Bollywood Powerhouse Twinkle Khanna Talks Women’s Rights at the UN

Twinkle Khanna at the launch of her book "The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad."
Twinkle Khanna at the launch of her book “The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad.” Photo courtesy of Twinkle Khanna.

When Twinkle Khanna was growing up in Mumbai, women were not encouraged to speak their mind. The Indian girl was constantly told not to break the mold and to fit in. Despite often being called names, Khanna did not blend in and remained authentic to herself. “For a long time, they called me ‘weird’ because I was not fitting in with the rest of the world. And today exactly those things have paid off and they now say that weirdness has suddenly become wisdom,” she says.

Fast-forward to the present and Twinkle Khanna is an empowered woman and a voice in the film industry in India. The producer, influencer, entrepreneur, writer, newspaper columnist and former actress is above all a female icon—but not a feminist. As an advocate for women’s rights, Khanna does not support equal rights as she believes women are the superior gender. Nonetheless, she is well aware of the challenges women face not only in her country but around the world.

Research on the Hindi movie industry identified how women are stereotypically portrayed: they are beautiful, attractive and happier than male characters.

With the recent sexual harassment allegations causing a turmoil in the U.S. entertainment industry, Khanna emphasizes that these issues are a universal part of how women everywhere experience the world. “I think we face similar challenges. Even as far as rape is concerned, you are comparing a country with 1.2 billion people to another country that probably has a quarter of that amount. If you look at statistics the percentage is almost the same when you compare the population size,” said Khanna in an interview during Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations. The newspaper columnist sees differences as purely external, as underneath women have the same genetic code. “I don’t think it’s a problem just in India, it’s a problem women face all over the world, and right now there’s outrage because women are tired of being groped and grabbed and put into these positions,” she concludes.

From Hollywood to Bollywood, women’s obstacles go beyond dealing with sexual misconduct. Gender bias is a factor when it comes to women in film careers. In the U.S., women consisted of 17 percent of all directors in the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016 according to research led by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film in 2016. This is a two percent decline from 2015 and 1998. As in India, research on the Hindi movie industry identified how women are stereotypically portrayed: they are beautiful, attractive and happier than male characters, although men are given higher-level occupations and are often represented as wealthy.

In India, 10 percent of girls believe that menstruation is a disease and only 12 percent have access to sanitary pads.

However, the results show a slow but steady change. The same report said that while 80 percent of the movie plots have more male mentions than female mentions, surprisingly more than 50 percent of movie posters feature actresses. Another interesting finding refers to gender stereotypes. After collecting data from 4,000 Bollywood movies on Wikipedia to identify gender bias, the study shows a slight improvement with 30 movies over the last three years demonstrating a breaking of stereotypes.

Khanna is an example of a woman who has been contributing to the increase in numbers. “Padman,” a comedy-drama about a man who invents a machine to make low-cost sanitary pads is the star’s latest work. Khanna’s role in the production has allowed her to address women’s health in terms of menstrual education. “I came across Arunachalam Muruganantham’s story and I was gripped. [At the time,] I was writing another book and I was 10 chapters in. I dropped that and I decided to write an anthology,” she explains. By producing “Padman,” Khanna is participating in advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of good health and well-being, sanitation and gender equality.

In India, 10 percent of girls believe that menstruation is a disease and only 12 percent have access to sanitary pads (UNICEF). Because of the scarce access to information, women are getting diseases and dropping out of school. “This is very important because of the taboo on menstruation and the lack of awareness of menstrual hygiene. We are a world of viewers more than readers, unfortunately. So if I want this to penetrate all over the country, I need to give them [the idea] in the way they will accept it, which is a movie,” Khanna explains.

Thanks to Twinkle Khanna’s “weird” childhood years, she is now a vocal champion of women’s empowerment and a source of wisdom: “For centuries, women have been looking for a cape, but have been handed an apron and it’s only recently that we have learned how to swing our aprons around, let them flutter down our backs and take to the skies.”

Read more stories from our section on gender equality and UN-related topics.