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Neerja Bhanot: The Feminist Idol Missing From Our Textbooks and Conversations

Nupur Saraswat | February 10, 2016

Entertainment  Opinions  

“How much more equal do you want to be?”

I have been asked that question one too many times. Instead of pointing out the flaw in its mathematical rationality, I point to the strong willed women of this world and say

“As equal as she would want me to be”.

As a feminist myself (no, it’s not a bad word), I am always on the lookout for women role models. My personal feminist idols come with a touch of “badassery”, a pinch of rebellion, and a tinge of scandal. Long standing on that list has been Frida Kahlo – the notorious Mexican painter and active Communist who gave political asylum to Leon Trotsky. Then there is Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian American actress and inventor, whose scientific contributions have been crucial in communication technology (love your wifi and bluetooth? Thank her.) but I love her for her quips like – “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” and “Men are most virile and most attractive between the ages of 35 and 55. Under 35 a man has too much to learn, and I don’t have time to teach him.”.

To this list, I am proud to count Neerja Bhanot, the flight attendant on the ill fated Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986.  Her story is going to be captured in the upcoming movie Neerja, with Sonam Kapoor cast in the lead.

Sonam Kapoor As Neerja Bhanot

Hijacked in Karachi, the pilots had to exit the plane so as to prevent the terrorists from assuming control of the plan. As the senior most crew member, she took charge of the situation. Just 22 years old, a brave beauty queen pitted herself against four burly Abu Nidal terrorists – this a narrative that writes itself. As the hijacking ensued, she hid the passports of the American passengers, whom the terrorists were after in a blind anti-American rage. She proved to be an ocean of bravery and compassion, looking beyond race, rank or religion. In a brief moment of chaos among the terrorists, she opened the emergency door to let the passengers out. The witnesses narrate how easy it would have been for her to jump and get out of the hell that was breaking loose around her but she chose to stay. Her manner of death is the most valiant: shot at while shielding three kids. She is an inspiration to humanity.

However,  as a feminist, I view this story with an added perspective — the story of Neerja Bhanot restores the faith in humanity in me; and then there are the fragments of the story that feed inspiration and courage to the woman in me. For the sake of brevity, two reasons why Neerja Bahnot singlehandedly forwarded the feminist discussion –

Women on the battlefield:  The domain of national defence and warfare has traditionally been the male domain. While that is changing with more women being part of the armed forces, it is undeniable that testosterone continues to dominate.  The most common argument that anti-feminists rely on is that females are the physically weaker sex, and hence aren’t capable of matching the testosterone. While that is an argument for another day, Neerja Bhanot sets a shining example of what being on the battlefield actually means – both physical and moral courage with emotional bravado is required and gender is irrelevant to these qualities. To me, she shows that a woman, when called upon, a “dainty little thing” can save lives – in this case, 360 of them to be exact. She can fight; more importantly, she will fight. And she will fight while smiling her reassuring, prize winning smile; and will fight running in her high heeled shoes.

Neerja Bhanot Model Photos

Being born pretty is not the end of the world: Pretty hurts. Beyonce wrote a whole song about it. And take it from Neerja Bhanot that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life being the face on billboards. She suffered from what I like to call, the “restlessness of being just a pretty face”. She was a 22 year old model, strapped onto a lifelong career of glitz, glamour, and smiling at the camera. But she wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to be more- to do more. Her father reminisces of a time when she wrote to him from the flight attendant training academy in Miami saying “I want to make you proud”. In her own personal way she wanted to make a difference. Neerja Bhanot, perhaps was born a diva, but it was her life choice to become an ambitious hustler; and for that she goes down in my book of women I look up to.

We look forward to the February release of Sonam Kapoor’s little twirl in this legendary woman’s shoes.

*You can read our movie review for the critically-acclaimed Neerja film here. 

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Nupur Saraswat

Loves nature and everything that comes naturally, which includes words. A patriot and a passionate lover. Environmental engineer by day, slam poet by night. Boundlessly curious. Other articles by this author

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