Shabana Azmi: “As Women, We Don’t Need To Be Treated As Goddesses But As Equals”

Posted: July 17, 2018

In a candid interview, noted Actor and Activist Shabana Azmi spoke with Women’s Web about her journey as a social activist, her NGO, Mijwan Welfare Society as well as her thoughts on gender equality and crime against women. Read more!

Who is at the forefront of helping local communities in India change in a positive and sustainable manner? Grassroot workers, that’s who! The Plan India Impact Awards which will be given out by non-profit organisation Plan India shortly, are meant to recognise such grassroot champions who have battled the odds to be champions of change in society. Ms. Azmi who is to be one of the Chief Guests on the occasion, spoke to me freely about her work on the ground, and her hope for a more gender equal Indian society of the future.

The Plan India Impact Awards will be given away in New Delhi to grassroot champions on July 27th, 2018.




This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

When did your journey in social work start?

You have stood for various social issues as well as spearheaded a lot of development work. Did you always want to be a part of the social movement – what made you pick your causes(s)?

Shabana Azmi – I was brought up in an atmosphere where my parents believed that art should be used as an instrument for social change. My father, who was a member of the Communist party had a strong belief system around social justice and he actually practised what he preached. As early as 1942 he wrote a poem called Aurat – “Uth meri jaan mere saath hee chalna hai tujhe”. And whether it was his relationship with his wife, Shaukat or his daughter Shabana or later his daughter-in-law Tanvi, he believed in equal opportunities. So that was the kind of background I came from.

Then I started working in films which were about social issues as well as enacted characters who stood up against social injustice. With such a background, a time comes when all these factors combine and make you ask the question – why is there social injustice, why is there a difference and why are some privileged and the others not. Once you ask those questions, you get involved in the process of making a change.

There are two films that actually marked my involvement with social issues, and especially the women’s movement. One was Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth and another one, Goutam Ghose’s Paar, which led me to believe that people like me have an opportunity where they can work to become catalysts of change. For example, after Arth was released, I had many women who would come to me not as fans to a star but in sisterhood, as women looking up to me to resolve their marital discords. That was the beginning of my involvement with the women’s movement.

At the same time, documentary film maker Anand Patwardhan, showed me his documentary Bombay our city which brought into my sharp focus the problems around slums and resettlement, that demolition serves no purpose but creates more slums. This led to my involvement with Nivara Haq, which is a housing rights organisation and in May 1986, I went on a hunger strike with Anand Patwardhan and three other slum dwellers demanding alternative land for a slum in south Bombay. It was unheard of at that time that a female actress be involved in social issues to this extent. Five days later, the government agreed and allocated alternate land.

That really and truly propelled me into social work following which I did a lot of work with Nivara Haq and then I got completely involved with my father’s NGO, Mijwan Welfare Society.

Women are becoming a part of the decision making process

Koi to sut chukaye, koi to zimma le us inqelaab ka jo aaj tak udhaar sa hai* – beautiful lines by Kaifi Azmiji and an inspiration behind his setting up Mijwan Welfare Society. A lot of work has been accomplished at Mijwan, how do you feel about that and what are the challenges you see the organisation facing today?

Shabana Azmi – We have come a long way with Mijwan. I think there has been a lot of progress in that community. The community is not just sensitized but also, women are empowered. The empowerment has been a result of making them financially literate as well as independent to the extent of enabling them to operate their bank accounts and handle ATMs too.

A few have travelled to Mumbai and when they meet film stars like Shahrukh Khan wearing the sherwani that they have embroidered, there is a different level of confidence and a true sense of empowerment. All this has also led to a shift in patriarchal family relations where women are becoming a part of the decision making process.

But for me, the challenge really lies in getting the community to take charge of their own lives – that isn’t happening. As of now, they look up to me as a benefactor with an attitude of didi sab kuch solve kar lengi. What I would like is that they start working on their own for betterment of their community.

Secondly, in the school which runs in Mijwan for class 9 to inter college, we have daughters of daily wage labourers, who are not even able to pay Rs.80 per month for child’s fees. These are the girls who come to school after finishing household work (cleaning, cooking etc.), travelling miles in the morning. Now apart from the curriculum, we want to expose them to extra curricular, leadership programs, computer skills etc. but it becomes very challenging to even plan an hour or two for them apart from their curriculum after school as they have to get back on time to take care of the other household work.

Then there are infrastructure challenges. We started digital classes for them so that remote volunteers from US and other countries could connect with girls at Mijwan but due to infrastructure issues, the network isn’t stable, as a result of which the children are losing interest in this powerful medium which could be used beautifully for countering the lack of trained teachers. The digital tool can give so much freedom but the challenge is that we are not able to harness it as of now at Mijwan.

A look at the last year’s winners (Plan India Impact awards 2017) shows that women are playing a major role in mobilizing their communities. How do you perceive women’s role in mobilizing their communities? Any examples from Mijwan that you would like to share?

Shabana Azmi – I have been working with women for so long that I have noticed that although it takes a little more time to mobilise women, once you mobilise them, they become true leaders because their lives are directly affected. And when they become front line workers, they don’t just do it as a job but they do it because they actually want change to happen.

Even in the silent revolution that is taking place because of 73rd and 74th amendment in the Panchayati Raj today, there is empirical evidence to prove that when women become sarpanch, when they actually get empowered, then the issues they tackle are very different – women deal with health, sanitation and things that directly impact their lives. They approach overall development of their communities.

Talking about Mijwan, today it is an open defecation free community. All kudos to the women who brought about the revolution. The role of women as front line workers has been immense. It was women who started demanding toilets, spoke about the threat and the humiliation involved in openly defecating apart from the health hazards, thus mobilising the community and eventually forcing men to build toilets and use them. In the beginning, there was no cooperation, but the efforts of the women as last mile champions brought the change.

Crime against women in India: Are you disappointed?

A recent Thomson Reuters Perception Poll placed India at the Number 1 rank for most dangerous nation in the world – though there may be issues with respect to the process involved in such a poll, yet data speaks for itself when it says that there is a rape every twenty minutes in India and a crime against women every three minutes. Does that disappoint you?

Shabana Azmi – I think that the fact that you are saying that there is more of such data, that is in fact a healthy thing because people are coming out and expressing. Earlier, it was all underground; women were so frightened to go out and make a complaint because it meant a verbal rape the second time at the police station and then again third time in the court. The kind of questions that were shoved off in her face were to suggest that something must have been wrong with her, the kind of clothes, timing of the day etc.

Interestingly, there was a survey done by Tehelka in Delhi NCR around the attitude of the SHOs (Station House Officers), and it was found that out of 100 SHOs, 98 were of the opinion that the women who come out to report are either of loose character or gold-diggers. Imagine these are the findings about SHOs, and so how poorly it reflects on the kind of mentality towards women, how badly they must be treating women who came out to report.

So it will take time to change but I think a major shift has happened where women are now coming out and saying, shift the blame, shift the shame. Earlier it was always the victim who was penalized, now women are standing up and I believe this is a major change which started with the Nirbhaya case. Then there is Justice Verma recommendation where it is mandatory to video tape the report and there is now a mandatory protocol as to how women can be asked questions.

So there have been changes and progress but still we have a long way to go. The glass is half full – it is for us to choose if we see it as half empty.

You have been speaking, advocating and working for Gender Equality. A lot of work is being done but still we are very far of – what do you think where we are with respect to that.

Shabana Azmi – We need to understand that we are a basically a patriarchal society. A boy is privileged over a girl just by sheer dint of being born as a male whereas a girl undergoes a whole series of discrimination where she is denied equal opportunities to education, to health and employability. In such a deeply patriarchal society, we have to change mindsets. Men are as much victims as women.

You see, we skim past the real issue when as a society we say that we treat our women as goddesses. As women, we don’t need to be treated as goddesses but as equals. When you put someone on a pedestal and worship her as a goddess what we are essentially saying is that we don’t really care. That has to change! The patriarchal hold on our mindset has to change. Men and women have to work together. The fact that house work and child rearing is only a woman’s job has to change because today men and women are both working. To think that a man’s job is more important than a woman’s has to change. Basically we have to work at removing patriarchal notions of who women are and walk and march towards equality.

Can cinema make a difference?

The power of cinema in bringing forth social change through a compelling storytelling is immense. Do you think cinema today is doing justice to putting across success stories, stories such as what come forth by Impact awards, of people making changes at grassroots and contributing to social change?

Shabana Azmi – You see, the purpose of cinema in people’s head is different. There is a section that believes that the purpose of cinema is entertainment and I have no problem with that. Another section says that art should be used as an instrument of social change. But you cannot say that there is only way of doing things because that won’t be correct. People should be able to find whatever expression that they want through cinema. Now every film need not be about social change, I have no problem with entertainment but we need to redefine entertainment. Why should entertainment be so crude and vulgar? That can be changed, right?

Producers make films for speculative reasons like any businessmen. If the audiences demonstrate that they are ready to see women oriented and social issue based films, producers will start making it. So you cannot point fingers at the film industry and say it is responsible but when a choice comes to choose A film or B, you as a viewer choose A because it has all the commercials. So both viewers and producers are responsible for a change and impact to happen. But it is very important to nurture the cinema that talks about social change because if you are not going to buy a ticket, then at the end of the day such films won’t be made.

Now there is a change in this atmosphere, today there are women oriented films doing well – films led by women, made by women. This is a very welcome change because that would encourage more such stories to come forth and more such films to be made.

Ending on a note of hope

Any success story from Mijwan which you feel has made a huge impact and can be a source of inspiration for others?

Shabana Azmi: In Mijwan, in our school, we used to see that child marriage was rampant. Girls as early as twelve years of age would come with sindoor in their partings. We tried very hard to tell them that it is illegal but years of tradition is hard to fight and change easily. But because of the gender just education in our schools and college apart from the syllabus, a few of the girls wrote a play on dowry with the help of their Vice Principal. This, they presented at an inter state competition in Jaipur.

It was for the first time that these girls had ventured out of Mijwan which in itself was a matter of pride for us and their effort won the best play award. One of the girls, after coming back to the village, requested for an assembly. While addressing students, she said, “It is not just an award for me but my passport to freedom because on the basis of it, I can prove to my parents that I am worthy of something more and I have my own aspirations. I take a vow to not get married before eighteen.”

She then mobilised the principal, teachers, and all the students that if any girl is forced into marriage before the age of eighteen we would put up a dharna, report it as illegal and have the family arrested. That was a new beginning and a trigger to an enormous impact. Consequently, now in around 25 villages of Mijwan, child marriage has completely disappeared.

That to me is such a huge thing, because it reveals a mindset change and when you have a mindset change then it becomes a generation change!

*Someone has to come forward and pay this interest; someone needs to take responsibility for this revolution we must bring about!

Image credits Mijwan Welfare Society

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An engineer and a telecom business professional, Anjali Gurmukhani Sharma is a Delhi University rank

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