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A space to feel free

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Women from across the spectrum came together to share their stories at a festival in Mumbai on Sunday. Menka Shivdasani was there

Mehboob Studios in Bandra came alive on Sunday November 25 to the sound of women’s stories through conversations, music, art and more. The one-day festival, presented by Facebook, UN Women and PwC with free entry for all, brought together a diverse group of people, from Vinta Nanda (in the news lately for speaking out about sexual abuse) to designer Masaba Gupta, Sister Jesme, a former nun and author of the controversial autobiography Amen, and stalwarts such as film star Waheeda Rehman.

Men made their presence felt too—people like model Milind Soman, who’s been getting women to go running in nauvari sarees, to name just one initiative; Cyrus Broacha, Mahesh Bhupati, Karan Johar and Farhan Akhtar, among others. The conversations spanned a wide array of topics, from whether politics was still a boy’s club (Poonam Mahajan was a speaker) to abortion, to the #MeToo campaign, feminism for the new generation, women pilots and much more.

If you didn’t want to spend the entire day holed up in the auditorium, you could chill out on the benches outside, savouring superb snacks, and browse around the stalls that showcased clothes, jams, shawls, essential oils and a host of other items made by women across the country, including underprivileged ones working with NGOs. We were particularly impressed by products sold by Gestures, a Kriti team initiative founded by Aanchal Kapur.

There were art installations by Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology and Sharper Design Studio. You could also tell your story before a camera and take selfies with ‘doors’ with words like ‘Celebrate’ and ‘Inspire’ written across them. While doing all this, you didn’t have to miss anything that was going on inside, because large screens in the outdoor area opened out the discussions to those who preferred to catch some air.

The session with Waheeda Rehman, was, of course, jampacked. Ms Rehman is a woman with extraordinary grace and dignity; this writer was once at an event where the yesteryear actress was to speak on how she tried to get members of her housing society to understand the need for water conservation. The moderator, in his infinite wisdom, announced that she had been brought there for her ‘star value’, but that the real star of the evening was actually a senior government official. Ms Rehman said nothing until it was her turn to speak and then quietly said she had not accepted the invitation to add star value or glamour, but because she genuinely believed in the cause.

On Sunday, she spoke about how, in the 1950s, while she was still new to filmdom, she argued with the director about having to wear revealing blouses—even though she was well aware that she had angered him enough to risk her role.

The conversation addressed a range of topics, from how actresses in their 30s were considered “too old” while this was never a problem for actors like Dev Anand; why she had agreed to do a vamp’s role when she did not look like one (“that’s the director’s problem,” she responded); and how she retained her zest for life because she always had an open mind and was willing to learn new things.  Speaking about #MeToo , she pointed out, to the sound of thunderous applause, that “Parents must realise that training must come from childhood; that boys should respect girls.” She also urged women to speak up immediately if they felt unsafe.

The sessions that followed had a much thinner audience, which was a pity because the topics were of great importance. Rupsa Mallik, who  spoke about the crossroads between gender, sexuality and rights, mentioned how the idea of a ‘woman’ usually involved a ‘married heterosexual’, with everything, including laws, geared towards them; however, that other women who were in the margins, such as those with disabilities, rarely got attention.

In the discussion, ‘Virtual World, Real Equality—reclaiming online spaces for women’ Shilpa Phadke, author of a book on the subject, spoke of why women had a right to loiter. “As a girl gets older, her access to public space contracts,” she pointed out, adding that while the home could be equally dangerous, “no one tells women not to be home”. Shilpa believes that women should feel free to ‘loiter’ in online spaces as well.

The session that stayed with this writer long after the others faded in the mind was ‘Unbreakable’ with Dhanya Ravi. Dhanya, a national award winner, suffers from Osteoporosis Imperfecta, a rare and incurable genetic deformity that has caused her to have more fractures than she has bones—300 at last count; even sneezing could break a bone.

Dhanya spent her 29th birthday last week in the same hospital in which she had been born, and was astonished to find that other patients were terrified of injections. “It’s just a small needle, what is there to be scared about? Why should silly things stop you in life?” said the woman who learned to stop taking pain killers or even tell her parents if she had broken another bone. “I have a fracture now, but I don’t think my parents even know where it is,” she said, as her father sat in the audience, before he was called up to talk about how he had encouraged her. It was definitely an emotional moment. Dhanya, who believes that “life is the greatest blessing” and that “most of us are disabled in one way or another”, now spends her time creating awareness of the disease. “If you do have a disabled child, encourage the person to be independent,” she says.

The event, curated by Barkha Dutt, also featured a group of Bihar’s Dalit women who had drummed their way to empowerment, and a closing act by Deepika Mhatre, who has gone from working as a domestic help to being a stand-up comic.

“We have cultivated the culture of silence and there are topics regarding women’s health which society has been ignorant about.” 
- Dia Mirza

“Women candidates should step forward willingly and fearlessly put extra effort to serve society regardless of all the odds.” 
- Poonam Mahajan, Member of Parliament

“Let your kids do what they want to do. Don’t put them in the boxes of thought of what is allowed as a boy and what is allowed as a girl.” 
- Karan Johar, Indian Film Director and Producer

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