In 1955, my grandma looked out from her stage — an arena filled with patched up living room furniture, acquaintances guzzling their sixth Goan beer, and party streamers flowing like the drapes of velvet stage curtains.
Her voice rang out, dropping down and then soaring high, full and then whispery soft. As her last note faded, she took in the trembling passion with a huge inhale, promising herself that living room performances were enough, that they had to be enough because Papa had shot down her pleading for a musical degree as fast as he was now shooting down his tangy beer.
Living in India, I could not understand why being female made you less of a person, and yet I was constantly hit by painful reminders that it did. I saw my grandma’s reality echoed across the country with women I knew, women in hospitals after being attacked with acid, women like my mom who had to stand up for herself as the only woman in her engineering college.
“The world is changing,” my dad assured me.
Is it? If it was, it was changing too slowly. The unfairness of it left me with the deep seated conviction that something was wrong.
The next few years I stood up as often as I could, my voice ringing with cries of change.
The first time I took the stage — my arena filled with a hundred girls sitting on overgrown blades of grass under a makeshift hut roof — I launched into a what-would-soon-be-weekly English class I taught to underprivileged girls in Goregaon, India.
Two years later, I took the stage — my arena filled with chipped tables, fidgety eight-year-olds, and the stifling heat of Mumbai summers — and I delved into a lesson on gender inequality that I had been recruited to teach at an Indian government school.
A few years later, after moving with my family to the US, I launched FEdream, an organization dedicated to sending underprivileged girls in India through college, hoping to fill a gap I believe has the potential to change lives. Today, FEdream has funded and cultivated a community of over seventy-five women, hosted career fairs, and partnered with large organizations and companies like Schlumberger who see the value in our mission.
About a year ago, I took the stage once more — my arena, a machine design class I found myself the only female student in. This disparity rang true across the training institute hosted by IMTMA, the 65-year-old Indian Machine Tool Manufacturers Association. Filled with trepidation about challenging authority (and god forbid, seeming ungracious), I set up a meeting with the six male directors of IMTMA to explore the possibility of proactively including women in their programs. To my elation, they acknowledged the disparity, and together, we created a production and design program for underprivileged women engineers, funded by FEdream. A couple months later, a cohort of women made history as the first female class and the most women the institute had ever seen.
When I was given the opportunity to get involved with Laddrr, I said yes immediately. For me, the fight for equality has always centered around education and I have seen the impact it can have. Laddrr’s mission to empower millions of women with educational resources and organizations resonated.
In late August the Laddrr team took the stage — its arena, the podium at the New York Stock Exchange where the closing bell would chime in honor of Women’s Equality Day. Listening to speeches at the restaurant before walking over, I was struck by what one of the male speakers pointed out. We women so often question and discount ourselves — we tell ourselves we are not qualified, our ideas are silly, our efforts are small. We swallow our words, desperately afraid of seeming incompetent. I realized that in a world where women are still fighting for equality, I need to stop cutting myself down. I vowed to pay attention to the way I behave in the future.
As the closing bell clanged, its ring filling the room, TV screens, and our hearts with hope, I thought back to my grandmother’s silenced voice and smiled. The world is hearing us now.
Rachel Pontes is the founder of FEdream, Laddrr’s Young Adult Advocacy board member, and a freshman at Dartmouth College.