Actor-activists Nandita Das, Vani Tripathi Tikoo and Saloni Chopra bat for a gender-equal world

By Pragya Narang

October 5, 2021: “In South Asian societies, we genderise so early on,” says Nandita Das, actor, director and human-rights activist, about the inherent gender discrimination in South Asian societies. Speaking at the opening panel of eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women, Das was among 50 eminent women from 13 countries who came together to seek solutions for peace, gender equality, social justice and a unified South Asia.

Das, who has taken up several issues including colourism and domestic violence, said: “In our societies, it is so important to instill in little girls a sense of confidence, freedom, and abandonment. Similarly, the boys have to be taught a sense of responsibility, equality, and respect for girls, but how do we do it when the adults who are teaching them are themselves so deeply prejudiced and discriminatory?”

Das, who has acted in more than 40 feature films in 10 different languages, shared her views on how feminism has focused primarily on women who are victims and shared solutions. “The next chapter of feminism should engage with men, and a safe space should be created so that they can express their emotions and a true place of vulnerability is created,” suggested the award-winning actor, who has been twice on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and was conferred the ‘Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters’ by the French Government. ⁠ 

Das was part of the introductory session of the summit titled “Building a Platform for Gender Equality” where she and her co-panelist Leslee Udwin, award-winning UK-based filmmaker, educationist and founder of Think Equal, discussed how a gender-equal and a more compassionate world can be created by intervening during the early-education phase, when the seeds of inequality are first sown.

While Das and Udwin stressed on early childhood education, Vani Tripathi Tikoo, actor, producer, columnist and socio-political activist from India, believes the solution to achieving a socially just society lies in adopting a bottom-up approach and putting more women at the helm of decision-making.

Tikoo, who has acted in about 50 plays, over 40 television serials and six films, and founded India’s first state-run drama school Madhya Pradesh Natya Vidyalaya in 2011, defended the need for women’s reservation in public offices.

“Reservation or quota is a word that the West hates, but for women seeking political participation at the grassroot level, it is a socially leveraging situation, as it creates that paradigm that is required for women to enter the mainstream,” she said.

As a socio-political activist, Vani’s campaigns and outreach programmes have focused on encouraging women’s participation in politics, and in involving youth for finding solutions to challenges India faces. As former national secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, she said she had seen first-hand the challenges of women trying to create a space for themselves in South Asian politics.

She recommended that at the primary level, support should be given to women in terms of tools, education, and capacity-building for women fighting their first election. “Communicative skills is the biggest challenge apart from finding funds. No political party or leadership institutes who otherwise work on women’s empowerment ever give a thought to the woman who is starting out at the electoral arena, and is facing her first election, and to how difficult it is for her to address an election rally of 500, 5,000, or even sometimes 50,000 people,” said Tikoo, who is the youngest-ever member of India’s Central Board of Film Certification, or ‘censor board’.

Tikoo was speaking at a panel titled “Focus on Youth: Empowering Humanistic Political Leaders”, which discussed the need for more women and humanistic leaders who put people before politics.

She shared space with Peggy Mohan, linguistic expert, author and educator of Trinidad origin now based in New Delhi; Saba Gul, Pakistani-American technology entrepreneur, investor and feminist activist from New York; and Tara Krishnaswamy, software director, activist, author and co-founder of Political Shakti women’s collective in Bengaluru, in a panel that was moderated by Boston-based journalist-filmmaker Beena Sarwar, founder-curator of the peacebuilding coalition South Asia Peace Action Network.

For her part, actor, entrepreneur and author Saloni Chopra insisted that change can be brought in only when women are financially independent and don’t allow marriage and motherhood to consume them.

“We need to ensure that women are financially independent and they make enough money, as men don’t consider women equals because women remain dependent on their partners or their fathers,” said the actor who proactively uses her social media to raise voices for women’s issues such as safety and equal rights.

Chopra was part of the panel titled “Feminist Lens: Women’s Visibility and the Culture of Silence” along with Pakistani columnist, writer and TV show host Mehr Tarar and Afghan-origin journalist, broadcaster and writer Najiba Laima Kasraee, currently in Prague.

Sharing her concerns on how women essentially become invisible post marriage and lose their individuality, Chopra said, “After women get married and have children, they are so isolated from society that it is a different kind of silencing, where we don’t see stories of women in their 40s, 50s, or 60s.”

She went on: “Fathers need to play a greater part in the child’s upbringing, and bring more vulnerabilities, connections, and conversation more than just paying the bills.” Chopra’s book, Rescued by a Feminist (2021) is a collection of essays on a variety of topics, including gender equality, violence against women, and social media.

Chopra was one of the few courageous actors to open up about her experiences during the #MeToo movement. Yet she understands why women remain silent when abuse happens. “You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. Speaking about abuse, especially within the industry or your workplace, means you don’t end up getting as much work as you would have if you had stayed silent,” she stated.

South Asia Union Summit Led by Women is a nonprofit initiative by eShe, a digital platform based in New Delhi that amplifies women’s voices from South Asia and globally. The first in a planned series of annual events, it brought together 50 eminent women from 13 countries to discuss solutions for peace, gender equality, social justice and a unified South Asia.

The event was supported by WISCOMP – Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace, an initiative of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The entire event schedule and list of speakers at South Asia Union Summit Led by Women can be found here.

The full videos of the event are available on eShe’s social-media channels. Here are the links: 

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