My producing partner and I were 'vision-boarding' this week. Greta and I articulated and wrote down what we collectively wanted to transpire with our production company in the next year. While our partnership is still in its toddler stages, we both echoed the same sentiment: We both wanted our next project to have something to do with women's education and empowerment in Africa... or India.
I got to thinking about my own personal story, and why women's rights and empowerment are so important to me. It catapulted me into a meditation on the word "no."
As a kid, there were alot of "no's" leveled at me. I was an erstwhile American growing up in a traditional Indian household. At 500 Valley Street in Smalltown, USA, time was perpetually frozen in 1969 India, the year my parents emigrated from their respective countries of India and Burma. Meanwhile, the hormones were surging and I was just itching to wear something more daring than capri pants.
"No. You can't wear that mini-skirt."
"No. You can't date boys."
"No. You can't become a journalist."
"No" was a word laden with a lot of negatives and they washed over me regularly like an Indian monsoon.
I'm older now and I understand a little bit more about the immigrant mentality. The fear of the unknown had a grip on my parents like a vise. Indians only ever settled into three careers: Doctors. Lawyers. Engineers. My constant plaint of wanting to become journalist fell only on deaf ears and a tight, dismissive smile.
As I got older and forged my career on TV anyway, there were more "no's."
"No, we already have two minorities."
"No, I don't like your look."
"No. I don't like your voice."
Now, as a TV anchor and writer, I find inspiration and beauty in the most unexpected of places. This past Tuesday, I was getting my weekly manicure at my local salon on the Upper West Side. I've come to treasure my time with my girl Annie. She is of Nepalese descent and bursts into a smile that threatens to consume her whole face every time I walk in the door. All four feet of her is quite pert and often inquisitive about what I'm up to. And I share. I told her that Tuesday I was speaking at a fundraiser for an initiative educating women in India. As I shifted in my seat, I asked her, "why do you think its important to educate women?"
What Annie said next stopped me in my tracks:
"Education gives a woman the power to say NO."
"No. I won't marry at 15."
"No. I want to go to school."
"No. You can't hit me. Not today."
If I hadn't waxed the hairs off my arms, they would have been standing on end. "No" had evolved from a place of negative to a source of so much power at that moment. "No" didn't well up from a barrel of fear. It came raring forward came from a place of knowledge. Of having options. Of knowing what better things life has to offer. Of an innate self-confidence that "I deserve better."
The United Nations has said India is the most dangerous place to be a girl. No thanks to the perfect storm of attitudes, traditions and economics that have come together in the country. Most girls are disposed of long before they are born by sex-selective abortions, resulting in a growing gender gap that hasnt been seen since India gained independece from the British in 1947. The 2011 census showed that for every 1,000 boys 6 years or younger there were only 914 girls. In Haryana, the ratio has gotten so lopsided that girls have to be imported from other states for the boys in order for them to marry.
Imagine if mothers, daughters and sisters in the country could eventually come to a place where they were educated, invested in, and cared enough for, that they could all rise up and say "NO."
Joya Dass is the Principal and Co-Founder of Avenue Media, and will host the "First Sight" Film Screening on June 19, 2012 during S.H.E. Summit Week. S.H.E. Summit Week, taking place June 18-24, is New York City's first "women's week," with 35+ events designed for, by and about women to inspire each other in work, life & everything in between. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit shesummitweek.com.