Kavita N. Ramdas '85: Citation and Speech


Kavita Ramdas—visionary international leader, global philanthropist, entrepreneur, deeply admired daughter of Mount Holyoke—you are a walking, talking human rights watch. You are one of the world’s most compelling spokespersons for the notion that there are not separate categories of human rights and women’s rights, but one category of human rights that includes, centrally and urgently, the rights of women.

Less than a year ago, you were named the representative for the Ford Foundation’s office in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, where you oversee all grant-making in the region. Your priorities in that work, as throughout your life, include equity, inclusion, economic fairness, freedom of expression, human rights, reproductive health and rights, transparent and accountable governance, and sustainable development. Before joining the Ford Foundation, you were the founder and first executive director of the Program on Social Entrepreneurship housed at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. And before that, from 1996 to 2010, in the role in which we know you best, you were the President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, which grew under your leadership to become the world’s largest public foundation for women’s rights. You increased the fund’s assets sevenfold, giving women in more than 170 countries access to financial capital to seed innovation and change.

You bridge, in a way that few others can do, the roles of public intellectual and activist. You are outraged, as we all are, at the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi. But you are also able to name, with measured calm, the social and cultural forces that can lead to such acts, and to outline the steps needed to bring about change. And then you put yourself to work, with others, to help engineer that change. You have brought your powerful voice to places where it truly needs to be heard: not only in the regions of the globe you directly serve, but also by serving on an advisory panel of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and on the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Princeton University; chairing the U. S. State Department’s Women in Public Service Initiative; blogging for the Huffington Post; and until last fall serving right here, in this most global of communities, on the Board of Trustees of Mount Holyoke College. Not least, there is your mesmerizing 2010 TED talk called “Radical Women, Embracing Tradition.” As of this week, it has had 300,000 views, and by the end of this weekend the Mount Holyoke community will surely have made that number considerably larger. The talk begins with what has become one of your great and powerful themes: that we need to learn not only how to invest in women, how to empower women, how to save women, but also how women are saving us, by redefining and reimagining a future for the global community.

We salute your convictions, your accomplishments, your embodiment of the Mount Holyoke ideal of purposeful engagement. We take enormous pride in bestowing upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Commencement Address:

Dancing Our Revolution: Why We Need Uncommon Women Now

Good Morning, Salaam Aleikum, Shalom, and Namastes to a sea of uncommon women!

Thank you President Pasquerella, the Board of Trustees, gifted and dedicated faculty and staff members, and most of all to the remarkable student body of Mount Holyoke. I am humbled to be asked to be your commencement speaker and to be receiving my second degree from the mother of my soul!

Twenty-eight years ago I stood where you stand now—with flowers in my hair, my heart in my mouth, and waves of exhaustion, exhilaration, and terror sweeping over me in quick succession. (I’ll confess that the heart in my mouth and slight terror holds true today especially facing an audience as impressive as this one!) As a junior transfer student from Delhi University, I had only two years at MHC, and although I had tried to pack in everything from Glee Club (faking the sight-singing part of the audition and then being caught by Cathy Melhorn and sent off to remedial theory class!), to my first dance class (I met Mikhail Baryshnikov in the dance studio at Kendall with the poet and MHC professor Joseph Brodsky) to four fabulous off-campus classes—at Amherst and Hampshire—it still felt far too short. Most of all, I felt as if I had only just begun to get a taste of being a woman learning and leading in a world where women count.

For it was here that I discovered an alternative universe. A world where no one had to remind you to “lean in” because every woman you met already had her shoulder to the wheel and was moving the needle on everything from microbiology, to astronomy, to rowing skiffs down the rivers, to challenging history with herstory. A world where your intelligence, physical competence, and spiritual insights were obvious to all, were seen, and were valued. A world where women loved men and women loved women and the love was what mattered. A world where you were surrounded by women who wrote poetry, discussed politics, edited books, dismantled engines, designed buildings, ran government, managed newspapers, and danced for the sheer joy of being able to do so. A world where women were not less than but equal to.

I had reason to hold on fast to these memories this past December, when a young woman called Nirbhaya (which means unafraid in Hindi) was so brutally assaulted and raped by six men on a bus that she died from her injuries two weeks later. This happened in New Delhi, the city of my birth and the city in which I now live. Outside the green fields and beautiful buildings of Mount Holyoke is a society where one in three women has experienced sexual and other violence. Lest we reassure ourselves that this happens only in far away places—the Congo, or India—wrongly labeled “capitals of rape”—let me dispel that illusion. Every six minutes in the U.S. a woman is raped—at least two women in this country and maybe three will have lived that brutality by the time I am done speaking. We live in times where the assumption that we have achieved equality causes people to dismiss women’s rights defenders as “angry feminists”—times during which even the richest and most developed nations still face an epidemic of violence targeted against one group of people. The persecuted are not an ethnic minority, or a racial group, or a religious sect—they simply had the “misfortune” of being born inside female bodies.

For those of you who have had the privilege of being students here and knowing that “another world is indeed possible” these will be some of the challenges you face as you walk out of Mount Holyoke. How will you carry that confidence and creativity into a world that is still struggling to come to terms with women’s equality? How will you find the courage to speak up when you see injustice perpetrated and perpetuated—not just on women but on the poor, on ethnic and racial minorities, on people with disabilities, on transgendered people? How can you counter the assumptions made about you simply because you are a young Latina, or black, or white, or Indian, or Ugandan, or Colombian woman? How will you answer the little voice inside that says—maybe this isn’t worth getting upset about, maybe I should just walk on by, maybe I should just smile and change the subject?

How will you balance the contradictory demands being placed on you as women in our “mad, mad world?” On the one hand, we have this fierce independence that has been allowed to shine here at MHC—on the other, we are bombarded by messages in TV, in ads, in movies, in popular culture telling us that guys don’t like girls who are “too smart,” “too aggressive, “too angry,” or just “too, too, too much.” Additional challenges face us if we are gay or bisexual or transgender—how can we celebrate our sexuality and our humanity and deal with those who are threatened by it? How do we make sense of our desires? What if we’d like to have children while our bodies are still young and those famous eggs are plentiful, or if we don’t want children now and use technology to have them later, or adopt babies who don’t have parents of their own, or if we simply don’t want children at all? Can we be loving parents and loving partners and still sail around the world, become doctors and carpenters, or stand-up comics, or artists, climb mountains, advocate for human rights, or grow organic peaches on a farm? How can we educate the men in our lives—our employees, our bosses, our dads, our sons, our lovers, our brothers—about male privilege with clarity, humor, and unabashed candor?

I don’t have answers to all these questions, but living in Delhi once again—30 years after I left to come to Mount Holyoke—has been an intense reminder of the value and staying power of a liberal arts education at a women’s college. Having been here and having had the opportunity to free my mind from the dominant discourse has made it possible for me to think and act different. As I joined in the protests after Nirbhaya’s death, in which thousands of women were joined by thousands of men who marched despite police cordons, water cannons, and the fear and disapproval of their parents, I remembered the last time I marched on Delhi’s streets. It was 1983.

For three years since my graduation from high school, a nationwide anti-rape campaign demanded the reopening of the Mathura rape case and pushed for amendments in India’s rape law. Mathura, a teenage tribal girl, was raped by two policemen, in the police station at dead of night, while her relatives were waiting and crying outside. The legal battle began when a woman lawyer took up her case immediately after the event. The court blamed Mathura for being a woman of "easy virtue," and the two policemen were released. When it finally reached the Supreme Court, they upheld the lower court verdict. The growing women’s movement in India was outraged.

Prominent lawyers took up the issue, as did the national and regional language press. Women organized public meetings and poster campaigns, performed skits and street theatre, collected thousands of signatures in support of their demands, staged rallies and demonstrations, submitted petitions to members of Parliament and the Prime Minister.

My friends and I were part of a street theatre group that performed plays on our college campus, in poor slum communities, and on busy street intersections—wherever we could gather large groups of people. My mother and many of her friends courted arrest in front of Parliament and were hauled off to police stations. It was an amazing and inspiring time, but the protesters were limited to upper-middle-class, educated women who belonged to women’s rights organizations. Even caring men, like my father, were not present at the rallies. I recall a memorable telephone exchange between him and the Police Commissioner, who barked, “Admiral, there is some woman here in our lockup claiming to be your wife,” to which my father responded wearily, “Alas, Police Commissioner, she is my wife. I will be there shortly to bail her out.”

Just before I left for the U.S., after heated debates in the women's groups, media, and the Law Commission of India, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1983), which noted that in cases of custodial rape, the burden of proof lies with men, and if a woman victim makes a statement that she did not consent, the court would believe that she did not consent. It felt like a significant win for the movement.

Yet, here I was 30 years later marching to protest one more in a series of unjustifiable sexual assaults against women and girls. I walked with my head bowed and an unbearable sense of failure weighing on me. What difference had my years of activism made? What about my 14 years at the Global Fund for Women? What about the thousands of women’s groups that we had funded, stood by, encouraged? What about women like Betty Makoni, a schoolteacher in Zimbabwe who founded the Girl Child Network to challenge sexual abuse in schools; and Oral Ataniyazova in Uzbekistan who fought environmental contamination in communities around the Aral Sea; and Leymah Gbowee in Liberia who mobilized women to bring an end to a brutal civil war; and Sakena Yacoobi in Afghanistan who ensures girls have the right to go to school no matter what? What were we to make of our idealism and our passion now … as we walked in memory of a 23-year-old who died with an iron rod rammed hard inside her body. I turned in quiet despair to the young man walking beside me and asked, “Tell me, why are you here? Why are all these men here? You are the ones who do this to women and to other men everywhere. Why the bloodthirsty calls for the death penalty? Why, why, why?”

He turned to me, his face somber and serious. “Ma’am, I know you may not believe me, but I was totally shaken by this experience. Nirbhaya was not alone in being abused—her male friend was beaten brutally, stripped, and thrown out of the bus along with her. He was a victim, too, and he survived to tell us what happened. For years men have thought that rape is a “woman’s issue” and that it has nothing to do with us. This incident has made us wake up and pay attention, and we are asking what is our role as men in addressing this ugly side of ourselves and of the society we dominate.” I looked around me—there were so many young men walking with their sisters, with their girlfriends, with their moms. It was different than in ’83. “We need the help of women, ma’am,” he went on. “This is a confusing time for us, and we need to think what does it mean to be a man and what is it we expect of ourselves. Maybe if we work on this together, we can make it right.”

His words echoed in my ears a few months later, when I celebrated International Women’s Day with MHC grad and good friend, Mallika Dutt, as Breakthrough launched the Million Men—Million Promises: Bell Bajao campaign in New York. There, Captain Jean Luc Picard, aka Patrick Stuart, came out to an audience—not as a gay man—he did that years ago—but as a survivor and silent witness to domestic violence. On the verge of tears, he said, “No child should have to grow up as I did—knowing the exact moment at which to fling themselves across the room to come between their father’s fist and their mother’s body.” Who helped Patrick Stuart find the courage to come out in front of a global audience on the issue of domestic violence? One of our own—a 1983 MOHO! Yes, I will assert—it matters. An MHC education—a women’s college education—a liberal arts education matters. It may matter more today than it ever has in the history of our world.

It matters that at Mount Holyoke, we are, in the words of recent alumna Jessica Newside, “encouraged to listen to our natural voice with its shifting and inconsistent perspectives, provoked to think critically and decipher abstract convictions, and both mentored and inspired in our early research.” It matters that we understand that women, like all human beings, are capable of great intellectual contributions and equally able to be petty and mean-spirited. It matters that we are taught the value of poetry and art even as we are schooled in the rigor of mathematical proofs and scientific inquiry. It matters because, in the wise words of Bertrand Russell, only such an education can “give us a sense of the value of things other than domination to help to create wise citizens of a free community.”

We need much less domination and much more imagination to succeed in this twenty-first-century world. We need uncommon women because the world faces uncommon challenges to which there are no easy solutions, no clearly marked entry and exit points that resolve global warming and growing energy needs; or logical explanations for why we spend more on manufacturing and selling weapons than we do on building schools or ensuring clean drinking water for all. After the marches and protests in Delhi in December many of us gathered again on VDAY—Valentine’s Day—we filled the streets keeping company with women and men in hundreds of cities in hundreds of countries around the globe to demand an end to violence. We were “one billion rising”—we were wearing pink and red and singing in the streets—we were Maya Angelou saying, “Does it come as a surprise that I dance like I've got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs?” We were Emma Goldman, part of a revolution that celebrated our right to dance!

We need women who are so strong that they can be gentle, so educated that they can be humble, so fierce that they can be compassionate, so passionate that they can be rational, and so disciplined that they can be free. We need uncommon women. And here you are. And how deeply reassuring to me it is to know that wherever we go—there you will be.

Congratulations to the Class of 2013! Rise! Dance! Be!

 (Note: This printed text may vary from the speech delivered.)