Meet women who are smashing stereotypes and promoting inclusiveness in various forms

Even without meaning to, we perpetuate stereotypes. Sexist jokes, racist slurs, regionalist jibes. What’s worse, if you’re woke and protest, you may find yourself being pinned with the stereotype of being too politically correct, or prudish or propah! Exasperating, no?

There are enough stereotypes around gender roles, race, age, professions, people to keep worn-out ideas in circulation. So, when we hear fresh new voices speaking the language of inclusivity and challenging clichés, what do we do? We back them up, obvi!

And so taking the idea ahead, we decided to celebrate people who have challenged conventional understand of respectability and tradition to break stereotypes and pave a path for themselves.  

Sofia Ashraf



Sofia Ashraf may be petite but her words can be heard loud and clear. Getting to where she is today has been a journey of self-discovery for her. Ashraf hails from a conventional Muslim family, orthodox in its ways, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing her passion, thereby becoming a role model for other young women. “I have always loved being on stage and performing. I also liked writing, which eventually became rap,” she says, adding, in the early days, during her college, she used to rap wearing a hijab and earned the nickname—The Burqa Rapper.

As an (ex) burqa-clad rapper, she is forthright when it comes to both her identity and faith. In the early days of Ashraf’s rapping career, it was the need to show the true face of Islam and not what it is portrayed as, “It was all about calling ‘a spade a spade, not an Islamic spade’” she explains. You will find videos of young Ashraf’s status-quo challenging rap performances on YouTube. Sofia’s work has made female rap a crucial element of the hip-hop genre, especially in India where hip-hop is a male-dominated industry.

Currently, Ashraf is working on an album that has been three years in the making. It addresses many social issues and mindsets. For instance, one of the songs is titled ‘Embroidery Bitch’. “Somehow men have hijacked the ‘cool’ factor from all things. All things macho are considered cool but not effeminate activities such as embroidery,” she says, explaining her idea behind the theme of the song.

Ashraf’s personal rap style is inspired by Sri Lankan M.I.A. “She has truly embraced her culture. M.I.A. has a very distinctive sound, accent and stories that only she can do and are directly related to her background. Before listening to her body of work I used to rap in a stereotypical American accent—that’s pretty much how everyone who raps has started off,” she explains.


Similar to M.I.A, Ashraf uses rap to express her point of view. “Rap has also been a cathartic medium where I can feel the emotion behind every word one utters,” she says. “Art has helped as therapy when I would feel alone, unable to express or share how I felt,” she further says adding that it overwhelms her to see so many women and kindred spirits reaching out to her with their stories of subjugation. “And it wasn’t just Muslim women but members of all communities and religions.”

Thanks to Ashraf’s work, which directly addresses relevant political issues and even feminism, young women have found the courage to share their stories and raise their voices.

Also read: The Unstereotype Challenge - Kasavu, Coffee and Conversations in the Office Canteen 

Sumukhi Suresh



From playing unconventional roles such as Anu Aunty in The Engineering Anthem and a nosey maid in the Maid Interview to writing her own characters of Behti Naak and Pushpavalli, Sumukhi Suresh has been using jokes to touch upon sensitive issues considered taboo in public conversations. She addresses women struggling with body image and self-esteem issues. The real-life story behind Suresh's comedy series, Pushpavalli, an Amazon Prime web series, is one that flouts the traditional standards and notions about women in favour of self-love.

“The character Pushpavalli is indeed quite close to my heart. She’s flawed in all possible ways. In a way she was able to bust the myth that nahi duniya mai toh aise log (read women) ho hi nahi sakte,” she says. As an actor, stand-up comic, writer and director, Suresh wears multiple hats and is known for conquering the hearts of her audience with her laid-back approach punched with acerbic wit and epic expressions.


“The characters of Anu Aunty or the nosey maid were all written by men. I realised that men tend to write about characters who they are most used to seeing, such as mothers, caretakers, maids, sisters or wives. They don’t understand the multiple layers that a women’s character can actually have,” says Suresh about playing unconventional characters. “The moment I started writing characters for myself; for instance, Behti Naak, I decided that I didn’t want to create women who are the karta dhartas, the abla naaris or the ones who are morally correct. In Pushpavalli, I had people asking me how a woman can play the role of a stalker. But, according to me, both women and men can play grey characters,” she adds. As a show that saw a plus-sized woman playing the lead, typical themes that overweight women are usually straddled with are smashed to bits by Suresh, one episode at a time.

In recent times, even though a diverse pool of female stand-up comics have entered the fray, but it still isn’t enough. Commenting on the same, she says, “We do need more women in the comic scene—this helps more voices to be heard. However, the challenge we face here is with these labels. I’m a comedian – not a ‘female comedian’. A comedian is genderless.”

Also read: Indian spirits will give Jane Walker a run for its money 

Indu Harikumar



In a time where airbrushed and photoshopped pictures flood social media and our lives, artist Indu Harikumar’s latest Instagram project is an honest and candid representation of real women and their bodies (read breasts). This Mumbai-based artist’s work combats taboos around our bodies, smashing the beauty bias, combating gender stereotypes and promoting the message of self-love and acceptance.

From her #100TinderTales, a crowd-sourced project in 2016, that collected and shared people’s experiences on the dating app to her most recent project #Identitty, which sees women flaunting their perfect-imperfect breasts – Harikumar’s artwork challenges notions of a physically perfect woman with skinny bodies and gigantic breasts. She received stories and photographs from women, which the 39-year old illustrator turned into illustrations and posted them on her Instagram with the accompanying stories. “I do not have an agenda behind my work. I just let people’s stories lead me on. Because if I did have an agenda, it would’ve been quite overwhelming,” she says.


For someone who was skinny until the age of 35, and who would often be reminded of being small chested, Harikumar has today come a long way and how. “I felt like half a person back then. Today, it’s not only about my body, but who I have become through my work and my experiences. My work has helped me deal with my own inner demons. Besides, people who consume my work, also seem to be telling me this. I don’t really know how they deal with their (demons), but maybe it’s just knowing that you’re not alone out there and that there are more people having such similar experiences and at least opening up channels of conversations,” she says.

Harikumar’s projects have managed to create a safe space for women to come forward with their personal stories, helping them accept their imperfections and in the bargain shun stereotypes revolving around beauty.

Also read: 5 sure shot ways to make southern spices shine 

Toshada Uma



Standing at 4'8 inches and as someone who suffers from a condition called alopecia, Toshada Uma is not your conventional model-blogger. Petite and bald, she is not only carving her own niche in the fashion and beauty industry—with a 565,000 strong following on Instagram--but is also redefining and challenging traditional concepts of the beauty and fashion industry where women proudly sashay in fashionable gowns, near-perfect makeup and wear their long lustrous mane.

It was in 2016 when Uma took the empowering decision to shave her head. “In my mind, it was simply a haircut I felt comfortable in! I wouldn't attach an adjective to it, it wasn't the biggest or best decision of my life but simply a decision. My condition is a part of me, I don't consider it a weakness, nor do I think it gives me strength. I am a lot more than a condition,” shares Uma. Taking the conversation of body positivity ahead, Uma firmly believes that all bodies are created beautiful and not discriminating based on appearance is what body positivity really means.


Also read: Beyond our bodies

By embracing her hair loss as a medical condition, Uma has today opened up a window into an alternate idea of beauty. Uma explains, “Over a million cases of alopecia areata are reported in India alone, per year. This is a condition where you lose hair in patches all over the body. Occurring when the immune system attacks the hair follicles, it may further be triggered by severe stress, thyroid disorders, autoimmune diseases and such. In my case, it's due to hypothyroidism.”

Unlike most women for whom a new hair cut means a new look, for 19-year-old Uma, it means donning her favourite wigs, one day at a time. “I think everyone has the right to wear whatever they feel like and present themselves in the manner they wish to. If not wearing any makeup or wigs makes one comfortable, so be it; if decking up makes someone feel comfortable, so be it! It's incredibly important to learn that we needn't fit into a certain mould of beauty or success. Once you realise that, self-love comes easy!” And the best way to do so is by accepting yourself unapologetically, and fearlessly, says Uma, who dedicates her time posting tutorials on making wigs and eyebrow extensions.

Shweta Rathore


It is seldom that we hear a woman say, ‘I want to be a physique athlete’. Shweta Rathore did. Her fitness journey began early, at the age of 15. She would often skip tuitions just to go to the gym. “It took some time for my family, mainly my father, to realise how passionate I was. But once they saw my dedication and transformation, they became supportive. And today, they are my biggest strength and support system,” she shares.

Given her love for the gym, one would assume she was focused about a foray into sports from the beginning. However, it was otherwise. Rathore has donned several hats–an engineer, philanthropist, marketer and even entrepreneur—before she finally became an athlete. It was in 2014 that she created history by becoming the first Indian female bodybuilder to win a medal at a world championship. More accolades—Miss Asia 2015 Fitness Physique, Miss India Sports Physique Champion 2015, Miss Maharashtra Sports Physique Champion—followed in the coming years.


Today Rathore is a poster child for a growing number of female physique athletes in India. But she had to face a  fair share of obstacles and criticism before finally getting here. This included daily gazes, lack of sponsors, and lack of guidance. “Not just sports, most fields are male-dominated. However, things are changing. I knew these issues will come, so I was mentally prepared for the challenges. As women, we need to understand that we are stronger and if we are determined to do something, no one can stop us. Also, you must be fit mentally and not just physically to face them,” Rathore explains her adamancy.

This journey has never been about proving things to people, Rathore’s aim is to learn and then educate and inspire people, who share the same dream. She uses her social media accounts to do so – create more awareness about the sport, educate people about fitness and inspire followers to work hard to achieve their dreams.

To help other women who wish to take up this male-dominated sport, the athlete has also set up an academy called Fitness Forever. “The basic goal of the academy is to support and help potential talent with regular classes, workshops, and seminars, right from grooming to proper exercises,” Rathore explains.



Watch a fresh new perspective on South India in our newest show Dakshin Diaries and #unstereotype the south

 


With inputs from Sayoni Bhaduri, Shraddha Varma and Annabelle D’Costa 
Lead image conceptualised by Vartika Pahuja 

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