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Is a woman just a ravishing gol roti maker?

Women will do anything it takes to look beautiful

Kate Winslet photographed at the ELLE Women in Hollywood Awards in Los Angeles. PHOTO: AFP

“Aap moon haath dho kar fresh ho jayain. Mein chai laati hoon.”

(You can freshen up. I’ll get you some tea.)

The women uttering this on TV mostly look immaculately well put together, French nail tips and blow dry et al. This sentence deserves the award for the most oft-repeated sentence on Pakistani prime time television. But what is amazing is how good most of the women on our prime time television dramas look while working in kitchen all day, if the dramas are to be believed.

Female news persons are also perfectly painted and coiffured, even if not well versed with current affairs. With our cinematography getting better, any wrinkles left over by what is seen as the scourge of nature after the cosmetologist is done with the plumping and filling of that female face is taken care of by excessive photoshopping, softening, blurring and editing with filters.

At every turn of our heads, gigantic billboards with unnaturally thin, undoubtedly beautiful, seductive and pouting women are seen in layers of fabric.

No one has issues with women looking beautiful. But where is the real woman behind the crutches of exaggerated beautification? What ideas about womanhood are we being fed? Media is limiting a woman’s role in life to not just being a chaaiwali and a gol-roti-maker, but one who is ravishing, thin, fair and lovely, and therein lies the problem. The collective narrative of Pakistani media and advertising shows a woman primarily as an object pleasing to the eye. That, in turn, effects how young women growing up, and even grown women, see themselves.

A recent move by the beauty from Titanic, Kate Winslet, is making news — the “no photoshop clause” in her contract for appearing in L’Oreal ads. She says this is because successful women have a responsibility to young women growing up. Winslet feels that you are programmed as a young woman to immediately scrutinise yourself about how you look. Earlier, Winslet has expressed her views about how it’s okay not to be able to fit into your jeans as a new mom, and is on record telling her 14-year-old daughter that it was good fortune to have curves.

While Winslet remains very concerned about young women, I worry about women of all ages. The peer pressure is immense. Women peer over each pore, each wrinkle and each stretch mark. They call themselves “fat” even when they are not, and feel guilty every time they have four teaspoons of dessert even though they are at a boot camp for fitness. They obsess over how they look much older than their counterparts of a generation or two ago. Women are exceedingly relying on the Instagram and Retrica filters that get rid of the imperfections in photographs, because societal attitudes eventually catch up to us.

The good side to all this is that women are more conscious of their fitness, and enjoy high energy levels, renewed glow in the skin and the spring in their step that they owe to regular workouts, detox waters and healthier diets. They look good and feel good. And that’s all good.

Yet, beyond a limit, it gets too much. When we say 50 is the new 40 and 40 is the new 30, what happens when we don’t look that way?

Does our self-esteem plummet when we put on a few pounds or suffer from hair loss?

Is getting wrinkles and creases on the forehead the end of life?

Is looking good the biggest part of what defines us? And to what extreme are women willing to go to look beautiful?

It’s great to look and feel beautiful. Yet, that’s not all there is to a woman. A self-assured gait, witty humour, an intelligent conversation, a sincere heart, a kind soul – all this means more to those who know a woman’s worth. They are the ones worth making an effort for, whether it is the man in a woman’s life or a group of friends.

But the deeper issue is how a woman sees herself. For that, it requires constant effort to remind one’s self of the real you. It would be great if media plays a positive role in this regard, and shows more real women as the admirable ones. But eventually, media or society cannot be blamed in entirety. Women themselves need to remind themselves of who they actually are beneath perfectly contoured faces. As mothers, it’s great if our daughters see their mothers well-kept and maintained. But one is an even better role model if daughters see their mothers as women of substance – women who are secure enough to be their own women. For that, women have to do more with their lives than making looking good a full-time job.

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Taking the city by storm, one wheelie at a time

Karachi’s own female track racer motorcyclist

Published: October 24, 2015
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http://tribune.com.pk/story/978361/knocking-down-gender-roles-taking-the-city-by-storm-one-wheelie-at-a-time/
Mehwish Ekhlaque is one of the few female motorcyclists in the city who still hold a passion for hardcore biking and track racing. She used to ride the two-wheeler with her husband sitting behind until he died. Now, she takes care of her motorcycle on her own. PHOTOS: COURTESY MEHWISH EKHLAQUE

Mehwish Ekhlaque is one of the few female motorcyclists in the city who still hold a passion for hardcore biking and track racing. She used to ride the two-wheeler with her husband sitting behind until he died. Now, she takes care of her motorcycle on her own. PHOTOS: COURTESY MEHWISH EKHLAQUE

KARACHI: In a city where millions of male motorcyclists dominate the roads, with their wives perched behind them, it was refreshing to see Mehwish Ekhlaque riding the two-wheeler with her husband sitting behind.

The woman is one of the very few female motorcyclists in the city who still hold a passion for hardcore biking and track racing.

Miss hits convention out of the park

Three years ago, Ekhlaque lost her biggest support when her husband passed away. “When other women sat behind their husbands on motorcycles, he sat behind me, encouraging me to pursue my passion, telling me to wear the gear so that I look the part of a track motorcyclist,” she remembers fondly.

“When I bought my motorcycle and took it to a mechanic and asked him that I needed a star wheel, he said it was impossible,” she recalls. “So I did it myself with my uncle and then took it back to that mechanic to show him.”

Her Saturday evenings are exclusively for her motorcycle. “I make sure it is polished and looking good for the Sunday rides. I take care of its every little need on my own,” she points out. “If you give your motorcycle love and respect, it will love and respect you back.”

Egyptian female cyclists pedal for acceptance

In pursuance of her passion, Ekhlaque has not encountered any problems. “The men are helpful. They say ‘madam aap pehle kara lain’ [madam, you go first]. I enjoy the ‘ladies first’ attitude of Pakistani men,” she says. It took her time to get used to being a woman riding a motorcycle on Karachi’s crowded roads and alleys. “At signals, people have sometimes come and lifted my helmet to confirm if I am a woman,” she says with a smile. Sometimes she sees women asking their husbands to teach them also, once they see Ekhlaque gracefully gliding on the roads. “They take selfies with me.” In her experience, she faces no harassment as a female motorcyclist as long as she exudes confidence and does not look vulnerable.

When women perch on one side of the motorcycle as they usually do, Ekhlaque says it is difficult for the rider to balance. “If you are dressed modestly, why should sitting in the proper position on a motorcycle be a problem?”

Café racers

Recently, Ekhlaque became the only woman to have participated in Pakistan’s first-ever Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride (DGR) event in Karachi in September this year. The DGR is an international event that takes place in about 80 countries to increase awareness and raise funds for the treatment of prostate cancer.

On her motorcycle, 26-year-old girl glides through Karachi

The DGR was brought to Pakistan by Faisal Malik, the founder of café racer group  Throttle Shrottle, who aims to get Pakistani women to ride motorcycles, and that too for more than just commuting purposes. “I had to search for a female motorcyclist ready to hit the tracks, and reassure Mahwish’s family that she will be made to feel secure and respected in this group,” he points out.

The event received an overwhelming response in Pakistan with more than 250 bikers registered in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. To participate in the event, there are two requirements — participants must be dressed in formal attire, and be riding vintage or custom-modified motorcycles. Ekhlaque fulfilled both criteria.

For Malik, being a café racer is ‘an attitude’. “It helps the rider develop a certain kind of a personality,” he says, adding that the café racer is synonymous with being a rocker or a rebel. Malik’s group mates, mostly aged between 30 and 40 years, may not all fit the rocker image but they do ride custom-made or modified motorbikes, which the rider can create according to his or her own specifications.  The starting price can be as less as Rs100,000 and is thus affordable for most enthusiasts. “Harley Davidson is an off-the-shelf product while a café racer is something you yourself have put together — a fusion of sorts,” he says. “Like an artist’s painting.”

*Longer version of this story in available on tribune.com.pk

Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2015.

Burying prejudice in football one kick at a time

Published: July 1, 2015
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http://tribune.com.pk/story/912944/kicking-against-the-prejudice-that-hurts-womens-football-in-pakistan/
Mashal Hussain. PHOTO COURTESY: KARACHI UNITED FC

Mashal Hussain. PHOTO COURTESY: KARACHI UNITED FC

KARACHI: Ask her a simple question like ‘how old are you’ and you get a very poetic response from her. “Born in the sultry Karachi summer of ‘87, I’m approaching the cusp of 27 years now,” says Karachi United’s Mashal Hussain. This female athlete who has become an advocate for empowering women through sports can kick the ball hard, speak eloquently and keep her head in the right place.

Mashal recently got back after representing Pakistan at the Girl Power in Play symposium, held on June 18-19, 2015 in Ottawa, Canada, against the backdrop of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. Creating ripples among female sportspersons of Pakistan, she spoke about how ‪Karachi United Football Club – Women’s Squad, have used the medium of sports to create positive social impact and in particular helped empower women.

Coming from what she calls ‘a fairly athletic and active family, always bustling around’, Mashal spent her primary years between Karachi and Toronto. Inclined towards sports from the beginning, she dabbled with many sports. “I stubbornly pushed our school to introduce basketball into the curriculum.”

PHOTO COURTESY: MASHAL HUSSAIN

However, her particular interest in football began in her junior year at McGill University where she briefly worked with the Men’s Varsity Team as a fitness assistant.

“The captain of the squad at the time sustained an injury and I was helping him recover through various drills and exercises. In doing so, I developed a liking for the game and began watching European leagues, learning the game and playing it.” A few months of coaching and the liking grew into a passion and she has been playing and coaching the sport ever since. She, accompanied by her younger sister, represent the same team now.

PHOTO COURTESY: KARACHI UNITED FC

Pushing boundaries as a woman

For Mashal and others like her who have pursued their passions on the road less travelled by females in Pakistan, the path is not always easy.

“Women’s football in Pakistan involves cultural frustrations, religious misconceptions, the issue of women’s rights, emancipation from a conservative tradition and a general changing of mind set of the local population,” says Mashal. The gender issue, according to her, is deep-rooted and is, globally, a feminist issue. In the context of Pakistan, Hussain admits that there is a gender bias regarding aspects such as funding, media promotion, government support, facilitation of infrastructure, grassroots development, and of course, awareness.

“Women who realise and follow their passion are rare in our society. And if that passion happens to be sports-related, we need to become the role models we want to look up to,” says Mashal.

When asked about the original and synthetic turf issue in the football world cup, which experts see as part of gender bias against female footballers, Mashal expressed satisfaction that at least the world has come to realise this.

“That is a positive step; not enough, though. While we’re fighting for media coverage and funding of grassroots development, the fact that uproar was created and acknowledged about this issue means that more people are paying attention.”

PHOTO COURTESY: KARACHI UNITED FC

Silver linings

Luckily for Mashal, her family has been supportive of her playing and forging a career in this field.

“I know how lucky I am and it is a personal goal of mine to influence today’s youth to become the kind of people my parents are.”

In addition, she has had a good experience since she began working at Karachi United.

“Most of our staff is male, but they never let the gender bias get in the way of football and my role as their superior. Outside the organisation, of course, no such utopia exists,” she says.

As one who has faced gender bias head on, Mashal does not only blame the men.

“Gender bias is also perpetuated and propagated by females in our country. So that is another barrier we strive to break.”

PHOTO COURTESY: KARACHI UNITED FC

Women must play

Women’s participation in sports is showing encouraging and important impacts on women’s development, of which Mashal is a strong proponent.

“Sport empowers women by instilling in them the confidence that they are often denied in countries such as our own. In sport, women are not only encouraged to be competitive, but they are also accepted for being aggressive and fierce with being labelled. It empowers women by giving them a sense of belonging,” says Mashal.

Mashal feels that including women would ensure the overall development of any sports industry that could potentially bolster the country’s economy and global standing and that the media will always sensationalize women’s sports.

“People shouldn’t be watching our players because of their aesthetic appeal or religious background. Instead, the success stories I consider truly inspirational are based on personal growth, economic empowerment, career development, societal contribution, impact and a personal sense of fulfilment.”

PHOTO COURTESY: KARACHI UNITED FC

State of women’s football in Pakistan

“Women’s football is abysmal in the country. That we are the only professional entity working towards grassroots development (girls between the ages of 3-16) should shed some light on why the country is ranked,” says a disgruntled Mashal.

The fact that an open trial for the national team has not been held in years sheds light on the plight of women’s football in the country. Mashal added that the local governing body is in cahoots and is struggling to understand that holding one tournament a year will not promote the sport at the grassroots or the competitive level.

“I cannot comment on discrimination, per se, but the state of affairs of Pakistan Football is laughable and sad at the same time.”

Aspiring female footballers look up to Mashal as a success story. When asked to comment on that, she replies that her story has barely begun.

“My story is in its initial chapters still. The plot has not thickened and the character development has only just begun. So, no, I do not consider myself a success story. However, I have had the pleasure of working with girls and women who are success stories already,” she says, and shares that some of the players that have come through the Karachi United (women’s) pipeline are proving to be real game changers for the organization, the team, and for Pakistan.

PHOTO COURTESY: KARACHI UNITED FC

Our voices must be heard

“It was empowering to be in the company of so many influential and driven individuals,” says Mashal, when asked about her recent experience at Ottawa.

Women Deliver, UNICEF, Right to Play, GAIN, and One Goal teamed up to host the Girl Power in Play symposium. The two-day event focused on the power of girls’ involvement in sport and gathered decision makers, sports stars, influencers, and girls and women involved in sport.

“I’ve met people whose stories resonate with me because I can appreciate their effort.”

Mashal had stumbled upon an open application for this event last year.

“I came across it while perusing how to get involved with the FIFA Women’s World Cup, for which opportunities were scarce. After I applied, they got back to me a few months later and we were good to go,” she says and commends Women Deliver for channelling everyone’s motivation and zeal into a productive and focused forum. Women Deliver is a global advocacy organization bringing together voices from around the world to call for action to improve the health and well-being of girls and women.

Mashal also said that the games have been great, though watching them from Pakistan poses problems due to relying on live streaming.

In the opinion of Mashal, the biggest obstacle to women’s participation and progress is opportunity.

“It will take a few generations, perhaps. I am so glad, however, to have been able to contribute towards this slow, but necessary revolution.”

The sin of being a widow in this world

Hamida (R), widow of Pakistani fisherman Nawaz who died in an Indian jail, sitting at her house in Rerhy in the outskirts of Karachi. PHOTO: AFP

We live in a country where, when a journalist calls the Chief Minister House and asks if they have any special events for International Widows’ Day, the reply you get from the concerned person is,

“Widows’ Day? Is there one?”

But then, considering two things, Pakistan might not be the only country.

Firstly, it was just four years ago that the United Nations General Assembly declared June 23, 2011, as the first-ever International Widows’ Day, so it is a relatively new event. Secondly, the women being celebrated are on the lowest tier of the social pyramid, and their problems are not given the importance they should get.

There are some 258 million widows across the world. Of these, at least 115 million live in dire poverty and 86 million have been physically abused. If a widow has an average of three children and six other family members, this is an issue that affects nearly one billion people – a seventh of the world’s population.

But how does one even calculate the figures for Pakistan, where a big chunk of the population is not even registered? Registering widows is an even more neglected priority.

So when a woman’s husband dies, what is life like for her? Hellish, in the experience of most widows. There are two major issues that widows face – the falling from grace in terms of social status and inclusion, and economic vulnerability and poverty.

Widows are often considered bad omens and are excluded from all auspicious events. A classic example is only the saat suhaganain (seven married women) being allowed to put henna on the bride’s hands. While things may have started changing in more educated or aware social setups, women still confess that they would not like their sons or brothers to marry widows. Even if the superstition is ignored, another major issue is that widows are flung out by in-laws and they land back in the homes of their fathers or brothers.

If it is married brothers, they are not given the respect and support they deserve. If the widowed woman is not economically empowered or educated, she is in for trouble. Poverty and economic struggles await her. And if she decides to step out to earn for herself and her children as she must, a big bad world awaits her. She remains an easier target of sexual harassment without the proverbial roof over her head, and is often considered easy prey for the predator.

It is not just the widow but also her children and dependents who are affected. The fact that1.5 million children whose mothers are widowed are expected to die before reaching the age of five says enough. Whatever the husband left behind for her, whether he officially transferred the property in her possession or left behind in the form of inheritance, is often not given to her and the orphan children. Children of widows often have to forgo their education to earn for their families. They are more vulnerable to child labour and human trafficking.

The UN publication Women 2000: Widowhood: Invisible Women, Secluded or Excludedstates that,

“In Pakistan, destitute widows are reported to be supported by a small pension or zakat. But, as in India, the allocation system is often corrupt, and the many needy widows are frequently neglected.”

The publication rightly points out that Pakistani widows are often deprived of their rightful inheritance by a male relative.

A major chunk of widows remain elderly. A visit to the Edhi home or any centre for homeless women shows how these elder women are ostracised from society. However, increasing incidence of armed conflict and acts of terrorism in Pakistan have resulted in many young women also being widowed and displaced. Many security personnel lose their lives owing to the violence and strife. While they are promised compensation, it is not enough.

On one hand, rights of widows need to be brought to the fore on all forums. Awareness needs to be raised regarding their plight. But most importantly, the young women of this nation need to be self-empowered enough to be able to support themselves and command the respect they deserve if they find themselves in such a situation.

Poverty is sexist

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi
sexist

If you are a woman and you have an education, you are either from a privileged background or are simply lucky. There are 796 million illiterate people on this earth; women comprise two-thirds of them. Each year a girl spends in school can boost her future income by 10-20 per cent. A lack of education, in turn, will translate into lesser economic empowerment.

Let’s get specific. If the women of the world had primary education, there would be 15 per cent fewer child deaths, saving 900,000 lives a year on the planet. Excitingly, if all women had secondary education, child deaths could be reduced by 49 per cent, saving 2.8 million lives. There would be 64 per cent fewer early marriages and 59 per cent fewer early-age pregnancies. But poverty is relentless, especially when it comes to women. Some 800 women die every day the world over from complications in pregnancy or childbirth. In the absence of any reliable data, experts estimate that Pakistan loses 30,000 women every year under the title of maternal mortality.

Rightly considered the most vulnerable community, women, along with their children, suffer most at the hands of conflict, natural disasters, and especially, poverty. Much more than their male counterparts. Even if statistics are to be left aside, a few facts are obvious. From the son being preferred when parents decide which child to send to school to who gets the better piece of meat at dinner, the disparity among the underprivileged strata in Pakistan is obvious. Women, though they carry out strenuous work and bear children, are neglected even in terms of their nutritional requirements being met. A big percentage of our population is unregistered and has no CNICs, the number of females with identity cards is even fewer. This is indicative of a clear social tilt. In the absence of the CNIC, these women have little hope of attaining higher education, being owners of property, having a bank account, or even having a personal mobile phone and access to digital technology. Illiteracy and poverty go hand in hand, and a lack of education breeds a culture of violence against women.

Statistics, however, cannot be left aside. Talking of gender inequality, poverty definitely has a woman’s face. Women, on an average, get 40 per cent less salary at workplaces in the Saarc region than their male colleagues. Pakistan, a developing country of the region, is not among the 48 least developed countries in the world. Yet, Pakistan’s performance in terms of the Gender Inequality Index (GII) is one of the worst. Pakistan has a GII value of 0.563, slipping down to 126th out of 149 countries in the 2013 index. According to an Oxfam study titled ‘Multiple Inequalities and Policies to Mitigate Inequality Traps in Pakistan (March 2015)’, Pakistan ranks last in women participation in the workforce among the Saarc countries. They comprise 42 per cent of the total family labour but are mostly unacknowledged.

While travelling through Pakistan by road, more women can be seen working in fields than men. However, 80 per cent of these women are given no more status but being regarded as unpaid family workers. They work in the fields all their lives, yet own less than three per cent of the land. If the world provides female farmers with the same access to productive resources as male farmers and closes the gender gap in agriculture, it could increase agricultural yields by 20-30 per cent, raise economic output by 2.5-4 per cent, and reduce the number of people who go hungry by 12-17 per cent globally. The world, by recognising the contribution of women and providing them the same opportunities in the agricultural field, could reduce the number of people living in chronic hunger by 100-150 million the world over, says research by ONE, an international campaigning and advocacy organisation, spearheading the “Poverty is Sexist” campaign. The burden of poverty is heavy enough on entire families. Yet women, wrongly called the weaker sex, end up carrying a bigger burden of poverty than the men. The burden must be shared to provide holistic relief to communities globally.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th,  2015.

8 Pakistani women you should follow on Twitter

Published: May 19, 2015
PHOTO: TWITTER

PHOTO: TWITTER

Though expansive in its content, a recently combined list of Twitter accounts belonging to Muslim women from around the world lacked representation from Pakistan.

Here at The Express Tribune, we compiled our own list of 8 Pakistani women that we believe you must follow. Our list consists of Pakistani women from all walks of life: journalists, activists, academics, actors and authors. Following these women is a must for those looking to gain an added perspective to the rather male-dominated public opinion.

1. @MehreenKasana

PHOTO: TWITTER

Her bio is three words long: one woman army. And that is precisely what Mehreen Kasana is. Not only is she one of Pakistan’s top bloggers, but it is her unique take on things that makes her a top choice for our list. She is an activist and a progressive, through and through. She speaks loudly and bravely against racism and Islamophobia and truly thinks outside the box. Mehreen is one of those who build bridges between extremes.

2. @SanaSaleem

PHOTO: TWITTER

Though Sana is widely known as a rights activist, her humour and her anecdotes with her Daadi are worth a read. Director of “Bolo Bhi”, Sana is a fearless voice against state censorship, and an expert in digital rights and security. She says what she has to by cloaking it in biting wit.

3. @SheikhImaan

PHOTO: TWITTER

With the wittiest sense of humour, hands down, Imaan is an entertainer and wins over tweeps with her charm. Agree with her or not, you cannot ignore her. Reading any tweet by the Buzzfeed author is either time well spent or time well wasted.

4. @SamarMinallahKh

PHOTO: TWITTER

She makes us proud simply with all the good work she does. Anthropologist and documentary film-maker, Samar’s work for women’s rights, especially child marriage, has changed many lives for the better. Her roots are firmly planted in indigenous sensibilities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa from where she hails, and her work is thus respected both locally and globally.

5. @Mehreen Zahra-Malik

PHOTO: TWITTER

The Reuters correspondent for Pakistan is a great source for the latest rumblings in Islamabad. She might get a few details wrong here and there, but for the most part Malik tackles stories that local media can’t or won’t.

6. @Zofeen28

PHOTO: FACEBOOK

As one of Pakistan’s most respected feature writers and journalists, she brings to the fore issues that need to be highlighted. If you want to read human interest stories, this is the account to follow.

7. @NJLahori

PHOTO: TWITTER

Nadia Jamil, darling of the people, is as popular on Twitter as she is otherwise. The activist-actor, and self-claimed foodie, brings to you the much-needed zest of Lahore.

8. @RafiaZakaria

PHOTO: TWITTER

Attorney, political philosopher and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, Ms Zakaria is popular not without reason. She gives a less myopic and more global picture of issues that face present day Pakistan and the world.

https://twitter.com/rafiazakaria/status/595249549343629312

 

Nandita Das – The real thing in a virtual world

Nandita Das on being comfortable in her own skin

http://tribune.com.pk/story/860543/nandita-das-on-being-comfortable-in-her-own-skin/

Published: March 29, 2015
Nandita believes youngsters shouldn’t bother about thinking where they fit in the social hierarchy. PHOTO: VIDHI THAKUR

Nandita believes youngsters shouldn’t bother about thinking where they fit in the social hierarchy. PHOTO: VIDHI THAKUR

LAHORE: “I never bleach my face,” says Nandita Das. Stunningly beautiful in a plain gray kurta, here is a woman whose description always has prefixes and suffixes like ‘dark and dusky’ or ‘earthy’ in write-ups about her. But Nandita is more than these qualifications.

We are sitting in Lahore on a chilly March morning in the home of Nuzhat Manto, Saadat Hasan Manto’s daughter, where Nandita is a house guest. She sips healthy green tea and nibbles on unhealthy mithaai. All she needs is a subtle cue and starts to talk, because Nandita has a lot to say. She feels talking about herself, “is corroding” to the self, but admits that this is an occupational hazard and hence, agreed to do this interview.

“I don’t even get a facial more than once a year. My mother never got her face bleached. She is 72 and has great skin. I stay away from artificial things,” she says, and shares that she has had emails from young girls wanting to commit suicide because they were unable to be fair, because they were disappointing their parents, because they would never find the right husband. “I internalise all this so much that I feel I must correct this, so I do the exact opposite. I almost asexualise myself… one reason why I have always worn dheela (loose) kurtas.”

As perhaps the most popular face of the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, she condemns the ‘gora complex’. “The big companies are cashing on this prejudice. It is not a standalone issue. I grew up as a dark person in a country like India. In the film industry, the few dark actresses we had have also progressively become fairer, like Rekha and Kajol. We take on the burden of looking good all the time. We, women, objectify ourselves. If we all look like Barbie dolls, how uninteresting the world would be. I see young girls who have completely lost their sense of self-worth because they are trying to fit into that standardised notion of beauty. Can you imagine the struggle? They spend all that time doing that instead of discovering their talent or being happy.”

The actor is considered, by many, one of the most attractive women of Indian cinema. “But that’s all about perception. Some might say ‘she is so dark’! There is always a hierarchy in things. Some people will be above you, others below you. If I waste my time thinking where I fit in that hierarchy of things…There’s so much to do. Travel. Eat good food. Meet interesting people,” she says, and adds that people label her as being “attractive to the intelligent man”.

“There’s a word for people who find intelligent people attractive… yes… sapiosexual. If at all somebody finds me attractive, I hope it is not just for what I look like because there is more to all of us.” Yet, Nandita does not like looking unkempt.  “Without Kajal I feel dead. But if there are 10 things I want to do today, looking good is the 11th thing, “says the actor who doesn’t carry cosmetics in her handbag and has no issues announcing that she is 45.

Actor, director, social activist, writer, wife and mother of a four-and-a-half year old boy, she juggles many roles. She is faced with the dilemma of every working woman who is a mother. “But at the same time, your work gives you a sense of purpose in life. If I’m not a happy person I will not be a happy mother. Once a woman has worked and tasted that freedom, she cannot be bound.”

When asked if she sees herself as the real thing in a world where so much is artificial, she says, “you don’t want to be so indulgent that you are constantly seeing yourself when there’s so much else to see. The film world can make you take yourself too seriously because you get too much attention too quickly; you start believing in the myth that you are important”.

Nandita never wanted to be an actor originally. “I thought it was a powerful medium to say the things that I wanted to say, just like the writing and speaking engagements I do”. All these mediums are means to an end for her, which is advocacy. “You meet people who are doing amazing work with no media light on them. It’s a tough life but that’s the life they have chosen and if given a chance would lead it all over again. When you admire people who are fighting for all of us, how can take yourself seriously just because people recognise you?”

Born in Mumbai, and raised in Delhi, Nandita relates more to Delhi as she feels it is a more culturally and politically engaged city. “The people of Delhi, however, are more aggressive and don’t have so much of work ethic. I’m sure the comparison reminds one of Lahore and Karachi. Delhi is also not as women-friendly and safe. Mumbai is very cosmopolitan. Delhi is more patriarchal.”

Her parents have been a very important influence in her life. “I owe a lot to my parents. My father is a painter; my mother is a writer. I grew up among writers, painters, photographers, musicians, theatre people. My parents have been extremely inclusive with friends from all places, religions, castes. I was never conditioned to differentiate. I didn’t know my caste till college. I am culturally Hindu but I have never done pooja on my own. There are no idols in our house. I grew up as very secular.”

While her father stayed at home, her mother used to go to work and that is what used to make her think that her father’s job is to cook and clean, and that he paints for recreation.

“He’d help the female maid in housework. I was embarrassed as a kid when he would do jhaaroo outside the house. This is why I grew up with no divisions,” she says in a flow. She wants her son to grow up with the same vision.

From her father the conversation jumps to Saadat Hasan Manto. “The reason why I emotionally anchor towards Manto is that my father is like Manto in so many ways. Bindaas, moun phatt, jo mann mein aaya bola,” she says, and confesses that she is also blunt and straight forward. Directing a film about Manto is her labour of love. “Manto was not from any ‘ism’. He was just himself. Making this film is a tribute to people who have lived life on their own terms. We have started believing there is no other way to live life but compromise. But people like Manto have shown us there is. For that, they paid a price.” Nandita pays that price too, as an informed choice. “When I lie down to sleep, I think a lot. See, there are too many lines on my palm.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2015.