TEDIndia 2009

Kavita Ramdas: Radical women, embracing tradition

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Investing in women can unlock infinite potential around the globe. But how can women walk the line between Western-style empowerment and traditional culture? Kavita Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women talks about three encounters with powerful women who fight to make the world better -- while preserving the traditions that sustain them.

- Philanthropist
Kavita Ramdas directs the Global Fund for Women, the largest foundation in the world supporting women's human rights across all borders. Full bio

Salaam. Namaskar.
00:16
Good morning.
00:18
Given my TED profile, you might be expecting
00:20
that I'm going to speak to you about
00:22
the latest philanthropic trends --
00:24
the one that's currently got Wall Street
00:26
and the World Bank buzzing --
00:28
how to invest in women,
00:30
how to empower them, how to save them.
00:32
Not me.
00:35
I am interested in how women
00:37
are saving us.
00:39
They're saving us by redefining and re-imagining
00:41
a future that defies and blurs
00:44
accepted polarities,
00:47
polarities we've taken for granted for a long time,
00:49
like the ones between modernity and tradition,
00:52
First World and Third World,
00:55
oppression and opportunity.
00:58
In the midst of the daunting challenges
01:00
we face as a global community,
01:02
there's something about
01:04
this third way raga
01:06
that is making my heart sing.
01:08
What intrigues me most
01:10
is how women are doing this,
01:12
despite a set of paradoxes
01:14
that are both frustrating and fascinating.
01:16
Why is it that women are, on the one hand,
01:19
viciously oppressed by cultural practices,
01:22
and yet at the same time,
01:25
are the preservers of cultures in most societies?
01:27
Is the hijab or the headscarf
01:30
a symbol of submission
01:32
or resistance?
01:34
When so many women and girls
01:36
are beaten, raped, maimed
01:39
on a daily basis
01:41
in the name of all kinds of causes --
01:43
honor, religion, nationality --
01:45
what allows women to replant trees,
01:47
to rebuild societies,
01:50
to lead radical, non-violent movements
01:52
for social change?
01:54
Is it different women
01:56
who are doing the preserving and the radicalizing?
01:58
Or are they one and the same?
02:01
Are we guilty, as Chimamanda Adichie reminded us
02:03
at the TED conference in Oxford,
02:06
of assuming that there is a single story
02:08
of women's struggles for their rights
02:11
while there are, in fact, many?
02:13
And what, if anything,
02:15
do men have to do with it?
02:17
Much of my life has been a quest
02:19
to get some answers to these questions.
02:21
It's taken me across the globe
02:24
and introduced me to some amazing people.
02:26
In the process, I've gathered a few fragments
02:28
that help me shed some light on this puzzle.
02:31
Among those who've helped open my eyes
02:34
to a third way
02:36
are: a devout Muslim in Afghanistan,
02:38
a group of harmonizing lesbians in Croatia
02:41
and a taboo breaker in Liberia.
02:44
I'm indebted to them,
02:47
as I am to my parents,
02:49
who for some set of misdemeanors in their last life,
02:51
were blessed with three daughters in this one.
02:54
And for reasons equally unclear to me,
02:57
seem to be inordinately proud of the three of us.
02:59
I was born and raised here in India,
03:03
and I learned from an early age
03:05
to be deeply suspicious of the aunties and uncles
03:07
who would bend down, pat us on the head
03:10
and then say to my parents
03:12
with no problem at all,
03:14
"Poor things. You only have three daughters.
03:16
But you're young, you could still try again."
03:19
My sense of outrage
03:22
about women's rights
03:24
was brought to a boil when I was about 11.
03:27
My aunt, an incredibly articulate
03:30
and brilliant woman,
03:32
was widowed early.
03:34
A flock of relatives descended on her.
03:37
They took off her colorful sari.
03:40
They made her wear a white one.
03:42
They wiped her bindi off her forehead.
03:45
They broke her bangles.
03:48
Her daughter, Rani,
03:50
a few years older than me,
03:52
sat in her lap bewildered,
03:54
not knowing what had happened
03:56
to the confident woman
03:58
she once knew as her mother.
04:00
Late that night, I heard my mother
04:02
begging my father,
04:04
"Please do something Ramu. Can't you intervene?"
04:06
And my father, in a low voice, muttering,
04:09
"I'm just the youngest brother, there's nothing I can do.
04:13
This is tradition."
04:16
That's the night I learned the rules
04:18
about what it means to be female in this world.
04:20
Women don't make those rules,
04:24
but they define us, and they define
04:26
our opportunities and our chances.
04:28
And men are affected by those rules too.
04:30
My father, who had fought in three wars,
04:33
could not save his own sister
04:37
from this suffering.
04:39
By 18,
04:45
under the excellent tutelage of my mother,
04:47
I was therefore, as you might expect,
04:49
defiantly feminist.
04:51
On the streets chanting,
04:53
"[Hindi]
04:55
[Hindi]
04:57
We are the women of India.
04:59
We are not flowers, we are sparks of change."
05:02
By the time I got to Beijing in 1995,
05:04
it was clear to me, the only way
05:07
to achieve gender equality
05:09
was to overturn centuries
05:11
of oppressive tradition.
05:13
Soon after I returned from Beijing,
05:15
I leapt at the chance to work for this wonderful organization,
05:17
founded by women,
05:20
to support women's rights organizations around the globe.
05:22
But barely six months into my new job,
05:27
I met a woman
05:29
who forced me to challenge all my assumptions.
05:31
Her name is Sakena Yacoobi.
05:34
She walked into my office
05:38
at a time when no one knew
05:40
where Afghanistan was in the United States.
05:42
She said to me, "It is not about the burka."
05:47
She was the most determined advocate
05:50
for women's rights I had ever heard.
05:52
She told me women were running underground schools
05:54
in her communities inside Afghanistan,
05:57
and that her organization, the Afghan Institute of Learning,
06:00
had started a school in Pakistan.
06:02
She said, "The first thing anyone who is a Muslim knows
06:05
is that the Koran requires
06:09
and strongly supports literacy.
06:12
The prophet wanted every believer
06:15
to be able to read the Koran for themselves."
06:17
Had I heard right?
06:19
Was a women's rights advocate
06:21
invoking religion?
06:23
But Sakena defies labels.
06:26
She always wears a headscarf,
06:28
but I've walked alongside with her on a beach
06:31
with her long hair flying in the breeze.
06:33
She starts every lecture with a prayer,
06:36
but she's a single, feisty,
06:38
financially independent woman
06:41
in a country where girls are married off at the age of 12.
06:43
She is also immensely pragmatic.
06:46
"This headscarf and these clothes," she says,
06:50
"give me the freedom to do what I need to do
06:53
to speak to those whose support and assistance
06:56
are critical for this work.
06:58
When I had to open the school in the refugee camp,
07:01
I went to see the imam.
07:03
I told him, 'I'm a believer, and women and children
07:05
in these terrible conditions
07:08
need their faith to survive.'"
07:10
She smiles slyly.
07:13
"He was flattered.
07:15
He began to come twice a week to my center
07:17
because women could not go to the mosque.
07:20
And after he would leave,
07:22
women and girls would stay behind.
07:24
We began with a small literacy class
07:26
to read the Koran,
07:28
then a math class, then an English class, then computer classes.
07:30
In a few weeks, everyone in the refugee camp
07:33
was in our classes."
07:36
Sakena is a teacher
07:38
at a time when to educate women
07:41
is a dangerous business in Afghanistan.
07:44
She is on the Taliban's hit list.
07:46
I worry about her every time she travels across that country.
07:49
She shrugs when I ask her about safety.
07:52
"Kavita jaan, we cannot allow ourselves to be afraid.
07:55
Look at those young girls who go back to school
07:58
when acid is thrown in their face."
08:00
And I smile, and I nod,
08:02
realizing I'm watching women and girls
08:04
using their own religious traditions and practices,
08:06
turning them into instruments
08:09
of opposition and opportunity.
08:11
Their path is their own
08:14
and it looks towards an Afghanistan
08:16
that will be different.
08:19
Being different is something the women
08:21
of Lesbor in Zagreb, Croatia
08:23
know all too well.
08:25
To be a lesbian, a dyke,
08:27
a homosexual
08:29
in most parts of the world, including right here
08:31
in our country, India,
08:33
is to occupy a place of immense discomfort
08:35
and extreme prejudice.
08:37
In post-conflict societies like Croatia,
08:39
where a hyper-nationalism and religiosity
08:42
have created an environment unbearable
08:45
for anyone who might
08:47
be considered a social outcast.
08:49
So enter a group of out dykes,
08:51
young women who love the old music
08:53
that once spread across that region
08:56
from Macedonia to Bosnia,
08:58
from Serbia to Slovenia.
09:00
These folk singers met at college at a gender studies program.
09:02
Many are in their 20s, some are mothers.
09:06
Many have struggled to come out to their communities,
09:09
in families whose religious beliefs make it hard to accept
09:12
that their daughters are not sick,
09:15
just queer.
09:17
As Leah, one of the founders of the group, says,
09:19
"I like traditional music very much.
09:22
I also like rock and roll.
09:25
So Lesbor, we blend the two.
09:27
I see traditional music like a kind of rebellion,
09:29
in which people can really speak their voice,
09:31
especially traditional songs
09:34
from other parts of the former Yugoslav Republic.
09:36
After the war, lots of these songs were lost,
09:38
but they are a part of our childhood and our history,
09:41
and we should not forget them."
09:43
Improbably, this LGBT singing choir
09:45
has demonstrated how women
09:48
are investing in tradition to create change,
09:50
like alchemists turning discord into harmony.
09:53
Their repertoire includes
09:56
the Croatian national anthem,
09:58
a Bosnian love song
10:00
and Serbian duets.
10:02
And, Leah adds with a grin,
10:04
"Kavita, we especially are proud of our Christmas music,
10:06
because it shows we are open to religious practices
10:09
even though Catholic Church
10:12
hates us LGBT."
10:14
Their concerts draw from
10:16
their own communities, yes,
10:18
but also from an older generation:
10:20
a generation that might be
10:22
suspicious of homosexuality,
10:24
but is nostalgic for its own music and the past it represents.
10:26
One father, who had initially balked at his daughter
10:29
coming out in such a choir,
10:32
now writes songs for them.
10:34
In the Middle Ages, troubadours
10:36
would travel across the land
10:38
singing their tales and sharing their verses:
10:40
Lesbor travels through the Balkans like this,
10:43
singing, connecting people divided
10:46
by religion, nationality and language.
10:48
Bosnians, Croats and Serbs
10:51
find a rare shared space of pride in their history,
10:53
and Lesbor reminds them that
10:56
the songs one group often claims as theirs alone
10:58
really belong to them all.
11:01
(Singing)
11:03
Yesterday, Mallika Sarabhai showed us
11:23
that music can create a world
11:25
more accepting of difference
11:27
than the one we have been given.
11:29
The world Layma Bowie was given
11:32
was a world at war.
11:34
Liberia had been torn apart by civil strife for decades.
11:36
Layma was not an activist, she was a mother of three.
11:40
But she was sick with worry:
11:43
She worried her son would be abducted
11:45
and taken off to be a child soldier,
11:47
she worried her daughters would be raped,
11:49
she worried for their lives.
11:51
One night, she had a dream.
11:54
She dreamt she and thousands of other women
11:56
ended the bloodshed.
11:58
The next morning at church, she asked others how they felt.
12:00
They were all tired of the fighting.
12:03
We need peace, and we need our leaders to know
12:05
we will not rest until there is peace.
12:08
Among Layma's friends was a policewoman who was Muslim.
12:11
She promised to raise the issue with her community.
12:14
At the next Friday sermon,
12:17
the women who were sitting in the side room of the mosque
12:19
began to share their distress at the state of affairs.
12:21
"What does it matter?" they said, "A bullet doesn't distinguish
12:24
between a Muslim and a Christian."
12:27
This small group of women,
12:29
determined to bring an end to the war,
12:31
and they chose to use their traditions to make a point:
12:33
Liberian women usually wear
12:36
lots of jewelry and colorful clothing.
12:38
But no, for the protest, they dressed
12:40
all in white, no makeup.
12:42
As Layma said, "We wore the white
12:44
saying we were out for peace."
12:46
They stood on the side of the road on which
12:48
Charles Taylor's motorcade passed every day.
12:50
They stood for weeks --
12:52
first just 10, then 20, then 50, then hundreds of women --
12:54
wearing white, singing, dancing,
12:57
saying they were out for peace.
13:00
Eventually, opposing forces in Liberia
13:03
were pushed to hold peace talks in Ghana.
13:05
The peace talks dragged on and on and on.
13:09
Layma and her sisters had had enough.
13:12
With their remaining funds, they took
13:14
a small group of women down to the venue of the peace talks
13:16
and they surrounded the building.
13:18
In a now famous CNN clip,
13:20
you can see them sitting on the ground, their arms linked.
13:23
We know this in India. It's called a [Hindi].
13:25
Then things get tense.
13:29
The police are called in to physically remove the women.
13:31
As the senior officer approaches with a baton,
13:34
Layma stands up with deliberation,
13:37
reaches her arms up over her head,
13:39
and begins, very slowly,
13:41
to untie her headdress that covers her hair.
13:43
You can see the policeman's face.
13:46
He looks embarrassed. He backs away.
13:49
And the next thing you know,
13:52
the police have disappeared.
13:54
Layma said to me later,
13:56
"It's a taboo, you know, in West Africa.
13:58
If an older woman undresses in front of a man
14:01
because she wants to,
14:04
the man's family is cursed."
14:06
(Laughter)
14:08
(Applause)
14:10
She said, "I don't know if he did it because he believed,
14:12
but he knew we were not going to leave.
14:15
We were not going to leave until the peace accord was signed."
14:17
And the peace accord was signed.
14:20
And the women of Liberia
14:22
then mobilized in support of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
14:24
a woman who broke a few taboos herself
14:27
becoming the first elected woman head of state
14:29
in Africa in years.
14:31
When she made her presidential address,
14:35
she acknowledged these brave women of Liberia
14:38
who allowed her to win against a football star --
14:40
that's soccer for you Americans --
14:43
no less.
14:45
Women like Sakena and Leah
14:47
and Layma
14:49
have humbled me and changed me
14:51
and made me realize that I should not be so quick
14:54
to jump to assumptions of any kind.
14:57
They've also saved me from my righteous anger
15:01
by offering insights into this third way.
15:03
A Filipina activist once said to me,
15:07
"How do you cook a rice cake?
15:09
With heat from the bottom and heat from the top."
15:11
The protests, the marches,
15:14
the uncompromising position that
15:16
women's rights are human rights, full stop.
15:18
That's the heat from the bottom.
15:22
That's Malcolm X and the suffragists
15:24
and gay pride parades.
15:26
But we also need the heat from the top.
15:28
And in most parts of the world,
15:30
that top is still
15:32
controlled by men.
15:34
So to paraphrase Marx: Women make change,
15:36
but not in circumstances of their own choosing.
15:39
They have to negotiate.
15:42
They have to subvert tradition that once silenced them
15:44
in order to give voice to new aspirations.
15:47
And they need allies from their communities.
15:50
Allies like the imam,
15:53
allies like the father who now writes songs
15:55
for a lesbian group in Croatia,
15:57
allies like the policeman who honored a taboo and backed away,
16:00
allies like my father,
16:03
who couldn't help his sister but has helped three daughters
16:05
pursue their dreams.
16:08
Maybe this is because feminism,
16:10
unlike almost every other social movement,
16:12
is not a struggle against a distinct oppressor --
16:14
it's not the ruling class
16:17
or the occupiers or the colonizers --
16:19
it's against a deeply held set of beliefs and assumptions
16:22
that we women, far too often,
16:25
hold ourselves.
16:28
And perhaps this is the ultimate gift of feminism,
16:30
that the personal is in fact the political.
16:33
So that, as Eleanor Roosevelt said once of human rights,
16:36
the same is true of gender equality:
16:38
that it starts in small places, close to home.
16:41
On the streets, yes,
16:44
but also in negotiations at the kitchen table
16:46
and in the marital bed
16:49
and in relationships between lovers and parents
16:51
and sisters and friends.
16:53
And then
16:57
you realize that by integrating
16:59
aspects of tradition and community
17:01
into their struggles,
17:03
women like Sakena and Leah and Layma --
17:05
but also women like Sonia Gandhi here in India
17:08
and Michelle Bachelet in Chile
17:10
and Shirin Ebadi in Iran --
17:13
are doing something else.
17:16
They're challenging the very notion
17:18
of Western models of development.
17:20
They are saying, we don't have to be like you
17:23
to make change.
17:26
We can wear a sari or a hijab
17:28
or pants or a boubou,
17:31
and we can be party leaders and presidents
17:33
and human rights lawyers.
17:36
We can use our tradition to navigate change.
17:38
We can demilitarize societies
17:41
and pour resources, instead,
17:44
into reservoirs of genuine security.
17:46
It is in these little stories,
17:50
these individual stories,
17:53
that I see a radical epic being written
17:55
by women around the world.
17:57
It is in these threads
17:59
that are being woven into a resilient fabric
18:01
that will sustain communities,
18:03
that I find hope.
18:06
And if my heart is singing,
18:08
it's because in these little fragments,
18:10
every now and again, you catch a glimpse
18:13
of a whole, of a whole new world.
18:15
And she is definitely on her way.
18:18
Thank you.
18:21
(Applause)
18:23

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About the Speaker:

Kavita Ramdas - Philanthropist
Kavita Ramdas directs the Global Fund for Women, the largest foundation in the world supporting women's human rights across all borders.

Why you should listen

Kavita Ramdas is president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, a publicly supported grantmaking foundation that advances human rights by investing in women-led organizations worldwide. Over the past 22 years, the Global Fund has provided more than 7,000 grants, reaching more than 3,000 groups. Since Ramdas took the reins, the fund's assets have more than tripled -- and so has the number of countries the group works in, now at 170.

The Global Fund for Women contributes to groups that improve women's economic security, work to end gender-based violence, increase access to education at all stages of life, provide critical health services and encourage women to take leadership roles in the public sector. In interviews, Ramdas has said that grantmakers can learn as much from applicants as applicants do from them. This is a philosophy she employs at Global Fund, where grants are often given with as few strings attached as possible, and proposals are accepted in any language. Her vision stands to change the game, not only in women's rights but in philanthropy as a whole.