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The girl who survived

Susannah Birch
Susannah Birch is a birth doula, a writer and an activist in Toowoomba, Australia. She is working on her first book about her bipolar mother. Having survived violence as a child, and later, being catfished online, Susannah has truly been an exemplary example of what it is to rise out of adversity. Here is her story.

Could you share your story to the extent that you are comfortable? 
It was Australia day, 1989 and I was 2 and a half years old when my father came home from work to find police cars surrounding the small cottage where we lived. My mother was sitting in the back seat of a police car and I was being rushed away in an ambulance.
I can still vaguely remember my mother sterilizing the knife in boiling water, then laying me on the sheepskin rug...putting my hands up in front of my face to stop the falling knife. My mother had cut my throat and held me for 40 minutes as I bled. After awhile she realised what she'd done and called 000 - fortunately for me they didn't think she was a prank caller.
My mother was in her late twenties and this was her first psychotic episode. This episode was going to start a long and complicated saga in our lives.
My mother was rushed into a mental health ward and I was to spend 3 months in a hospital and then live with a tracheostomy tube in my throat for a further 11 years. After a year my mother was discharged from hospital and came home to live with us. She was originally diagnosed with Schizophrenia and it would be years before she was re-diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. She wasn't allowed to be alone with me at first, so by the time I was 6, we had built a house with a granny flat so we could live with my father's parents.
As a young child I didn't have much of an idea about what had happened - I remembered it and knew my mother took medication, but never really grasped what it meant. That was why it was such a shock when my mother had her second breakdown when I was 10 years old.
This time my mother didn't hurt me, but during our morning prayers and bible reading, she started talking about seeing an angel and tried to help me see the vision. At this stage I still looked up to my parents and believed they knew more than me - so I tried my best to go along with what she was saying, despite my confusion. But, after a little while, she began to scare me. I finally managed to ring my father who was working five hours away. He immediately realized what was happening and instructed me to go straight to my grandparents. My father drove straight home but by the time he got there, my mother appeared fine. It wasn't till years later that we realized this episode had begun her downward spiral.
Till the beginning of year 8, I had been homeschooled by my mother. By the time I got to year 6 and 7, she basically left it up to me, just handing me books and then returning to such occupations as the phone and spending money. My mother never held down a job during this time - except for a 3 month part time job at a nursery.
By the time I was 13 I knew there was something wrong with my mother but was still too young and scared to figure out what it was. When I tried to tell people they labelled me as rebellious or told me that I was rude. My father was running his own business so often didn't see or hear all that my mother did.
When I was 13, we travelled to the other side of the country for my youngest uncle's wedding. I found out later that my mother had been talking to relatives while there about my father's 'abuse' of her. Within a week of returning home my mother told me to pack my bags so we could stay at a nearby family friend's house. Upon arrival I found another uncle that had driven a long way just to pick us up. I was upset and surprised when told that we'd be travelling back across the country. The adults kept telling me that my father was "volatile" and "like a volcano". No one asked me what I thought.
After a long drive - full of verbal abuse about my father - and then a plane ride, we were finally at my Nana's place. Of course my mother told stories of my abusive father and spent hours buying things, meeting new people and telling all sorts of untruths. I tried to interject but my mother simply explained that I hadn't realized the full extent of my father's abuse.
Thanks to having a tracheostomy tube in my throat for 11 years, I developed the uncanny ability to talk without taking a breath in between sentences.
We spent more than a month at my Nana's house, my father frantic with worry. I was allowed to write to him but never to reveal where we were. During this time my mother was socialising all day, every day, and had at least one affair. Finally my Nana started to get worried and called my father. Once my father arrived I went to pieces - so glad that someone else realized how sick my mother was and that it wasn't all just in my head.
My father left a voice message on the phone and my mother must have heard it - she disappeared that evening wearing nothing but a tiny dress that barely covered her undies. The family spent hours looking for her and finally the police found her, taking a taxi to one of her various new boyfriend's houses. She yelled and screamed, claiming the right to be taken to the address she'd asked for in the taxi and threatening to sue the police and everyone else in sight.
My mother spent several weeks in hospital there and then we finally returned home. Before this episode, our house had almost been fully paid for. By the time we got home, between plane tickets, living costs and lost work time, we were $50,000 in debt. My father had had enough - within a few months I was enrolled for the first time in school and by the school holidays my parents announced their split. I was overjoyed.
I still haven't reached a resolution - in fact I'm sure that as long as she lives my mother will always be somewhere in the background. But I can't hang around and wait for her to cause trouble or decide that she wants to get healthy again. There comes a point when it's no longer my responsibility as a child to care for a parent who won't help themselves. And I know she can - I've seen her more than once control a manic episode, easily fooling a doctor or someone she wants to impress before letting her bipolar disorder loose once she is in 'comfortable' surroundings.
I may not have come to terms with everything - but for now I just need to get on with my life - my work, family, university and hopefully one day, a book. To anyone out there who has stood years of abuse at the hands of a parent, sibling, child or lover, that's all I can say. There comes a point when you need to move on with your life, no matter how selfish you feel doing it.

For a child to have gone through such violence at the hands of her own mother is nothing short of traumatic - and to have risen like a phoenix out of that violence is really powerful. Would you like to share a little about your thoughts growing up, the mind space you had and the self-talk that went into your growing years?
As a child, I saw the other adults around me treating my mother as normal, despite what she'd done. I also talked a lot with my father about what had happened, and he was very honest and open about her illness, the attack and her treatment. Because of that I viewed her as two people - the bad one who attacked me and the good one who was my every day mother. 
When I became a teenager, I began to feel as if that was very simplistic and naive. My parents separated the year I turned 14 so I began to question my mother more and more. She eventually moved away and I rarely saw her, but when I did, it was often emotionally traumatic for both of us. I found forgiveness while working with ABC on a radio documentary about the attack, but I still don't communicate with her.

Later in life, you were catfished for 12 years. Could you talk about that?
“How can someone be dumb enough to believe a lie for 12 years?” The fact that I considered myself so web savvy was a big factor in why I did…
“The email you supplied to us is linked to the Facebook account we’ve provided below. We believe Brent Murphy* is at least 60 years old.”
I read the email in shock, not really believing the first few lines.
‘I can’t believe we’ve been talking on the Internet for 12 years,’ I’d told Patrick Brent* just a few months earlier, ‘It’s amazing. But I feel like our busy lives stop us meeting in person and I really really want to meet you.’
I’d met Patrick in a teen chatroom, when I was 15, in 2002. He was 17 and in his last year of highschool. He lived just ten hours away from my Australian home, an amazing coincidence in a chatroom filled with Americans. I wasn’t new to the chatroom scene; my house had had the Internet connected since I was 9, so I considered myself fairly web savvy.
Shy and inexperienced with boys, I was delighted to find a guy who I could have deep conversations with and who showered me with compliments. I wanted to impress him, so I read War and Peace and sparkled in the praise he lavished on my intelligence.
Not everything was rosy though. Patrick was prone to outbursts of temper, often ending in a breakup and a promise to never talk to me again. More often than not, the outbursts would come when I’d refuse to send a nude photo or when I asked too many questions about his life and why he wouldn’t visit. I’d spend a night crying myself to sleep before he swore he’d never hurt me again and begged me to resume the relationship.
The first time Patrick phoned me was scary but I loved the sound of his light Irish accent, even after my best friend talked to him and announced ‘He sounds like an old man.’
For three years we ‘dated’ via the Internet, exchanging photos, talking for six hours straight on occasional weekends and even picking out names for our future children. Patrick made plans to apply to a nearby University so he could come visit me on weekends. Unfortunately, plans changed and Patrick had to move to a different town.
Although a few close friends knew of our relationship, I never told my father or claimed publicly to have a boyfriend. One part of me was embarrassed while another felt that the mature and deep relationship I was in would be tarnished by outside opinion. I’d take any chance I could to spend a few hours home alone, hoping Patrick would be online and maybe even phone me. Something just felt so right when I was talking to him. Due to trauma in my past I was mature beyond my years in some areas but immature in others and Patrick seemed to share many of my own idiosyncrasies.
When I was 18, Patrick proposed. I said yes without a second thought. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. But just two weeks later, we broke up again.
The big pile of breakups, culminating with the cancellation of our engagement, was just too much. I told Patrick I couldn’t keep being his virtual girlfriend, but I was willing to be friends.
Two years later, I married a wonderful man who was both very real and very upfront, a refreshing change from the secrets involved with dating Patrick. But the question was still there; who was Patrick Brent and what was missing from our relationship that stopped him following through on his promises?
We’d still talk by email or on the phone and Patrick would always mourn his biggest mistake in letting me go. But he refused to come visit me, claiming University, travel and work commitments.
I kept him at arm’s length but Patrick teased me with just enough promises and guilt trips to make me want to continue talking to him. So for 7 more years, we continued to talk. Our relationship was comfortable and we talked about everything from his latest girlfriends through to my breakups with the friends I’d had in highschool.
I’d always suspected Patrick was lying to me about something. I thought it was something embarrassing such as Photoshopping his pictures or not having the University degree he claimed. For the 12 years we talked, I always tried to gather enough information to find him. But he’d phone from a private number and all my Google searches found nothing. He worked for his father’s company which took him around the world. Phonecalls often saw him hanging up when executives entered his office, meetings were about to begin or his latest girlfriend came to visit.
When we started talking, I was young enough to believe I couldn’t be tricked and by the time I was old enough to know better, he was just another part of my every day life. Patrick had talked to me for hours, sent me hundreds of emails and helped me deal with so many of my mundane problems. He’d never asked me for money and he’d continued to talk to me for years, so I knew he had to be legitimate. I just wanted to be absolutely sure.
I knew not to ask him for more information.
‘I’m a very private person,’ Patrick would tell me, ‘You know I share more with you than with anyone else. I don’t like newfangled sites like Facebook. Don’t see the point and I’m too busy working, anyway.’
It wasn’t till 2014 that I discovered the term ‘catfish’ and found a site (SocialCatfish) that promised to dig up information on any online suitor even if there was only an email available. I didn’t expect much, but I thought it would at least be nice to know the name of the company he worked for or some fun details I could surprise him with during a conversation.
But I was the one who was to receive the surprise when I found out the truth about Patrick. He’d spun a web of lies which had taken him around the world, given him a fancy career and kept him too busy to ever come visit. In reality he’d never left the town where he’d first said he’d lived and the photos he’d sent me were stolen from a younger friend’s Facebook account.
Patrick Brent was Brent Murphy. Brent Murphy was married with children and grandchildren. A part of me didn’t really believe it, not until I rang the phone number of the office where he really worked.
‘This is Brent Murphy’s phone…’ the voicemail began.
Then I knew it was true. Part of me felt relief, glad that I no longer questioned the breakup all those years ago. Another part of me was sad for my first love, which was nothing but a lie. And another part of me was disgusted by the fact that someone had groomed and lied to a teenage girl, then continued the farce for 12 whole years.
I confronted Brent Murphy when he rang me later that night. His denials and hurt rang true and for a few moments I wondered if I was wrong. Then I remembered the phonecall to his office. Suddenly the Patrick I knew crumbled into the Brent I didn’t, first claiming that he was too scared of hurting me, before trying to emotionally blackmail me.
‘My wife and family don’t deserve this.’
‘Goodbye Patrick.’ I hung up the phone.
Six months later I still have a hole left where Patrick once existed. It’s hard to look at a 12 year friendship from a whole new perspective, reexamining each detail and applying a whole new layer of information. More than anything I’ve learned that just because we accept something as normal, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question it. The experience has given me some humility, making me realise that believing I was ‘Internet savvy’ actually made me more vulnerable to a person who could convince me to trust them and who displayed none of the obvious ‘scam’ markers till too late.

Today, you are a writer, a doula and a blogger, and a digital media expert. Could you talk about your journey since all the violence you faced, into this place in your life that you own and hold in your hands?
I'm not short on my own mental health problems - particularly depression and OCD. However I think the biggest thing for me was seeing how mundane things were in relation to what I'd been through. Doing something daring isn't half so scary compared to where I’ve been. I was told a lot growing up that I must have survived for a purpose, so I think a part of me also feels invulnerable. I guess I feel as if I have to think big, to reach this mystic purpose people keep telling me I have. I experience anxiety, so I have been known to cry or get nauseous before public appearances, or even when my story has gone viral and I can't tear myself away from watching. Fortunately though, nothing triggers me, other than contact from my mother. Even an email or hearing she's in town stresses me quite a bit and makes me very reactive. 

You have a book coming up! Could you talk a bit about that, so that our readers can pick it up?
It doesn't have a title as of yet unfortunately, but it's currently in editing (the hardest part). It examines how I was catfished, how it felt being homeschooled by my mother, my rebellion during my teen years and the steps I took to find healing and forgiveness - at least some of the way if not all, because I think there's no such thing as once off healing - it's a never ending process.

The selfless champion

Maysoon Zayid
Maysoon Zayid is a Palestinian-American actress, comedian, known as one of America's first Muslim women comedians and the first person ever to perform standup in Palestine and Jordan. She is also a social worker and does some amazing work with children. Here’s her story.  

I do a joke on stage that tells my story. I say “In the oppression Olympics, I would win a gold medal. I am Palestinian, Muslim, a woman of color, disabled, and I live in New Jersey”. I grew up with three older sisters in a small Italian Catholic town in New Jersey. I spent my summers in Jerusalem. My parents couldn’t afford physical therapy so they sent me to tap class. I blame that for the fact I ended up being a performer.

Every day, I am hustling. In order to be a comedian, you have to write. So few people realize how much writing goes into doing comedy. I love my job. I get to cure the world making people laugh. I’ve been on the road for thirteen years so I’d love to settle down and have a talk show like Oprah. I am currently developing a comedy series. I am excited about getting back to acting and privileged to also be writing for the show. It’s called “If I Cancan,” stay tuned.

My biggest challenge as a writer is that because of my Cerebral Palsy, I am awful at typing. I write everything in my head and hire someone to type for me. It’s frustrating when I get a great idea in the middle of the night and have to wait to tell it to my typist. I’m pretty good at not forgetting though, so that’s good. As a comedian, I’ve been blessed and lucky. The biggest challenge is the fact that men get paid more. I have never been discriminated against as a comedian, but I have as an actress. Hollywood shuns disability. We are the largest minority in the world and the most underrepresented in media. Often when you do see disability on TV, non-disabled actors are playing the parts. This is inauthentic and offensive. 

I initially was rejected admission by my local public school when I enrolled in kindergarten. They wanted to send me to a school for children with Down syndrome. My parents fought the system and won. I believe if I hadn’t been mainstreamed, I would not have the life or success I have today. I wanted to give that opportunity to disabled and wounded Palestinian refugee children also. Our main challenge is the Israeli occupation. it is hard to accomplish anything under violent oppression. Our other challenge is that there is very little early intervention. Even though these children have the ability, they lack the basic skills necessary for mainstreaming. Our goal was to use interpreters and technology so that kids with disability could be mainstreamed between the third and fifth grade. We are currently working with Al Shurooq School for Blind Children in Deit Jala, Palestine.  

Life is not about hatred, but about love

Rupande Mehta
Rupande Mehta founded and runs The SAR Foundation, which works with the aim of eradicating violence against women and girls. Here is her story in her own words.

I was born in India to conservative parents. We were very poor and didn’t have a house of our own, so I lived with my grandmother and her family for five years. My parents bought a home and we moved there after that. My father is a very traditional man and believes in very sexist, gender roles and ideas surrounding that. And yet, this is perhaps because of having experienced poverty, he was also very keen on educating me and making me independent. I think he was hoping for a boy and may have been disappointed. He encouraged me academically and supported my choices when it came to academics and education. It was ironic, though, that he supported me with this, but was very harsh and sexist otherwise.

I close my eyes, and all of these memories are very vivid. My cousins lived in a joint family, and the house next door had a family friend of ours. He was married and had a daughter my age. I used to go play with her and spend time with her, and once, her grandfather told me to stay back and play with him. I had no idea what he meant by “play” – and I would find out, unfortunately. He molested me, and it happened to me twice more. I didn’t see him until much later in my life – but he had sowed the early seeds of violence in my life. It was my first experience being objectified and being seen as an object rather than as a girl, a person, a human. There is some research that says that sexual abuse can tend to make you favour the opposite sex or sex itself. My experience was similar. I was attracted to boys and got along very well with boys at a very young age. I had a few boyfriends, too.

I was six when my brother was born. We were very close, and grew closer over the years. We have a very good relationship, and I always make sure to let him know that he could always talk to me about anything in life. Not because I wanted to know anything, but because I always wanted to make sure that he was dealt with fairly and that he dealt fairly with others. I always looked at him as someone I needed to protect. I was a tomboy at school – and always tended to protect those around me. He was younger, and that automatically made me gravitate towards taking care of him. Until a few months ago, he knew nothing about my life. He had no clue that I was beaten and abused so much at home – he was always kept aside and safe in one part of home before they dealt with me. He grew up very protected, and they made sure that he got all that he wanted. He was babied. Our rules were different – he had none and I had very rigid ones. It was strange that we had the same parents.

I had a lot of friends when I was at school, but my father was very strict about it. I couldn’t step out, and so I didn’t make very deep friendships. The only thing that gave me solace was reading. I was a very good student, and was constantly with a book. I had a favourite spot in the house – and occupied it to such an extent that my father would tell me that whenever he entered the house, I had to be sitting there. That was the extent of his control – so the few friends I had were all driven away.

My father was extremely strict, and I think he controlled my mother, who turned out to be that way, too. My father would beat me up when he found out that I was in a relationship. My parents were vicious in their physical assaults of me, and that later became a way to control me. There was also vehement emotional abuse. There was never any fun for me outside of the cloud that hung over my head. My parents didn’t care if anyone was around – they would call me names, beat me and abuse me. I had faced all kinds of abuse in their hands, except sexual abuse.

When I was about 12 or 13, I had my first real boyfriend. He passed away when I was fifteen, in a tragic accident. He was very handsome – quite like Akshay Kumar, who was the heartthrob back then. He had come to see me, and the two of us walked on the road, not even holding hands. My father circled around, looking for us, and when we were about to leave, we saw him turning in a white Maruti Van. He began to speed towards me, and didn’t stop – he knocked me over and I was left with a bleeding knee. He got off the car and punched my boyfriend, holding him by the throat. It was all happening in the middle of the road in Mumbai. My father left, and the two of us walked our own directions. My father’s violence was uncalled for, and simply another way for him to control me. But, it didn’t change our relationship, though, and although later we did break up, we remained good friends till he passed away.      

I was in college when I fell in love with someone. My parents asked me why I fell in love with someone – my parents asked me why I looked for love outside – didn’t I get enough at home? I would always stay quiet in response to that question. The boy I had fallen in love with was the college darling. He showed some interest in me and I fell for him. I didn’t pick up on any clues. But, he also started abusing me – there were times when I would come home after being beaten up by him, and come home to being beaten by my parents. He raped me a couple of times, and I got pregnant twice. I had to abort the baby both times. I forgot all about them until a few years ago when I was doing surya namaskar, and openly wept in the memory of those I had forsaken.

I simply needed to get out of that life. Despite all the things that he did, my father supported my choice to go to the USA to study. It was an escape for me. Somewhere deep down, I always believed that life was not about hatred, but was about love. It was time for me to get tough and take charge of the situation – up until then, I just wanted to run away and be invisible. On the day of my appointment for a visa to the USA, I stood in queue behind four men, all of whom were rejected. I didn’t know what to do – if I was rejected, my life was over. Not figuratively, but literally. I clung to the hope that life was about love. The visa officer looked at my application, and looked me in the eye, and said that I could go, get my visa. Those words meant that I could live, that I would not die!

I left India on August 15, 2002. I looked at my family as I was leaving and said, the day India got independence, I got free. They laughed it off, but it meant so much to me. I landed in Lea Guardia and then arrived at Pittsburgh. I lived in a small town called Clarion. It was a reverse culture shock – there were no tall buildings, it was a really small town. I had landed in rural USA! I was coming to grips with reality, this new life where there was no fear in waking or sleeping or being a target for someone’s rage. Although I had left, my ex still controlled me. He would call me at odd hours, threatening to kill my brother and such. It was surreal. I summoned all the courage within, and decided that he had to go. It takes an average of 7 times for a woman to face physical violence before she walks away. I took nine months to break it off with him, in May 2003.

I became my old self, making friends, learning new things, partying and enjoying myself. I truly did find myself. It was the first time that I was finding who I truly was, and I absolutely loved it. Towards the end of 2003, I broke the last shackle. I dated someone in Clarion. I had told an aunt about it, who told my cousin, who told my father. He told me to pack my bags and leave to India the next day, and that he would get me married off to someone of his choice. He told me he would call me the next day for my response. I went to college, spoke to the dean, who encouraged me to take my own stand. I ran into a friend, who then told me she would take me to her mother, to help me find an answer. It was a mystical conversation – one that turned my life around and made me realize what my true purpose really was! I stood my ground, after that conversation, and told my father I was not coming. He told me that I was dead to him since then. That day, I became free. I had only one person to please: Me.

I came to New York City in 2005. From the day my purpose was revealed, those words never left my heart. I began to volunteer for a South Asian Domestic Violence agency.  I worked on advocacy, not services meeting victims one on one. Part of the reason was that I had issues that were still unresolved. From then on, I did a lot of different things – I didn’t think about abuse, and moved on. I met my husband, Andrew, and married him. He is the absolute anti-thesis to all things violent, and is a compassionate, kind person. My parents had nothing to say – they were happy I was getting married. They met him for the first time on the day we got married – and my mother once told me that had she found someone for me, she wouldn’t have found anyone as good as Andrew.  
When our daughter was born in 2012 – it was a magical moment. As she grew older, there were times when my husband would notice my reactions to her, and told me that I was replicating my parents’ behaviour with her. It was happening without any realization and conscious choice but a harsh reality to confront. My abuse hadn’t left me. I started seeing a therapist and told her about my old life I didn’t want to, but I started reliving it. It was the worst nightmare – and I had to go through it. I looked at good and bad responses, and began to understand them. I see my relationship with Sophie, our daughter, as a work in progress. I make sure that she is not impacted by what happened to me. I do all that I can to make sure that I parent my child while fighting what seems natural – and tell myself that it is perfectly okay. Sophie is a loving child, an angel, even. She changed my life, literally, and showed me what to do.

Growing up, no one knew that I was going through all of this. Today, my cousins and extended family ask why I didn’t go to them – some cousins even may have been jealous of me because on the surface, I had it all. But the truth remains that it was, and is not easy for a victim to find a way out of violence. There are many reasons – shame, denial and fear. The fact of the matter is that love and violence do not go together. My parents told me they loved me, but they controlled me.
Today, my father lives in denial. We speak once in a while, but there is no depth in the relationship we share. I realized that the environment I had grown up in was toxic and dangerous. My mother and I have a decent relationship.

I founded and run the SAR Foundation; an orgainziation working to end violence against women and girls. The idea is to use comprehensive approaches such as providing services, resources and information to victims of domestic violence so they can get out of dangerous situations and cycles of violence. SARF will also conduct workshops with corporations to promote awareness around the issue of domestic violence. Since the idea is to make it inclusive and all encompassing, and to start early, the goal will be to conduct workshops with schools and colleges to promote awareness of domestic violence, consent and healthy dating. 

Food for School

Marilyn and Zari
Girls are vulnerable to being married at a young age when families cannot afford to buy food and children do not go to school. For $60 a month an entire family can be fed. Food4School provides needy Afghan families with money for food in exchange for sending their children to school. One of the conditions for receiving the funds is that the girls as well as the boys remain in school. Marilyn Mosley Gordainer, the founder, shares the story behind Food4School.

It has been my life mission and work to start schools. The most long lasting of all the schools I’ve started is the Laurel Springs School. It began in 1991, with 72 students, and it was the first time that there was an online home-schooling option in the US. There was a need for alternative education that was personalized and allowed children to express their feelings and become great citizens in the future. There weren’t many schools in the US that offered that opportunity for children.

In 1994, following a massive earthquake in Los Angeles, many libraries and schools were closed. Students were interrupted in completing their critical thinking and research assignments. They needed to have the right resources to support their endeavors, and with the libraries closed, it was difficult to access information.  We decided to search online for information. We found 50,000 links giving information justabout the topic of Romania. We were excited and thought, “Online education -- what a great idea!” We had no idea that this was the beginning of a new wave in education – we were just trying to respondto a need. We made it into the news media, and a lot of people started talking about what we had pioneered – online education.Today, Laurel Springs enrolls about 4,900 children a year. We have established ourselves as the primary education program for children who want to find their inner strengths, learn creatively, and learn at their own pace. 

We wanted students to have an educational program that would help them explore their powers and dreams. The school has done very well, and it has constantly explored and created different learning environments for children.

My daughter, Ramaa Mosley, is a filmmaker. She did a documentary for a group called Girl Rising, where they told the stories of nine girls seeking an education. She filmed a piece on a girl from Afghanistan who was married at the age of eleven and had a baby at twelve. While Ramaa was editing the film, it was too hard for me to watch it. I realised that the solution was to educate these girls. I spoke to Ramaa, and she connected me with her writer, Zarghuna (Zari) Kargar, who was in New York City for the premiere of the film. I told Zari that I wanted to help but that that reaching girls in Afghanistan was beyond my experience. She told me that as long as we found a way to feed a family, they wouldn’t marry off their daughters. The familieswere simply not able to afford a meal. Zari suggested that we could give a family on a stipend in exchange for educating their daughters and not marrying them off. We had two BBC reporters helping us, who continue tothis very day. They helped us find families in dire need who would agree to send their children to school. We soon came to learn that the people of greatest need were the widows whose husbands had been killed in the war. Through her work, Zari knew quite a lot of women who were struggling to survive.

This became a great grass-roots program. In the beginning, we delivered food to the families because the women were not allowed to go to the market. As they became more confident, they began going to the market. We always gave the money to the women to empower them.The men are often unwell or addicted to drugs – but when these women receive the money, they become the ones in charge of the family, and they themselves go to the market. They change and become more confident, and their husbands respect them. It has been a very successful program throughout, and all the children in the families we work with are in school. There have been no drop-outs, and also no early marriages.
In our work so far, there have been two forms of resistance. 

In the beginning there were some fathers who refused to let their daughters participate in the program. There was one girl whose brother strapped a bomb to here that was meant to be detonated in the market place. The girl went to the police who promised to take care of her, but they sent her back home to her family. Zari intervened, but three months later, the girl had disappeared. There was no way to find out where she was, and no trace of her. Her brother was with the Taliban, so she may have been married off. We felt terrible – we did all that we could from a distance. The only way is to deal with such challenges is by staying focused on the families we help.  That keeps us going. We watch the children grow – it’s also a beautiful thing to see them gain weight and get healthier – and we send them notes of encouragement. The need is so tremendous, and we’ve had to stay focused.
Zeba, studying with F4S' colleague from BBC 
Most families that we work with are in Kabul, so we can make it a point to see them each month. But there are some outside of Kabul in areas where the Taliban are stronger. Working with families there is tougher. It is a huge learning experience to find such levels of inequality and girls being hurt in such extreme ways. We must make it relevant to their culture, and so we empower our colleagues who work in Afghanistan. We send the families messages and photos and let them know that we are thinking of them.
When I look at the journey so far, there are some very empowering stories of success. For instance, there was a lovely young mother who was twenty-six, and her husband had been killed in war. Her family wanted her to marry one of her husband’s brothers, but she didn’t – and it’s fortunate they didn’t drive her out of the house. But she lived in a secluded and provincial environment. She wore a burkha and was very shy. We began bringing her food a few times. Once, she took off her burkha when we visited. The next time, she waited for us and greeted us outside the house. The time after that, she accompanied our team to the market. Then, she began going to the market herself. Recently, she’s been making a few trips to the bank by herself. There is such a difference now, and the children are much happier, too. One donor offered her more money, but she refused, saying that someone else deserved to benefit from it. 

Saara and her little one, from Mazhar
In another family, there were two young girls, orphans. One was 17 and the other 7. We gave them a houseand food and helpedthem to go to school. Now they’ve rented out a part of their house so they can afford an education and save money. They feel like they have a chance to really grow, and they feel much safer. In another distant province,there was a family where the parents were deaf. The daughters risked their lives and travelled to Kabul to reach us. That they made this dangerous journey itself proved how badly they wanted to do this. They started their own school, and now the girls at their school meet every day. They did it despite how dangerous it was. I can’t imagine how it must have been for the parents. 
Saara's kids now.
Looking ahead, I want to continue expanding the program. One way to do this is to put more staff on the ground. We now have a waiting list of families. We would also love for people to write letters of support, send a donation to and tell their friends about us.  We could make such a big difference, and the solidarity truly matters. We want to let our girls know that other girls care about them.

Being Pro-Planet: “Taking Personal Responsibility”

Tshering, third from left.
Tshering Uden Bhutia, is a community leader from West Sikkim. A former mountaineer, Uden now works through the community organization Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee to promote eco-tourism in Sikkim, particularly in the trails leading up to Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world and sacred to the both countries it straddles (Nepal and Sikkim in India). She and her organization helps build resilience and create sustainable livelihoods in the Himalayan state through a wide variety of activities. Uden has represented her state and organization in many fora but the APAN forum was her first international venture.  Here is an interview with her by Raakhee Suryaprakash.

Ms. Tshering Uden Bhutia was one of two South Asian community leaders invited to the 5th Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation (APAN) Forum in Colombo for the parallel session “Enhancing Gender Responsive Adaptive Capacity in Communities” on the last day of the three-day event. It was held from October 17 to 19, 2016, in Sri Lanka. Underrepresentation of South Asian women in the seven plenary and thirty-five parallel sessions of APAN 2016 was an issue. The presence of community leaders like Uden in the parallel session lessened the regional gender gap. The session was renamed “Enhancing Women Responsive Adaptive Capacity in Communities” and all except one panellist were women.

Uden a former mountaineer has been involved with sustainable livelihood projects and waste management for over twenty years. Her love of the mountains translated into community leadership. She hails from the Himalayan state of Sikkim, in a district at the base of the sacred and majestic Kanchenjunga. And leads the Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee (KCC) which “comprises of community representatives, community based organization and other key stakeholders highly committed toward nature conservation.”

The social entrepreneur from Yuksam in West Sikkim had insightful and anecdotal information to share on how the populace can be pro-planet. But her main contention was that each and every one of us must take personal responsibility and commit to inculcating eco-friendly habits in ourselves and others. As she mentioned, it’s easy to preach and teach but hard to do, but the best lessons are the ones taught by good actions not big words. And each individual’s actions build up and will counter the gigantic ecological footprint and resources used, abused and wasted by mankind. The habit of being pro-planet needs to be adopted and scaled-up now; for we are dangerously close to the tipping point of irreversible climate change and environmental damage.

In her childhood Uden’s family tearoom served varieties of dishes using Maggi 2-minute Noodles. And over her lifetime she witnessed the noodle wrappers take over her home. While climbing the peaks as well the debris consisted of food wrappers. Instant noodles and other instant foods cooked with just hot water are a great convenience for mountaineers and for people cooking in the open.  It is used everywhere and is the fast food of choice as it is both easy to carry and easy to cook. Yet the plastic wrappers forms a non-biodegradable wake behind tourists, trekkers, and mountaineers for only a fraction committed to “leaving behind only footprints.”

Since 1997, as a personal contribution to reducing waste she decided to avoid Maggi products and the like.  She made her own instant noodles and carried it in reusable containers that she brought back, without littering in her wake. She opted for fruits and nuts to processed foods and though it was hard and sometimes expensive – and literally extra baggage, she developed and fully committed to the pro-planet habit.  For as the KCC website puts it,

Conservation cannot happen with an empty stomach, hence KCC strongly believes in providing livelihood support to mountain people and facilitating them for alternative livelihood with minimum impact on nature and the rich culture, thus creating a win win situation among nature and its people.
KCC conserves natural and cultural resources through skill development programs, micro planning, awareness campaigns, monitoring of natural resources as well as by advocating for appropriate policy changes. Through KCC and other community level activities Uden now has more waste management, reducing, reusing and recycling programmes. The habit turned into a job creator and in turn she and other community leaders build pro-planet skills and capacities through training, exposure and other participatory means.

When asked about her impressions about APAN 2016 she mentioned that it was her first time at an international forum and was pleasantly surprised by the number of women and young people on panels.  The participation of young people and women is essential for the protection of our planet. Their quest will be helped by better access to information and funds.

Uden also mentioned that while status of women in Sikkim was better off than in other states, they were still hesitant to come forward and raise their voices and stand up for their rights and problematic gender issues. And she emphasized that to be fair, to avoid “na insafy” (injustice) to women, their voices must be heard. Just like with feminization of poverty, the adverse impact of climate change is felt more by women and girls than men, thus it is essential that their experiences and stories are shared. 

Women’s March & the Social Movement of Change

Artwork by Amy Scheidegger,
By Ameena Mohyuddin Zia

"Our liberation is bound in each other's..."-Women's March Intersectional Policy Platform
Women’s March on Washington is expected to be the largest gathering of people collectively standing in solidarity for civil rights in the history of United States. The nature of the March in itself is unique as it has morphed from being pro-woman and or anti-Trump into a catch-all protest to include all who find themselves either on the outside of the current political environment or those who have historically been institutionally marginalized.

Organic and grassroots in nature, it has taken on a life of its own as over 57 countries have joined in issues in a non-partisan and non-political nature. Rooted in the backdrop of a global populist wave of hate, it responds to perceived xenophobia, racism, misogyny and homophobia.

Women’s March on Washington, unlike other marches in the recent past, claims it is grounded in intersectionality and deviates from the path of white-feminism. It’s diversity statement recognizes the collective identity of the march to include those disenfranchised from the decision-making process: Asian and Pacific Islanders, Trans Women, Native Americans, African Americans, disabled individuals. It further requests white participants to recognize their own privilege and to acknowledge the struggles of others.  The three-page policy statement calls for reproductive freedom, immigration reform, police accountability, union rights, economic justice, and reaffirms Hillary Clinton’s 1995 message in Beijing that women’s rights are human rights.

As participation has amplified in the last few weeks and large numbers of sister marches are announced around the country, social scientists find this phenomenon vague and the collective construction of identity rather fascinating. The question on everyone’s mind asks, will the March turn into a social movement of change?

Social movements in general are purposeful, organized groups with a common goal that may create change, resist change, or provide a political voice to those otherwise disenfranchised. As history reminds us, it is indeed social movements that create social change.

According to scholars, social movements include elements of change-oriented goals, organization, temporal continuity, extra-institutional collective action (like a March for example) and institutional activity. All social movements follow stages towards development or failure. We witnessed the preliminary stage as people became aware and or recognized issues that needed to be heard (following the 2016 presidential election) and leaders like activists Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory emerged. The second stage, the coalescence stage, is marked as people band together and organize to publicize the issue and raise awareness with public demonstration of the March in Washington & it’s sister protests. The Woman’s March on Washington stands at this juncture of the movement cycle. Onwards whether the movement reaches an institutionalization stage when it no longer requires grassroots volunteerism and maintains itself as an established organization is to be determined. Likewise, whether it moves towards the decline stage where people fall away, adopt new movements or the movement dissolves itself after successfully bringing change is to be determined as well.

Historically, social movements have been treated as variants of collective mobilization and action. Those excluded from structures of political bargaining have no choice but to turn to collective organizing and mobilizing to gain access and translate it into influence in the context of political decision-making. In order to understand collective action, it is necessary to examine the dynamics of collective identity. Collective identity is fluid in nature as the understanding of the goals and actions among actors reflects the possibilities and limitations within their actions. It is these shared commitments that give rise to the sense of oneness that we witness as the March rallies the disenfranchised under an umbrella of solidarity. 

What is yet to be determined is if the emergence of this collective identity constructed by multiple groups of shared opinions will translate into action and change. Organizers hope to create a social movement with a voice of empathy, compassion, diversity and inclusion. As the historical significance of the Woman’s March on Washington evokes sentiments reflecting powerful protests in American history, it continues to raise issues of equity, justice and freedom. And the success of this movement will depend whether it can sustain momentum long after the march itself and unify our currently divisive society.

Ameena Mohyuddin Zia serves as the UN ECOSOC Civil Society Representative and an Adjunct Lecturer. Her PhD coursework included political economy & gender politics and her work examines social constructs through both research and visual documentation. She is also involved in domestic advocacy and international philanthropic initiatives.  

A Syrian Love Story

Sean McAllister
Elhum Shakerifar
Comrades and lovers Amer and Raghda met in a Syrian prison cell 15 years ago. When McAllister first meets their family in 2009, Raghda is back in prison leaving Amer to look after their 4 boys alone; but as the ‘Arab Spring’ sweeps the region, the family’s fate shifts irrevocably. Filmed over 5 years, the film charts their incredible odyssey to political freedom. For Raghda and Amer, it is a journey of hope, dreams and despair: for the revolution, their homeland and each other. 

Read an interview with director Sean McAllister and producer Elhum Shakerifar

1. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself? Your growing years, education and professional trajectory, perhaps?
Sean McAllister
: I grew up in a working class town called Hull which is in the north of England. I'm the only boy in a catholic family of nine. I have six older sisters.
I went to a state school. I left without formal qualifications.. I would say I definitely enjoyed a happy childhood. I was pretty much left to my own devices. My childhood friends are all still close friends today, some of whom I have made films with. Because I left school with no formal qualifications I spent years in and out of dead-end jobs working occasionally in factories. Through a local community Center I found a camera and started to make documentaries about the characters I had met through working in factories. I applied for a place at the National Film and Television School.
Elham Shakerifar: I grew up between London and Paris, and have always been fascinated by the Middle East given my Persian background. I studied Persian literature at university and later visual anthropology. Storytelling has always been a core interest.

2. What inspired A Syrian Love Story?
Sean McAllister
: Making films in the Arab world for twenty years I became fascinated with Syria after discovering Damascus.
Elham Shakerifar: When I first met Sean, he had just met Amer. The intimacy and openness in the footage he showed me was amazing, and with some knowledge of the Assad regime, it felt undeniably important to follow and keep filming. 

A still from the film

3. What drew you to Syria? What kind of preparation went into dealing with something so nuanced and painful?
Sean McAllister
: I went to Syria as the tourist industry was getting its act together. It wasn't a war torn country then,  it was in fact beautiful and rich in history. 
Elham Shakerifar: Sean’s films are character led but most importantly, he works from a gut instinct, and this is something that I completely respect and relate to. Documentary film is nuanced and painful when it is at its most honest, and I think the beauty of the craft is in being prepared to go through that process with honesty and integrity, even if that means showing your own vulnerabilities along the way and allowing the necessary time to work out what is working and what isn't, and why. 

4. What was your experience filming like? Do you have any particular anecdotes to share?
Sean McAllister: I was operating on a tourist visa so it was low key filming with small equipment. It was a pleasure to film Amer and his family as they were SO welcoming. I remember a park where on a night everyone gathered and drank and talked , this contrasted with the idea of a certain type of regime. Of course then I remember the brutality of prison, the screams of men and the horror. 
Elham Shakerifar: Sean operates as a one man band during production. When he’s filming, I typically get calls, updates and rushes daily, and there is a lot of discussion about the situation, the developments, the context. During this time, my role as a producer is very much that of a sounding board – thinking through ideas and the experience or process of filming. 

5. What have your biggest challenges been? How have you dealt with them? 
Sean McAllister: Surviving, not getting arrested, the delicacy of filming a disintegrating relationship against a backdrop on unrest. Keeping my wits about me and staying low key. You can get paranoid after a while as you sometimes are unsure about who to trust. 
Elham Shakerifar: There have been many challenges especially given the timescale of 6 years. The situation in Syria was tense, the difficulty of filming a disintegrating relationship was intense, of course Sean’s arrest was terrible and one we were very keen to reference in the film to not shy away from that complexity. The edit was very long, and again intense! Equally challenging was to see how from 2009 when we began making the film, till 2015 when we finished it, Syria hasn't been a priority and we struggled till much later in the filming process to get any support to make it.

A Still from the Film
5. As a filmmaker, you are a storyteller who takes fact out into the world through an observer's lens. When you deal with difficult subjects, how do you retain your objectivity? 
Sean McAllister:  I'm a participant in my films. I believe in subjectivity and I film in the first person to illustrate that I'm much more than an observer. I'm also changing the situation at times, changing events. 
Elham Shakerifar: I don’t know whether objectivity is possible or even something to aspire to, but I think integrity is key. Knowing where you stand and why you’re making a film is much more important than being objective, because it will set the tone and let a viewer understand where you’re coming from and why, and enable them to follow their own personal journey through the film.

6. You've been the voice of those that are otherwise not heard, considering how information on the situation in Syria is relegated only to a statistic. How does that feel? 
Sean McAllister: The film has enabled the voice through Amer and Raghda and how the big political change is now seen. The voices are theirs. It feels good that their story represents the story of a nation. 
Elham Shakerifar: It’s a delicate balance to represent someone’s life in any complexity and so that Amer and Raghda are proud of the film is so important and validating. It is important that they have been able to use the film as a platform to speak about Syria, about their realities as refugees today. It has also been amazing to see the level of response to the film – hundreds of people have written to us to tell us how moved they have been by this family, underlining how relatable it is, how it has turned their preconceptions on their head – once an audience has ‘met’ a child like Bob and see him grow up over 5 years, it would be very hard to think of refugee children like him as faceless statistics. I still get asked on a weekly basis how he is, how they all are - it's always very moving when this happens.

7. What goes into making your creative process what it is? How did you put the documentary together?
Sean McAllister: In practical terms it means embedding myself in the place, the culture, finding that voice and allowing that to tell the story. Building trust is so important to my methodology. 
Elham Shakerifar: Storytelling in verité documentary isn’t a straightforward process – it requires a level of honesty with yourself, as well as with everyone involved in the process that can be disarming, difficult. And whether in the production or in the edit, taking the time to find or understand something is more important than imposing your reality on it. 

Read more about “A Syrian Love Story” here.

The fire within

Paromita Bardoloi
Paromita Bardoloi is an independent writer and a theatre activist. Her writings over the years have been published in many national websites and magazines, including the Huffington Post, National Geographic, Women’s Web, YourStory, Bonobology, Femina, The Quint and so on. Paromita's writings have mostly dealt with women's empowerment, and she is a firm believer that it is not only the laws or education that can empower our women, but that empowerment is an inner process that includes self love and self esteem. Over the years, many women have benefitted from them. Here is Paromita's story.

Could you talk a bit about your childhood, your growing years and your education work journey to the extent you're comfortable?

I was born and brought up in a very simple middle class Assamese family. It is a very small and sleepy town, I belong to. And it still is. My father was a lawyer and my mother a lecturer in the local college. It was a modest upbringing. Our father had a grey Ambassador car. He took us to circus, plays and drives. Though it is a very small sleepy town, it had so much of art, culture that went around. Our parents made sure we went to singing and art classes. I was bad in both. My sisters learnt dance too. There would be poetry, essay and art competitions and we really participated. I won quite a few prizes there. I was a very average student. Infact I never liked classroom studies.

I was a dreamer in love with the sky and the rain; I hated what they taught in Maths and Science classes. My parents let me be if I passed from one class to another which I diligently did. I grew a deep love for poetry and the written word. I published my first story when I was in standard 7th. Now when I look back, writing has been my first love and one thing that lived with me through out. It saved me many a bad days. My love for reading and writing stayed throughout without fail. In school, no one was actually involved in reading. There was always an ache to find people who read what I did. I read the whole of Readers Digest cover to cover. I wanted someone to discuss those stories to. My school did not offer me that. Though I had a great time with friends, but the ache to find my own tribe stayed on.

My home, where I was born and brought up.

I was sent to Miranda House to do my graduation. I did English Honors. It was when I felt I could talk my heart out. My stories were heard and understood. People were better read than I was. There was so much to learn each day. I read insanely in my college years. The college library offered a solace. I was introduced to finest of world literature. I got very close to Khalil Gibran, Neruda, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Miranda House gave me my voice. I owe a lot to my alma mater. Not to forget, it gave me friends for a lifetime.

I started my career as a copywriter in a small advertising firm and then shifted to content writing. Life was going on well. But I had a deep urge to tell stories. There was so much more than the office cubicle. But I did not know how to tell and was apprehensive, if anyone would listen. That need to tell a story became an ache. Almost like unrequited love.

One day I fell sick. That was 2012 January and I went home. I think that was the turning point. No, the illness was nothing serious, it was fatigue and bad food, but it was a wakeup call for me. If you look for me before 2012, you won’t find anything substantial about me, on the Internet. But when I was home, I started to write and in April 2012, and my first piece appeared at Women’s Web. I think that was when destiny knocked at my door. I was very heartbroken then, but now I realize through my heartbreaks I was actually walking home. It was from 2013 onwards, I took writing very seriously. And life was never the same again.

Since then there had been so many co-incidences, that I think I was destined to write. The Universe cannot be so wrong! And to that let me add there had been a lot of hard work and focus. People think that it’s so beautiful to sit and write your heart out and get paid for it. But I assure you, its lot of hard work and discipline. You are on it almost every waking hour.

The journey itself fascinates me. And I am deeply grateful.

Your work is informed by and informs the core theme of women's empowerment. Could you talk about how that journey began?

My father expired in a car accident when I was 11 years old. Since then my mother brought me up. I have two elder sisters and a brother who is almost 8 years my junior. So, my growing up was amidst some very strong women. Even lot of women came home to meet Mom. So, I am closer to the women’s world. It’s only after college I made some fantastic male friends and I am grateful for the love and support I receive from them. But of course the women’s world has left a strong impression on me.

Coming from Assam, or may be from the family I come I had a gender neutral upbringing. But I remember when I was in 10th standard, one of my friend’s sister got married. She was hardly 20. And that was the first time, I thought about gender deeply. What if she was a man? I could not do much about it. I wrote a poem about it.

When I came to Delhi, I saw gender in a new perspective. In my hostel life I saw why girls who worked so hard, because they had a limited time to do all that they wanted. Miranda House opened up the layers how gender works as an identity.

In India, your genitals are supposed to decide your destiny not your capabilities. But if you dig deeper, do you think Patriarchy has done good to men? In India every 9 minutes a married man commits suicide. Men carry the burden of being a man and that has corroded them too. Socially we teach girls to keep away from men and a man’s manhood is validated with the number of women he can have by his side. That is our narrative. We don’t even teach how man and woman can be partners. Its time our social and cultural narrative changes.

I write about women empowerment because I know, in places where women have equal spaces and where women are heard as per men, violence goes down and a sense of security and balance takes over. 

Your definition of women's emancipation is so beautiful - that only laws or       education that can empower our women. Empowerment is an inner process that includes self love and self esteem. This is so, so powerful and beautiful. Could you share how your experiences, or what specific influences shaped this ideal?

Post 90s, we see a sea change in India’s workforce. A lot of women joined in. So technically, it’s like we are the first generation who has access to finances what was supposed to be a male domain. Woman for sure worked earlier too, but it’s a huge workforce today. Something India cannot deny. But has the gender rules changed with economic power? A woman’s salary is still treated as an add on. Women hardly owe property. The wage gap is way too much between genders in India. So, the question is why education and laws not making a sea change.

Here is the answer. A society is governed by its own culture and dictates. Education and laws are extremely important. But the first rules are set by the society and a society conditions an individual.

Indian culture is built on the narrative of good woman who does not ask for more. The good woman gives. The good woman is mostly non vocal. And we celebrate that woman. Here is the problem. We have not ever said that a woman is an individual, who has her own needs. She can ask for more and build her boundaries. And she can displease and offend people. Culturally we want our daughters to be pleasing so that when she is married to another family, she pleases everyone and does not ruffle a feather. That has what worked for the society. But it created generation and generation of women who were corroded from within. And one generation transferred it to another. Little girls learnt it from their mothers.

Now though we are getting all the opportunities as per men, we are still in that process of evolution where we are learning to ask for what we deserve and not accept what we are getting. We have not created a generation of women where they have deep self esteem, where they say no and ask for more.

I am a well educated woman, well read, exposed to the world and earning my own bucks. But I have realized over time that I am getting so less than I deserved. It was not only at work but in personal relationships too I was getting less. It was making me angry. That was when I realized why I was asking less, because I have not seen women asking. And you only accept what you think you deserve. Your deservingness comes from self esteem, self love and I learnt that meeting your own needs first is the highest form of self care. A woman who is fulfilled creates a happy fulfilled society. We try to fulfill others to feel fulfilled. The secret is that it is other way round. An empty cup cannot fill anyone. It has to be overflowing.

This is why my writings or in my public lectures, I emphasize on self esteem, self care and self love. It is a life changing mantra I learnt, and one day I hope will change the society.

Today, you are a writer, and a theatre activist. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

I am part of a theatre group ‘Aatish’ which is basically run by my two long standing friends Ankita Anand and Saumya Baijal. Whether it is street theatre or my writings, it is my individual effort to tell a story that will stir a conversation. The day I turned 30, I asked myself what is that I will leave back to this world. From then, I have become conscious of my work more than ever. As a writer I write what has affected me in the hope that it might leave a trail to a better life for someone. At Aatish, our plays leave behind questions and begin a new conversation.

I firmly believe that a conversation is the beginning to a new thought and life. That is what I do, in my writing or street plays, bring in a new way to an old pattern. The audience can choose to hear or ignore. But I tell my story. And most of the time, the responses overwhelm me. There is nothing like young women trying to see life from a new lens. It is a difficult life. Writing as we all know does not make us rich (at least not me) and street theatre pays me nothing as of now. But the urge to tell a story each morning keeps me going. That I touched someone’s life, is something that makes me go through deep moments of self doubt. Yes, as confident and radiant I see from outside, there had been dark days, crying nights, but I wake up each morning and go to work.

I have learnt that it takes immense courage to tell your story each day. And I have moments of fear, but I tell myself each day, “Courage dear heart.” I add, “Just this day, show courage. Just today, wake up. Just today, shine.” And years go by this way.

It’s been an enriching journey!

In your work so far, you would have undoubtedly made some observations as to why so many women are not empowered. Could you share a few observations from your work so far?
In one word, it is conditioning. In India we do not bring up daughters with visions. We tell them to work hard, get a job but then you become what your husband or the notion of happy family allows you. We want our daughters to be pleasing and not to touch the hornet’s nest. We don’t give girls time or freedom to self explore. We condition them as an adage to a man. We have still not recognized that as a woman can have an individual life. We still club her personal life with success. We celebrate woman who give up everything. But do we question, if the woman really want to give it up all.

Our men are confused. They are conditioned to be the bread earner, the provider. They are yet to see many women in power. Power sharing is something our boys are yet to learn from their partners. The society laughs at a man who will quit his job to look after his children. Not each time a man might want to be the bread earner or a woman to be a child bearer. Our culture hardly allows any other narrative.

Unless the narrative changes, women empowerment will be a farfetched dream, because we become the stories we see, hear and finally tell ourselves about.

Would you believe that even as many women can and do make the earnest effort to work on their internal devices of self love and self esteem, extrinsic influences can be disparaging and antithetical to their interests? How does a woman work with her own goals, dreams and empowerment needs while coping with these constant messages that tell her she's not worthy of being an equal?

As I have earlier said we become the narratives. Women are judged on their characters. And the measures are ridiculous. We are shamed for almost everything. The constant message we get is that we are not good enough. It begins with looks, than our bodies (girls learn to hate their bodies too soon), character, relationships, work etc. Shame is our constant companion and not many women have seen powerful women in their families to become like them. Children see, children become. So, inspite of trying so hard, it becomes difficult to truly believe in self love or self esteem. It’s difficult to be healthy where everyone is running sick.

The only way is to keep at it. I still fight the demons of body images. But I believe, three generations makes one. I might not die as a completely self loving person, but I can start and teach that to my daughter and she to hers. Atleast I will be that bridge if not the final destination. One woman needs to change the narration, rest will catch. It always begins with one. One woman in the society, workplace or family needs to begin. Rest always catch up. Keep marching and one day you will realize you carried a generation in your shoulders. That’s how powerful you are.

By doing it each day, we shall overcome. This I know for sure!

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