#BREAKTHEBIAS was the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day. And it found resonance in THE WEEK’s ‘Indian Women Pathbreakers—Shaping a New Dream’ event in Mumbai on March 8. That hashtag holds multiple meanings—for some, it could mean breaking the rules, to a few others it could mean following one’s heart and not letting society dictate one’s path and for some others it could mean not letting anything come in the way of being who one is or realising one’s dreams.
And, the five illustrious panellists who were part of the discussion at the Women’s Day event stand for all that and more. From singer and businesswoman Ananya Birla and actor Swara Bhasker to ICMR-National Institute of Virology’s senior scientist Dr Pragya Yadav, noted gynaecologist Dr Kiran Coelho and Navy Commander (retd) Prasanna E., each of these women preached what they practised in their lives during the panel discussion. As they shared their stories of courage, passion and ambition, one thread that ran through them was hope for a better tomorrow, where the Indian woman finds her voice, the courage to believe in her dreams and to make them come true.
Prasanna, who hails from a small town in Kerala, fought for the dreams of tomorrow’s women. She stood up against gender inequality in the Indian Navy. She joined the Navy as an air traffic controller at a time when women were refused permanent jobs in the Armed Forces.
“After 14 years of service in the Navy, I had to leave without any hope [of a job] outside the Armed Forces,”she said. “No second career could be taken up because that experience was not counted. There were no pensions for us, no medical facilities either.”This, Prasanna thought, could deter young women from taking up a job in the Armed Forces. “It was then that I decided to fight it out in the court with a few other colleagues,”she said. “And, we won that case in 2020, which has been a landmark victory, because women will be given all the benefits that had so far only gone to men, including permanent jobs in the National Defence Academy and Sainik School.”
Prasanna’s story of grit and valour found an echo in Bhasker’s journey to stardom and to being the opinion maker that she is. “My journey is no different than anyone else’s,”she said. “But my greatest learning has been two things: one, don’t let other people define your ambition, your dream and your worth. This is an industry where everyone will try to tell you what your worth is. There have been so many times I have been told that I don’t look like a heroine, I’m not lead material…. Two, have faith in your own belief and the confidence to fight for it.”
Bhasker has never shied from voicing her opinion, no matter how bad the trolling or threats. The versatile actor’s latest projects include Sheer Qorma—an LGBTQ-themed romance co-starring Divya Dutta and Shabana Azmi—and Jahaan Chaar Yaar. “My filmography is the result of having said yes to roles which were rejected by every other actress in the industry and yet, they have been films that won me my awards,”she said, emphasising on the importance of self-belief.
Self-care is equally important, as Coelho reminded the gathering. “If a woman must be a super-achiever and ace in every walk of life, she has to be in the best of health,”she said. While science had advanced by leaps and bounds in the area of women’s reproductive health, she said it is about time that those advancements reached the poorest of the poor. She recounted how she removed 44 fibroids from the uterus of a 36-year-old through minimal access surgery. “That was without a single incision,”she said. “We now need to take high-tech reproductive health care to the last woman standing.”Yet, she admits that her journey has not been without sacrifices. “I still have a mother’s guilt of not having given full time and attention to my two kids back then,”she said.
Yadav, who heads the team that developed Covaxin, would relate to that guilt. A mother of two teenagers, she barely saw her children in the last two years. She cannot emphasise enough about having a support system in place. The last two years saw Yadav and her team, mostly young women, working by the minute in clockwork precision. Working in the laboratory in extremely controlled conditions was physically demanding, emotionally draining and mentally exhausting.
“Our families never really got to see much of us, especially in the first year of the pandemic,”she said. “Our team worked round-the-clock to isolate and propagate the virus to understand its characteristics and pathogenesis. It has all been the result of an unflinching faith in ourselves and being motivated with what we love to do.”
Faith in oneself and doing what you love is a mantra that Birla swears by. She has combined ambition and passion to deliver success—all at 27. She heads the Ananya Birla Mental Health Foundation and is a key voice on strategy in critical projects at the Aditya Birla Group. “I’m very lucky to be in a position where my close-knit family was very open-minded, so I have personally never faced any inequality from within my family,”she said. “But there has been a lot of inequality around me, right from the time I was born. There was a lot of pressure on my mother to give birth to a boy, but then I was born. From a story like that to me establishing my presence in the fintech space to dabbling in diverse fields, I think self-belief has worked for me. There have been times when there hasn’t been a single woman in a boardroom full of men, except for me.”
A day before the event, Birla passed a resolution that her company would recruit equal number of women and men in every leadership team. Despite her achievements, like any other young woman in our society, she, too, often gets the marriage question. “In every single function I attend, I’m asked when I am going to get married,”she said. “In my family, every girl has gotten married between the ages of 18 and 24. But we need to be focusing on ourselves as individuals first and bring in our gender later.”
Following the panel discussion, the panellists honoured 40 Sheroes—health care workers who were at the frontline in our war against Covid-19. Supported by Apollo Hospitals Navi Mumbai, Canara Bank, Indian Oil and Jyothy Labs, the Indian Women Pathbreakers event ended on a note of hope for a better tomorrow for women across India and the world.