Women's day

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Even as I set out finding influencers for the story, I echoed author Kavita Kane, who (you will see as you read on) asks— What exactly are we celebrating on Women’s day? On one hand, when there are women leaders and achievers to be celebrated, young girls as old as 12 are still being married off several countries including India and Pakistan. If women are being sent to the Moon and women scientists are gaining recognition, there are still girls and women who are isolated because they are on their period.

And so, this women's day, we asked five women influencers what their idea of feminism is and how they fought naysayers.

Asma Khan

Indian-origin British chef, who runs a restaurant called Darjeeling Express in London. Her kitchen has only women.

First feminist moment

In my immediate family, I never felt I was treated any different from my brother. When my brother was born- there were no celebrations. The only thing I remember was my great grandfather flying in for a day to see my brother and getting a big bag of Poppins (a type of candy) from him.

The first time I remember being conscious was that outside my family girls were seen as different was when I went to Shishu Bhavan in Calcutta (Kolkata now) which was an orphanage run by Mother Teresa to volunteer in my early teens. I remember the shock of seeing every child in that orphanage was a girl. I realised no one had abandoned a boy. This was the first time I remember feeling upset and angry that the girl child was seen as a liability and was abandoned so easily.

In a man's world

I established my restaurant and have not been through the ranks in kitchens which is how most chefs advance in their careers. It is still rare to see women in kitchens— especially in Indian restaurants, which are more male-dominated in the west. I know of cases of bullying and abuse of women, but I have never been able to convince them to go public with their accusations as hospitality is still very cliquey and women being abused or undermined are afraid to be seen as “troublemakers” or “fussy” and afraid they may not get another job in the industry if they come out publicly and complain. A lot of male chefs get away by making misogynistic comments about women in the kitchen. They are given book deals, time on television and headline food festivals. A very few voices are raised in support of women in kitchens

It was not a conscious attempt to have all women— I just needed to work with women who cook like me. Nearly all male chefs in the West have been trained in culinary school and went on to work in 5-star hotels. I needed to cook with someone who learnt the way I did- by looking and watching, going by intuition. I needed multitasking women who would get the job done!

Are people still surprised when you tell them that you are a chef?

Surprisingly the response I have always got when I began my food business was long questioning on what I cooked! The hurdles I hit getting to open my restaurant were difficult but I think women face this in every profession when they try to enter a space where too few women exist. I overcame this by building a collective of women around me— not just those cooking in my kitchen but also those designing my kitchen, helping me with financial advice, helping me plan my menu and service. To anyone looking from the outside, the journey of Darjeeling Express the restaurant may seem like a feminist project. But I didn't. I surrounded myself with people who believed in me, who cheered me on, who told their friends about me and sent me customers, women who wrote about me in the media with warmth and affection. I built up a network of empathetic people who all happened to be women!

How do you define feminism today and how can we keep the movement alive?

The prejudice faced by my generation of what “girls could do” has changed in the last 3 decades. Of course, only changed for the microscopic elite living in cities and towns of certain economic background. For the poor, the rural and marginalised communities it is still as hard being a woman as it was decades ago. Progress if any is only happening in pockets where there is a focus on raising literacy in girls, promoting hygiene and health facilities for women and girls and increasing employment prospects for women. The rhetoric you read from some of the political elite still reeks of patriarchy. The road to emancipation for women is still long.

My advice to any woman wanting to enter a male-dominated profession is to build up a network of support- not just with other women but progressive men in the workplace. What is hardest to deal with is the isolation and feeling you do not fit in— the way to counter that is to find a way to build your confidence. If you feel driven and determined, people around you can sense that aura!