Voices of Change: Stories of Resilience, Courage and Empowerment

March 08, 2024

Is there gender equity and inclusion in today’s professional and social environments? On International Women’s Day, Columbia Global Center Mumbai held a panel discussion, ‘Voices of Change: Fostering Equity and Inclusion’, bringing together four remarkable women from diverse cultures and backgrounds to discuss the challenges faced by women across competitive fields and their efforts in reshaping perceptions and policies. 

Breaking Barriers in the Beauty Industry

Fashion and beauty industries have always expected women to conform to unrealistic feminine ideals. Our panelists, Veronika Didusenko, founder of NGO Righttobeamother and Tülin Şahin, a Turkish-Danish supermodel discussed how they are breaking stereotypes and fighting for inclusion.

Ms. Didusenko, currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at SIPA, Columbia University,  was crowned Miss Ukraine in 2018 but was disqualified after the organizers found out she had a five-year-old son. The pageant bans mothers and married women from participating in the beauty pageant. Ms. Didusenko shared how she overcame the public humiliation and launched a campaign to fight for mothers’ rights in beauty pageants. With the support of renowned women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, she launched a legal battle against the Big Four beauty pageants. Her persistence paid off when in 2022, the Miss Universe pageant, which includes Miss California and Miss USA, removed the discriminatory requirements. “I thought it impossible to change the rules of such a big pageant. During my fight I learned something important - if you want to win, you never stop in the face of adversity. You keep looking for new allies, partnerships, and new friends,” she said. 

Echoing her sentiments, Ms. Şahin shared how she challenged conventional beauty standards in her 25-year-long career. Defying size norms in the industry, she gained 30 kilos and continued to thrive as a model.  Having started her career early at 15, Ms. Şahin encourages young aspiring models through her work. She has published 16 books on fashion, modeling, and nutrition, empowering them to navigate the complexities of the competitive fashion industry. 

Amplifying Women’s Voices in Sports

For years, women cricketers have struggled for the same recognition and acceptance in the male-dominated sport. Our panelist, Diana Edulji, a former cricket captain and the first Indian woman cricketer inducted into the International Cricket Council Hall of Fame, shared the evolution of women’s cricket and her role in empowering women cricketers. 

Ms. Edulji started playing cricket during her school days in the late 60s when female participation was scarce. She recounted the challenges faced by players as women’s cricket was independent of the financially strong Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).  Often the team traveled in unreserved train compartments in unsanitary conditions, sleeping next to toilets due to lack of space. To make matters worse, the players were asked to pay from their own pockets if they wanted to play in the World Cup.  Finally, in 2007, the BCCI took full control of women’s cricket, thanks to the efforts of administrators like Edulji, and the players got a chance to play at better grounds along with improved travel and funding. 

Ms. Edulji shared how she fought skepticism and resistance from the BCCI officials while introducing several positive reforms for women cricketers including a cash reward of Rs. 50 lakhs to each player in the historic World Cup final at Lord’s, London in 2017.  “For a women's team, we played so many World Cups, but never entered the final. It was an achievement. I was asked, what if they win the final? And I said - We'll double the prize, and that put them off completely.,” she said.  

She concluded her talk by urging parents to support their daughters in taking up the sport and elaborated on how cricket has become a viable career option even for women. 

Ripple Effect of Empowering a Woman

Empowering women to fight for their rights is an important part of the struggle for equity and inclusion. Panelists Gloria Allred and Adv. Audrey Dmello, highlighted the importance of encouraging women to stand up against harassment and seek legal help. 

Ms. Allred,  a renowned women’s rights attorney, shared the grueling experiences that drove her to advocate for women’s rights.  “I almost died from an infection from an illegal abortion. I was afraid when the police came to the hospital. And as I say in my documentary, a nurse said, "I hope you've learned a lesson". Which was a cruel thing to say," said Allred, the founding partner of Allred, Maroko & Goldberg.

She voiced her concern over abortion laws recently upturned across multiple US states, and the renewed fight women need to undertake to safeguard their rights. She emphasized the importance of electing officials who support women's rights.  

Ms. Allred, who famously represented victims in high-profile cases, said that wealth, power, or fame do not entitle people to violate and mistreat powerless women. "Empowering one woman creates a ripple effect, impacting not only her life, but that of her family, workplace, community, and the world. It also transforms survivors from victims into advocates for change,” she said. 

Providing an Indian perspective, Ms. Dmello talked about the prevalence of violence against women in India, despite progressive laws in the country. She is the director of NGO Majlis, founded by her mother, Adv. Flavia Agnes, who was a victim of domestic violence. Majlis works exclusively to support women and children affected by abuse and injustice. “When we talk about domestic violence, it almost feels like, yeah, it happens, but I don't think we internalize it to realize how disruptive it can be for the family, for the children of their family, and how much it affects their onward journey,” she said, recalling her experience of growing up in an abusive household. 

Dmello stated that societal pressures and entrenched beliefs hinder progress, making it difficult for women to break free from abusive situations. Citing the example of how Majlis roped in community support to secure divorce rights for Christian women in 2005, Dmello highlighted the potential of collective action. “Everyone wants to call themselves survivors, and I don't completely agree with it. You are not a survivor because you got abused. You become a survivor, when you fight and decide to do something.” 

Reflections from the Narratives 

The narratives underscored the significance of sustained activism that goes beyond tokenism. The discussion also delved into the challenges posed by the intersection of religion, communal outlook, and culture, impacting women's confidence to combat injustice. In her concluding remarks, Ms. Dmello emphasized that the fight for women’s rights should not turn into a battle of genders, instead it should be a fight against patriarchy.