A letter to the Indian women: Reflections of an Octogenarian

Women’s Day 2023: Women play a critical role in the socio-economic and cultural development of our society— they should be looked up to as skilled architects of society.

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Women's Day 2023: A Woman is a skilled architect of society

By Sarla Ahuja

My grandson told me it’s Women’s day on March 8th. He asked me curiously how, as an octogenarian, I look at the evolution, growth, and empowerment of women in India.

50 years ago, the United Nations earmarked March 8th as International Women’s Day. I was a young mother back then, starting out my first orders to make garments from my small home-based unit in Delhi. I’d involve women from the neighborhood to help, instructing them to ensure the product was good to export. I was focused on working and empowering the women I employed to build a future for themselves, an identity of their own that was distinct from their roles as wives and caregivers.

Before this seemingly coincidental new beginning for women in the world and those in my neighborhood— I used to work as a tailor in a garment factory.  There was no dearth of people who would discourage me. I had to decide in my first years working in a garment factory— should I continue? What will happen to my little children? Like any other mother, I’d be worried about how my children were doing, did they eat? However, I never dreamed about converting these challenges into opportunities.

I left the job because I felt I was not able to take care of my kids at home. Before leaving, the owner of the factory appreciated my tailor skills and asked me to take some orders from home. Factories run on much stricter regulations now. At the time, the flexibility to take work home, as long as I delivered the desired output, was a blessing.

I took my experience of working as a tailor in another factory to build a space for these women to hone their skills, bring some money back to their families to help with their children’s education, and save some for their future.

Neighbors did not like the idea one bit. They threatened to report me to the authorities and get rid of the ‘nuisance.’ Threats from the husbands and families of the women I employed were common. I have been fortunate to work very closely with thousands of women in our factories since then. Factory jobs empowered women to gain financial control and autonomy; I have seen lives change with access to education, employment, and opportunities that had a rippling effect on those around them. When I look back, I think my decision to continue working despite the endless challenges that stared at me helped me impact thousands of lives. All I knew was God had plans. All I had to do was work and help those around me.

New Beginnings are built on the work of those who came before

For any change to take hold, it is important to take what is and work incessantly to make it better. Much like the way that the year UN adopted March 8th as International Women’s Day, it was preceded by years of work by women who came before— and set in motion a potential for a new change and channeled the purpose into a campaign that today unites women across the world.

Perhaps that’s why it feels odd when my grandson asks me if I knew that my work at the time was adding to the change, to a global shift in women’s rights. I told him I did not.

To the Indian Women—The future is bright, but a long road ahead

‘Amma, what do you see for women in India in the future?’ He asks me next. Things have changed. The future is bright, I say, but there is a long road that we have to travel.

For many, perhaps the adoption of March 8th by the UN signified a pivotal moment— or even a hope that this meant that women everywhere were liberated. But that reality and its intended effects may have taken longer to arrive in most corners of the world.

Today, what started as a small home unit, enriches 115,000 lives— now we must work to sustain those lives. ‘Thank you, Amma’ he says and tells me that this year too, we will observe  Women’s Day across all our factories — where every woman who has contributed to putting together what Shahi is today can feel a sense of pride for what they have accomplished.

‘One last question Amma, he says— what would you say to the Indian women today?’

I look at him, and without any hesitation, I say:

A Woman is a skilled architect of society (Nārī samājasya kuśalavāstukārā।)

Women play a critical role in the socio-economic and cultural development of our society— they should be looked up to as skilled architects of society. However, for this to happen, it is important that they be given opportunities.

So I say to the Indian Women – Work. It’s your right.  You’re free. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. Even the might of all the reasons not to do so should never douse your spirit. Have faith.

[The author is the founder of Shahi Exports. Sarla Ahuja started Shahi Exports in her home in New Delhi which over time became India’s largest garment manufacturer and exporter. Views expressed are personal]

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First published on: 08-03-2023 at 09:00 IST
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