Edited Excerpts from an interview •
Your book The Poetry of Purpose: A Portrait of Women Leaders of India is a blend of textual and visual narrative. How important a role does visual journalism play in effective storytelling according to you?
In the context of our book on women’s leadership in India, the power of the photographic portrait reinforces her written account (in her own words) by giving a deeper expression to the arc of her journey. From self-discovery and self-realisation to creating a sense of purpose in work and life, a platform was created to convey universally resonant messages and images.
You have been a committed member of the UN and the International Federation of University Women (IFUW). What are your opinions about the HeForShe campaign? How indispensable/dispensable is the role of men in empowering women?
When men and women become allies, champions of one another’s freedom and rights, together we can forge a path that leads to equality and put an end to poverty and violence. So, social transformation can take hold at a much faster pace and become self-sustaining and restorative.
You have had the experience of working for women in numerous countries. How different are Indian women from their counterparts in other developing countries?
Indian women are not different from other women. I have worked with women around the world. Most women (including women leaders), are hard working, resilient, courageous, compassionate and nurturing (as men) visionaries. The issues that plague society have the same roots everywhere. Although, they are shaped differently by caste, creed and culture and reported by the media differently, human nature and human society is the same. Thus, women are committed to making our way of being decent, just and loving.
Your book contains portraits of 15 women leaders from different states of the country. How did you pin these 15 women down as the ones worthy of being featured in your book? What was your selection criteria?
In deciding whom to incorporate in the book, our selection process began by defining ‘our’ leader. Whatever her stratum of society—whether privileged, highly educated, disadvantaged and lacking literacy—she is creating positive social change by working on issues of priority in innovative ways. Except that her influence has yet to be communicated on a large scale.
Your organisation, Realising the Ecosystem Effects of Finance (REEF) was actively involved in a project aimed at reducing the gap between men and women in agriculture in Turkey (where women happen to account for more than 40 percent of the agricultural workforce). India also has a majority of its population in the agriculture sector. How aware and benefited are the Indian women in terms of land ownership and economic activities?
The issues and constraints women farmers face, particularly on the land of Africa and across South Asia are the same. The importance of their role in food production is equally undervalued.
Agricultural work across India is performed by more than 80 million women who contribute to half the nation’s food. Women farmers are poised to become the backbone of India’s rural economy — a vitally important engine of sustainable growth. Capable of forming critical links between rural prosperity and poverty reduction, thesewomen face constraints that reduce their productivity. India’s agricultural sector is underperforming.
Like most developing countries that depend on agriculture for survival, activities in the farm fields and local markets are defined by familial tradition, social relations, economic status, and gender roles.So, India’s most faithful land stewards, women are often not even recognised as farmers.
They are merely unpaid and unaccounted laborers constituting an “invisible” network of smallholder producers.
Facing widespread restrictions on their ability to claim economic independence, agency, and decision-making power, they have little control over the basic resources involved in productions such as land, credit, fertilizers, seeds, agricultural training, and information. All of these factors compound the problem of gender inequality.These remain true despite the fact that women farmers have demonstrated time and again that if they are given economic opportunities, they can make investments that benefit not just themselves, but also their families and communities.
India has had a number of men writing confessional autobiographies while women continue to be presented in a second person’s opinion or through vague self representations. How detrimental is a sense of self-censorship by women in a country where they are repeatedly victimised and subjected to various sorts of injustices and violation of rights.How far does it affect the “visibility” of women?
A thoughtful answer to this question would be too long. But, I think it is self-explanatory. A sense of agency, one’s voice and one’s ability to realise one’s full potential—builds one’s capacity for love, tolerance and forgiveness. Thus it makes them more visible and capable of growing a decent society.
What do you mean when you say that women in India have a paradoxical “known-yet-unknown” status?
Many of India’s pioneering women leaders are ‘invisible’. That is, they are caught in unequal liberty. Even if their works are not, other works are known, even celebrated nationally and internationally by experts focussing on their particular issues.
Yet, they are barely known to the wider public.In light of this paradox ie. ‘known-yet-unknown’ status of many of India’s most influential women, our strategy for identifying those we includes depends on a large network of deeply knowledgeable and prodigiously generous people. These are the people who worked towards addressing India’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues.
Why did you choose the title, The Poetry of Purpose?
If I put it simply, finding one’s purpose is a poetic journey, for men and women everywhere. But ,the essential value of each of these leaders’ contributions to Indian society is not confined to her primary area of influence alone, where results are tangible
On the contrary , it lies in the degree to which her wonder, vision and courage call forth her family, community, and larger social networks. It is broadening of consciousness and comprehension that demonstrates a simple and enduring truth.In short, a sense of purpose brings beauty and fulfillment not only to the individual soul, but also to the lives of all that it touches. Thus, it is the poetry of purpose — ‘The lighthouse of the human spirit’.