My Choice

Last week, Vogue India released a video about female empowerment, entitled “My Choice.” The video starred Bollywood actress, Deepika Padukone and various Bollywood female entertainers, who spoke about various choices of womanhood and sexuality that many women are not in control of.

Since the video’s release, it has gone to divide millions in India and around the world, because of its stance on sex outside of marriage. Firstly, I’m amazed that this video has created such a furore, but given the current global context I’m not 100% surprised either. And secondly let’s be honest: it’s a fashion video campaign by Vogue. I don’t think that the masses were expecting featured quotes from Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem or Germaine Greer.

From a digital perspective it’s great PR for Vogue India; once again it’s proved that when social media flexes its biceps, you’d better run for the hills. In addition, it has opened up a can of worms and an opportunity for many to engage in discussions about aspects of women’s sexuality. This opportunity to create a discussion has been driven by the mere presence of this video. Even to all those who vehemently object to it, condemn it and hate it – including other high profile Bollywood actors – they are still driving the conversation by talking about it. So in a way, it’s all been very cleverly crafted.

On one hand, I credit Deepika Padukone for starring in this video and for being vocal about issues (such as depression and mental health) which often fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, I wish that a wider range of women had been used in the video as it felt constrained at times and that the current selection of actors contradicted the overall message of women’s empowerment being available to all. It also felt elitist and a bit plastic; I couldn’t help but think who was watching this video. People like me, who own a smartphone, can understand English well or have access to the Internet. This message wasn’t going out to the thousands of women and girls living in rural areas with very little access to power and basic supplies let alone a smartphone and a command of English.

I felt that the video was a start and not the final message.

According to an essay by Silverstein and Sayre (Harvard Business Review, The Female Economy, September 2009) women, as a global market, control $20 trillion in consumer spending. It’s an astounding statistic and many wouldn’t have guessed that the number would be so high. This is a really good – and short – essay by Harvard Business Review and is worth a Google as I only have it in paperback copy.

This monetary control occurs in an environment where women are paid less than men, as well as being in spaces where women’s bodies and sexualities are pitted against them in exchange for money to buy products that will ‘make the problem disappear.’ It’s a concept that we are all aware of and fall for. There’s been instances where I have bought a concealer that promises to hide my under eye circles, but actually exacerbates the problem in my head, and proves to be a waste of my time and my money.

While many argue that women’s empowerment is more than what we choose to wear, do with our bodies and live our lives, in today’s world, this sexualisation needs to be confronted when it comes to discussing empowerment. If we are going to be surrounded by hyper-sexualised imagery of women’s bodies, but have images of women breast feeding, menstruating or experiencing menopause banned, than that counts as part of the problem. We have a right to address these images, take back ownership of our stories and our bodies.

“My Choice” was a half decent attempt to usher in a discussion about women, their bodies and who really does control them. After all, this is something that many diasporic communities and the West are also starting to talk about. Who controls who and what is considered to be beautiful? Who decides on ideas of femininity and masculinity? Technically, that power belongs to individuals, but we are increasingly realising that we don’t actually possess that control. As more and more people, globally, are pushing for gender equality to be made universal in all arenas of life, I felt that the video was a start and not the final message.

Women’s empowerment is not a prescribed pill that will immediately solve all our problems at once. It begins within ourselves, it involves bringing men on board, it is about having the right to an education, to live in a safe environment, to enjoy childhood, to access water, electricity and basic infrastructure as well as having the right to be ourselves.

 

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Empower

(c) photo taken by Anila Dhami

(c) photo taken by Anila Dhami

Last night I had the immense privilege of appearing on Zee Companion, with my mentor Mandy Sanghera and presenter Anila Dhami, to talk about International Women’s Day, Feminism and general girl power.

The topics discussed ranged from domestic violence, forced marriages, empowerment and Feminism to the women who inspired us on a daily basis. It led me to think about empowerment; what does it mean and how can we go empowering ourselves?

~ (a) To give authority or power to (b) to give strength and confidence to

Empowerment has become a bit of a buzzword which many of us talk about and use on a daily basis. We use this word whenever we speak about the problems that women face, yet it all becomes incredibly vague when it comes to creating solutions for these problems.

I usually hate those Instagram pictures with a philosophical quote, but I came across one which said: “Happiness is an inside job” and made me think. Empowerment, in a nutshell, is directly linked to self confidence and self-worth which increases self esteem. So on an individual basis, empowerment is rooted in the way that we view ourselves. The issue with this is that many of us are quite cruel and hard on ourselves (including me). It ranges from obvious things like: comparing yourself to others and fat talk to having chronic low levels of confidence. It could also be linked to your family and the atmosphere that you were raised in. After all, we are products of our environment and the effect that this has upon us is profound.

There’s many reasons why the vast majority of women find it hard to be kind to themselves and feel better about themselves which makes it difficult for us to feel empowered. It took me a long time to feel good about myself and comfortable with who I am; it started with changing the way that I viewed myself. It began with baby steps: writing a list of five things I liked about myself (physical and non-physical), saying something nice about myself and I’m aware that this all sounds very cheesy, but you know what? It worked and has been a good platform to continue to empower myself.

Another way that we can begin to feel empowered is to be mindful of ourselves and others. Practising mindfulness often results in us becoming very self aware of our words and actions to ourselves and those around us. It makes us more intuitive, kinder and compassionate as well. These are tools that we can apply to ourselves in helping us to become more empowered. Mindfulness is basically taking a few minutes to really appreciate and savour the present moment for what it really is. For example: enjoying the feeling of the sun on your face or how good a morning cup of tea tastes. It’s a rare opportunity to unplug from a fast world and connect with ourselves.

Finally, having a good support system and network is also a great way to begin feeling empowered. Think about how good you feel when you’re around a good friend or your favourite cousins. Amplify that feeling by 100 and that’s the closest I get to describing what empowerment feels like.

“But how do I find these networks?” Social media and technology has made this part slightly easier. It’s easier to connect with people in cyberspace and build up friendships than to meet new people in real life. The best bit of advice I could give to anyone feeling apprehensive about networking is this. When meeting a new person (or someone whose work inspires you) say this to yourself: “They have two eyes, a stomach and a bum” and then go speak to them. There’s a variety of professional networks that you can join – online and offline – as well as various websites like Meetup where you decide what kinds of events you want to attend.

One of the best mantras I tell myself is this: “Just show up and meet five new people” which has been a building block into creating a network. After all, if you don’t show up you ultimately miss out and the world does not see you for the wonderful person that you are.

 

 

A human being. Not a human body.

At the weekend, a very good friend and I were invited to attend a cabaret night of glitz, glamour and entertainment at the world famous Café de Paris in central London. It was a first for me as, until then, I’d never set foot inside the venue or seen a cabaret night live.

(c) Avid Scribbler

“Café de Paris, London” (c) Avid Scribbler

The acts varied from jugglers, dancers and acrobats to a drag queen, burlesque artists – including a glimpse of Sukki Singapora’s Diamonds Tour. It was a night of good entertainment in a stunningly opulent setting.

When I heard about the burlesque dancers I wasn’t sure what to expect. Overall, I was looking forward to it because I’d never seen a burlesque act before and I’m the “try everything once” sort of person. Whether I do something again or not is a different story!

In the run up to Saturday night, I spoke to a couple of people that I work with and asked them what they thought of burlesque. They both (quite harshly) responded: “It’s really just a form of glorified stripping!”

I have a few friends who attend burlesque classes and from what I’ve seen/heard about burlesque I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

I can understand why people believe that burlesque is a form of “glorified stripping”  as both involve women removing their clothes for an audience. However, what I did find out was a clear distinction between the two. The burlesque artists that I saw didn’t even come close to baring all, although there are burlesque artists who do the Full Monty in their performances. It was all artfully covered up; the unseen was more alluring than what was actually on show.

(c) sugarblueburlesque

I also noticed that the artists focused more on style, props, costumes and the tease element instead of getting their kit off for sexual gratification. They were entertaining, light-hearted and fun with their routines which captured the attention of the audience.

Their routines were much more in keeping with the literary root of “burlesque” – a literary/musical or dramatic piece of work intended to create humour by caricaturing the manner of serious works. It comes from the Italian word burla – to mock/ridicule. So whilst they removed items of clothing, it was done with playfulness and the flair that we would expect from a showman.

Another refreshing part of the night was how female friendly, empowering and positive it was from the performers, our host and the audience. Most of the audience members were groups of women of all ages, people with their partners and middle-aged married couples. It felt good to be in such an atmosphere and see a range of female performers (of all shapes, sizes and colours) who were comfortable with their body shapes, stretch marks and cellulite.

At the end of the night, my friend and I left with a high level of respect for them because they had all willingly gone into this profession. Firstly, we appreciated that it takes guts to perform on stage in front of a group of strangers (regardless of your act). Secondly, we agreed that to reach that level of comfort and ease your body is something that many women around the world only dream of.

Female empowerment is something that many of us would not associate with things that involve women removing items of clothing. Most interpret this as going against everything that traditional Feminism preaches, but with regards to things like burlesque – and even strippers – it is all about intent and consent. From what I saw, I do feel that burlesque can be a source of female empowerment and might even increase a woman’s self esteem. Many burlesque artists say that they perform for themselves and that they feel good about themselves because they become very self aware of their bodies.

I have no qualms with women who willingly choose to become a burlesque artist or a stripper as long as they are in a safe environment. It’s their bodies and the sense of empowerment comes from the feeling of being in control of their bodies through their own choice. I firmly believe that we should understand and respect that.