Legendary editor Tina Brown, whose 'Women in the World' talkfests have become a New York institution, brought her brand of sharp and slick journalism to New Delhi in a day-long show on November 20, 2015, that featured some of the best of Indian and international girl power and talent.
A packed hall listened to Cate Blanchett, Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, and Madhuri Dixit from cinema, Naina Lal Kidwai, Anand Mahendra and Nita Ambani from the corporate world, politicians Smriti Irani, Samantha Power and Sherry Rahman and a star cast of extraordinary women dealing with some of the world's most intransigent problems.
The award -winning editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast and New Yorker, Tina has been using her considerable clout for some years now to 'topple the forces that oppress women' by telling the stories of some of the world's most remarkable women with the help of Hollywood A-listers, and shining the light on some of the biggest challenges we face.
Inevitably, a large part of the discussions centered on the themes of peace and violence, extremism, the refugee crisis and poverty. But over-riding it all was the extent of male fascism that continues to keep half the world constrained
Having successfully taken her show to London and Dubai, Tina decided the time was right to hit New Delhi because 'few places illustrate just how high the stakes are for women today as powerfully as India', she says. " The tragic case of Jyoti Singh or 'Nirbhaya'...ignited a national dialogue forcing the country to confront hard truths. At the same time, women across Indian society are asserting themselves in new, revolutionary ways, adding to the nation's deep history of brave female leaders.
"They are defending land rights, marching for higher wages, protesting caste-based sexual violence and starting new businesses. The conversation about the place Indian women hold in society is more animated than ever - and the world is listening. " Even if sometimes the "shout fests on TV sounds like a gathering of pussycats ....I love the mouthiness of Indian democracy, " she says.
"Its an exciting time of possibility, a decisive moment that will impact the lives of generations of women to come."
The day-long sessions highlighted the low participation of Indian women in the workforce - 48% leave work mid career in India according to IMF while the average for Asian women is 29%. Why is this significant? India could increase its GDP by 2% if it could retain women in its workforce, say economists.
Women panelists like Naina Lal Kidwai and US Ambassador Samantha Power conceded there was no such thing as work -life balance with NDTV's star anchor, Barkha Dutt, admitting the nature of her work influenced her decision not to have kids.
It was the theme of war and refugees, however, that cast a long shadow on the discussions as we were reminded of Bapsi Sidhwa's stark assertion "all the wars in the world are fought on the bodies of women. " Today, some 60 million refugees are living upwards of 17 years in harsh conditions of exile, of whom 12 million are Syrians says UNHCR. It's the greatest crisis since World War 11. Asked about the reluctance of US Governors in a large number of states to accept Syrian refugees, Ambassador Power admitted her country should do more and lauded the generosity of Germany and Sweden in this regard.
But it was the plight of the stateless Rohingya's from Myanmar that brought a tear to the eye as a photographer recounted how 132 battered boat people were sent back to sea to die in their leaky boats after reaching Bangladesh recently. Aung San Suu Kyi's election victory didn't seem to hold out much hope as she admits she is a politician first.
Stories of domestic violence and the enslavement of thousands of Indian maids in the Gulf countries came home through the painful words of the son and sister of Kasthuri Munirathinam, the Indian maid whose arm was amputated in Riyadh recently. The kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the inability of the international community to get 200 school girls back more than 546 days after the attack was cause for shame said Obiageli Ezekwesili, former World Bank Vice President, who started #BringBackourGirls. While the treatment of our own maid servants was so appalling, said an Indian film maker, some preferred the sex trade to the indignity and poor salaries of working in people's homes.
But it wasn't all bad news. Iran's 'Road Warrior', Laleh Sedigh's rise to becoming the country's first champion race car driver on the back of an enabling fatwa from the clerics was inspiring even as she advised women "not be pure feminists -but smart enough to use men to get your way."
The session on Lighting Up the Lives of Women showcased the rural transformation solar power was bringing about in some Indian villages. Its' an urgent mission given some 300 million Indians - out of 1.3 billion globally - still live in darkness. It featured the youngest woman achiever of the show, Sanchaita Gajapati Raju, founder of SANA, a charitable trust that won the Google Impact Award recently for setting up solar powered drinking water and toilets in predominantly dalit areas of villages in Delhi and Andhra Pradesh.
Both Nita Ambani and Zarine Screwvalla talked about the large rural development programs they were overseeing through their charitable foundations while Union Minister for HRD, Smriti Irani, outlined the tremendous consultative effort underway to revamp India's education policies: so far 96,000 people have uploaded ideas on their website she said. Asked about the efforts being made to keep girls in schools, she mentioned the construction of 250,000 toilets in schools this year. Her assertion, however, that no one tells Indian women what to wear got her the only catcalls of the day.
As the evening drew longer, an inspiring story of two mothers, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who rose above personal tragedy to forge a bond for reconciliation and peace - the Parents Circle - brought hope that in a world plagued with so many problems, women could help give peace a chance if only they had a seat at the table.
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