This Women’s Day I would like to commemorate five incredible women who stood up to power, fought fearlessly and told their story to the world the way they wanted to. With their grit and resilience, they remind us what it means to lead ourselves against all odds and face several challenges with a can-do spirit.
Here’s a glimpse into their lives and the way they inspired me. I hope their stories will inspire you too!
From running barefoot as a young girl to becoming the national champion in women’s 100 meters, Dutee Chand is truly a symbol of courage and determination.
But 25-year-old Dutee’s success story hasn’t been easy. She faced many obstacles along the way before she could finally reach her goals. She was attacked for being “too masculine” because of hyperandrogenism, a condition characterized by high levels of testosterone in females. And she was accused of having an undue advantage over other women athletes by the Athletic Federation of India. On many occasions, she was dropped from both national and international competitions.
Although heartbroken, Dutee didn’t give up! She kept practicing and speaking up for her right to participate. She challenged the rules holding her back and a large number of people came out in Dutee’s support. That’s when the Athletic Federation of India took steps to change the rules and in 2016 Dutee was back, running!
Dutee is not just a sportsperson to me, she is also an activist. She speaks up when it is important. When the Supreme Court struck down Section 377, a colonial-era rule which criminalized same-sex relationships, she became the first openly bisexual sportsperson in India!
There are many reasons for admiring Dutee, but the one thing I admire most about her is her can-do attitude and free spirit.
It’s not easy to see the world through the lens of dispossession, discrimination and injustice, is it? But 63-year-old film director Mira Nair is one such woman who doesn’t fear telling stories that make you uncomfortable.
In a world where women are generally associated with acting, Mira made the bold move of directing films. And she dared to step off the beaten path and explore sensitive issues such as race, gender, intergenerational strife, cultural appropriation and displacement in her cinema.
Her first film, Salaam Bombay, in 1989 put her on the world map with an Oscar nomination. Since then, she’s gone on to make several international films such as Mississippi Masala, Amelia and Vanity Fair, many with women at the center.
What is most admirable about Mira is that she doesn’t give up without a fight. Her 1996 film, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, was banned in India but she challenged the Indian Censor Board. Although she didn’t win, her film was nominated for the Golden Seashell award at the 1996 San Sebastián International Film Festival and was also screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
Mira is a fighter, not just for her own rights but the rights of others. In 1998, she used the profits from Salaam Bombay to create Salaam Baalak Trust, which works with street children in India. She also established the Maisha Film Lab in Kampala, Uganda, a nonprofit training initiative for emerging East African filmmakers.
The only way, she says, to stay true to one’s artistic voice is to learn to make a big impact in spite of the many challenges that come one’s way. I am forever inspired by Mira Nair for telling a story like it really is!
Being a member of a marginalized community is tough. Life can be a constant battle against the odds.
Author Meena Kandasamy, who was born into a Dalit family, is one such person who’s been fighting the big fight for years. But with her pen and paper.
Meena uses her writing to take on hot-button issues such as domestic violence and marital rape, putting her at the forefront of a generation of activists fighting for equal rights. The 36-year-old author's critically acclaimed first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, is a narrative of the 1968 massacre of 44 landless untouchable men, women and children striking for higher wages in a village in Tamil Nadu. It was also chosen by The Independent as a debut of the year.
Her second novel, When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, is a work of autofiction aimed at lifting the veil on the silence surrounding domestic violence and marital rape in India. She has also written two volumes of poetry that explore caste and untouchability.
Meena’s writing is influenced by the struggle for equality and giving voice to the voiceless. A large part of her association with those on the margins stems from her own struggles and experiences. Kudos to her undying spirit and the courage to stand up to power, I look up to Meena for never giving up!
She once attempted suicide to escape discrimination, poverty and physical abuse. Today, she’s the CEO of a multi-million dollar company called Kamani Tubes in Mumbai.
This is the story of Kalpana Saroj, a 60-year-old Indian entrepreneur who overcame many obstacles on the road to the top. Born into a Dalit family, she was bullied at school, forced into marriage at the age of 12, fought social pressures to leave her husband and was pushed to take her own life due to unemployment, stigma and poverty.
But all this could not deter her from becoming the owner of a highly profitable business today. Kalpana’s journey, from being a helpless victim of domestic abuse to working 16-hour shifts to investing in her business and establishing her successful company, has taught her to keep moving in the face of every obstacle.
What is most admirable about Kalpana’s story is how she used her own experiences to empower others. She employs hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds and across castes and gives them an opportunity to succeed in life as she has. Now isn’t that incredible!
Rebecca Mammen John
She’s fought some of the toughest legal cases in the country from the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to the Aarushi Talwar murder. It hasn’t been an easy ride but Rebecca Mammen John has never given up.
She’s one of the country’s top lawyers whose stellar achievements include being the first woman ever to be designated a senior counsel by the High Court of Delhi on the criminal side.
Being the only woman in a room full of men is not easy. Rebecca has time and again spoken up about the indeed for institutional changes in the judiciary to empower the next generation of women to join the ranks.
Well-known for lending her voice to criminal law reforms in India, Rebecca was also one of several lawyers who critiqued the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, pointing out that the proposed law could potentially allow accused persons to avoid penalties for the offense of rape.
Rebecca has always fought the good fight and I admire her deeply for that.
Chandrima Chatterjee is a Specialist with the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. The Delhi School of Economics graduate also loves to read fiction and hopefully will write and illustrate one someday.