Role reversal

UN Women appoints its first-ever man to be group’s Goodwill Ambassador

Why a pop culture sensation is now representing women’s rights at the United Nations

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For Bollywood aficionados, the name Farhan Akhtar is synonymous with superstardom and a rap sheet of some of the best movies in Indian cinema. Writer, musician, songwriter, actor, and filmmaker- these are just some of that hats Akthar dons in the arena of pop culture and entertainment.

But recently, Akhtar has also been thrown into the spotlight for his fervent initiatives to champion women’s rights and create a solidarity movement for gender equality. While he launched his own social campaign, MARD or “Men Against Rape and Discrimination,” in India two years ago, he has now taken a global center stage as UN Women’s first ever-male Goodwill Ambassador. Here are some excerpts from his interview with Women in the World, where he outlines his inspiration for the initiative, commitments for the future and hopes for setting a precedent for more male involvement in ending violence against women.

Women in the World: What provoked you to get involved in supporting women’s empowerment?

Farhan Akhtar: I grew up predominantly around women- namely my mother and sister and my formative years had a huge role to play in shaping my worldview towards the opposite sex. My mother played out the role of a typical traditional housewife and I witnessed the effort it took for her to recharge her life after her separation with my father. A lot of it was possible because of the people that rallied around her. 

Everyday, I learn new things because of my wife and two daughters and this all encompassing women-centric presence in my life has made me more cognizant of equal rights in general- whether it is the independence to travel or the freedoms associated with experiencing life with an equivalent perspective.

So when incidents of rape and violence against women starting making headlines in India (the Delhi 2012 bus gang rape and thereafter), the very natural thing for me was to stand up and leverage my position and use my voice to help create awareness on how alarming this was. I was especially taken with the stories of brutality that emerged from these incidents.

Another important starting point for me was the untimely death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, which ultimately led to international protests calling for a review of abortion laws in the country. The event and its aftermath were real eye openers for me, and motivated me to seek change for women and their basic and personal rights, both in India and worldwide.

Women in the World: How do you plan to shift the narrative of gender violence to make it more male centric issue? How do you plan to get more men involved?

Farhan Akhtar: First of all, its important to acknowledge the most worrying issue that emerges out of each reported violent act committed towards a woman- that of humiliating and shaming. The brutality of an act shows you that more than a sexual overtone; it is truly about breaking a person. This knowledge is key as it forms the basis to then address the problem, which should begin with steering towards changing basic mindsets.

Everyone knows that we love our pop culture icons, and in India, Bollywood actors and sportsmen are regarded as heroes.  So I would like to use my position in people’s hearts and homes to address the most rampant issues of gender discrimination in my country first. If I can bring about even little shift in perception at home first, then only can I can serve as an advocate for UN Women’s overarching mission to involving the rest of the world in creating a uniform movement.

One way of operating and taking this idea forward is to engage with male students in various colleges and tap into gender sensitization at an adolescent stage. This behavior initiative by MARD (which translates into ‘man’ in Hindi) is to teach parameters of masculinity to boys on the cusp of manhood. A lot of young men take cues from social and cultural references like films, advertising and music, where a lot of qualities put out are aggressive in nature and teaches them not to take no for an answer. I want to try and create an alternate mindset-that it’s okay to be gentle and even to cry or be rejected. And that anything counter to that should not be tackled with violence.

I want to design programs using artistic content (short films, documentaries, music, writing) and collaborate with NGO’s to bring about awareness and serve as a catalyst for change. I recently tied up with Google India to teach women digital literacy and partnered with Magic Bus, Matthew Spacie’s collective drive to generate consciousness through education.

I am heartened by the changing realities and what I have seen so far- the younger generation in India is more open to dialogue, discourse and understanding and I can see that they have been encouraged to be leaders and crusaders, committed towards the gender equality movement.

Women in the World: The defense lawyers/some policemen’s statements in the controversial ‘India’s Daughter’ documentary have created a storm as people are appalled at their narrow conservative outlook- how can one tackle pre-existing mindsets like theirs or those of the older, more traditional generation in India?

Farhan Akhtar: I cannot speak for anyone, but I think it’s rather unfair to paint people with the same brush and go into generalizations. Yes, there are some existing mindsets that cling onto patriarchal values, but the only way to begin is to get them to understand what it is to feel shame and guilt. Every country goes through problems- whether its economic, social issues or political upheavals. In India, we even have the issue of caste and rape to look at, but hopefully, over time they will get weeded out. Look at some of the advances made post the 2012 Delhi Nirbhaya bus incident- not only do we have faster court proceedings, but also we’ve started defining and categorizing issues. Earlier stalking wasn’t even in the purview of sexual harassment, but now it is.

There is a clash of civilizations in India, but my hope lies with the younger generation who is exposed to liberal value systems from other parts of the world and reflects the more mainstream majority mindset.

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