The intimidating, life-size scarlet letters T-E-D were shimmering before my eyes as I entered the venue for my first ever TEDx event. I had crossed well over 50 online talks before I managed to watch one live, each one providing more fodder to my thoughts on the use of technology, building of a career, empowerment of women, advancement of the string theory and so on. Donning the feminist mask at the event, I was also able to take pride in the fact that this was the first of its kind TEDx women event happening in Lahore that I had the chance to attend– all the more reason for me to celebrate my own attendance.
One of the most popular women talks one can remind themselves of at the occasion is by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, who spoke passionately about the hurdles women face while working their way up the career ladder – and this is coming from a member of a highly progressive society. Numerous others have spoken about ways in which women can be the master of their own ships: Caroline Cassey advocates looking past limits, Maysoon Zayid’s lifestyle demonstrates physical disability is no hurdle, and Diana Nyad says Never, ever give up.
Back to Lahore: a total of 8 speakers graced the TEDx floor and managed to inspire an engaged audience, most of which constituted of women of several age groups, but a select few backgrounds. How could I tell which social stratum they belonged to? At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I can admit being part of a society that can measure both its income quintiles and moral standing by a women’s dress and demeanor. With some keen observation, I could draw out a rough mind map to help me identify demographic groups present at the TEDx event.
Even if I try not to come off as judgmental, all I need is a dash of compassion to help me connect with the self-motivated audience of an event that offers nothing but life lessons. There were women who were dressed up in traditional shalwar suits with dupattas, while others in fringe cuts and long bottoms. Some wore an aura of sophistication attributable only to literary writers, albeit in their twenties. Women blow-dried their hair for the event, while some strutted the floor in unisex kurtas and frizzy dark hair. If I were to spot one uninterested woman in the crowd, who was there by accident or force, the task would be insurmountable. Believe it or not, at a women-centered event, the idea was not to look your best but to be bring out the best listener in you.
The inherent idea of the TED event is to bring forth ‘Ideas worth spreading’ and to organize a unique gathering in a local community, with a view to inspire and inform on a variety of topics. TEDx Lahore Women kept the spirit of TED’s mission alive and brought together an anti-bullying campaigner, an educationist, a reformer, a musicologist, a stand-up comedian, a holistic medical practitioner, an architect, and a beloved celebrity. The sense of diversity in their stories and backgrounds truly brought the event to life. Every aspect of bullying: cyber harassment, body-shaming and child harassment taught the avid listener in the audience a new lesson in vulnerability. Every cause that the speakers spoke about resonated with attendees across the board: from eating healthy to regaining control of public spaces; and from bullying to the environment we live in.
In the 21st century, a woman is free – to a calculated degree – to move around and take up professions that were once approved only for the opposite gender. People (read men) are no longer startled at the sight of women at work from 9 to 5 (and sometimes evening shifts). However, their mindset is still eclipsed by widely accepted stereotypes about women and their roles. So the question arises: while she is out and about controlling her own day, is she really living a free life? Salman Sufi argues physical mobility of women is key to their freedom. He spoke about his revolutionary campaign (by theme but not by scale as yet) called Women on Wheels, where women were trained to ride bikes in order for them to have the means to reach their work stations independently. The crusade hidden in this campaign is against established social norms that thwart a woman’s mobility and create road bumps every step of the way. The purpose of the program is therefore to win back public spaces that are so easily conquered by men of all manners and sizes.
But, as a community, as we ready to accept ‘women on wheels’? It is true that evils such as catcalling and street harassment are not local phenomenon, but they have grown into larger than life issues which impede educational, professional and social advancement for many women in our part of the world. Public transport is hardly preferred over painstaking steps taken by families to get their women to and from school and work. The Women on Wheels campaign, and others that advocate mobility of women, thus make up the cornerstone of the women empowerment movement. Some would argue that these movements require a cultural shift that would lead to acceptance of women in contemporary roles. In fact, this cultural adjustment is only a by-product of this process of liberation – liberation from all existing social institutions that put the will of women at the bottom of everything.
Since the society didn’t deem it enough for a girl to be conscious of her curves until after puberty, the concept of body-shaming started at an early age. Mariam Chugtai made a bold statement through her anti-bullying campaign and spoke up about her story that resonated with plenty of other girls – girls who knew there was more to them than just body fat. The practice of embarrassing young kids who are either too scrawny or too chubby for their age does not discriminate between sexes, but is targeted more intensely towards a girl. This primarily owes to the pressing need for her to be acceptable (by you-know-who) at first sight. She is told from an early age that the way she looks determines the elasticity of demand for her at an eligible age (which by the way doesn’t take long to arrive in a textbook South Asian setup).
Since fat equals funny, Faiza Saleem did a great job with her brilliant innate skills to engage an audience in a prolonged fit of laughter. She continues to display a strong degree of resilience in the face of fat-shaming slurs from grown-ups, by proving herself in more than one domain of performing arts. Her jokes are real life challenges but she never allows them to take a toll on her – imparting the very simple yet empowering message to all women who face opposition: keep doing what you are best at, and let the world get tired to trying to put you down. In the end, it is the same group of people who will either end up being envious of your eventual success or be inspired by it. Let them decide their own fate.
Regular people spend regular lives and deal with mundane issues all year around. But even celebrities get a taste of what an otherwise unknown woman is going through. Mahira Khan, in her debut TED talk, described her journey through the first few episodes of cyber bullying that she was made to go through, after which the assaults never ended, but her resolve grew stronger. Similar to the unease that any women making her way through a street would feel, female celebrities face their fair share of sexist behaviours from the public at large. And, since social media is a free tool for anyone to use and abuse, the largest number of bullies use it as their front for attacking women.
Ironically, TED is teaching you that women are not just telling stories; they are out there trying to fix your environment for you: speaker Hala Bashir Malik shed light on how urgently our ecosystem and public spaces need attention; and women are carving out healthier ways for you to spend your lives: speaker Dr. Shagufta Feroze is a distinguished medical practitioner who spoke at length about the need for healthier lifestyles to be adopted by people.
With a representation of one out of eight speakers, men surely have a long way to go before they can claim the world is a level ground for men and women to play. However, the brunt of the responsibility lies solely with women who must choose to act instead of complain, in order for their voices to be heard. Sandberg argues women don’t negotiate for themselves, nor do they own their success. They are known to underestimate themselves in academic and professional setups, a trend that is deeply linked to the relationship between their performance and remuneration. Nevertheless, they need to reach for the promotions and opportunities that await, and make the sacrifices that women were never shy of making in the first place. Here’s to a new era of women empowerment and feminism that seeks to bring out the best in all of us.