Be bold for change. This is the United Nations theme for Women’s Day this year. And this is the spirit embodied by our wonder women from the region who prove that empowerment is not restricted to living rooms but can take root in dusty villages as well. Meet some women who dared to push boundaries to come up trumps in the last one year.
THE GREAT ENABLER: DEEPA MALIK
(By: Ashutosh Sharma)
An ace athlete, a biker, motivational speaker, wife and mother of two daughters, Deepa Malik, the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016, wears many hats, and all with a rare elan. The woman, who was confined to a wheelchair after surgery to remove a spinal tumour 15 years ago, became the role model for many after she won a silver medal in the shot put event.
On women empowerment: Malik believes this needs a society which is free and treats women on a par with men. I feel an ideal day would be when the birth of a girl is also celebrated as that of a boy. Education, she says, holds the key to creating awareness and social change which will give women their rights and equal share in the society.
Secret sauce: Hard work and determination to make the impossible possible. Most people thought I would not succeed, but I pushed the limits and proved the nay-sayers wrong.
THE TRAILBLAZERS: GEETA PHOGAT AND BABITA PHOGAT
(By: Shalini Gupta)
The story of Olympian Indian women wrestlers Geeta Phogat, Babita Phogat and their coach father Mahavir Singh Phogat received widespread adulation across the country after “Dangal”, a movie based on their lives, was released in 2016. Today, the Phogat sisters from Haryana are icons not only for the aspiring women wrestlers but also for millions of India women, who want to turn their dreams into reality.
On woman empowerment: Geeta believes there is no room for gender inequality or orthodox rules in these progressive times. “Women should be free to study what they want and pursue a profession of their choice.” Babita, 27, underlines the importance of a supportive family. “My sisters and I could do well only because of our parents. Had my father not believed that his daughters could be wrestlers, we would not have touched these heights.”
What is needed: Geeta believes the government needs to provide more opportunities and also protection to the women. “Crimes against women must stop. Domestic violence against women and rapes are a curse,” she fumes. Babita calls for opening more schools and colleges for women.
Looking ahead: The sisters want to spread awareness about women empowerment. “We must end female foeticide. We would like to connect with more people and tell them to give wings to their daughters,” says Geeta, who married Pawan Kumar, a wrestler, in 2016.
A STAR IS BORN: ZAIRA WASIM
Zaira Wasim, the 16-year-old Kashmiri girl who played the younger version of Geeta Phogat in the film ‘Dangal’, has had to deal with vicious trolling following her meeting with J-K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in January, and an old Facebook post by her mother, but she is carrying on with her career in films.
The journey: Zaira was 15 when she beat 1900 contenders to be shortlisted for the role by Aamir Khan. That followed grueling physical training as her part demanded wrestling skills. Zaira’s training included punishing doses of running, swimming and wrestling.
On women empowerment: Zaira dreams of a society in which girls can be safe and happy. She was upset when it was suggested to her that women needed to take up wrestling for self-defence. “I strongly believe that every person is different and has some or the other ability. The only thing is to recognise and realise one’s potential.”
Looking ahead: Zaira will next be seen in Advait Chandan’s debut directorial venture ‘Secret Superstars,’ along with her mentor Aamir Khan,who is producing it. Incidentally, the movie’s theme revolves around women empowerment.
GLORY ON THE MAT: SAKSHI MALIK
(By: Saurabh Duggal)
The Rohtak girl was catapulted to fame when she became the first Indian woman wrestler to win a bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Born to a bus conductor father and an anganwadi worker mother, Sakshi took to wrestling at the age of 12 and has never looked back. Today she is the wrestling director at Maharshi Dayanand University from where she completed a master’s degree in physical education.
On woman empowerment: Women have the right to freedom and equality in all spheres of society. We, girls, are contributing equally to making the family, society and country proud, so we should be considered at par with the boys. We need to sensitise the society that girls are no less than boys in any way, so stop treating the girls as a burden. Gender discrimination, even at the smallest level, should be checked.
Looking ahead: Now I am focusing on the next year’s Asian and Commonwealth Games. My ultimate aim is to change the colour of my medal in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Secret sauce: My determination to prove my worth and make the country proud at the highest level.
NO FULL STOPS FRO HER: POONAM DALAL DAHIYA
(By:Manraj Grewal Sharma)
Poonam Dalal Dahiya, a Haryana Police Services officer, was nine months pregnant when she appeared for the civil services preliminaries; her baby boy was barely three months old when she cracked the mains. Today she is undergoing training as an Indian Revenue Services (IRS) officer at Nagpur, and has just released her first book.
The journey: It’s been a long journey to the civil services for Poonam, 33, who started off as a government primary school teacher at the age of 20 after doing a two-year teacher training course. This was just the beginning. The woman, who carried on studying while working, soon cleared the SBI probationary officers exam and got posted to Chandigarh, her favorite city. But this was just a pit stop. Soon enough she became an Income Tax inspector after clearing the State Selection Commission exam, in which she was ranked seventh. Buoyed by this, she took the Haryana Civil Services exam and donned the police uniform. Six years later, she is all set to join the IRS.
On women empowerment: Poonam, whose family hails from a village in Jhajjar, says she learnt gender equality from her father. “He used to help my mother in the kitchen and he taught me that I didn’t need a man to defend me.” Poonam says emancipation is not just about financial independence but about respecting yourself as an individual and having a choice. “It starts from the family. “
Secret sauce: Perseverance and hard work. “I am also lucky to have a very supportive husband. He calls me Jhansi ki rani,” she laughs.
Looking ahead: Basking in the reviews of her first book, “Ancient and Medieval India” by McGraw Hill, Poonam says, “One day I would like to work for the United Nations.” She also wants to revamp primary education, a subject very dear to her heart. “It’s the foundation of our future. Unfortunately, our government education system is in such a mess that a poor man’s child doesn’t stand a chance. We have to get it back on the rails.”
SINGER WITH A MESSAGE: GINNI MAHI
(By: Aakanksha Bhardwaj)
Gurkanwal Bharti, aka Ginni Mahi, 18, who is pursuing Bachelors in music from Jalandhar is not only a star in her college but has quite a fan following in the outside world as well. Ginni is the voice behind ‘Danger Chamar’, a music video that went viral and cast her as a proponent of caste equality. Inspired from Bollywood, Ginni says she wants to be a versatile singer and spread the beliefs of her gurus.
On woman empowerment: “For me, a woman is empowered when she has the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by a man. Equality for me is the primary requirement for empowerment.” Ginni says the society tries to stereotype women and stop them from choosing a profession of their choice. “Let a woman live her life the way she wants to,” she declares.
Secret sauce: “I just wanted to follow the teachings of my gurujans and their ideals had such an impact on me that I reached this point in life.”
Looking ahead: “I want to work hard and polish my voice so that I can become a versatile singer.” Ginni also wants to help other girls by instilling confidence in them.
ON A MISSION: NAYEEMA MEHJOOR
(By: Abhishek Saha)
After working as a news editor with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for around 20 years and highlighting the woes of Kashmiri women through her work, Nayeema Mehjoor, 62, decided to help them out practically in her avatar as the chairperson of the Jammu and Kashmir commission for women in June 2015. Her recently released book, Lost in Terror, published by Penguin, provides a woman’s perspective of how the Kashmir conflict has, over the years, affected the lives of women in the region.
Her work: The women’s commission takes up numerous cases of domestic violence, harassment at workplace and early marriage across the state. Mehjoor, who joined People’s Democratic Party in 2014, says the commission tries its best to provide relief to these women, but is hamstrung because of its reliance on other agencies like the police or judiciary. There are a significant number of cases of domestic violence in Kashmir, she says, while incidents of physical as well as mental harassment at workplace are mainly reported from Jammu, and the Chenab valley sees several cases of early marriages.
“There are many issues which women face in the conflict zone of Kashmir. To solve them you need a lot of resources, courage, determination and political will,” says Mehjoor.
The journey: Mehjoor says she saw the early period of militancy in Kashmir. “I was caught between the crackdowns, cross-firing and search operations. I was a witness to all this. But no one was talking about the women who were bearing the brunt.
On empowerment: For Mehjoor, women empowerment means “social” empowerment. “First, a woman should get respect at home, she should have a say in every important matter. If you get respect at home, I don’t think there is any chance that you won’t get it outside,” she adds.
AIMING FOR THE ARMY: ASHANYA
(By: Rameshinder Singh Sandhu)
Winners don’t do different, they do things differently. This is true of Ludhiana girl Ashanya, 15, who was declared the best National Cadet Corps (NCC) candidate during the month-long All India NCC camp at Delhi in January. Honoured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this class IX student of Sacred Heart Convent School, Sarabha Nagar, says this achievement is a stepping stone to her dream of joining the Indian army.
Her inspiration: Ashanya says she got inspired to join the NCC from her seniors who seemed more professional and disciplined due to their association with NCC. “Also, I have made up my mind to join the Army”, smiles the girl whose parents, both teachers of fine arts, encouraged her to nurse this ambition despite having no connection with the armed forces. “They are so keen about my passion that whenever there is any news related to defence, they always push me to read it”, she smiles.
On women empowerment: The budding Army officer feels strongly about stemming the rising crime against women. Empowerment, she says, begins in the family. Every girl child should grow up without any kind of restrictions, she says. She should be given the freedom to make her own career choice because only then will she excel. “We need to get inspired from the lives of Kiran Bedi and Kalpana Chawla. A nation that does not empower women and ensure her safety can never stand tall,” says the wise young girl.
Looking ahead: Ashanya plans to take non–medical in class 11 while preparing for army exams. Besides aspiring to be an army officer, she also wishes to be part of the army’s research wing.
DESIGNING PERFECTION: APARNA SOOD
(By: Saurabh Chauhan)
Born in Chandigarh, Aparna Sood, 38, did her schooling from Tara Hall of Shimla. Aparna shot to fame when she won the Filmfare Award 2016 for “Best Production Design” for the film Neerja. She has also been nominated for Zee cine awards in the same category. Sood has now gone global with an English film ‘Heartbeats’ released recently.
On women empowerment: I don’t think a nation can progress in any form if the women aren’t a part of the growth. Financial independence for all women is a must. Equal job opportunities, education, safety, freedom and equality of the genders are what will help in their empowerment.
The system: The system is doing its bit in various ways. It’s we who need to grab the opportunities given to us and move forward. Safety is one concern that I feel the system should take care of.
Looking ahead: Aparna believes success can’t be planned. “Just focus on your work and put in your 100%. Success will come your way.”
Secret sauce: “I did not aim for success. I like my work. Soon it became my passion. I never shied away from it even if it appeared difficult.”