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She was shocked to learn it was happening in her native country

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Freida Pinto opens up about a “crime against a woman’s body” in India

By Purvi Thacker and Brigit Katz on April 10, 2015

Frieda Pinto
Joe Kohen/Women in the World

It’s been seven years since Freida Pinto danced onto the Hollywood scene with her sunny turn in Slumdog Millionaire, a relentlessly charming love story set against the backdrop of Mumbai’s slums. The film, a plucky underdog, swept the Oscars and launched Pinto into instant stardom. To date, she has appeared in an eclectic range of films—from the arty Trishna to the massive blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes—and has worked with the likes of Woody Allen and Julian Schnabel.

Pinto, the youngest of two daughters, hails from a middle class, Catholic family in Bombay, where her mother was a high school principal and her father worked as the branch manager of a bank.

With Pinto’s rise to fame came product endorsement gigs and “Most Beautiful People Lists”—all lovely, of course, but for Pinto, they are not enough. The actress is determined to use her public platform to champion the rights of women and children around the world. Pinto currently serves as Plan International’s global ambassador for the ‘Because I Am A Girl’ campaign, a title that allows her to advocate for gender equality and speak out against female genital mutilation and child marriage. She is also involved in the Agassi Foundation, a philanthropic organization that provides disadvantaged children with an education.

Most recently, Pinto acted as the associate producer of India’s Daughter, the explosive documentary by Leslee Udwin about the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old Delhi medical student. Because Indian press outlets are prohibited from reporting the names of rape victims, Singh became known as “Nirbhaya,” a Hindhi word meaning “fearless.” The brutal crime and its aftermath ignited an uprising in India over the society’s complacency toward dealing with rape. At the film’s U.S. premiere in March, Pinto spoke forcefully about global misogyny, and the need for men and women to work together to combat gender discrimination.

Pinto, who will be hosting a panel at the Women in the World Summit taking place in New York City April 22-24, spoke to Women in the World about her activism efforts and passion for human rights at large.

Women in the World: Can you give us an insight into your activism efforts at Plan International? What drew you into it?

Freida Pinto: I grew up in Bombay and would travel to school and college taking public transportation, and had a chance to meet people from all walks of life, whether it was using the local train or sitting in a rickshaw. It’s hard to ignore that there are children begging at traffic lights and they are not in school. It’s hard to ignore the fact that they come singing into trains looking for alms or food, and it’s hard to just sit in the train and look at the slums along the railway lines.

I am not superhuman and I don’t have all this money in the world where I can close my eyes and perform an ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ stunt and then change everything. But whatever little I can do when I know that I have a voice that can be recognized and be heard, I will do.

WITW: Gender equality and women’s rights are at the forefront in India. You recently spoke out in support of India’s Daughter–can you highlight your involvement with the movie?

FP: Tess Joseph, who is my co-producer for Girl Rising India, another campaign that I have been part of for the past two and half years asked me to come look at a film they were editing called India’s Daughter and she said that Leslee Udwin, the director, would really like me to watch it.

They didn’t tell me why they wanted me to watch it, and after I did, I had this immediate reaction that I need to get behind this film and do something about it.

It’s not glorifying rape or shaming India as country, but it’s about how we need to expose these mindsets and start working towards these mindsets and start evolving them. This is the producer in me where I go into a mode when I am doing things I am passionate about.

I started working actively on the marketing of the film and Leslee asked me to take on the credit of associate producer for all the work that I was doing and I graciously accepted. And I can say this very confidently that I am dedicated and committed to this project for rest of my life.

WITW: What are your thoughts on the ban?

FP: The ban was very unfortunate, but somehow worked to our advantage as it got a lot of people curious about the film. It also later made us all question the status of democracy in our country and the freedom of speech and expression and the right to chose what we see and want to see. It goes against the very notion that is so lengthily etched out in India’s constitution. I do hope that whatever the misunderstanding or miscommunication was will get cleared up because I would never put down my name behind anything that was shaming my country, because I am very country proud and it would be completely counterproductive to what I stand for. To have everyone think that all men in India are bad and all women are subjugated, that’s not what the situation is and I actively and vehemently correct people when they think like that. So now I think its time to lift the ban.

WITW: The views expressed by the rapists’ lawyers in the film are shockingly harsh. “If you leave a diamond in the street, surely the dogs will take it,” essentially meaning it’s the victim’s fault she was raped. How much have you encountered that view in India yourself?

FP: I have encountered this actually. When I was shooting for my film Trishna, I spent about two weeks prior to that in Rajasthan and saw this backward attitude amongst poor families as well as rich educated families. And what I realized was that its not only the uneducated that have these regressive attitudes, the poor are held back because of their economic and social status and because they don’t have access to means, but what is more upsetting is that educated class had these thoughts. Some of them were even against their daughters riding a scooter because it was not ladylike and insisted that they get married off by the age of 18. These sort of people from the privileged class are impeding the real progress of women in India. I was also more shocked when I heard the lawyers’ viewpoints – they were even more despicable than the rapists.

WITW: When did your activist passion take hold? Was it inspired by India’s gender version of the Arab spring when the Nirbhaya gang-rape brought everyone into the streets in Delhi? 

FP: A lot of it stems from growing up in Mumbai and seeing the unfairness and the inequality around me, so I have always been passionate about equal rights. I was also in Tunisia in January 2011 when the Arab Spring actually broke out and there was absolute chaos. While most foreigners were fleeing, I decided to stay back and as I felt that at that point unity was very important, it didn’t matter that I was not Tunisian. Being human and part of a history making process that’s fighting for equal opportunity overrides everything else. So when the Nirbhaya episode happened, I hope that the movement would bring about some unity because I didn’t want her death to have gone to waste.

WITW: Tell us about some of the countries you have visited where the sustainable projects on clean water, sanitation, education and safety are in motion. Any first-hand efforts that you have witnessed?

FP: I’ve been born and brought up in India, and so is natural for people to think that for me India is the easiest terrain to cover, but its actually quite the contrary. Simply because you think you know everything, until you go out there and actually listen.

I was in Sierra Leone and taken to a camp where we were setting up a project for ending female genital mutilation. This is a horrifying crime and maybe its tradition is some cultures, but at the end of the day it’s a crime against a woman’s body and I am sitting there and thinking this has to stop. Now, two years later, I am working on the U.K. summit in London on ending female genital mutilation program, kicking in all this information I had, and then I am told that the practice is carried out even in India and that was an absolute shocker for me because I didn’t even know that. It may be a small number in terms of the people that actually practice it, but the fact that it actually happens and I was ignorant and didn’t know made me realize that there is a lot of research to be done in India as well.

WITW: What can we do to protect the rights of women specifically when it comes to minority women–Dalits, untouchables, Yazidis, Assyrians, etc.?

FP: It comes down to a lot of policy making and government officials coming together and it boils down to how we view these women in the first place – why is it that Dalits seem to have no right in India whatsoever or why are crimes against jihadi brides in the Middle East so rampant?

It comes down to educating ourselves and be well read and, secondly, use our position and voice responsibly to leverage change. Whether it’s through writing or vocalizing, we all have to come together to initiate change.

These women may seem like a smaller number compared to what is trying to be done on a larger more economic level, but we can’t ignore these people, and you can’t just reduce them to a number as they are real people behind those numbers.

WITW: What can be done to get more men involved in women’s issues?

FP: First of all it starts with the mind and awareness. We cannot be going out there as women who are beacons of change and talk about women’s emancipation by sidelining men because it will just take us 20 years back. Any sexist ideas we may have in our mind need to be eradicated. We have to realize that while there are crimes like rape and sexual abuse and violence at home, there are also good men out there and we need to be able to include them at every step of the way. There is no denying the fact that when my dad hears about the Nirbhaya story, he feels just as angry as I do, so the first thing that we need to do is not polarize in our minds.

I say it over and over again and will continue doing so until it becomes part of every school syllabus right from the beginning. Gender sensitization is key and is the basic education that every boy and girl must have, whether it’s an only boys school, girls school or a co-educational school.

Simultaneously, economic statuses should be kept in mind because not everybody will have access to fancy schools so how do we take this into makeshift schools that happen under trees say in a village in Bihar or Haryana where you hear about a lot of these crimes happening? You can start at that level and then take them into adult literacy programs because we don’t want to forget that a couple of generations that have gone by that have missed the opportunity of understanding the value of each others gender in general. It’s important to start with kids and then take it onto the next generation as well.

Also patience. We all need to have it. Yes we feel the urgency but we have to have patient.

WITW: How much time are you spending on activism versus your acting work? Is your activism affecting your choice of movie roles?

FP: It’s not negotiable which I chose over the other because they are both equally important to me. So I spent half my time on my films and the other half doing my advocacy work and I think they are interdependent on each other. I am known for my career as an actor and if I stop that, how will my voice become stronger in upholding my other work? I respect the integrity of both jobs. Yes I am doing films that have the subject matter of women being represented accurately, but I could just as well do a period film or a comedy tomorrow.

WITW: Do you believe movies can effect change?

FP: Yes I do think that movies can effect change, not in a whole policy driven change, which involves other aspects like legal and political work and countries and constitutions, but I think that films can definitely start a meaningful conversation. That’s why its very important that storytelling is carried out accurately and responsibly.

WITW: What does being a woman mean to you?

FP: That is such a loaded question – it means that I have so many wonderful and different facets to me that I have not discovered and I will continue discovering and some that I absolutely love.

I have also discovered that there are certain facets I don’t love and would like to change and I am not just referring to myself, but based on my observations on how society and women have been programmed to function based on centuries of gender discrimination. So, there is a good side to it and a bad side to it, like there is with everything in life, there is a yin and a yang and I accept it and work towards things that I think are unacceptable.

But to be a woman especially in 2015 is just amazing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.