This week we're delighted to interview friend, ethical fashion designer & former Miss India Ekta Shivangni. Having had so many thoughtful, angry and passionate conversations about women's position in society when we met in India earlier this year we knew we had to get Ekta on the Sister Society blog.
How do you live your feminism? What inspires you as a woman and a feminist?
It wasn’t until my 20s that I looked at the world around me and discovered that I was a feminist. I didn’t look at myself and think I am girl and therefore lesser than any of my male friends.
The mistake I made growing up was imagining models and actresses as women in power. They looked beautiful radiant and powerful. It wasn’t until the miss universe pageant that I realised it was a very big lie.
We as models or actresses are made to conform to inhuman beauty standards for the male gaze. In our day-to-day life as well we have to conform to male gaze or societal gaze of what is beautiful, what is desirable, what is successful and what is accepted.
As a woman I would like to see a world where women are viewed as powerful in themselves for being women. A lot of the feminist movements and understanding are still coming from a masculine perspective. It is important for us to be raised in an environment where we empower women to exist alone successfully.
In India, no matter your personal achievements a woman is measured by her marriage eligibility and fertility years. It is important to create a society that safely encourages women ambitions not their marital status. Marital status or relationships must be limited to a choice not a definition of one’s success.
What do you think the barriers of equality are between men and women in India today? Do you feel pressure to conform to a particular role because of your sex?
India is a complex country. No one thing that I say about the country is the absolute reality.
If we look at our faith, a very important part of Indians daily life, we worship the goddess all over India. She is Kali, Durga, Saraswati, the names are many. They represent power, anger, devastation, vibration, love, knowledge, wealth, transformation and the higher power. We wake up and worship whichever goddess relates to us but as soon as the female form turns into a every day woman we are a bit confused about how to treat her.
As a country we can accept women in power as we had Indira Gandhi as our prime minister but the conditions of women at home and at work is a different story.
In India a woman can be seen either as a mother or as an object.
Working women in India have to push themselves to be taken seriously leading to a masculine approach in their lifestyle. A lot of women end up confusing their feminism with masculinity. Ideas of power and freedom are masculine ideas - there isn’t an idea of power and freedom that is a feminine idea.
I work with many workers on daily basis. Men and women in India to a large extent prefer to take orders from men. As women dictating orders we have to be sure of our emotional range while for men no such rules apply. A man will never be seen to be overly emotional but a woman will quickly labelled so. It doesn’t matter who pays the bills but men are more relatable to people as people in power than women.
If a woman is “allowed” to work by her husband, she juggles home and work responsibilities. A woman’s career is disposable while a man’s career is not.
Women as homemakers sacrifice every inch of their lives for their husbands, children and extended family. A difficult and rather thankless job where the women end up living their entire lives tied in social roles forgetting that they are human beings with desires, needs and ambitions.
Sexuality and sex in India is a taboo. But this makes the Indian women not speak up about their basic needs and desires, leading to unsatisfied sexual lives.
As a modern Indian woman, I might not face many of these issues as I come from a liberal background but the societal roles sometimes creep into my life as well.
It is very common to be questioned about my lack of a marital status and children. The expiry of my uterus is spoken about by elderly people that I don’t know. Dreams and ambitions are not a part of real life, but marriage and kids are. Stability and security is seen as a byproduct of marriage in India. I am not against marriage but I use this example to show that a woman must have a man and fill the roles made up by the society.
As far as conforming to Indian society’s role of a woman is concerned, yes I do feel the pressure at times, it could be at work, family or relationships. But I have chosen to live my life on my own terms after all it’s my life and societal roles aren’t gravity. They are just rules made up by society to control and conform people for everyone to feel safe and secure.
What was the mental and physical impact of your time modelling and competing for Miss India?
When I talk about modelling there are two ways I would like to paint the picture of a model - the experience and exposure it provides and then the damage it does. As a model, you get to travel all over the world, be inspiration for artists, meet interesting people from different walks of life and grow up very fast. Today when I look at my friends at 32 having the experiences I had at 20, in retrospect I am grateful to have have had the experiences and opportunity to grow at an earlier age.
If you win the title of Miss India it presents a life with fame and money that many adults would envy. Being a model or a Miss India does take a lot of work and a demanding schedule.
The damage starts when the modelling experience and the beauty standards become all too real. When we get so involved in the way we are judged that we end up taking it as the gospel truth. Being constantly judged on height, weight and skin tone doesn’t lead to a healthy self esteem. Such pressures do lead to unhealthy mental disposition.
Being a model also means lack of mental stimulation on account of waiting backstage for hours on end. This to me I think leads to a mental sluggishness, use of recreational substances and unnecessary damaging gossip.
Perfection and objectification of real people is lonely and damaging. Models are real people too, they might have won a genetic lottery that lead to certain height, weight and beauty but that doesn’t mean that they are any different from people whacking them or judging them.
I know a lot of models including me who have been transformed and chosen a holistic lifestyle due to the pressures and challenges of being a model.
Mentally and physically both modelling and Miss India were tough. But they lead me to my dreams. I am forever enriched from having the experience of being at the top of my career and then having left it.
Having had so much experience of the Miss India and Miss Universe competitions what is your perspective as a feminist on their relevancy in today’s society?
In the 90s when I watched the pageants the women seemed to me the ultimate role models. They were beautiful, loved, happy, independent and successful. Quickly that idea of success became my dream. I am glad to have achieved it and then to have closely seen it through a different view.
At Miss Universe pageant, I remember the day very clearly when it hit me that this pageant isn’t a celebration of strong independent women. The pageant didn’t require us to have an opinion and independent thinking, on the contrary those were negative attributes to have.
We were to put on a show in bare minimum clothing for a handful men who would decide the most beautiful woman in the universe and then have her work for them.
As I moved to Bombay, to pursue a career in film industry, I realised that the voice of women in the industry doesn’t matter. It led me to develop a voice about what is it that I want as a woman. Objectification wasn’t it. I refused to be put up as an object to be desired, even for millions.
Beauty pageants have given many women a stage for their careers and dreams to be fulfilled. From that perspective they are much needed as a lot of women grow up desiring the advantages of being a pageant winner.
Now from a feministic perspective, I would say who are we to judge what a woman deems fit for her? But at the same time when we look at the world around us the glorified and attractive role models in today’s world are women in media - that would include the likes of Kim Kardashian. Is it healthy to have these ladies as role models? In my opinion, no, to grow up to present yourself as an object for money, is something that we don’t teach our sons so then why are we teaching our daughters ?
It is important to raise a brave child that can stand for what they think than how they look. At some point the external beauty does fade but the internal fodder helps change the world for the better.
What impact do you think the #metoo movement will have on future of the industries like Bollywood, the modelling industry and miss universe competition?
The #metoo movement has been quite a sensation. I hope it does more than be a sensation. About its impact on Bollywood industry?
Bollywood is patriarchal, men are in power and it will take many years for that to change. It will need the audience, the industry, the atmosphere and the type of people succeeding in Bollywood to change. Unfortunately, there would be hardly any women in Bollywood who would speak out against the powerful names in the business. In Bollywood #metoo movement is just another flavour of the season. Whether it will change anything, would take the entire industry and audience to change its perspective.
It's fashionable to talk about female empowerment right now, but everything created in Bollywood is from a male perspective. There have been female oriented films created which mostly talk about sex, using female sexuality is again serving male gaze.
It will take a long time for Bollywood to understand feminism.
What is your vision of feminism?
My vision of feminism is a time when we don’t have a need for the word feminism. Where equality of the sexes isn’t a privilege for a few.
It is important to educate so that women support one another and understand the importance of being a feminist.
Being female of a species is nature but being a woman is a societal illusion. We needn’t fill the shoes laid out by our ancestors without questioning the responsibilities and roles that we are to fill.
We need to raise the men to respect and empathise with women and women to support one another.
Sister Society is one such brilliant idea. We need more sister societies where we aren’t put to compete against one another for the male attention but instead to support one another to achieve our dreams. A place where is there is no room for uninspired ideas of repression and conformation.
A time when we are done celebrating women’s day, isn’t it a bit retarded that the people responsible for birthing literally everyone on this planet get just one day?