Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, popularly known for her book “The Palace of Illusions” which narrates the Mahabharata from Drupadi’s point of view talks about books, culture and feminism with Modern Diplomacy. Chitra is a celebrated feminist authors who gives voice to women in mythology whose narrative has most often been written and controlled by men. By shifting the focus from men’s stories to women’s narratives, she increases empathy and understanding of lived women’s struggles.
First of all, congratulations on the success of your latest book The Forest of Enchantment. Your work has been loved across different age groups, globally. What inspired you to be a writer?
I was inspired by 3 things: moving to the USA when I was nineteen, the death of my grandfather, and my nonprofit work with domestic violence and trafficking.
When I moved to the US, I began to see more clearly—both the world in India that I had left behind, including many things I valued about my culture. The death of my grandfather made me aware of how fleeting memories are and how soon we forget. My community work with women made me aware of many silent problems that exist in our communities and how important it is to hear these stories and empathize with these lives. All these made me want to write and share my experiences.
Your work seems to have a central theme; Of women and understanding their identity in the backdrop of family, culture and geography. There are few notable writers who are doing good work in this. How important do you think it is, to be able to successfully deliver such stories?
It is very important to showcase the lives, challenges and triumphs of women, and to do so in a way that humanizes them and makes readers identify with them. I believe with such empathy, attitudes change for the better and thus readers’ lives begin to transform. So many people have told me that they were inspired by the life of Draupadi depicted in The Palace of Illusions and Sita in The Forest of Enchantments, even though these are characters from long ago. They told me these books gave them inspiration and allowed them to move forward in their own lives. So I know firsthand the importance of women’s stories. And I, too, continue to be influenced and inspired by such stories.
You were born in Bengal, a place that has given eminent writers whose works have been celebrated worldwide. Your name is a joyful addition to the already illustrations list. What has Bengal and Kolkata given you, taught you and how did it nurture you while you were growing up?
I grew up reading (in Bengali) the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sharat Chandra, men who empathized deeply with the plight of women. Later I read Mahasweta Devi, BaniBasu and Mallika Sengupta, among others. All these books inspired me to write about women and gave me good role models. So I think the greatest gift Bengal has given me is the works of its writers.
Why do you believe that in this 21st century world, we still live in the shackles of patriarchy, something that should have been broken long back for an equal, liberal and just world?
There are many complicated reasons. I’ll mention two. An important one is the lack of education for girls, which changes our thinking and gives us willpower and confidence. The other is financial independence for women, because without it women are at the mercy of others, including people in their own families. It is very important to work on these. I am happy that in my small way I support organizations like Pratham in India which focus on education as well as vocational training for women.
What is it in a human being that makes her want to express her emotions by penning down her thoughts, what we call poems. Do you believe, like many, that empathy is the most crucial trait to be a poet?
Empathy is important, yes. But observation skills and imagination are equally important. And self-honesty, because many times poems are about our own lives and our understanding of important events and challenges we have faced. Or they can be about nature, where observation and imagination are particularly important.
Your work also includes remarkably portrayed cross cultural references between India and the USA. Did that arrive out of your personal experience? In other words, was that a reflection of your own personal journey of a cultural shift? How was the reaction from the American public on this work?
In some ways, my cross-cultural stories come out of my personal experience, but more so out of my observation. Also listening. I like to listen when people discuss their lives and challenges. The overall reaction from the American public has been very good. I am grateful for all the positive reviews and awards, and some of the books have been on bestseller lists.
Writing stories from Mahabharata and Ramayana from the perspective of the female characters and protagonists. That was bold and made for a tremendous round of applause. How did you come up with the idea?
Thanks for the kind words! I have been impressed and fascinated by the stories of our epics ever since I was a little girl listening to my grandfather telling me these tales. As I grew up, I wondered more and more about the fascinating women characters in the epics, and I became aware of how little space was given to them. We knew their actions but not their thoughts or their hearts. Slowly the desire filled me to write about them, making them the heroines of their world. To really look at who they were and what they had to teach the contemporary women. They were certainly worth learning from, even when they did controversial things! I was worried, though, as to how people would react to this project. Surprisingly, the response has been immensely positive. I am grateful for that.
Your work has been touted as something that reverberates ‘simplicity of the language’ and is ‘rooted in reality’. How important do you think such qualities are for good writing and for getting connected to the readers?
There are many kinds of writers. Each relate to life and to language and to their readers differently. I have always believed that clear, simple language is important. I wish to invite as many readers as possible into my books. I don’t want them to be only for intellectual types. I like to read and write from the heart. When my mother was alive, I often thought, I want to write books that are accessible to her. (She was a wonderful, intelligent woman, but she did not have a formal English education, just what she picked up in the course of her life). I believe art should be inclusive, not exclusive.
Tell us how important it is to keep the cultural sanctity of literature festivals alive and running. What role do they play?
Literature festivals are SO important. They create excitement around books and ideas. They bring readers and writers together. They allow writers to have discourses with one another. I learn so much whenever I attend a litfest. I am so glad that India is having more and more festivals, and that some of these are in relatively remote places or smaller cities where people might not have otherwise had the exposure. I am glad to see, especially in India, that young people are excited about books. When I read from Forest of Enchantments in Jaipur, I was delighted to meet many high school and college students who had read my books. I would never have known about that otherwise.
A message that you would like to convey to the young and aspiring writers…
If writing is important to us, we must make time for it in our lives. This means we must simplify our lives to find time and energy to read and write. As writers, we need to read widely and read everyday. I recommend keeping a writer’s notebook to jot down ideas that come to you while reading. It is also a good place to jot down sentences or techniques you are noticing as you read.
Try to write every day. It is also very helpful to have a few writer friends with whom you can share work. I still work with a writer’s group. We meet on skype every month, share work, and learn from each other.
Women in leadership ‘must be the norm’
We can no longer exclude half of humanity from international peace and security matters, the UN chief told the Security Council on Thursday, emphasizing the need to fully address the challenges and gaps that continue to prevent women having an equal say.
Having just visited the photo exhibition, In their Hands: Women Taking Ownership of Peace – a collection of inspiring stories of women around the world seen through the lenses of women photographers – he told ambassadors that the exhibit brings to “vivid life” their dedication to “the most important and consequential cause of all, peace”.
“From the safety of this chamber, we discuss and debate pathways of peace for countries around the world”, said the UN chief. “But the women portrayed in the exhibition are on the front lines of the fight for peace”.
He called them peacebuilders, changemakers and human rights leaders, and described their work mediating and negotiating with armed groups; implementing peace agreements; pushing for peaceful transitions; and fighting for women’s rights and social cohesion throughout their communities.
Yet, he pointed out, “women remain on the periphery of formal peace processes, and they’re largely excluded from rooms where decisions are made”.
Citing rising rates of violence and misogyny; the extreme under-representation of women in decision-making positions; and a myriad of challenges faced by those in conflict, the top UN official observed that the power imbalance between men and women remains “the most stubborn and persistent of all inequalities”.
“In every humanitarian emergency, the clock on women’s rights has not stopped. It’s moving backwards”, he said regretfully.
In Ethiopia, women have been victims of sexual violence; in Yemen, excluded from political processes by the warring parties; in Afghanistan, undergoing a rapid reversal of the rights they had achieved in recent decades; and in Mali, after two coups in nine months, “the space for women’s rights is not just shrinking, but closing”, Mr. Guterres said.
“Increasing women’s representation and leadership across every aspect of the UN’s peace activities is critical to improving the delivery of our mandate and better representing the communities we serve”, he said.
But Council’s support is needed for partnerships, protection and participation.
Women leaders and their networks must be supported to meaningfully engage in peace and political processes, he explained.
Secondly, women human rights defenders and activists must be protected as they carry out their essential work.
And finally, women’s “full, equal and meaningful participation” must be supported in peace talks, peacebuilding, and political systems as countries transition to peace, he said.
“We need full gender parity”, underscored the UN chief. “We know it can be done”.
Advancing women’s rights
Women should not have to accept reversals of their rights in countries in conflict, or anywhere else.
Mr. Guterres said that the UN will double down on “truly inclusive peacemaking” and put women’s participation and rights “at the centre of everything we do – everywhere we do it”.
The best way to build peace is through inclusion, and to honour the commitment and bravery of women peacemakers we must “open doors to their meaningful participation”.
“Let’s turn the clock forward on women’s rights and give half of humanity the opportunity to build the peace we all seek”, concluded the Secretary-General.
Time to say ‘enough’
To create a tangible difference in the lives of women and girls, UN Women Executive Director, Sima Bahous, highlighted the need for governments and the Security Council “to step up” to address the way we confront peace and security issues.
For too long violence has targeted females and their rights; and women continue to be marginalized and excluded “in those very places where they can drive change”, she told the Council.
“Surely the time has come to say enough”, she said.
Open doors to women
While acknowledging a “glimmer of light” resulting from the passage of the original resolution, Ms. Bahous said that while not enough, it must be used in the fight for women’s equality.
Noting that vast military spending has been “in bitter contrast” to limited investments in other areas, she advocated for curbing military spending and expressed hope that delegates “share my sense of urgency” on the issue, which impacts other priorities, including women’s rights.
The UN Women chief noted that increased participation, combined with curbing the sale of arms in post-conflict settings, significantly reduces the risk of backsliding.
She reminded ambassadors that while “equal nations are more peaceful nations”, equality requires higher levels of support for healthcare and related services.
Moreover, Ms. Bahous regretted that women’s organizations are poorly funded, noting that without the necessary financial resources, they cannot effectively carry out their work.
Turning to Afghanistan, she shone a light on the women who had collaborated with the UN and whose lives are now in danger, advocating for doors to be opened wider, to women asylum seekers.
Women at the stakeout
Subsequently, former Afghan women politicians took to the Security Council stakeout to ask the international community to pressure the Taliban “to put their words in action” and fulfill their promises made in 2019 in Qatar including supporting girls’ education and women’s rights.
“The reason we are here today is to meet with different Member States and ask them to regard women and human rights in Afghanistan as a matter of national security of their own countries, because it’s not just a political or social issue but it’s a matter of security”, said Fawzia Koofi, former Peace Negotiator and first woman Deputy Speaker of Afghan Parliament.
Former Afghan Parliamentarian and Chairperson of the House Standing Committee for Human Rights, Civil Society and Women Affairs, Naheed Fareed, questioned whether the world wanted to “register in history” their recognition of “a de facto structure that is in place in Afghanistan”, to represent Afghan women, their dignity and desires. “From my point of view, they don’t”, she told reporters.
Gender Mainstreaming and the Development of three Models
The field of gender mainstreaming plays a central role in the debate of critical feminist International Relations (IR) theorists. Reading the influential work of Enloe 2014 regarding the locations and the roles of women in the subject of IR brings women into the central discussion of international studies. However, some of the feminist IR scholars defy the negligible participation of women in international political theory and practice.
The main aim of gender mainstreaming is to achieve gender equity in all spheres of life (social, political, economic), without any doubt that gender mainstreaming has had a central role in pushing the strategy of realising gender equity since the concept’s inception. However, feminist IR scholarship admits that it is not the best approach, or in other words, the right pathway concerning feminist struggle. There are many different approaches and mechanisms in which such dissatisfaction is conveyed; nonetheless, at the axis of Postcolonial Feminist scholars debate, gender main streaming depoliticises the concerns of feminist scholars. Feminist studies show that theoretically, the change of structuring of gender equity determinations from women to gender in gender mainstreaming perhaps contradicted achievements made to bring women from the periphery to the centre of Feminist IR.
The emergence of Models in Development:
Discussion asking to what extent women have been benefited (or not) from the developmenthas given rise to the following three models. These approaches show how men and women are affected in different ways because of the development of how the lives of women, in particular, are affected.
Women in Development (WID):
By the 1970s, the reality that women were subjugated and left far behind in the process of development became clear and widely recognised. In some areas, this recognition even acknowledged development has further worsened the status of women, for example, the exclusion of women from
the main development projects. The Women in Development (WID) approach proposed the inclusion of women into programs related to development. WID was a successful initiative that strengthened the consideration of women as an integral part of society. The decade of 1975 to 1985 was even declared the decade of women. However, this approach was problematic, as WID did not focus on structural changes in social and economic systems, which were necessary for discussion. Furthermore, this approach was not enough to bring women to the mainstream of development successfully.
Women and Development (WAD):
Thisapproach was critical and arose in the late 1970s using Marxist feminist (critical) thoughts. As its nature, the Women and Development (WAD) approach criticised WID because of an increasing gap between men and women. According to WAD, the idea of women’s inclusion was wrong because women already contributed substantially to society. Yet, they were not receiving the benefits of their contributions, and WID further contributed to global inequalities. The main rationale of WAD was to increase interactions between men and women rather than just implementing strategies of women’s inclusion. Besides, WAD considered the class system and unequal distribution of resources to be primary problems, as it’s women and men who suffer from the current system. On a theoretical level, WAD strongly endorsed changes to the class system; however, it proved impractical as it ignored the reason for patriarchy and failed to answer the social relationships between men and women.
Gender and Development (GAD):
In the 1980s, further reflection on development approaches started the debate of Gender and Development (GAD). As GAD followed and learned from the weaknesses and failures of WID and WAD, it was a more comprehensive approach. GAD paid particular attention to social and gender relations and divisions of labour in society. The GAD approach strove to provide further rise to women’s voices while simultaneously emphasising women’s productive and reproductive roles, contending taking care of children is a state responsibility. As a result of GAD, in 1996, the Zambian government changed their department of WID to the Gender and Development Division (GADD). These changes made it easier for women to raise their voices more constructively in an African country. Gender development is a continuous, current phenomenon. Women have choices today that they did not have in prior or even the last generation.
The main point is that instead of discussing whether to mainstream gender or not, it needs to be discussed how it can happen in a better way. Gender mainstreaming is considered a theory of change in GAD.
The above discussion has offered an overview of how gender mainstreaming’s theoretical approaches and expectations have met with the praxis; however, some scholars critique the concept of depoliticising and diluting equality struggles. These considerations are also worth inquiry and, accordingly, are discussed below.
KP’s Education Reforms – Heading Towards Right Path
The first word revealed in the holy Quran was “Iqra” which means “to read”. This first verse of Holy Quran shows us the importance of pen, greatness of knowledge and importance of education in Islam. Article 25-A of Pakistan’s constitution obliges the state to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and sixteen. Education is the reason behind rise and fall of any nation. After the 18th amendment, on April 19th 2010, the education sector was assigned to the provinces, with a hope that provinces would focus on providing quality education, as previously; there was a lack of comprehensive planning and strategy in this sector.
During its second stint in KP, PTI-led government declared an education emergency in the province. As part of election manifesto, PM Imran Khan reiterated his firm resolve to upgrade education system across KP. Consequently, during past three years, KP government has focused on the neglected education sector and introduced various revolutionary steps to improve the quality of education.
The provincial government is spending heavily on building infrastructure and basic facilities. The number of non-functional schools have been reduced massively due to effective policies. A real time focus is given to the lack of facilities like boundary walls, water supply, electricity, and toilets. To get rid of load shedding issues, the government installed thousands of solar panels in schools to have an un-interrupted supply of electricity at daytime. Simultaneously, increased annual budget for education.
The present age is known as an era of Information Technology (IT) and a nation cannot progress without making full use of it. Therefore, the provincial government has established thousands of state of the art IT labs across KP. It is pertinent to mention here that Microsoft has also endorsed this effort and offered to train above 15000 IT teachers with free certification.
The major five-year revolutionary educational reform plan (2019-2023) was brought by department of Elementary and Secondary Education as a flagship project of KP government in this tenure. The four core aspects of this innovative plan includes teachers’ training, curriculum reforms, establishment and up-gradation of schools and the appointment of new teaching staff.
In order to reduce teacher to student ratio it has been decided to hire 65,000 new teachers well versed with modern education techniques, including 11,000 primary teachers under this five years’ plan. So far, more than 40,000 teachers have been recruited on merit bases through NTS. After the merger of tribal districts in KP, the education Ministry has approved a handsome amount for the restructuring the current education system. In order to modernize the current education system, KP government has established 138 Data Collection Monitoring Assistants (DCMAs) in tribal districts.
Taleemi Islahi Jirga (TIJs) are converted into Parent-Teacher Councils (PTCs) and connected them with education ministry with an aim to keep a check and balance. Government has introduced a new concept of school leaders and aims to train about 3,000 leaders who will be responsible for monitoring the classrooms, lesson management, implementation, and daily school life.
The process of expanding teachers’ training program to all districts of the province is also in process. Furthermore, the education department has almost completed its working on the development of high-quality script lessons for different subjects. Textbooks for classes 1 to 10, will also be revised according to modern standards by 2023.
Another milestone achieved by KP government is the establishment of Independent Monitoring Unit (IMU). This vigilant monitoring system has reduced teachers’ absenteeism by 17% to 20%. It also constantly collects reliable data which is helpful for realistic planning.
Previously, teachers used to take salaries without performing any duties; however, with the advent of biometric attendance system, those ghost servants have been captured. Enrollment drives have been organized every year. Government is giving free books to the children including drawing and coloring books to enhance their creative thinking. Government is also stressing on female education through its new policy of building classrooms with a ratio of 2 for female and 1 for male.
To impart the true teachings of Islam, Quranic education and Nazira is made compulsory up to class 12th. In a refreshing development, students of private schools are migrating to government schools due to student-friendly policies.
Nevertheless, there is room for improvement in the education sector like linking promotions of teaching and administrative staff with performance. Government teachers should be made bound to enroll their children in public sector. The concept of uniform curriculum will create national thinking. Another important aspect which needs attention is to address the growing role of tuition and coaching centers. Technical education should also be focused from the base. Experiences of others successful educational models like Finland model may be studied to improve the sector.
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