around you can sense that aura!

Alicia Souza

Illustration artist; founder of Alicia Souza merchandise, stationery and more

alicia Alicia Souza

Feminist moment

To recap when I was young real tomboy, the hardcore type. I had a toolbox. My dad to me was the strongest figure in my family and so I took after him a lot. But no, I was never really put down for being a tomboy in the traditional sense. 

But when I became a teen, things got different. I became girly. But I was lucky to have parents tell me only logical things like don't sit with your leg wide apart when you are wearing a skirt or that it is more dangerous for you in the night than your brother and so on. But on the whole, I consider myself lucky. I only

read about disadvantages than feel them.

Then things changed again when I moved to India (from Melbourne in Australia). I realised how much easier it was in public places for my husband than it is for me. I realised how much more conscious and cautious I got about what to wear and what not to. Actually, I didn't realise it for a long time. But when I read about it, I started noticing it too. 

I have realised that vendors too, more comfortable with men coming to print shop than women. I anyway have a partner, who does that for me because I do not have the advantage of the language yet. But for most parts, I feel lucky and privileged to be able to see more women-oriented topics come to light and to draw about them. 

What are your inspirations and what motivated you to launch your brand?

Inspirations are everyday things I see, feel; mostly what is around me and everything I do, is an inspiration.

I started out being a freelance illustrator. But later, a lot of clients started asking me for products. I tried out with a flea market and it was a huge success, with everything selling out. And so, I started the brand with small products. There's been ups and downs but its been fun— I have been pushed to pursue this by people around me and I feel lucky to have such support even before I started. 

Do you think women artists/illustrators are not able to get ahead because of the feminist tone they tend to bring into their work?

I don't think so, I feel its a new genre and it is amazing. I don't think female artists are finding it too hard— at least I don't know of anyone who does. I feel that this is a great time to put a feminist tone out there. Especially in today's day and age when we have this amazing platforms to voice opinions even though sometimes constrained, I think we are in a good time- this is the best it has been— things can always be better though. 

Even in my work, I have never been asked to keep it neutral—several products have been women-inclined— its the opposite. Never has anyone told me can you make this a guy instead of a girl. Also, I have nice clients and I work from home. So, I might be in a bubble about it. 

I think feminism is always important; it is never going to — I think we just need to be conscious especially if you are a decision-maker— you need to bear that in mind, be conscious. 

Kavita Kane

kavita_kane Kavita Kane

Author of books like Karna's wife, Menaka's choice and Lanka's princess— the overlooked women in Hindu mythology.

First feminist moment

I was fortunately spared any of such ‘patriarchal’ moments. We are three sisters and we’re brought up with fewer rules and more freedom. But as my father cautioned me, with freedom comes responsibility. We learnt self- discipline very early in life because we were given free rein.

The sole feminist moment as you say was when I argued with my grandmother when she didn’t allow me to venture near the Puja room when I was having my periods. Enraged, I pointed at all the murtis of the Devis and demanded that did they not have periods too? I was 12 then. I didn’t get my answer.

We had a curfew time of 7 pm which I extended to 9 pm as I had my evening French classes. The rule was more out of worry a mother feels for her daughter than a despotic order. I have witnessed my mother worried mad and seen her pray every single moment that we return home safe and unharmed. Almost like a paranoia we lived in. We grew up during the infamous Joshi-Abhyankar murders, the ripples of which echoed long. Unfortunately, it’s not because of any social restriction but out of undisguised fear for the safety of her child that the 7 pm curfew was imposed. Mothers still do it: awaiting their daughter's safe return. Every day. Every moment. 

How and when were you inspired to write mythology from point of view of its women characters?

When I got down to writing my debut book. I wanted to write on Urmila but didn’t find much information on her. Disheartened I decided to write on Karna but not as a first-person narrative but his life as seen through a woman’s eyes. And who best but his wife as a sutradhar telling his story as his companion, critic and his conscience.

Which mythological character is your favourite? 

All the animals. Each has a fascinating symbolism. 

How do you define feminism today

Feminism is often and sadly misconstrued as reverse sexism. It is about recognising and respecting a woman as a person, as an individual born to have the same rights and opportunities as her fellow human — the man. She was born equal, let her live as an equal. Also, we confuse equality with sameness. A woman does not wish to be like a man, please no. She wants to remind him she is an individual like him and demands that human dignity. 

We have to keep going because we have much to achieve, so much to battle out.

Mothers are still scared sick of their girl's safety. Why? Why do we still live in perpetual fear of attack? How was Aruna Shanbaug’s rapist allowed to live as a free man while she was subjected to a horrible living death? And it goes on...

The reality is as stark and still terrifying. Makes you wonder and we need to think and rethink— What exactly are we celebrating on Women’s day?

Your advice to young girls/ young adults who are probably fighting similar norms set by patriarchy as you did.

 Fight for your freedom, your choice, your rights till you get it and once you have it, cherish it with respect and responsibility

Ami Shroff

Flair bartender

ami-shroff Ami Shroff

Do's and dont's you were told because you are a girl or a woman

I don't recall anything specifically. I am sure a lot of such things have come my way, but haven't realised them. At least not immediately. Only when I have had the time to retrospect, have I wondered why things are different for different genders. Some things that boys could but girls could not do were obvious. Like if you are a girl avoid talking to strangers, if you are a boy, it was— boys don't cry. And as a child, I saw no point in protesting it much. 

But it became more and more important to me, especially after I came out as bisexual/gay. That skewed things so much for me. It then became more about acceptance.

Gender-based biases in your career

When you are a woman and starting out as a bartender, people just assume that you don't know much and that they need to constantly guide you. And things that are considered normal, like a bouncer at the bar for security and a drop back home are immediately viewed as a privilege or a beneficial gift fro the management rather than your right. 

And then no matter how talented you are, questions are raised about how much you are paid. People assume that you are being paid more because you are a woman and not because of your talent and this is especially unfair because there are not many women bartenders as yet. 

Sometimes, even normal conversation in groups can be weird in a male-dominated space, especially when topics like equal opportunity and fair treatment are discussed. You are immediately in the spotlight because you are a woman. 

I strongly feel that if more women are put in a position of authority, the whole vibe changes. Women will feel more comfortable sharing their problems or experiences. They feel heard and understood. So the change needs to come from people in managerial positions, where a conscious effort should be made to hire more women.

Stepping around naysayers

Thankfully, my family was supportive. But I am sure some people say things like 'why is she going out so late, mixing drinks, she returns home so late and so on...' But as it is done behind my back, I never get to confront it. 

Society just presumes that they say it out of protectiveness for the woman. But again, too much protectiveness isn't good. Society must prioritise preventing gender violence, to prevent crimes like rape and assault. Layers of sexism have to be tackled, fought. I recently went to give a talk at a college in Coimbatore. I learnt that the girls' hostel required students to stay in after 7 pm. But in the boys' hostel, there were no restrictions at all. This is where it begins- the assumption that boys can do anything they want, but the girls cannot. This needs to stop. 

Anita Dube

Artist/ Curator; first woman curator of the Kochi Muziris Biennale 

anita_sothebys Anita Dube | Sothebys

Feminist moment

Women are put down by men almost everywhere. And it begins right from family and society questioning you or making you aware of certain rules. When you step out to lead an independent life, you begin refuting the rules. You need to keep resisting and think more independently and always fight restrictions.

Relevance of Feminism

Feminism is more and more relevant because a lot of work still needs to be done to fight hyper-masculinity. And it has come to a point where men simply want to fight women who are being independent and taking on challenges. Hyper-masculinity often puts women at the receiving end of violence like rape, domestic abuse, acid attacks and so on. Men expect women to accept the hyper-masculinity they put on. But women need to resist, come together in groups and take on repression. 

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