Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran but better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly was a firebrand journalist, industrialist, inventor and activist, making waves in American journalism in the early 1900s. Her career began when she wrote a vehement critique of a particularly sexist article published in her local newspaper that called the “working woman” a “monstrosity”.

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall. “

Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

Turning a typically male-dominated profession on its head, Nellie’s most famous journalistic achievement was her expose of mental asylums in the nation, a feat she achieved at age 23 by getting admitted into an asylum on pretence of insanity. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-house brought to light the terrible conditions within mental institutions that were likely to drive even sane people mad. It caused a sensation, and helped to bring about several reforms in the public mental health system. Nellie was a journalist who took on investigative journalism head on and lived up to her reputation each time. She further created a stir with her ‘Around the World in 72 Days’ expedition. Reminiscent of the Jules Verne novel, her journey was completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating  Phileas Fogg’s fictional record.

After getting married to an industrialist, Bly retired from journalism, only to make a name for herself as one of the prominent female inventors and industrialists of the time- she had several patents in her name for iron manufactures. She returned to journalism during World War I, also covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She died unexpectedly at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Nellie Bly’s Motto

Watch this short documentary on Nellie Bly’s life-

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Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

While India may have legally recognized the third gender in April 2014, a majority of the country’s transgender population is still widely discriminated against, be it in terms of being insulted on public transport or rejection in job interviews. India’s first transgender college principal, Dr. Manabi Bandyopadhyay, despite being competent and qualified for the job was forced to resign in 2016 after less than two years in office owing to non-cooperation of the staff and a section of students. This was a case that only came into the spotlight owing to the individual’s privileged status- there are numerous transgender individuals whose everyday struggles for existence never make it to the papers.

Amidst the bleakness of this scenario, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender rights activist and trained Bharatnatyam dancer who identifies as a woman, is an inspiration. Born male into an orthodox Brahmin family, Laxmi faced ostracism and abuse at a very young age, despite having a relatively supportive family. She was the first transgender individual to represent Asia-Pacific at the United Nations in 2008 where she spoke about the condition of sexual minorities.  She also represented her community and India at the World Aids Conference, Toronto.

Laxmi has served on the boards of several LGBT rights organisations and in 2007, she started her own organisation called Astitva. She has been associated with the Hijra community and actively campaigned for the inclusion of the third gender along with journalist and LGBT activist, Ashok Row Kavi. She has been featured in a documentary on LGBT Indians titled ‘Project Bolo’. Despite criticism from her fellow transgenders on account of being “elitist” and failing to bring about any real reform, it is undeniable that Laxmi Tripathi is a figure that stands out for being unabashedly herself. As she says in her autobiography “Me Hijra, Me Laxmi”-

“Every morning I wake up, look in the mirror and say that I love myself. If every woman would love herself as much as I love myself, this society would cease to be patriarchal,”- Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

Optimistic perhaps, but food for thought, don’t you think?

Watch Laxmi at TEDx Mumbai-

Nandini Sundar

Nandini Sundar, professor and chairperson, Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economic made the headlines in 2016 after being named as accused (without any tangible proof) in the murder case of a Chattisgarh tribal. Best known for her work on the intersectionality of tribal movements with mainstream society, Professor Sundar was only guilty of something that is increasingly being frowned upon in the present day political environment- daring to express an opinion contrary to that of the administration. Earlier, she and some others had filed a PIL citing state-sponsored human rights violations in Chattisgarh.

“My story dances with abandon to the sound of the Madia dhol under a full moon night, where my friends and I raise a toast of mahua to hope and future.”

Nandini Sundar, The Burning Forest

Studying at Oxford University and the University of Columbia, Professor Sundar received the Infosys Prize for Social Sciences in 2010. As a social anthropologist she delves into the complexity of identities that characterizes individuals in India, with regard to caste, tribe, state and the nation as a whole. Her research focuses on the underlying conflicts within such identities in context of violence and morality, and has influenced scholars not merely in India but also in Europe and America.

She has held visiting positions at Punjab, Yale, Michigan, Cambridge and Chandigarh universities. She was awarded the M. N. Srinivas Memorial Prize of the Indian Sociological Society in 2002-03, the L. M. Singhvi Visiting Fellowship at Cambridge in 2003 and the Hughes Visiting Fellowship at Michigan in 2005. Her publications include Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar and Branching Out: Joint Forest Management in India. Her diverse research interests include access to resources, citizenship, war and counterinsurgency, indigenous identity and politics, the sociology of law and inequality, and issues related to the environment, tribal rights and discrimination and exclusion in South Asia, to name a few.

A central theme of her writings is the life of the tribals in Central India specifically in Bastar, Chattisgarh. Unafraid to tackle controversial issues, one of her latest books, ‘The Burning Forest’ looks at Maoist conflict in Bastar. She points out how there has been little scholarly discourse that has been formally documented when it comes to such issues.

“The biggest problem is that the state does not make the distinction between legitimate research and political activity, and does not appreciate the value of social science research.”- Nandini Sundar

Professor Sundar was awarded the Ester Boserup Prize in 2016.

Watch an interview conducted by CNN News 18 with Nandini Sundar where she talks about how the Adivasi populace in Bastar is caught in the crossfire-

*Biographical details sourced from

http://www.infosys-science-foundation.com/prize/laureates/2010/nandini-sundar.asp

http://cgsas.tors.ku.dk/news/ester-boserup-prize-2016/

Odetta

“You’re walking down life’s road, society’s foot is on your throat, every which way you turn you can’t get from under that foot. And you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die or insist upon your life … those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted upon life.” -Odetta

Born in 1930, African-American Odetta, also known as Odetta Holmes, was a singer, actress,songwriter, guitarist and much more. Earning the moniker “Queen of American Folk Music” from Martin Luther King Jr., her music has been called “the soundtrack of the civil rights movement”.

With a college degree in music, she initially performed as a chorus singer, with theatre and folk groups and in clubs. She released her first solo album ‘Odetta sings Ballads and Blues’ in 1956. Her folk songs album released in the 1960s went on to be a phenomenal success. She also delivered duets with other famous singers such as Harry Belafonte. Her most stirring performance has been unanimously acknowledged as her rendition of “O, Freedom” at the civil rights movement’s 1963 March on Washington. She was vocal against racism, having first experienced it at the young age of seven on a train to California. Her music influenced many personalities of that period, including Bob Dylan and Rosa Parks (the latter is recognized as the “mother of the modern civil rights movement” in America).

In 1999 she was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the year 2005 saw her honoured with the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress. She performed almost up to the day of her death at 77 years of age. Besides bringing about an inspirational mainstreaming of folk music, Odetta’s compositions transcended the boundaries of an art form to  fulfill a much higher purpose. Listen to one of her songs, originally a prison work song, that made it to the TIMES All time 100-

Shirin Ebadi

Women are the victims of this patriarchal culture, but they are also its carriers. Let us keep in mind that every oppressive man was raised in the confines of his mother’s home.

– Shirin Ebadi

To those who say that in today’s world, patriarchal oppression is the exception rather than the rule, I would only point out the recent events in the Indian city of Bangalore and the responses that followed from some of the people in positions of power. This is one of many such incidents, and now, more than ever, one of the things we need the most is for women to stand up for women. 

One such iconic champion for the rights of women, children and refugees, Dr. Shirin Ebadi was the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Born in Iran, Ebadi studied law and had to face significant opposition for her choice of career, especially from religious leaders and clerics. In 1975 she became the first woman president of the Tehran City court and also the first woman judge in Iran. She has been known to take up cases of those people who have displeased the ruling administration. The Nobel Committee lauded her as “as a lawyer, judge, lecturer, writer and activist,” who “has spoken out clearly and strongly in her country, Iran, and far beyond”. Unfortunately, in a rather shameful turn of events, the government is said to have confiscated her Nobel, a first for any awardee. Since 2009, she has been in exile in the UK owing to her criticism of the existing regime. 

My aim is to show that those governments that violate the rights of people by invoking the name of Islam have been misusing Islam.

– Shirin Ebadi

Shirin has been subjected to significant ostracism and personal trauma for daring to raise her voice against the oppressive diktats of the government. In an op-ed written for the New York Times, she narrates how her husband’s infidelity was used as an excuse to persecute their family, in an attempt to show her her place. (Read the account here.) In a day and age where sometimes one leader and ideology seems just as flawed as another, Shirin Ebadi’s seemingly simple advice is perhaps the most useful rule of thumb-

When you vote, vote for those who are not warmongers, and vote for those who respect human rights. When you see a president who doesn’t respect human rights, don’t vote for that person.

– Shirin Ebadi

Watch Dr. Shirin Ebadi talk about the work that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize here.