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10 Fearless Women Speak on Feminism, Sisterhood and Courage

An inimitable group of women share their stories of courage, sisterhood, and speaking the truth.   

As we celebrate 24 years of being a magazine with a fearless voice, Cosmo brings together an inimitable group of women who dared to dream, and dared to speak up about the things that matter. Set out to bring monumental shifts in the world, this female collective shares its stories of courage, sisterhood, and speaking the truth. 

Aqui Thami, Artist, Activist, and Founder, Sister Library and Sister Radio

“We exist in a world that loves to convince us that we have no worth, and so it is only natural that we often doubt ourselves. When I need courage to use my voice, I find myself reading this quote by Audre Lorde, ‘When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision—then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid’. I have days when I doubt my inner voice, too, but I have learned to trust it more and more, through experience. 
I left home when I was 15, and living by myself, navigating a different culture was immensely difficult. Although it had a lot of downsides, it also instilled in me a sense of independence that is unflinching. We live difficult lives, complying with the norms of the society that dictates not only how we are to exist, but also what we deserve. To even be able to exist under these oppressive structures, it is essential to build a community to uplift and celebrate each other. I stand for building a world with liberation at the core—liberation from subjugation based on sex, caste, race, and other inequalities. The lockdown was difficult at first. I, like many other millennials, was drawn to consume content digitally, but I didn’t find anything that piqued my interest. Podcasts that spoke about mental health would not address intergenerational trauma, or inherited poverty, or sickness... Sitcoms and movies wouldn’t feature indigenous women or their stories. It made me feel even more isolated. I felt this urge to check on my sisters across tribes, communities, and borders. And so I started making ‘care calls’ to them, to have conversations with one indigenous, or Dalit, or Bahujan sister, every lunar cycle. These kept me going, and this is also how Sister Radio started. 
As women, we should start with self-reflection and finding our voice. Women who speak their minds are not always appreciated, but please don’t let that discourage you from speaking up. Once you know your voice, nothing should stop you.”

Natasha Mudhar, Co-Founder, The World We Want

“I’m grateful to have been raised by two courageous women—my mother and grandmother—in a household where female empowerment was not seen as a tick box, challenge, or even a privilege, but a basic human right. And it was my now 78-year-old grandmother’s story that inspired me to create a platform—The World We Want—to address and tackle the inequalities that continue to exist in our world, especially amongst marginalised communities such as women. My grandmother had to leave school at the age of 10, and marry at 15, owing to various circumstances. I often wonder whether this would have been the path she would have taken had it not been expected of her purely because of her gender and the expectations of women in that era. Access to education shouldn’t be determined by a child’s gender, yet 130 million girls globally are out of school, and 15 million girls of primary-school age will never even enter a classroom. I began to wonder how we could ensure that everybody is given equal access to basic human rights. I believe the first step to solving this starts with awareness. You may be fortunate to come from a privileged background and that is why it’s essential to use your privileges positively as a lever to empower others. The World We Want is a purpose-driven, global, social-impact enterprise launched to unlock the collective strength of people, ideas, networks, and technologies, to accelerate the pace of progress towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. If achieved, we could end global poverty, reduce inequalities, and be the last generation to feel the effects of climate change by 2030. Being a social-impact marketer and investor, I’m very aware of the power of storytelling to not only educate and raise awareness, but also to inspire action. The goal is to simplify conversations and make them household chatter, or the kind of thing we talk about at the office water cooler. Also, women need to recognise their self-worth. I’ve always said that it’s not about having ‘special rights’ but ‘equal rights’. Only when we know what our rights are can we fight for them. So, my message would be to be vigilant, informed, and proactive in understanding the true meaning of equality.”

Leeza Mangaldas, Digital Content Creator

“Sexuality and sexual health in India remain taboo topics—even more so when it comes to women’s sexuality and pleasure. The prevailing attitude is that sex should only take place within the confines of a heterosexual, same-religion, same-caste marriage, solely with the intent to have children. Anything else is unacceptable. And because of the incredible amount of stigma attached to sex and sexuality, people are forced to lead double lives, with nowhere to turn to for guidance; their desires always laced with shame and fear. Also, sex in the mainstream media (movies, shows, news) tends to be presented as either deplorable or funny—it’s either the subject of moralising and policing, or the butt of jokes. In my early 20s, navigating my own sexuality, I found that there is such a lack of credible resources available to turn to for accurate, non-judgemental information about sex, sexuality, sexual health, the body, gender expectations, pleasure, or even just women’s experiences. So, I wanted to create a safe space for conversation. 
I wanted to imagine an India where all sexual experiences are consensual, safe, and pleasurable. And I knew there had to be thousands of other young people out there who share this vision and are tired of being unable to express themselves without shame and judgement. Many women who might want to talk about a topic like sexuality can’t, for fear of consequences—often within their own homes. Luckily, my family completely shares my point of view and they are my biggest supporters. I realise what a massive privilege that is, and feel an even greater sense of responsibility to create a safe space for young people. My call to action to women today is to understand that feminism isn’t just a hashtag...it has got to be much more than just phrases like ‘Be yourself’ and ‘Lean in’. We’ve got to go further than this sort of cutesy feminism that has been co-opted by capitalism to sell us ‘Empowering’ tote bags and coffee mugs. We’ve got to do the work to unlearn internalised misogyny and acknowledge the ways that gender-based oppression is linked to other forms of oppression such as caste, religion, race, and sexuality-based discrimination. And if we really want to smash patriarchy, we’ve got to take the men in our lives on this journey with us—educate yourself on equality, and then educate everyone you know.”

Radhika Vaz, Comedian and Author

“As a comedian, it is my job to speak up... Women’s rights, gay rights, and legalisation of weed are causes close to my heart. I have a lot of material on this stuff in my stand-up sets, too. I love the live audience reactions and even interaction on these subjects—it’s like you can communicate directly with people about things we should all be aware of. 
When speaking up about things that matter, any feelings of fear feel a little selfish. I am lucky I am so protected, so privileged. But that’s not being brave at all...it’s only brave if your life is in danger. When it comes to finding the courage to use your voice, especially on issues where there may be pushback or backlash, I am not sure we have a choice anymore. Look at the state our country is in today—look at the caste-based violence against women. How can we stay silent? 
If you think about the feminist movement, it has definitely evolved. Far more women are now comfortable with accepting the fact that being a feminist is necessary. I remember a major celebrity calling herself a ‘humanist’ in 2014—recently, I saw she is a feminist! That’s progress right? Women tend to ignore their inner voice...and my need for approval definitely made me say and do things I wish I had not, in both personal and professional situations. But recognising that it was happening helped me stop. It’s important that women’s voices are heard because we are still being treated like we don’t matter. As women, to be vigilant about not losing our voice, is an everyday battle. So you must remind yourself to stay awake and alert, and to remember that just because something does not affect you, doesn’t mean that it’s a non-issue. 
We mustn’t be afraid to fail; don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from trying new things. We need leaders who are not afraid to speak the truth. But having said that, it’s shameful when a woman uses her voice to tear down other women. My advice: turn to each other, don’t turn on each other! It is truly important to help other women...by promoting their work, or by ensuring that when you are in a position to choose, you choose a woman.”

Richa Kaul Padte, Author, and Co-Founder and Editor, Deep Dives

“I am genuinely interested in stories that don’t get told. For instance, through my book Cyber Sexy, I tried to explore a landscape of sex and desire in India that didn’t just replicate upper-caste, heterosexual male fantasies. Similarly Deep Dives is a small imprint I co-founded in 2015, where we use longform journalism, art, and essays to explore a variety of narratives from a feminist lens. I think there’s so much that gets left out of mainstream narratives, and I’m really interested in how we might find room to listen to other stories and ideas. I have always relied on reading to feel better, or even to just feel like a whole person. And ever since the pandemic began, I’ve only been ordering books from independent booksellers, which is a better use of my money than handing it over to Jeff Bezos. And, oh, I only read books by female authors! This is more a personal preference than a political choice, but those two things are deeply intertwined, and I genuinely believe we all need to read women’s writings much, much more. 
People often try to suppress women’s voices, and when I’m in the midst of such a situation, I try to remind myself that while everyone on the Internet may have an opinion, I’m not required to emotionally invest in what they’re saying about me or my work. And this is obviously easier said than done, so I end up using the ‘Mute’ button a lot. Using your voice to silence people who are marginalised is something that we’re seeing a lot of, both online and offline. To me, if you hold a certain type of privilege (caste, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, etc) and you end up talking over people who don’t have that, that isn’t a great use of your voice. I love the idea of Shine Theory, created by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, which essentially asks the question: ‘What if we were collaborators instead of competitors?’. I think when women consider their relationships to each other through this lens, so many exciting possibilities emerge. I’d love for women to truly listen to each other more often and more deeply, because if we’re all speaking at the same time, who is left to listen? Taking time to just absorb someone else’s reality, whether it’s via a podcast, a book, or a friend you are FaceTiming with, means that when it’s your turn to speak, someone is genuinely listening to you, too.”

Sonal Giani, Filmmaker and LGBTQIA+ Activist

“I began working on LGBTQIA+ rights when I joined The Humsafar Trust as an Advocacy Officer in 2009. The trust is a community-based organisation that works towards the health and human rights of sexual minorities. I also helped sensitise various kinds of stakeholders including educational institutes, corporate bodies, politicians, law enforcement agencies, etc. Later, I moved on to work as an independent filmmaker and influencer. I continue making people aware about community issues in my individual capacity. I recognise that I am privileged to even have a platform to speak. Working with the community on-ground helps me remain grounded to the realities of their lives. A majority of people may not be able to come out to their family in their lifetime. In fact, voices of lesbian and bisexual women are absent in the mainstream discourse, and sexuality of disabled people is not visible, either. Remembering this helps me face any pushback. I believe that there is no room for fear in the battle for human rights, and that a backlash is a very small price to pay in comparison. In the beginning, I ignored my inner voice owing to social norms, constantly. My voice would speak to me about various things including, but not limited to, desire, sexuality, social convention, mental health, and resistance. I would mostly reject it because I was conditioned to do so, and denial seemed convenient. I even faced severe homophobia at my first workplace, which led to me being diagnosed with severe depression. But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Professional counsellors helped me become more aware of my inner voice and helped me trust it. When women speak of the effects of structured violence on them, we should listen with an open mind. We should consider body language and the effect on mental health at par with physical signs when dealing with abuse. In a world where being stoic is regarded widely as a sign of strength, people who may break down are often dismissed as weak. This is an extension of toxic masculinity. When we see vulnerability as strength, we realise that it is a very powerful tool to allow people to relate to us. It pushes people to action.”

Shilo Shiv Suleman, Visual Artist, Poet, and Founder - Fearless Collective

“I was brought up by a single mother—a muslim woman who raised two children entirely through her art. So, if there are two things I don’t doubt, it’s feminine energy and creative force. I often say beauty saved me. At a moment of tremendous fear in my life, beauty and art became the emotional and financial backbone. And so, in return, I fiercely protect beauty through art, technology, and my work in the public space. The Nirbhaya protests were transformative for me. It was after that, in 2012, that I decided to be completely devoted and in defense of female energy in all its manifestations. I started a movement called Fearless, through which, hundreds of women painted their own portraits onto the streets. At a time when Photoshopped images, manipulated verdicts, fake news, and media sensationalisation is like a flood, truth becomes our ark that will lead us into the new world. And my fearlessness comes from that space of radical love...that is our national treasure.
Poetry has always led our movements. The power to reshape the world starts with the power to tell your own story. To be able to tell it like it really is. To lead and be listened to. When women with disabilities broadcast their own stories on the radio, listeners learn they are not weak. When sex workers testify at a city council hearing, people see they are not victims. When a girl shouts through a megaphone at a march for peace, her role as a leader is undeniable. Feminism is still important because so many of us are still seeking freedom. Freedom in our bodies, homes, nations, from oppressive governments, from binaries...freedom from fear. Women and women-led movements have this magical ability to be non-binary. They can both be collective but also honour individual leaders; they can be both soft and strong; both rooted in the past and leaning into the future. And in order to let women succeed, we have to embrace this ability to be more than one thing. To have more than one feminism, to have more than one path.”

Gurmehar Kaur, Student Activist and Author

“A well wisher once told me to never lose my bubbly-ness when I was going on about my need to present myself in a way that’s ‘suitable’. She told me that society often expects women to be quiet, demure, exist as shadows, and that I should never try to change what is natural to me. This has helped me in many ways, to stay true to myself. I feel society conditions us to believe in things it finds morally suitable, which are not necessarily right, and in those moments, your instinct tells you what you must do. That’s how I began speaking up. Women make up half the population, we can’t ignore the voice of what makes up half of the world that we exist in. 
My biggest advice will always be to listen to your instinct of what is right and wrong, and to stand up for what that instinct tells you is right. I find the courage to raise my voice because of how important speaking up for those issues is. When in doubt, I remind myself of the previous times I’ve listened to my inner voice and how it has always led me to the right path. I also realise that my structural privileges often protect me from the worst of it. A little backlash doesn’t bother me because the causes I’m speaking up for and the communities I lend my voice to have been going through far worse than the backlash. To speak up is far more important. 
I think there is a lot of strength in community. It’s important to build communities of women who lift us and have them hold you accountable to the standards you’ve held up for yourself. Only by amplifying each other’s voices will we be able to help women succeed.”

Leena Kejriwal, Photographer and Installation Artist

“I am an artist, and the visual medium has been my creative outlet. I always wanted to talk about and share human stories through my lens...and what I saw in them, the emotions which they triggered. It’s these explorations which took me to various cities, digging into what makes a place what it is. And one such foray took me to a red-light district. It was a moment that never left me. The kind of emotions that I felt there, or were evoked by the sheer vulnerability of the women I saw there, hit me hard..perhaps because I’m an artist and more sensitive. That incident prompted me to work in the space with some friends who run NGOs—meeting and talking to sex workers and survivors to understand more about their lives. And what struck me was that, even though there were a lot of really good workers in that space, there was a very crucial dialogue that wasn’t taking place with the public. With that intention, I set about to explore public art as a medium of expression—to engage the public in this particular issue. I started doing these multi-layered installations with all kinds of elements in Kolkata, and took it to other cities like Delhi, Tehran, Germany, and Austria, too, to sensitise people. But after two years of working in that space, I realised that I really want to talk to the Indian public to help save these girls...these women. 
I created the M.I.S.S.I.N.G silhouette, which has been a great starting point of our dialogue on missing girls. For me, the M.I.S.S.I.N.G dialogue started from a deep burning desire to let people know what’s happening to the millions of girls that are trapped in the dark holes of trafficking, who are screaming their lungs out to be rescued. But we are choosing not to hear them. It’s about humanity, really. I think, if you are sensitive towards exploitation of any living being, it sensitises you to everything around you. I turned vegan a year and a half ago...human consumption and demand that leads to exploitation is a very, very sore point for me, and I feel very passionately about it. For me, it’s about walking the walk. If I feel strongly about something, I use it in my art.
The patriarchal structure is one of the most negative, toxic things for women and sisterhood, because it encourages competition and upmanship. One doesn’t have to feel that their power is being undermined just by the sheer existence of another. Women should really explore and embrace sisterhood...it’s a powerful way to encourage other women, lend a voice to the voiceless, or support someone in need.”

Svanika Balasubramanian, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, rePurpose Global

I never expected that I would be creating a career around trash...I doubt anyone does. But I’ve always been in awe of our oceans. I grew up in Oman, surrounded by the Arabian sea which served as a constant reminder of the vastness and incredible biodiversity of the marine world. Meanwhile, my grandparents were social activists in India, and I was raised with this core tenet that empowering one’s community was as important as empowering one’s self. And my work with rePurpose is an unexpected yet welcome amalgamation of those two points of inspiration. As the world’s first Plastic Credit Platform, rePurpose Global makes environmental action affordable and accessible to conscious individuals and businesses. We help you to take responsibility for your plastic footprint by financing innovators and waste management enterprises on the frontlines of tackling ocean plastic pollution. The rePurpose Plastic Removal Platform includes our network of vetted impact partners across six countries, in partnership with whom we deploy urgently needed financing to catalyse and scale-up solutions to plastic waste. Since its inception, rePurpose Global has empowered 700+ waste workers and innovators, funding the removal of over 1.5 million lbs (6,80,388 kilos approx) of plastic waste across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Our flagship Plastic Neutral Certification allows CPG brands to measure and offset the unique plastic footprint of their packaging, and reduce their plastic usage with personalised tips and tools. Our planet desperately need more brands to become actively invested in ending the global plastic crisis. My mother is one of the most inspiring women I know, and the one piece of advice from her that has always pushed me forward is to not let the ‘probability of failure stop you from trying’. I think women often have the tendency to overplay the odds of failure in our minds and underplay the probability of our success, which can sometimes stop us from even taking that important first step. I think one of our biggest strengths is also one of the most important leadership qualities that our world lacks—empathy. It’s apparent that our society is deeply fractured in so many ways, and we need people who can heal these divides between us in a thoughtful, conscientious manner. Intersectional progress doesn’t just have to come from our politicians; it can come from our business leaders, our teachers, our sisters—each one of us has the potential to influence the people around us positively, every single day. And that’s my call to action for women: we might lose, we might win...it doesn’t matter as long as we’re out there trying.”