Empowering women: A new spin on calendar girls

Story highlights

CNN's Moni Basu shares her story of struggle and success as a South Asian woman

Basu was featured as part of the Saris for Suits calendar, a tool created to empower women

The Saris for Suits campaign aims to create awareness about violence against women in immigrant communities

CNN  — 

I was in Florida last year when I got a call asking me to pose for a calendar. What? A calendar? As in Sports Illustrated swimsuit? Victoria’s Secret angels? Cover girls. Pinups. Movie stars. Glam.

I agreed, and now I am Ms. December.

But it isn’t quite what you think.

The caller on the other end that day was Patti Tripathi. She was an anchor at CNN Headline News at a time when there were few Indian-American women in high-profile media jobs.

Tripathi has her own media company now, but more recently she launched a nonprofit called Saris to Suits. She was asking me to help.

She began by telling me her story. She was 12 when her family immigrated to the United States. Indian parents often have to save a lot of money to ensure a good marriage for their daughter. Tripathi said that was a big reason why her family left.

We spoke about similar experiences as Indian teenagers in America. She was not allowed to go to the prom or wear shorts, except to play tennis. She had an 8 p.m. curfew and her father expected she would be married soon after college.

Tripathi felt like a burden. She did everything she could to stand on her own. And she did.

My father was not as stern but he had a hard time watching his little girl become “Americanized.” I, too, longed to be independent, far more so than was expected of a Bengali girl in the 1970s.

At an all-girls convent school in Kolkata, I used to climb up three flights of stairs to reach my classroom. On every landing were oversized portraits of national leaders, most of them Indian.

Hundreds of girls in white uniforms made the stampede-like dash up the stairwell. It was impossible to stop but I always looked up when I arrived at Indira Gandhi. There she was, in her trademark white sari and what I thought was a Cruella de Vil slice in her hair.

In a nation that valued boys more than girls, I was in awe that we had a female prime minister. Gandhi’s political career turned out to be less than stellar, but it was 1971 and I was not yet 9 years old. I wanted to grow up to be just like her. Regal. Smart. And most of all, in control of my destiny.

I know so many other Indian girls felt the same. We had dreams. Big dreams. We wanted to be someone, do something rewarding with our lives.

Yet for so many girls in India, dreams are vanquished by nightmare life scenarios. They are denied education and married off within months of their first period. I have met women who were abducted and forced into prostitution or lived with physically and mentally abusive men.

Those problems are not limited to India or the rest of South Asia. They exist in the immigrant communities in the United States, in which abuse and crimes are underreported because of the stigma that still exists. Women are often ashamed to talk about these things.

As an Indian-American journalist, I have told stories with hopes of casting light on the world inhabited by many South Asian women. I have mentored girls in my hometown of Kolkata. And always wondered: What else can I do?

Some of that desire stems from my own circumstances in life. As a newborn, I was left on the steps of an orphanage in north Kolkata. It happened to be run by an American missionary, Helen Benedict, who happened to meet my adoptive mother at the Indo-American Society. My mother was honing her English speaking skills there.

That was in 1962 and my parents were childless after 10 years of marriage. It’s not hard to guess the rest of the story. Instead of growing up in harsh surroundings, I was raised in a professor’s house.

And, instead of a future that might have been filled with darkness, I faced one that was bright. I had loving parents, attended good schools and traveled around the world.

There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about the life I might have led had it not been for that fateful meeting between an American missionary and a Bengali woman pining to become a mother.

I shared my story with Tripathi and told her I would help.

Tripathi put together Saris to Suits as an empowerment tool. She wanted to raise money to help South Asian women. She also wanted to inspire them, she said. They needed strong role models. They needed to know that they could break out of the molds that were cast for them.

She was putting together the 2015 Saris to Suits calendar and wanted to feature South Asian women who had found success in America. They were doctors, lawyers, corporate leaders. One was a weightlifter from Pakistan who struggled with balancing her sport and her Muslim attire. Another was Miss America 2014.

I felt honored to be in such fine company. I would be the only journalist in the calendar. It would most certainly be my only chance in life to pretend I was a glamour girl.

Some of the women opted to wear saris, the traditional dress of India. Some wore salwar kameez, a long tunic and pants. And some of us were in suits or our work attire.

The 2014 calendar, the first one Tripathi published, raised money for various organizations that help South Asian women. One of them was Raksha (which means protection).

Based in Atlanta, Raksha provides support for the South Asian community in a number of ways. Most of its clients are women who are dealing with abusive marriages, divorce and issues with their children.

Raksha’s executive director, Aparna Bhattacharyya, told me why the calendar was important.

“I think it is a reminder that there are women overcoming obstacles and that they have the potential to achieve their own goals for themselves,” she said. “I think it is powerful for young South Asian women to see role models that look like themselves – role models who are making change and following their dreams.”

Her words took me back to my school in Kolkata where I gazed upward at Indira Gandhi’s face. In it, I found strength.

I am of course, a far cry from the likes of Gandhi, but perhaps I can inspire a teenager out there to be the architect of her future. Maybe a young woman in a sari will be able to put on a suit for the first time in her life.

Besides, it’s kind of cool to be in a calendar.