Women supporting women: 15 icons who've dedicated their lives to making ours easier
Pioneers, change-makers and conversation-starters
We don’t need a designated day to celebrate women. Every day on Earth should be an opportunity to honour, champion and nourish ourselves and the sisterhood.
But since we’re positivity people, we thought our first Women’s Day since launching Tweak India should be momentous, a chance to salute the pioneers, change-makers, funnybone-ticklers and conversation-starters who help make our lives a lot easier.
Introducing Women Who Support Women, a merit list of stars across science, entertainment, social service, sports, industry and more. We owe each of them a debt of gratitude for crushing glass ceilings like they’re made of papad and building a tribe that the rest of us can turn to for support.
Meet our real-life wonderwomen.
Women supporting women: 15 icons we love
Photo credit: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Dr. Rani Bang, gynaecologist
Having gained a Masters degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Rani Bang could have been a Grey’s Anatomy prototype. Instead, she made her way to one of the most underprivileged regions of India. Stethoscope in hand, Bang landed in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra as an envoy of good health.
She was the only gynaecologist in the area at the time. Doing what doctors often fail to do – talking to women and understanding their experiences — talk turned into research, which she took to global platforms, including the UN. A first-of-its-kind, community-based study to show the prevalence of gynaecological morbidity. Showing how 92 percent of the women had gynaecological problems, with only 8 seeking professional help.
Bang’s work changed the way women’s health was perceived, taking it beyond pregnancy and childbirth. “From the age of menarche up to death, women have so many other problems that need to be considered,” she said in an interview with IDR.
Healthcare for Bang and her husband, Dr. Abhay Bang, isn’t just about providing cures. It’s about turning conversations with locals into a demand-driven facility that’s sensitive to their culture.
The flickering white lights and sterilised corridors of traditional hospitals intimidate even the most urbanised person. The Bangs set up a hospital designed as a collection of huts resembling those in the village. Healthcare wasn’t a cold clinical experience here but rather a welcoming space of wellness.
The Bangs established SEARCH (Society For Education, Action and Research In Community Health) in 1985, conducting pioneering studies that turned into policies, and running educational health programmes through community collaborations. Armed with accolades from institutions like WHO, the UN, UNICEF and the Padma Shri from the Indian government, the Bangs have continued to work with marginalised communities to “serve locally, impact globally, by way of service, education, original research and shaping policy.”
Photo credit: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0
Dutee Chand, athlete
You’d think Dutee Chand would have switched to being a hurdler by now. Her path hasn’t been without its highs and lows.
Win after win has gained her medals, now probably weighing more than she does. Her achievements at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta in 100m, followed by the 200m, were a first for India since PT Usha (in 1986) and Saraswati Saha (in 1998).
Her fierceness has been met with plaudits and criticisms alike. When she came out as being in a same-sex relationship, it made her the first openly queer Indian athlete. Once a hometown pride, she drew flak for her sexual orientation from her community, including her family. She challenged the authoritative bodies when she was disqualified and removed from the Indian team at the 2014 Commonwealth Games because her testosterone levels were high.
Her plea was heard in Geneva at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS). Her appeal was a success, but Chand made it clear that losing wouldn’t have stopped her, saying in an interview with ESPN, “Main khud nahi bhaag paayi toh kya hua, doosri ladkiyon ko bhagaungi (Even if I can’t race anymore, I’ll get other girls to run).” And she has, taking young female athletes under her wing, bearing the costs of housing and living expenses, and getting them trained by her coach.
Chand’s a vocal advocate against the gendered double standards in the athletic world. Leading conversations surrounding women’s autonomy over their own bodies, questioning the different rules and check. “There are no rules for men but for women, there are so many tests: Why is your hormone count so high? How much is your body fat? But every human body cannot be the same, can it?” she said.
The world is hot on her heels as Chand continues to sprints ahead (in record time).
Photo credit: Thinlas Chorol
Thinlas Chorol, entrepreneur
Peak performance means something completely different to Ladakhi entrepreneur Thinlas Chorol.
The Ladakhi native and first professionally trained female guide in India faced obstacles in her climb to success — when looking for work as a guide, two travel companies refused to hire her because she was a woman. Not an unfamiliar situation for women in the professional space.
Seeing a gap in the market — solo female travellers seeking female guides, and local women harbouring the desire to work as professional guides, Chorol founded Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company in 2009. The first travel company in Ladakh to be both owned and operated solely by women had a long journey to the top — it took years of training women as guides and establishing a solid customer base.
In addition to guide services, LWTC works with local women on operating homestays, so they’re equipped to make their own income, from the safety of their homes. This all-female business is making strides in Northern India’s male-dominated trekking industry. Physical stereotypes and social constraints be damned.
“Ain’t no mountain high enough”. Especially for Chorol and her troupe of achievers.
Photo credit: Chetna Gala Sinha/ Facebook
Chetna Gala Sinha, entrepreneur, activist
We struggle with making tiny changes every day. Brush aside a 20-minute walk in the park because what difference will that really make to your fitness regimen? Why bother picking up trash on the beach, when 20 other people are littering it faster than you could possibly clean?
Chetna Gala Sinha, took the ‘one drop in the ocean’ approach and created a powerful self-sustaining institution that will replenish itself for years to come.
Leader Jayprakash Narayan’s appeal to the youth to work in rural India took the Mumbai born and bred activist to villages in Maharashtra, where she became involved in farmers’ and women’s movements. There, she fell in love and married her husband Vijay Sinha, and moved to the interiors of Maharashtra — Mhaswad.
Living in a place with no running water, indoor toilet, and financial facilities, she connected with Kantabai, a welder from Mhaswad. Kantabai had been repeatedly rejected by banks when she tried to set up a savings account. There were dozens of other women like her.
Sinha decided to remedy the situation, and set up the first rural bank for women in India in 1996. Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank was born — the microfinance bank by, and for women, lends to women in rural areas, while the Mann Deshi Foundation runs financial literacy classes for women, business schools, a community radio and a Chambers of Commerce for rural women micro entrepreneurs.
Today, the bank has upwards of 90,000 account holders and $15 million in deposits. That’s one mighty ocean.
Photo credit: Safeena Husain/ Facebook
Safeena Hussain, social worker
You’re probably reading this article, casually on your phone, amazed at the wonderful women doing incredible things. There’s probably a warm glow on your face, the hint of a smile, that feeling of maybe ‘this world isn’t a terrible place after all’.
The thought that millions of Indian girls and women aren’t able to read or don’t have access to the same privileges we do, often doesn’t strike. Thanks to Educate Girls, a non-profit established in 2007 by Safeena Husain that focuses on mobilising communities for girls’ education in India’s rural and educationally backward areas, we’re moving towards a world where the gap is slowly being bridged.
A London School of Economics grad, Husain worked with rural and urban underserved communities in South America, Africa and Asia before picking a cause closest to her heart — girl’s education. Under her leadership, Educate Girls now operates in over 14,000 villages across Rajasthan and MP, and initiated the world’s first Development Impact Bond (DIB) in education (performance-based investment instrument intended to finance development programmes in low resource countries).
In 2018, on its completion, the Educate Girls’ DIB surpassed both its target outcomes by achieving 160 percent of its learning target and 116 percent of its enrolment target. Bottomline?
Women get things done. Imagine a world where we’re giving other women the power to do things for themselves. Thanks to Husain, that world is slowly becoming a reality.
Photo credit: Meghna Gulzar/ Twitter
Meghna Gulzar, filmmaker
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Sure this Gandhian adage holds especially true for Meghna Gulzar.
In 2002, Bollywood, perhaps, wasn’t ready for her. Gulzar’s first directorial, Filhaal (about surrogacy), disappeared without a trace in public memory. They mocked her next two commercial attempts – Just Married and Dus Kahaniyan.
But in 2015, Gulzar reinvented herself as the fierce conversation starter we need in our bleak times.
In Talvar, the director dove deep into a Rashomon-esque adaptation of the infamous Aarushi Talwar double homicide case.
She followed it up with Raazi (2018), where a fragile Kashmiri girl (Alia Bhatt) becomes a spy for the country during the 1971 war. In times of chest-beating nationalism, Sehmat taught us a more comforting rendition of patriotism.
Earlier this year, Gulzar’s Chhapaak told us the story of the firebrand acid-attack survivor, Laxmi Agarwal.
Gulzar’s women aren’t crying for help; they are taking change into their own hands.
She vehemently shies away from the tag of feminism, but firmly believes in being an agent of change. “If the sense of a film lasts only as long as a box of popcorn, it’s a humongous waste of time and money. There needs to be a larger resonance,” she has said in her interview to Mumbai Mirror.
We don’t have any second thoughts about that. Only second (and several rounds more) viewing of her films.
Photo credit: Revathi Roy/ Facebook
Revathi Roy, entrepreneur
In 2006, Revathi Roy was a housewife surrounded by a heap of hospital bills when her husband passed away after being comatose for two years. Roy confessed in her earlier interviews that she “didn’t even have money to buy food.” But she wasn’t one to succumb to self-pity.
She took her passion for rally-driving, and turned it into a novel business model.
Roy borrowed a tourist taxi and requested GVK—the organization that runs the Mumbai airport — for a spot at the domestic terminal. Soon after, Roy was ferrying fliers to and from the airport.
She also placed an ad in a local newspaper, calling on other women drivers. When two others joined her endeavour, Roy launched Forsche that went on to become Asia’s first women’s taxi service in 2007.
Once in the driver’s seat, Roy established a training academy for marginalised women and taught them how to steer. The company enables them to earn a stable monthly wage of about Rs 15,000-20,000, elevating them above the poverty line.
In 2016, Roy decided to drive a step further when she launched Hey Deedee, a national delivery service that employs underprivileged women. Within a year’s time, the company tied with clients such as Amazon, Pizza Hut and Subway, among others.
With her legion of empowered women, Roy has certainly shut up all the detractors who claim that women can’t drive.
Photo credit: Nisha Madhulika/ Facebook
Nisha Madhulika, Youtube icon
The Democratic Republic of Nisha Madhulika has a higher population than Singapore. You may argue that one is a fictitious entity, but I bet my last Bitcoin that the Youtube sensation’s 10 million followers have greater loyalty to their Dear Leader than most politicians can dream of.
Through the channel she launched in 2011 at the age of 52, Madhulika has become the saviour of hopeless chefs around the world.
Vegetarian dishes are dissected in simple Hindi, with English subtitles. She employs the same gharelu approach your grandmother used to teach you to make chapatis, which makes sense, because you have the same strange need to make Nisha aunty proud when you’re trying her sooji mawa gujjiya recipe.
When trying to examine her own success, Madhulika puts it down to a policy of transparency and inclusion.
“It’s because I’ve made a commitment to keep things as simple as possible,” she said in an interview with Social Samosa. “I make sure there’s nothing mysterious, no steps unexplained, and everything is made with the easiest-to-get ingredients. I also try to explain common problems while making the recipe and the solutions to them. That makes it easier even for a beginner to make the recipe successfully and my subscribers really love this.”
If only our politicians could learn from that.
Photo credit: Varsha Jain
Dr. Varsha Jain, gynaecologist
There was a time that people believed that if women went to space, Mercury would retrograde, as would their periods. While that was debunked, there were still plenty of unknowns. In came Dr. Varsha Jain, taking vagina activism to new frontiers.
You can easily picture the ‘Space Gynaecologist’ jumping through a window, cape fluttering behind her as she brandishes a speculum.
Jain, Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Human and Applied Physiological Sciences (CHAPS) at King’s College, London, had an early fascination with physics which brewed her love for outer space. Interest in medicine developed with time. She combined the two with her research in the very specific field of women’s reproductive health in space for NASA.
The space element that comes into her work is within the division of space medicine. Today, the London-based obstetrician and gynaecologist explains her work, saying, “The doctors for astronauts are either what we call flight surgeons, who look after the astronaut’s overall health, or you can be involved academically, where they research astronaut health. This means you’re offering the best evidence for these flight surgeons to provide health care for the astronauts. Or for the astronauts themselves to make decisions about their health.”
Life above Earth is just like it is on it – men and women experience it differently. In space, though, it’s minor disparities, says Jain. From approximately 600 people that have been to space, just over 60 have been women. The pool that Jain and the rest of the team have to work with is not large.
The only one of her kind, this Space Gynaecologist is a caretaker of female astronaut’s health and wellbeing, to infinity and beyond.
Sudha Murthy, entrepreneur, author, activist
Behind every successful man, is a woman who he owes money.
Sudha Murty bankrolled Infosys into existence when she lent her husband Narayan Rs 10,000 to start what has now catalysed into a multi-billion dollar company.
But what’s endeared the Padma Shri awardee to the average Indian, far removed from Silicon Valley, are her poignant books crafted around strong female characters.
Murty steps in where most moral science textbooks fall short— She’s able to infuse ‘life lessons’ with a spoonful of wit and a sprinkling of childlike innocence so at the end of the meal, you’ve converted to feminism without realising it.
Many of these stories are based on real-life incidents, like her rescue work with Devdasis in Karnataka, helping abused women stranded in the UAE or teaching her grandmother to read.
With her humility and quiet self-belief, Saint Sudha has even managed to win over jaded keyboard jockeys on the internet.
Stories about her cutting rich jerks down to size are shared feverishly, videos of her telling Shashi Tharoor she “needs a dictionary” to read his books go viral.
Being the only female student in an engineering college taught her that women need to be allies if they’re going to succeed in this testosterone-drenched world.
And there’s no one you’d rather have in your corner.
Photo credit: Laxmi Agarwal/ Instagram
Laxmi Agarwal, activist
Laxmi Agarwal draws powerful women to her like bees to a sunflower. Human rights lawyer Aparna Bhat who captained her war against the unfettered sale of acid for 11 long years. Director Meghna Gulzar who preserved her story of triumph despite all odds in cinematic memory. And Deepika Padukone, who played her in Chhapaak.
Agarwal didn’t just survive the acid attack that left the then-15-year-old with 45 per cent burns.
She filed a PIL in court. Modelled for a clothing line and walked the ramp at London Fashion Week.
She launched the Stop Acid Attacks campaign along with former partner Alok Dixit of the Chhanv Foundation. Together, they set up India’s first café run by survivors, Sheroes Hangout, in Agra.
And they had a baby girl, Pihu, (the couple chose not to marry) who now guest stars in her legendary mother’s TikTok videos.
“I was attacked because the man thought that if this girl isn’t mine, she can’t be anybody else’s. He assumed that he would leave me trapped within the four walls of my house, but the girl who only he knew yesterday, the whole world knows now,” Agarwal had said in a Vogue interview.
Her tireless work with rehabilitating survivors of acid attacks continues.
“I want girls who have faced similar situations to know that they have the right to feel beautiful in spite of what society thinks of them. That they’re normal, and they’re not alone.”
Photo credit: Supriya Joshi/Instagram
Supriya Joshi, comedian
Supriya Joshi aka Supaarwoman takes comedy seriously. So much so that she quit her cushioned job of a features writer to write jokes for a living.
She consistently adds laughs to our wretched Twitter feeds, slays her trolls, makes us believe that makeup can be fun with her hilarious beauty tutorials and encourages us to take 12,213 selfies before we get it right.
The no-filter Joshi is certainly the Superwoman we need today; she is in no mood to dilute her thoughts. “I’m very honest about how I feel online, and if I have a bad day, I do not see why I would hide it. Maybe, that’s why people like me,” she said in an earlier interview.
The talented comedian loves to make fierce statements about everything shoved under the carpet, gift-wrapped in healthy mockery: porn addiction, PCOS, body image issues and dating for plus size women.
With her risqué and unapologetic humour, Joshi transitioned from dingy bar comedy nights to being the finalist of Comicstaan 2 last year.
It takes a special kind of courage to admit that you’re not okay. And we love Joshi for inspiring us time and again to keep it real everywhere.
Photo credit: Arundhati Katju/Instagram
Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju, Public-interest litigators
September 6, 2018 is marked in Indian history as the day love won. This was the day the Supreme Court of India delivered its iconic verdict on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, effectively decriminalising homosexuality.
The landmark judgement was a result of years of struggle by countless bravehearts, and at the forefront of this battle were two iconic women – Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju. The two public-interest litigators fought long and hard to ensure that the Indian LGBTQIA+ community felt empowered, equal, and safe in the country they called home.
Soon after Guruswamy and Katju’s victory birthed a new and liberated India, the two women spoke out about being in a relationship with each other, and became not just the first two openly gay women lawyers in India, but also icons for young Indians.
While describing the feeling of joy that came with this victory Guruswamy wrote “What does this freedom feel like in India today? It is the incoming monsoon, the smell of wet soil; it is the colourful kurtas and blue jeans of our young scientist clients amid the sea of black and white lawyers’ gowns. It is the twinkle in their eyes as they bob up and down in expectation of their lives to come. It is what India feels like today. It is what it felt like many monsoons ago in 1947 when it made its tryst with destiny.”
Photo credit: Taapsee Pannu/Instagram
Taapsee Pannu, actor
Between playing a 20-something fighting for justice in Pink (2016) to essaying the role of a 60-year-old Olympic shooter in Saand Ki Aankh (2019), Taapsee Pannu’s acting range spans wider than the shooting range she prepped on. Her filmography leaves a lot of room for curiosity: What next?
Unconventional roles masterfully give taboo subjects a means to emerge from dingy corners and make their way to the Indian middle class’ dinner table conversation. From her latest depiction of a housewife who forces us to confront the insidious nature of domestic violence (Thappad, 2020) to playing a scientist at ISRO in Mission Mangal, Pannu is successfully recasting the mould of a Bollywood Superstar.
And just when you begin to think she’s doing it all, you are met with the other professions the actor dabbles with and aces – she owns a badminton team, heads a wedding planning venture, and is also a software engineer.
For women like Pannu, awesome is a verb.
Photo credit: Indu Harikumar/Instagram
Indu Harikumar, artist
An Instagram feed peppered with Indu Harikumar’s riveting artwork makes for all the lessons you need in inclusivity and self-love. Through her captivating artwork Harikumar sparks conversations, and brings to the forefront subjects that otherwise drown in a sea of “log kya kahenge?” –unspoken aspects of the female experience like dating in the digital image, female sexuality, body image, and more.
The illustrator is unleashing the true power of social media, by providing women with a platform that allows them to speak out, free of any judgement. “What I’ve learnt from sharing my work online is that it is very enabling. As soon as someone tells you about their lived experience, you feel comfortable enough to come out with your story that might have been shame inducing. You feel like you’re not alone,” says Harikumar.
Harikumar’s works of art are birthed from real life accounts and span diverse issues, and touch upon varied stigmas, but the one thing that remains constant through all her creations is her unafraid and blatant approach. Nothing is concealed within layers. Everything is out there for her audience to take in, assimilate, and grow with.
Harikumar represents the relentless spirit of young India, all set to bring about change. But what is it that keeps her going despite the hate that comes with being a public figure on social media? “I choose to ignore the hate and focus on the support I’m getting, I want to give women a safe space to share things they wouldn’t otherwise because of the fear of being shamed. And that’s what I want to continue doing.”
Illustrations: Ksenia Arantseva