An independent consultant and gender activist, her experience as Global Shaper for the World Economic Forum and at the Grassrooted Trust has lent Sharanya a keen and enviable sense of self. Personality goals? Yes, queen.
“It’s okay to be a little self-indulgent,” emphasizes Sharanya, as she tucks into a deliciously drippy Eggs Benedict and I bite into a fried chicken sandwich. Clearly, we have the same priorities, but more importantly, the topics of feminism and patriarchy cannot be addressed on an empty stomach. Seriously, though, Sharanya was not (just) talking about our breakfast. She was saying that it’s okay to focus on yourself and do your thang…just “as long as it’s not hurting anyone else. That’s key.”
“In the journey to building confidence, I think it’s important to remember what I call Common Human Decency, which is recognizing the line between being arrogant and selfish, and being confident and empowering. When someone walks in with a ‘know-it-all’ attitude, it’s off-putting. To me, being confident is opening yourself up to critique (from people you trust) and understanding that the critique doesn’t destroy you, but improves you.”
Emulating confidence does not mean being larger than life. Rather, it comes about by understanding that, whether you succeed or fail, it will not fundamentally affect your sense of self. “People equate strength of character with always being strong, but I think the strongest people I know, are people who knew when they needed to be vulnerable, and that it was okay to be so. It makes you human…” Sharanya continues, chuckling, “Sometimes it’s okay to crawl into bed, eat that pint of ice cream and say ‘F**k the world!’ SERIOUSLY! It’s okay to do that, because it’s a healing process on your journey of self-knowledge.”
Exploring your confidence lends to several desirable consequences, two of which include: a) you become more assured in voicing your opinions. “When women speak out, it’s so encouraging, because others see that they’re not alone in whatever they’re going through. Speaking out about your vulnerability ultimately becomes your biggest strength,” says Sharanya; and b) you gain the strength of self required to begin challenging patriarchal mindsets.
Mmhm, patriarchy. It’s a tough pill to swallow, and it exists, whether it’s chosen to be acknowledged or not. “People get very defensive when the word patriarchy is brought up,” Sharanya agrees. “I think it’s because, in the age of feminism, people are confused if patriarchy should even exist. So, it’s easier for them to ignore the whole concept.”
It’s wrong to believe that feminism and patriarchy are mutually exclusive; they can and do survive hand in hand. “Each concept is genderless, so there’s no reason one cancels out the other,” affirms Sharanya. “You don’t have to be a woman to be feminist; conversely, you don’t have to be a man to favour a patriarchal society. You can have men who are staunch feminists, and women who strongly uphold the values of a male-dominated society.” This blurring of lines seems to intimidate many—because, as a woman, is it okay to admit you aren’t feminist?
“Obviously,” asserts Sharanya. “Women are not a homogenous group that follows one set of ideals, and we don’t need to be. Just because you’re a woman, you don’t need to be a fighting feminist, but actually most women are, without even knowing it…” How so, I inquire? “Feminism has turned into a label, defined by a few loud voices. In reality, there’s a whole spectrum of feminism. For instance, there are people who say, ‘I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal rights.’” What they often mean by not being a ‘feminist’ is not subscribing to largely western ideas of the term, because they maybe don’t fit in with our local cultural values; but the fact that they believe in equal rights does mean they’re feminist. In fact, the fundamental idea of feminism is that it gives people the right to believe whatever they want, even if that means being against abortion or thinking that all women need to shave their legs. What feminists are asking for (and I’m one of them) is the freedom to decide your beliefs for yourself, instead of them being defined for you. This includes deciding whether you want to fight for feminism, or not.”
Passionately, she continues, “I feel it’s not right for women to say if you’re not a feminist (or if you’re not fighting for women’s rights), you’re a bad person. You don’t have to do or be anything. What I’m fighting for is the right for women to feel whatever they feel and act however they want, without imposing on other people or being held to some crazy standard.”
In truth, feminists are often seen as caricatures. Laughing, Sharanya builds on this idea: “A feminist is often seen as someone who doesn’t believe in traditions and rules, who is ‘western’, who has short hair, who’s a lesbian…there’s all these associations, which is not to say that any of those features are bad things, but we’ve assumed that you have to be some of those things if you want to be a feminist. You don’t. I’m a feminist who wears a sari, because to me, a sari is not representative of a constricted society (which many people think it is); to me, a sari reminds me of my mother, and how she never let anything stand in her way.”
For the record, Sharanya was one of the most passionate advocates of our sari shoot, because she (rightly) understood that the sari itself has no beef with you or your beliefs; but by choosing to wear sari and talk about sexuality, style and romance, you’re opening up the feminist spectrum and undermining the patriarchy in one fell swoop.
Fighting a war doesn’t have to mean aggression; there are subtler ways to do it. “To navigate a patriarchal society, you need to understand it and its expectations. To beat it, play to those expectations but play it on your terms; how you believe it should be done. Sometimes, you have to manoeuvre your way through a patriarchal society, because constantly fighting against a brick wall may not work.”
Give me an example of playing along and breaking the mould, I ask her. Because, to some, it might sound theoretical. “When I go in for particularly conservative meetings, I’m very deliberate with how I dress,” Sharanya winks. “I wear the brightest saris and the biggest pottus. No one bristles when they see me, so I have the element of surprise when I attack with my liberal views. See? Sometimes conforming to expectations can give you what you want. It’s how you play the game. You can work outside the system, but there’s also room within to get in and smash from there.”
This article was originally published as ‘Sharanya Sekaram: Handling Feminists; Handling the Patriarchy’ in the August 2017 Confidence issue of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. For more stories of inspiring women, go here and subscribe for a copy of our latest magazine.
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