Bringing ‘Women In The World’ To You

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Nov 24, 2015

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Last Friday, The Swaddle Team got up dark and early to head to Delhi for Tina Brown’s travelling conference, Women In The World. It was a day both exciting and thought-provoking, as the following themes emerged across panels: the power of dignity, the importance of women’s inclusion in solutions to world problems, the need for alternative ideologies to violence, and ultimately, the imperative of hope. Below, we cover some of our favourite (and least favourite) sessions.

‘The Greatest Crisis Since World War II’

Most of us have followed news of the Syrian refugee crisis from a distance. We know that families have streamed across borders to be met by local residents, many of whom remember all too well their own experiences with war and forced relocation, with gifts of food, supplies and support. We also know that in other countries, Syrian refugees have been vilified and equated with the very terrorists they are fleeing. But as we read about this crisis in numbers (which are staggeringly high) on our iPads, it’s filtered in a way that makes an essentially human tragedy seem dryly statistical. One of our favorite panels of the day, moderated skilfully by actress Cate Blanchett, brought the horrors these Syrian families into the auditorium.

War photographer Lynsey Addario, who followed several young families for weeks, captured the mundane, daily details of their lives in their new “homes.” Through her lens, she provided a glimpse of these broken childhoods; stories of children who haven’t had a stable home or attended school in years are heart-wrenching in the abstract, but the images of them getting ready to face a 20-hour day of manual labor are arresting. UNHCR Communications Director Melissa Fleming bemoaned this lost generation, these 30 million children who may never complete their education, and wondered what future they could possibly envision when their lives have been placed on pause. And Zainab Salbi, journalist and WITW editor, told an absolutely devastating story of a man who was forced to abandon his 4-year-old daughter in order to save the rest of his family while fleeing ISIS. These perspectives brought the plight of Syrian refugees to life in a way a news report has yet to do. We’ll never read those statistics the same way again.

Smriti Irani, Tina Brown, Women In The World
Smriti Irani responds to a question from Tina Brown

‘In Conversation With Smriti Zubin Irani’

Say what you will about Smriti Irani’s qualifications (and believe us, we’ve said plenty), the Minister of Human Resource Development’s self-made story commanded our respect for the first half of her interview with Tina Brown, founder of Women In The World. When she spoke about the opportunity that comes from the support and confidence of just one mentor, we were nodding our heads. “The transition from being someone not good enough, to someone with an opportunity is precious to me. … Her trust was empowering to me,” she said of her first mentor. When she spoke about wanting to be more than just her father’s daughter or her husband’s wife, we were on board. When she called out some detractors for refusing to work with her because of her lack of education, we could appreciate the sentiment. We weren’t the only ones applauding when she said, “If they don’t have the courage to engage with me on ideas, then maybe they’re not as knowledgeable as they think.”

… And then she blew it. It started with a seemingly innocuous — but surely carefully crafted, as she managed to sneak in several BJP talking points throughout — statement highlighting India’s secularism. She referenced US currency, which has “In God We Trust” printed on it, before saying: “We, as Indians, worship Lakshmi, but Lakshmi is not on our currency.” (A fair point sullied by the insidious suggestion that all Indians are Hindu.) After that, it was all downhill to get to her take on women’s issues in India, when she said she doesn’t believe Indian women are caught between the modern and the traditional, and that no one is dictating to Indian women what to wear, do or be. The crowd, hitherto polite, if not enthusiastic, erupted into booing and shouts of “Come on!” She quickly doubled down — and contradicted herself — by saying it’s a problem everywhere in the world. And that’s when we tuned out.

Fire, Shabana Azim, Nandita Das, Deepa Mehta, William Dalrymple, Women In The World
L to R: Shabana Azim, Nandita Das, Deepa Mehta, and moderator William Dalrymple

‘Fanning The Fire’

It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since Fire released in Indian theatres, setting a bar for controversy to which films are still compared. But filmmaker Deepa Mehta had “no clue” at the time that this would be its legacy. Lead actress Shabana Azmi, too, had no inkling. “I thought, ‘India is not a monolith,'” she said. “Not everyone would react in the same way.” It was a surprise to us to hear that this was true, initially. We didn’t realize the film had been approved by censors without any cuts. We definitely didn’t realize they OK’d it a second time without cuts, after the protests and riots. The panel, which included lead actress Nandita Das, agreed that such approval wouldn’t be seen for the film in today’s time. “The growing culture of intolerance is really cause for concern,” Shabana said.

However, the silver lining is the film’s longevity and timelessness. Twenty years after release, it is still shaping Indian thoughts and discussions on lesbians and gay men. While it is sad that there have been so few contemporaries in the intervening years, this is the legacy all panelists seemed moved by. “There wasn’t even a vocabulary for it (lesbian and gay issues),” she remembered. “If you don’t even have a way to talk about it, a point of reference, then it’s hard to make change. … There are few films where you can see a tangible change.”

‘The Sons We Share’

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be one of those news stories that will always exist, flaring up with each intifada, and stirring emotions around the globe with each peace talk; we’ve truly grown up in an age in which this conflict timeless, as though it has always existed and always will. But at WITW, we saw a new perspective: that of mothers who have lost sons in the conflict and who have joined hands across religions and borders to advocate for peace in the name of their dead sons. Israeli Robi Damelin, who lost her son to a sniper’s bullet, told the audience that though her path to inner calm was not easy, she does not blame the Palestinian who was responsible for her son’s death; rather, she blames the conflict itself, for which thousands of sons are dying needlessly.

She was joined onstage by Bushra Awad, a Palestinian woman who lost her son in the conflict as well and who initially rejected Robi’s overtures. Bushra eventually joined The Parents Circle – Family Forum to lend her voice and story in the name of peace. There were many moving moments in the story of this unlikely friendship, but surely the most powerful moment of the evening was Bushra’s response, when her Palestinian friends accuse her of “selling” her son’s blood through her alliance with Israeli mothers: “No, I’m buying the blood of my children who are still alive.”

‘Burma’s Shame’

With the Syrian refugee crisis dominating media attention lately (and we’re not saying it shouldn’t) we tend to forget they aren’t the only ones who have had to flee their homes in search of a safer place. Crises like that of the Rohingyas from Myanmar, while closer to home, still aren’t given as much time by our media. The panel on the Rohingya’s plight was a wake up call to the tragedy as well as a rude reminder of the selective nature of journalism and world attention. At the least, that’s a good outcome of a panel, but the personal stories of panelists Nizammudin and Ohnmar, Rohingya refugees living in India, opened the window further. Despite the terrible conditions that forced them to flee, and the hardships they face as refugees, the Rohingyas were still hopeful.

Nizamuddin says he is waiting for the day when Myanmar’s newly elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, offers support to the Rohingyas. “Since 2012, there has been no word from her,” he said. “She should say something about the (Rohingya) crisis. At that time, she said she had no power. Now, she does.” Photographer Saiful Huq Omi, who has documented the crisis from its front lines — the shores on which refugees seek to land after fraught sea journeys — shared a tragic tale. In Kuala Lumpur, he said, he befriended a young Rohingya couple who had managed to escape Rakhine. They embodied joyously mundane domesticity and appeared to be a balm among so many sad stories. But their happiness was bought for a heavy price. While the man had managed to escape to Malaysia when the unrest began, his girlfriend had had to stay behind. As they planned her escape to join him, they had to discuss frankly the likelihood of rape and other violence. They went ahead nonetheless. What in another world might have been a story about risking everything for true love, in this one, it’s about the failure of a nation to keep it’s people safe.

‘Gone Girls’

Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili’s conversation with Rajdeep Sardesai was the first session we attended at WITW, and her passion started with a bang. The focus was the 2014 kidnapping of more than 300 schoolgirls by the Boko Haram in Nigeria. Since, many of the girls have been forced to conver to Islam and married to their captors, while the fate of others remains unclear. You’ll know Dr Ezekwesili better by her online campaign for their rescue, #BringBackOurGirls. For most of us, it was a tweet or like, overshadowed since by everything else in our lives and the world. But not for Dr Ezekwesili. She reminded a packed audience that terrorism has no boundaries. The kidnapping of the schoolgirls speaks of a world where leaders are powerless to control violence yet shiftless in their response to it. “When the incident happened I kept telling the world leaders that don’t you dare think that this is happening in some neck of the woods,” she said. “You can never imagine how quickly this will travel. Deal with it and tackle it.”

The Paris attacks, she said, are proof that it is, indeed, travelling. Dr Ezekwesili also stressed that the world does not need leaders who are “sitting in the comfort of leadership. Citizens want leaders to take action. It is time to act.” When asked whether she hopes for the return of the girls, Dr Ezekwesili responded that she wasn’t going to give up. “Until the President says to me that there is no hope, and presents me with a reason, I am going to keep hoping,” she said. To be sitting in front of a woman who believes so strongly in righting the world, and forcing world leaders to do the same, almost made us embarrassed for our passive, unthinking participation in #BringBackOurGirls. Dr Ezekwesili is the real deal, a woman who won’t rest until the kidnapped girls is closed.

‘Pakistan’s Defiant Patriot’

Candid speech is the last thing we’d expect from a Pakistani politician in India, but Senator Sherry Rehman brought it. She carefully saved her criticism for her own country, calling certain laws she has advocated for improved, but not good, and comparing news media there to “Fox News on steroids half the time.” Outside of Pakistan, she addressed problems in ‘in-it-together’ terms. Like it or not, she said, “we are neighbours. And while we can’t automatically love each other, we can hate less.” She noted the moment is ripe, as Pakistan, like much of the world, is united against terrorism, which is not only common ground with India, but a common threat. The drive for recognizing and acting on this commonality will have to come from people on both sides, she said, particularly the younger generation, who have less baggage and identify less with the trauma of Partition and subsequent wars. Above all, she stressed the need to keep talking and not wait for big gestures or opportunities. “Never stand back from the increment,” she said, “the chip, chip, chip away.” The thought of leaders like her on both sides of the line left us with hope.

Extended Swaddle Team with writers
The (extended) Swaddle Team! From left: Mihika Mirchandani; Surjit Kaur; Liesl Goecker; Sonali Gupta (contributor); Dr Sahar Bhaloo; Karla Bookman; and Genesia Alves (contributor)

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