Interview of Shivangi Singh by Rati Pandey
In June, 2018, a survey conducted by Thomas Reuters Foundation ranked India as the world’s most unsafe country for women, ahead of Syria, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. This was followed by India’s #MeToo and Times Up movement in the same year which led to MRAs forming anti-women groups fueled by sexism and misogyny. The patriarchal family system in India didn’t help either. It was then that a woman in her mid-twenties from Lucknow decided to change things. No stranger to patriarchy, having faced sexism and steep patriarchy growing up from her relatives, Shivangi Singh started a social initiative focused on women’s empowerment and gender education called Drishtikona – Changing Perspectives in August, 2018 with the broader aim of attaining the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of achieving Gender Equality. It is a unique idea which works towards attaining UN SDG 5 through UN SDG 4. Shivangi believes that the common enemy is the patriarchy and the best way to counter it is through gender education. Within a short span of one year, the impact created by Shivangi has been massive as she touched the lives of more than 5000 people across 5 states and 20 districts in India.
Here’s our conversation with Shivangi Singh on gender, patriarchy and her vision with her social initiative Drishtikona – Changing Perspectives:
You have been conducting workshops on gender issues through your social initiative Drishtikona – Changing Perspectives for one year now. What have been your on-ground insights into the hold of patriarchy in the mindsets of people especially, children?
You won’t believe the extent to which patriarchy has seeped into the mindsets of children. Look at the kind of exposure we give children since birth – be it at home or through popular culture – heterosexual gender norms dominate the society. Girls as young as 3 know that vagina is a “shameful” body part. You would ask, who is teaching a 3 year old stuff like this? The answer is all around us. Parenting is a skill that needs to be thoroughly revised in India. Adult participants of the workshops are more eager to challenge their mindsets and learn more about gender issues but that is only because of the entire media buzz surrounding these topics in the recent past. With children, the problem is that they depend on their parents and teachers for learning right from wrong and when these sources are patriarchal then that’s what they learn. Hence, programs on gender education need to be normalized and inculcated in school curriculum more frequently.
How important is intersectionality in feminism and how do you ensure that your work is inclusive?
Intersectionality is a core component of feminism. I see no feminism without intersectionality. The feminist movement by its very nature cares about equal rights for all hence, the rise of terms such as ‘Savarna Feminists’. It is to ensure people are acknowledging their privilege in the society. If a self proclaimed feminist is apathetic to the cause of casteism or regionalism or racism then they lack appropriate knowledge of the field and must educate themselves. Feminist literature is rich in intersectionality and works as an easy reference point. In my work I especially focus on intersectionality. While working on gender issues I ensure the rights and issues of transpeople are talked about and given equal importance. I conduct special workshops countering racism and casteism in India. I work hard to make participants understand their privilege in the society and how that blinds them to certain issues and challenges faced by certain sections of our society.
Why do you consider gender education to be the tool that would ultimately smash the patriarchy?
Patriarchy has seeped into the very core of human existence especially, in India. From the moment a child is conceived the patriarchal conditioning overrules equality in our society. Since patriarchy is essentially a mindset the correct way of countering it is through a paradigm shift. This change in mindset can only be brought through education. Shocking acts of feminism are much appreciated but lead to equal and opposite reaction in terms of rise of MRAs and abusive platforms brandishing feminists as anti-social elements. That said, I do see value in shocking acts of feminism. However, for bringing a long-lasting change gender education is needed. One has to be patient while expecting people to change centuries old mindsets and their ways of life. This change also asks the participants to move beyond their ideas of right and wrong as they too are entrenched in patriarchy. For example: In a rural Indian household, a wife who works is seen as “evil” and if one attempts to bring the dialogue of feminism in such a scenario, they must acknowledge the conflict it brings within the participants who have learnt from their parents that a woman who works is evil. Equally dangerous is the age-old mindset that ‘Parents are God and everything they say must be followed to the T’. We must accept that our parents are human beings who make mistakes. Respect should not be a one-way street. Through the intersectionality of feminism we can address all of these issues under the wide umbrella of gender education. We can teach people to see things differently and present evidence in favor of gender equality.
How do you measure the impact that your workshops are having on the participants? Is there a mechanism in place to test the long-term impact as well?
The format of my workshops is rather interactive. I do not aim to be a preacher. I merely work as a facilitator who helps them integrate new knowledge with pre-existing sensitivity. At the end of each day of the workshop I divide the participants into groups and ask them to present what they have learnt in the form of any creative activity. It could be poster-making or a skit or poetry or anything else really. This helps them properly integrate the knowledge and learn from each other to gain confidence over what they have learnt. At the end of the workshops I take feedback forms and also give them the option of emailing me or talking to me privately about their experience with my workshops. I have been fortunate to have received 100% positive feedback so far and many a few touching stories shared via email or personal chat about how relevant my workshops have been to the participants. For measuring long-term impact I plan to conduct a retreat of all my past participants and update their knowledge and also check how the retention has been. Longitudinal studies employed in research methodology are my reference point for this method of measuring the long-term impact.
How do technology and social media contribute to the fight against patriarchy? Is there a constructive way of using these in a world full of cyber crimes, child pornography, rape threats, revenge porn or worse?
It surely is scary out there in the internet. The anonymity which the trolls enjoy seems to empower them. They feel like they can threaten and ridicule anybody without ever being held accountable. It is no secret that majority of these trolls uphold patriarchal mindsets and try to force their views on others. In such a scenario, it is important to remember that social media can and has been extensively used for generating awareness. If most people are posting feminist content and sharing it on their social media accounts then the feminist voice gains power over sexist nonsense. If we normalize feminist content and voices on social media then the sexist rhetoric automatically becomes abnormal. Once people understand that it is no longer socially acceptable to be a misogynist then they are forced to change those mindsets. This is where social media comes into play. The world needs to see more feminists winning and getting their rightful place at the helm. We need media to cover stories of women bringing change to the status quo and challenging gender norms. As I see more of this on social media today it brings me joy. We can and absolutely must use social media to like, share, retweet, post and create feminist content and generate awareness on gender issues.
How does the family system contribute to patriarchy in India? What were the challenges you faced as a girl growing up in your family?
The family system is the seed of patriarchy in India. It is born out of patriarchy and works to uphold patriarchy. I have a huge extended family with close ties to each other. The problem is that my extended family is deeply patriarchal while my nuclear family isn’t, but unfortunately, the extended family holds a significant power over my family. My relatives negatively affected my life right from childhood by building a culture of great gender discrimination. It ranged from men holding more power over women in the overall decision making to comparatively smaller traditions like men getting to eat first. This extended to children. As a sensitive child, I observed this closely and was deeply saddened by it. As a teenager I started observing it in the world at large. Gender inequality started at me wherever I looked. I started rebelling and complaining about it at home and it resulted in several fights with my patriarchal relatives but led to no solution. My relatives character-assassinated me while I was just a kid. They left no stone unturned to make my life miserable just because I was a girl who dared. Activities which were considered normal for boys in the family were seen as sinful for girls by my relatives. I was silenced and the patriarchal culture continued. This frustrated me further and left permanent scars on my impressionable mind.
The problem is very grave, to say the least. Gender politics exists everywhere. It is in the very air we breathe. From the microscopic to the macroscopic aspect of daily life in this day and age, gender inequality exists. In India it starts from the moment a girl child is conceived and never leaves a woman.
How supportive has the society been to your work? How have your parents and peers responded?
To be honest, the society has only been supportive once they saw my work getting recognized in the media. Very few people were supportive when I announced my work on social media at first. My extended family, being toxic as they are, regularly taunted me. I was asked to “get a real job”. One of my relatives even told my mother that she has spoilt me and hence, I am having these “crazy thoughts”. They do not believe in a world free of patriarchy as it would be the opposite of everything they stand for. Throughout my life I have heard them talk about what women should do, how they should dress and behave, etc. For my extended family, women are commodities for the society to control. My work is in direct opposition to their deepest beliefs and hence, they hate it and me, for starting this. I do not care about getting external support anymore. I have long stopped caring about what others think about me and my work. I know that working towards gender equality is my mission in life and I would continue on this path no matter what.
How difficult was it as a girl from a conservative ecosystem of the semi-urban city to start something of your own?
As I mentioned above, there was little to no support. People thought I am crazy for starting Drishtikona when I was in fact offered the highest pay package in YIF out of a batch of 300 students. I was determined. There is nothing else that gives me a sense of purpose. I could accept the high paying jobs but I knew that unless my work directly impacts lives, I just won’t be happy or fulfilled. My work at Drishtikona might not fill my pockets but it fills my heart. It gives me a sense of purpose in a world where millenials are suffering from existential crisis and battling depression owing to jobs which pay the bills but don’t feed the soul. It has been an uphill battle but my intrinsic motivation keeps me going. My personal battle with patriarchy, which is far from over keeps me going. The fate of my friend who was sexually harassed by the manager in one of India’s so-called leading NGOs keeps me going. I have a mission and that it all that matters.
How would you define Drishtikona – Changing Perspectives’ broader vision moving forward?
The broader aim of achieving UN SDG 5 Gender Equality through UN SDG 4 Quality Education remains the same. Fighting the good fight against patriarchy remains the same. The methods to achieve these objectives will diversify and intensify. I aim to take Drishtikona – Changing Perspectives to more states across India. I recently joined World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community and that acts as an extension of my work under the aegis of an international organization. I am currently working on maximizing impact by conducting more workshops and developing long term client relationships by hosting an event where all the clients can gather in one place and share their learning as a group. I am also working on getting together a team of dedicated and passionate mentors and volunteers, pitching my ideas to incubators and increasing awareness about the cause and my social enterprise by utilizing the power of social media. Of course, the mission is to make mandatory gender education a part of core education curriculum and workspace training at a global level but that would take time. It is time for dynamic growth for me and Drishtikona at the moment as we strive to work relentlessly towards our mission.[share]