International Women’s Day, as the name implies, is dedicated to celebrating womanhood, their social, political, cultural, economic achievements and their significant contributions to society. The day also emphasises the importance of gender equality. On this day, people from all across the world come together to partake in the celebration of womanhood. The day has come to be increasingly associated with feminism and equal rights for women. Every year, March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day. Before the UN adopted it in 1977, the day was mostly celebrated in socialist and Communist countries. The UN celebrates the day on the basis of different themes. This year, the theme is #PressforProgress.
Observed from the 1900s, Women’s Day is not associated with any one group. But the day brings together state governments across the world, many women welfare and empowerment organisations, non-profits and charities, each focusing on celebrating women. The day was initially celebrated as International Working Women’s Day and the earliest celebration is believed to be held at a socialist-political event in New York City in 1909.
Themes play an important role in the celebration of the day. It widens the context of women and their rights across the world and highlights the atrocities women face and the need to end them. For instance, in 2010, the International Women’s Day the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) brought to the world’s attention, the physical and mental hardships displaced women endure, as a result of armed conflicts and humanitarian crisis. In 2011, former US president Barack Obama declared the month of March as Women’s History Month. However, in 2011, there were people in Egypt’s Tahrir Square who reportedly came out to harass women who had come to stand up for their rights on the occasion.
In 2012, the UN theme for International Women’s Day 2012 was Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty. In 2013, the UN theme for International Women’s Day was ‘A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women’. In 2014, it was ‘Equality for Women is Progress for All’; in 2015, ‘Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!’; in 2016, the theme was “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”. And in 2017, “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030” was the theme.
Women do not have it easy in life. While one does run the risk of generalising here, this statement — so evident in its manifestation in everyday life — hardly requires any corroboration. In addition to this, if there are some who have some disability or refuse to fit in socially accepted gender binaries, then the struggle is even more. Indianexpress.com spoke to four such women who not only braved unimaginable obstacles but, through their journey, set an example for others to follow.
Malvika Iyer: Bomb blast survivor to UN speaker
Malvika Iyer, 28, lost both her hands when was 13. A fire had started at an ammunition depot near the teenager and its fragments had scattered everywhere. A grenade had strayed into her garage, and it exploded when she held it. Apart from losing her hands, Iyer sustained severe injuries in her legs, including paralysis of the nerves. The constant pain in her legs still remind her of the incident, but she has come a long way since then. She has completed her PhD, was the first woman to receive the World Emerging Leaders award in New York. Last year, she was invited to speak at the UN Headquarters and co-chair the World Economics Forum’s India Economic Summit in New Delhi. The journey, however, was not easy. Being told after the incident that she is not “normal”, Iyer too believed in it. “I did not think people with disability are normal,” she says, adding how she was called a “disentangled mess” after the mishap.
During her college days, when she settled in Delhi from Chennai, she recollects how she draped herself to cover her prosthetics. “I was not keen on people looking at it,” she says. Covering the prosthetics was exhausting and the entire process tedious. With the support of her family and friends, she reversed her gaze and realised there was nothing wrong in her. “I realised I was not wrong. Rather there was something wrong in the perception,” she says.
In 2012, on the anniversary of her accident, after years of insecurities, she finally wrote down what had happened and published it on Facebook. The post went viral and then she went on to speak at the UN. During her World Economic Tour, she forgot her prosthetics and she hasn’t worn them since. People still stare now, but Iyer concludes, “they stare out of jealousy”. Today, she has become a source of inspiration to many. “I respond to at least 20 messages every day,” she says. And these are sent more from abled people than those who are disabled. “They tell me if you can, why can’t I?” she says. However, Iyer understands the plight of disabled people are far from over. “There has to be a social model for the disabled. Things have to be more accessible,” she says. “I have learnt to live without hands and legs,” she says.
Atri Kar: Mx-ing the civil services exam
Atri Kar, 28, is a school teacher and the first transgender person in India to appear in a civil service exam. But, being a transgender woman, she had to fight for two years to even write the exam. In 2016, the West Bengal Public Service Commission, as a violation of the Supreme Court’s decision, hadn’t notified the “transgender” category on its application form. An indignant Kar took the matter up to the court. On January 29, 2017, Kar became the first transgender candidate from West Bengal to appear in a civil service exam.
“The journey was tough. Sometimes it seemed that I would not be able to carry on,” she recollects, now having created history.
But the society’s discriminatory attitude still prevails. “When I travel in buses or trains, people look at me as if I am from another planet,” she says. She recollects how people, often in public transport, refused to sit next to her. It also took Kar some fair amount of time to accept herself and reveal her identity to the world. “I started revealing my true identity from 2016. I struggled with myself for three years before that,” she says. Today, Kar teaches in a government school but some things have refused to change. “People respect my profession, not my entity,” she says. “People are just tolerating us. They have not accepted us yet. We are still victims of the prejudices people harbour,” she says. “I want to be a source of pride, not of embarrassment for myself and others,” she says.
Geeta Tandon: From facing marital abuse to becoming a stuntwoman
Geeta Tandon refuses to reveal her age. Tandon jumps off buildings, races cars and crashes bikes. She is a stuntwoman in Bollywood. After losing her mother at the age of nine, Tandon was married to a family acquaintance when she was 15. What followed was a horrific tale of marital abuse. “Women at my husband’s home only served the purpose of bearing children,” she says. The violence, she says, started soon after the marriage itself.
Tandon, who is a mother of two, was prohibited from going out or doing anything that her husband would not approve of. She recalls how once, coaxed by her sister-in-law, she had gone out to eat at a place nearby. She was beaten brutally later in the day after her husband found out. Having studied till Class IX and bereft of any financial stability, it took a long time for Tandon to leave and start afresh.
“I tried everything I could to move out,” she says. Finally, after five years one of her family friends gave her the job of dancing at weddings. “I worked very hard to earn bread and butter and to not let my children go through what I went through,” she says. It was during this time that she was told of a job as a stuntwoman. Riddled with risks, Tandon remembers how she had burnt her eyebrows and face while doing one of the stunts during the initial years. She has seen more now and learnt better. Tandon believes women, at any given scenario, are more equipped than men. “All women, irrespective of the background they come from, should be provided with equal opportunities,” she says and hopes.
Ira Singhal: Not disabled, but specially abled
A sub-divisional magistrate in North Delhi, Singhal cleared the civil service examinations in 2010, 2011, 2013 and got Indian Revenue Service, but was denied a job owing to her disability. In 2012, she filed a case in the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and won after four years. In 2014, she got Indian Administrative Service. Singhal has scoliosis or curvature of the spine but does not see herself any lesser than others nor does she view her problem as an all-encompassing one. “We all have problems,” she says. “Some have inside while others have outside.” And, perhaps, this is why she did not feel vindicated in 2014; merely happy and relieved. “I never felt like a victim to be vindicated,” she says.
However, Singhal understands that things need to change and also the perception of people. “People are too preoccupied looking at something that is missing. By doing so they do not pay attention to things that exist,” she says. “One must focus on your potentials and abilities, not disabilities.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a USD 170 million project aimed at advancing women’s economic empowerment in four countries, including in India. The investments focused in India, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda will target four key priorities – advancing gender equality, spreading digital financial inclusion, increasing job opportunities, and supporting the agricultural sector and women’s support groups.