‘Women Empowerment’ remains a highly vague term despite evoking strong responses from both its supporters and detractors. On the occasion of International Women's Day, we spoke to inspiring women who continue to excel in their chosen fields. From Acid Attack survivor to Motivational Speaker, TV personality to Change-maker, these are women who bring out the extra in the ordinary!
As we celebrate womanhood, here are some disarmingly candid and inspiring accounts of their biggest challenges, their strengths, and what being empowered truly means to them.
1. Neera Negi Anand
Kathak Danseuse & Folk Artist
This veteran dancer, who has won countless accolades for her contribution to propagate Indian art, truly defies age. At 63, her zeal for life is addictive as she continues to teach not only the next generation but also other Senior Citizens to perform professionally through her dance troupe.
"To me Women Empowerment means increasing the strength of a woman socially, economically and emotionally. She should have the freedom of speech and act according to her will."
My biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge has been making today's generation understand and realize the value of Indian culture.
My Superpower: My positive attitude towards life. My creativity, honesty and devotion towards my art form Kathak has helped me forge relevance and connect with today's generation.
2. Sheetal Agarwal
Social Chagemaker & Founder, Clownselor
She's a clown? She's a counselor? Meet Sheetal Agarwal, the Clownselor who visits ailing kids in Delhi hospitals with the sole aim of making them smile. An M.Phil in Social Anthropology, Sheetal's innovative approach to treating patients is breaking stereotypes on so many levels as she forges her own path & answers her calling in life.
"Women Empowerment, to me is having a voice of our own, following our heart and passion in doing what we want. It is women & men supporting and encouraging each other by sharing the workload and being happy for other's progress."
My Biggest Challenge: To fight my own devils, my inhibitions and the ideas I grew up with. Defying social norms and not walking on the set path.
My Superpower: My smile and the support of my family and the people around, men as well as women.
3. Soniya Chowdhury
Acid Attack Survivor & Sheroes Activist
Soniya Chowdhury needs no introduction. Having survived an Acid Attack, she rebuilt her life from scratch. Her fightback spirit gives inspiration to many as she continues to campaign against sale of acid, walks beauty pageants to raise awareness and runs her own beauty salon.
"Mere liye women empowerment ka matlab hai mahilaon ko samaan adhikar miley. Unke bhi sapne hote hain kuch karne ke. Agar barabari ka adhikar milega to apna hunar poori duniya ko dikha sakti hain." (For me empowerment means equal rights. If women get equal opportunities they can touch the sky)
My biggest Challenge: After facing the acid attack I was struggling to gather myself and rebuild my life but people called me ugly and many names because of my face. Instead of supporting me people tried to break my self-confidence.
My Super Power: The more society tried to oppress me, the more resolute I became to fight back. Their taunts became the fuel that fed my inner fire to go forward and achieve success in life.
4. Dr Ritu Ranjan
Pathologist & In-Charge of Blood Bank
Dr Ritu heads a team of Doctors at District Hospital, Mathura and remains a strong voice for reproductive health and women rights in India.
Women Empowerment needs to reach all the classes of our society. A right as basic as proper hygiene becomes a far-off privilege for women - at times due to limited access to commodities like sanitary napkins & at others because of their partners' and their families' pompous, yet delicate egos.
My Biggest Challenge: I have seen women undergoing repeated terminations of pregnancies. All sorts of weird, dangerous items are inserted into their uterus for contracting it enough to repel the foetus outside, just because their partners refused to put a barrier around their masculinity. Women suffering life-threatening damage during childbirth, after their family refused a Caesarean section, despite doctor's advice, as the mother-in-law and her entire family had undergone "so many childbirths at home in their time", and only "aaj kal ki ladkiyan" cannot bear the pain. This deep-rooted patriarchy, that has managed to cross every barrier built up by education, I believe is the challenge I am up against.
My Superpower: The ability to build up a strong support system of women at my workplace. In my department, there are mostly women, all working under me, and there hasn't been a single instance of rivalry among them.
5. Payal Shankar
Fashion & Lifestyle Blogger
A doting mom and a lifestyle influencer, Payal has more than 13k Instagram Followers. After taking a maternity career break, she made a comeback and has been creating ripples with her blog payalsscribbles.com
To me empowerment is living each day feeling accomplished and doing something that resonates with my inner fire & passion
My biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge has been to be a Fashion Blogger at 35 when most of my peers are in their 20s.
My Superpower: I am a woman. I haven't learnt how to get defeated. I overcame my biggest challenge and turned it into my advantage. What I bring to the table is someone who carries styles with a dash, versatility and elegance along with flair for conversational style of writing, which has helped me carve a niche for myself.
6. Avani Bansal
Supreme Court Advocate
Avani Bansal is a practicing Lawyer in the Supreme Court of India. This feisty women's rights advocate is an example of what a young girl determined to fulfill her dreams can achieve provided she gets support from her family. Avani's journey from a small town in Madhya Pradesh to Oxford and Harvard (of both of which she is an alumna) is what grit, determination and dreams are made of. She runs a YouTube channel 'Hamara Kanoon' to spread legal rights awareness.
To me women empowerment means a gender neutral society where individuals are seen for who they are not due to their genders alone. This is equally applicable to both men and women.
My biggest Challenge: To survive and thrive in a world where majority of people believe that certain professions such as law and politics are not meant for women, even today. That somehow women are not suitable enough to do well in these traditionally male dominated professions
My Super Power: Empathy -- my ability to see other people's position and perspective, no matter what the situation. When we hear and see people without judgement, we can find solutions that are so within reach but seem impossible in the beginning.
7. Alka Priya,
Model/ TV Host
Alka is a well-known face on Indian Television with a dedicated fan following. A self-made woman, she's the Winner of Nirbhaya Jyoti National Women Achievers Award.
"Women empowerment to me means having women in the decision- making process, enabling them to respectfully earn their living without limitations and restrictions."
My Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge as a professional working in Mumbai for me was people and their thinking. Making a place for yourself in a new industry without any godfather itself is a challenge for anybody.
My Superpower: My super power is my confidence and hard work. I am a workaholic and strongly believe that with great confidence and focused effort one can conquer the world.
8. Dr Mallika Mishra
A scientist known among her peers for her leadership skills & problem-solving approach, Dr Mallika is applying her vast global experience with well known pharma companies to mentor a start-up in India.
To me Women Empowerment means equal opportunity and independence.
My Biggest Challenge: so far has been to prove that women can also provide achievement-oriented leadership.
My superpower: is my passion for work teamed with my strong determination.
9. Deepti Goel
Deepti Goel educates and aids women and young adults to build wealth not just in terms of accumulating money but to be rich in a holistic manner by finding balance between work and life.
To me women empowerment is the understanding that if I can earn money, I can, for god's sake, burn it too.
(In the context that even women who earn well, succumb to the stereotype that women are incapable of making finance and investment decisions.
My biggest Challenge: My biggest professional challenge has been to convince women that they are good with numbers. They can take charge of their financial lives and at least need to participate with their spouses in the financial decision-making journey.
My Superpower: My kids who never seem to lose their faith in me and never let me give up on life and its challenges.
10. Vibha Nasheen
Author/Motivational Speaker/Theater Artist
Vibha is a creative professional who dons many hats. When not penning her thoughts, she loves to listen to people in her voluntary counseling sessions 'Chai Tumhari, Waqt Mera' and helps them figure out ways to overcome their challenges.
To me Women Empowerment means acknowledging the fact that the essence of womanhood in itself implies a source of power. Once they understand how powerful they are, they can take charge of anything that they aspire to do and make it happen.
My biggest Challenge: None. Every challenge has taught me how to be stronger and become a better person than before.
My Superpower: My unmovable trust in God. I have always believed that everything that has happened, is happening or is going to happen carries a learning. I have believed in this one strong foundation all the while in my life – be it miserable or blissful, and trust me it has made me unstoppable.
If these responses are anything to go by, one thing is for sure. For today's woman, empowerment is not a desire for preferential treatment because of her gender but a drive to obliterate differential treatment because of it!