Good morning everyone.
First of all, I would like to thank NMKRV College for inviting me to talk as a woman achiever about empowering oneself on International Women's day. Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Aranyani and I am a bharatanatyam dancer. And obviously, as you can see, I am a woman.
I consider myself to be an empowered woman. I made a career for myself in a very difficult field, I am financially independent, and within my career, I am pushing and breaking boundaries whenever I can. I chose a path that is unconventional, and I have made a mark, however big or small, in that path. But empowerment does not end with your careers and what you make of yourself.
It is surely an important and crucial stepping stone to achieving self-empowerment, but is that enough? As I began to think about what I was going to say to all of you, this question brought many, many different answers. And not all the answers were necessarily connected to one another directly or leading up to one big conclusive answer.
Empowerment is something we often seek from society, from our loved ones, from our peers. But it is not often that we search within ourselves to become truly empowered. It is certainly true that the people around you can either help or disrupt your process of empowering yourself. Loved ones and larger society can make this process either easier or very much more difficult. But first and foremost, it lies within your own minds. It has to start there. If your friends and family support you, it will be easier, and if they don't, you will have the added task of reasoning, arguing and even fighting with them for your empowerment, but it has to start with the belief that you deserve empowerment and the resolve that you will be active enough to seek it out.
Yes empowerment is getting a job, being financially independent, and making something of oneself. Empowerment is success, in some ways. But on a much more basic level, empowerment is something as straight forward as being able to have a strong, independent voice as an individual and to have the freedom in society for that voice to be heard.
No matter how many qualifications and degrees you have, how successful you are in your careers, or how much purchasing power you have, if you don't strive or even fight to have a voice - in every aspect of your life - then you are, I'm afraid, not truly empowered.
If others govern which stream of education you will pursue, and it is not the path you ideally wanted to choose, you are not truly empowered. The youth loses artists, intellectuals, athletes, sportsmen, musicians and dancers everyday, because these career options are sometimes not considered to be 'financially viable' options. So children are thrown into law, medical, engineering or business schools, even if they have a genuine talent for the arts and no interest whatsoever in law, medicine or business. This is a theft of empowerment. And often it has grave consequences. Not long ago, a medal-winning teenage swimmer committed suicide. She was fifteen, and was afraid of failing her exams. If she had been encouraged to pursue her swimming, she would've lived in an empowered manner, and we would've gained a brilliant swimmer. Tragically, society did not empower her and she was too young to empower herself. I was an above-average student in school. I did well in subjects like political science, history and english. I even sought to do a degree in Political science at one point. But before I even left school, I knew that dance was what I wanted to do - where my mind wandered and my heart truly lay.
And despite a degree from St.stephen's college where I stood first in the college in both my 2nd and 3rd year and a degree from Oxford university, I decided that it had to be dance that I engaged in for the rest of my life. Of course, my parents' support in this was crucial, and I understand that not everyone has parents who would support such a radical step. But I think I would've pursued this career even if I didn't have their support to begin with. One of my dancers from Vyuti left a lucrative corporate job to pursue dance against her parent's wishes. This is also an example of truly empowering oneself. Today, she teaches, works with me, and her parents have no choice but to accept the path she has chosen. Another of them has an MBBS and is choosing dance over a secure private practice in medicine. Yet another is a trained paramedic and the youngest is juggling between her college degree in psychology and dancing with me. These are empowered dancers, with agency - who've carved their own footprints into the world of dance, despite easier options.
Moving on - if someone else governs with whom or how you will spend your adult life, you are not truly empowered. Whether it is your agency in choosing who you will spend the rest of your life with, or how you will spend it - if this agency does not lie with you, then again, you're letting someone else decide a part of your life in which you should have a primary say. Because it is your life, and you have to live it - not just for others, but also yourself. Living for yourself is a big part of empowering oneself. This does not mean you should live selfishly, not caring about your surroundings or the people around you. But it means you have to have the knowledge that sometimes, pretty often, but not all the time - you have to put yourself first. Don't become a shadow to a brother, a husband and later on, a son. Be someone in your own right. I don't think I would have ever been able to pursue this career, travelling the world on dance tours and starting my own dance company if I had not been able to choose who I would spend my life with or how I would spend it. And if I had not, sometimes, put myself first. I didn't do it by putting my husband or family down, or by ignoring them or my home. I had to find a balance, in which I could do both. In other words, I had to organize my life in a way that I could do both. I could not have done that if I didn't empower myself to have the agency of deciding my own fate.
Third, and this is connected to the second point - there is a lot of pressure in India for a woman to adapt to changes in her life. Whether its marriage, or having children or her responsibility to the household. Many talented and intelligent people have fallen by the wayside in their careers and passions after they have gotten married or had children. The household becomes the primary concern of the wife and mother. Many women do not even think twice before sacrificing SO MUCH of who they are and who they've been for many years.
Getting married or having children does not mean your career has to end, or that you have to become ONLY a wife or ONLY a mother. You can be many things at once. Its not easy, but its not impossible! Working class women do it all the time, under terrible duress and destitute circumstances, so why can't we - in much better circumstances? One of my friends danced through her pregnancy, and another won a place in a dance residency 3 months after her baby was delivered. Becoming a mother does not mean you have to give everything else up! Neither does becoming a wife. Husbands are grown men, quite capable of looking after themselves. Its high time they did, and let you do your job, as you let them do theirs.
I'm not saying don't contribute to the household. As a wife and mother, you do have a responsibility towards it. Quite like a husband and father has a responsibility to the house and should contribute. But a man also contributes to society by working and interacting in society. And so should you. Contribute to society - whether its as a doctor, a social worker, a dancer, a journalist, a writer, a potter, a chef, an accountant - whatever. Don't confine your life to the house. This is the 21st century.
Don't put yourself down by believing that you cannot contribute to society, and certainly don't feel you shouldn't be someone because you'll bruise your partner's ego. Someone once told me - "I want a man who is more qualified and more successful than me". WHY, is my question? Why 'more'? This kind of thinking actively disempowers you! This is not to say that you should not look for a successful and qualified husband, but why make the comparison? Your success and his should be independent of one another! In fact, I'll amend that statement to say that your professional lives should enrich one another's, you should both be striving and pushing each other to be better at what you do. There should be a sense of equality and reciprocity there. One person's empowerment should not become another's oppression. That is not healthy.
Another very important means to empowering oneself is to develop the ability to distinguish good from bad, and right from wrong. This is a rather underestimated way to empowerment. The ability to receive information in an informed, educated and just manner is a gravely important personality trait. To be able to view the situation before you objectively, looking at the facts and sensitively basing your values, principles, opinions and beliefs on THAT - rather than being swayed by misinformation, rumour and prejudice - is a powerful empowerment tool. Whether it is your stand on social, political or moral issues, or your views on life in general, the strength and courage to hold your ground on opinions that are backed by fact and reliable information, despite the general sway of dominant opinion is something that can empower you, even in realms of your life that go beyond your personal life and professional life. In a world where media, particularly social media is increasingly becoming a weapon to spread rumour, prejudice and misinformation, the ability to rise above that because of a fair-minded openness to the truth makes this tool not just capable of empowering you, but also determining the KIND of empowered person you will be.
Yet another crucial empowerment tool is to reject male-dominated media-driven notions of the idealised female body. Stand up against the objectification of women in the media, whether it's adverts or television serials or movies or a Bollywood 'item' number. Reject these notions of only thin being beautiful or only fair being beautiful. In a country of diverse ethnicities, it is empowering to stand up against these often unrealistic and flatly narrow ideas of beauty. Reject size zero, reject fair and lovely. Fight against that relative or friend that says you won't be successful if you are heavy set (I'd say voluptuous) or dark (I'd say dusky). Define your own idea of beauty and celebrate your body, whatever size shape or skin colour. That is empowering.
And finally, if you yourself are the perpetrators of patriarchy, then you can never be empowered. Without even realizing it, we as women validate patriarchy by accepting it as custom/ritual/the way things are or by silently tolerating and even endorsing derogatory stereotypes.
A mother-in-law demanding dowry at her son's wedding will never be empowered. Not only that, she is dis-empowering the future daughter-in-law as well. Dowry is not only a crime, but a practice that deeply undermines the empowerment of a woman. To the extent that the undermining begins even before she is born. Female foeticide, female infanticide, acid attacks on women and harrassment are very often the result of this oppressive practice. And if women themselves do not put an end to it, or at least resist it actively themselves, then how do we even begin to talk about empowerment?
Similarly, a mother who allows her daughter to fall back in her studies by making her daughter's marriage the primary concern will never be empowered. And she robs her daughter of it too. In extreme cases, female family members don't just rob their daughters of empowerment, but even their life. Honour killings are a gruesome example of how a woman is disempowered, and by condoning it, some women actively entrench these terrible crimes against women and their empowerment.
There are many other things, that exist in less extreme but much more pervasive ways - a woman accepting the idea that she is dirty when menstruating or participating in a mysogynist festival like karva chauth without understanding the underlying harmful patriarchal ideas there - is a woman who perpetuates ideas of patriarchy and does not strive towards empowering oneself. Many women practice this ritual because the older generation of women have either practiced it or urge them to practice it. It is also attractive because it's fun to put henna on your hands, buy bangles and for the women of the house to spend the day together. I admit, a lot of women do it just for the fun of it, and don't care about the deeper, darker side of it. But beneath the surface there is s lack of understanding about the deeply entrenched patriarchy in this ritual. It asks you to fast for your husbands long life. And in some ways is linked to the idea that you must do this because you need him in a way that he doesnt need you. Because who is fasting for your long life? Why isn't anyone? The fact that this ritual is not reciprocal makes it inherently unequal. And inequality and empowerment cannot go hand in hand. Question rituals and practices before blindly making them a part of the rest of your life. Why can't you and your partner hope for eachother's long lives by cooking healthier food together? Or pushing each other to exercise? Or making sure you both go for regular health check ups?
Similarly, women who agree with negative sexist stereotypes such as 'women are bad drivers because they lack spatial intelligence which men have' (someone actually said this to me), or 'women are emotional, men are rational' or 'men are meant to be the breadwinners, women are meant to stay home' or 'dancing is not a career for respectable girls' or 'women shouldn't hang out with men who are not their relatives' (this harmful stereotype was used as a reason for the gruesome rape of Jyoti or Nirbhaya) – women who dont stand up to these sterotypes and advocate it themselves are never going to feel empowered. In fact, such women actively 'disempower' themselves.
To conclude, in my opinion, the only way to empower oneself is to have a strong inner voice, and to express that inner voice in all walks of your life - professional and personal. And understand your self-worth. Don't let anyone undermine that. In fact, you have to talk to friends and loved ones if they are doing it. Because as you can see from the examples of my life, empowerment is more easily achieved if you have the support of the people you love. But ultimately, know that only you have to begin the process of self-empowerment with yourself. You have to free yourself of over-dependence in your homes, and free yourself of patriarchal ideas, prejudice and narrow and homoegenizing notions of beauty. In other words, to begin the process of self empowerment, you have to free your minds.