Imaging Indian Women: Review of Women Changing India: 100 Photos, Reporters Without Borders, Sept. 2011, pp. 144, € 9.90. ISBN: 978-2-36220004-5, ISSN: 1958-0797.

Reviewed by Asma Sayed, Office of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Alberta, Canada

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a 100 pictures’ worth? Women Changing India: 100 Photos, published by Reporters Without Borders, with its 100 pictures of women of India tells the story of a nation, or at least half the nation. The book makes an attempt to capture the diversity of the country and its women through the medium of photographs by six internationally recognized photographers, namely, Martine Franck, Alex Webb, Patrick Zachmann, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Oliver Arthur, and Raghu Rai. This work was exhibited in India as well as in Europe before it was published as a book. The six photographers spent weeks in India capturing images of women in a variety of roles. As the Editorial at the beginning of the book attests, the photographs “pay tribute to the women who are playing a strategic role in the changing face of India” as these women “are actively contributing to their country’s transformation” (005).

This collection of photos captures the diversity of Indian women living in a variety of urban and rural settings, from the upper class ultra rich, to the lower middle class. The photographs are vibrant, eloquent, colourful, engaging, inspiring, and give us a glimpse into the life of Indian women – young and old, rich and poor, dancers and engineers, in short hair and long braids, cooks and CEOs, women in miniskirts and sarees, Hindus and Muslims. Showcasing a truly multicultural society, these images force one to rethink Indian women beyond homogenizing cliché, as they are perceived, especially in the Western world, mostly as submissive, oppressed, and withdrawn within the four walls of a household. The women in the pictures are not shy to face the camera; all are photographed outdoors. The contrasting color schemes are aesthetically pleasing – some photographs show women in white clothes as they train for martial arts, serve as cooks, or take their gym lessons; others show the women in a host of coloured garments.

Given the complexity of a multicultural country that has its history rooted in many religions, castes, classes, and languages, understanding the status of women in India is not easy; but this collection, through its images and the brief ‘editorial,’ ‘preface’ and ‘introduction’ segments, provides some insights into the range of women’s life experiences in India. The country boasted the female prime minister, Indira Gandhi as early as 1966, and currently India has a female president, Pratibha Patil. The election and popular support of these powerful political women stands in stark contrast to the alarming number of female foeticides that still occur because of long-held cultural views. In fact, the country’s ongoing ‘Save the Girl Child’ campaign (savethegirlchild.com) is focused on educating the population in order to re-establish a more gender balanced society, as some provinces in India currently have a shocking imbalance of male female ratio, at times approximately 800 women to 1000 men. Thus, the photographs in the book present the density of a nation that is at the centre of world’s global economy – an economy that depends on women’s contributions in various fields including economics, politics, information technology, education, and entertainment, to name a few – and advocate gender equality in India and globally.

The images in the book serve as important reminders that Indian women have agency, holding the highest of leadership positions in contemporary Indian society. This is especially important to see given that various women-related issues that still grip India –such as dowry, child marriages, domestic violence, female foeticide, lack of education, also attract the majority of international media attention. The photographs offer an alternate view that deviates from popular pessimistic perceptions, showing that there is more to Indian women than the professed negativity. Women in India nowadays run small ‘banks’ in the rural areas, and are major participants in large industries including the cultural industry. Hence, we see pictures of Farah Khan, renowned choreographer and film director, along with Hindi film director, Kiran Rao, director of the critically acclaimed film “Dhobi Ghat”; we also encounter the minor artists who work in the Bombay film industry. Additionally, there are images of women from rural areas – those who market their embroidered fabrics, others who have organized an initiative to collect waste, women who earn livelihoods and support their families through craft work, and women who sell daily staples such as milk and fish. Some of these women have basic education, and just enough know-how to have bank accounts and manage their funds; highly educated women such as Chanda Kochhar, president of India’s second largest bank (ICICI Bank), Indira Jaising, senior Supreme Court advocate, Aruna Roy, a political activist, and many more, are also represented. Images of women engaging in political decision making are especially noteworthy. As one sees photographs of women voting, women engaged in heated discussions, women who lead the political groups at the grassroots village level, one realizes that women have influential power and can change the political framework of a society. Together, these hard-working, bold, ambitious, energetic, and determined women, more than willing to take on active roles in the development of their country, look forward into the future, and form a diverse community ready to take on the world.

This book contributes to capturing the modern life of India; it is also a very valuable resource for anybody interested in understanding changing gender dynamics. The images that capture the women in action – driving a taxi, working in a field, taking self-defence lessons, sewing, voting, photographing – help to visualize contemporary India, and are subtly powerful because they provide a social commentary, and illustrate that socio-economic progress cannot be realized without achieving gender equality. The photographs speak to us as they portray exuberance and dignity of women in the world’s largest democracy. Book sales support the activities of Reporters Without Borders, an NGO working not only to support journalists around the world, but also to protect freedom of press and freedom of speech in general.

Author Biography:

Dr. Asma Sayed instructs in the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Alberta, and Communication Studies and Women’s Studies programs at Athabasca University. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Alberta, and teaches and writes in the areas of comparative literature, women’s studies, media studies, popular culture, cinema, and marginalized literatures. Asma is particularly interested in the role of popular literature, language, and culture in the creation of diasporic identities. Her book World on a Maple Leaf: A Treasury of Canadian Multicultural Folktales was published in 2011.