The word “inspiring” has been used to describe everything from sunsets to Gandhi and has become something of a cliché. However, while talking to Monica Singh, that’s the word that popped up in my head and for the rest of the day I saw the world a bit differently – a place filled with possibilities, incredible people and dreams that come true.
However Monica’s story or at-least the one that was intended for her was not meant to leave me feeling this way. As an acid attack survivor, her story was meant to be a cautionary tale for what happens to women who choose to live life on their own terms in a patriarchal society. And yet, with grit and determination, Monica has changed the narrative. Today she is a student at Parsons in New York, pursuing her studies in Fashion Marketing and the founder of Mahendra Singh Foundation.
Our interview is punctuated with bouts of laughter. Monica is at once young fashionista, fierce feminist and philosopher rolled into one. Read on for an insight into Monica’s life philosophy.
Q. What do you think contributed to having a strong personality? Do you think your parents contributed to it or was it all self-acquired?
Every person comes into life with certain abilities but those abilities have to be nurtured by family and friends. I’ve always been confident and positive all my life. However, during my moment of crisis, my family supported me.
I’ve realized there’s no point in thinking about what society thinks, instead I focused on my plans one step at a time. I kept testing myself by giving myself challenges. First I completed my education, then I focused on getting a job. Next I wanted to know if I’ll be hired for my expertise or my looks. I push myself every day.
My father ingrained into me the importance of self acceptance. My family supported me to move out of my shell and live life to the fullest. I had to first face my own demons. After that everything else was easy. I feel that we stop ourselves more than other people or society when it comes to going after our dreams, therefore first make peace with yourself.
Q. People talk about forgiveness when someone hurts you, but where do you stand on this?
I feel that you should not forget your past and instead use your past as your source of strength. What happened to me was a personal attack that changed my life forever. The story is the same with many other survivors of violence. It’s affected even those women who’ve not been victimized because they too live in fear.
Forgiveness is not something that I support because what’s happened is too monstrous to forgive and until women can live safely, there can be no forgiveness. Instead I urge those who have suffered to not dwell on the past. Don’t let the setbacks you’ve faced hold you back. Move towards your goals. The past is over and cannot be changed, but the future is there for the taking.
Q. There are many women out there who are trying to overcome obstacles placed by society, their past traumas and fears. What is your advice to them?
I’ve stayed in India and Dubai before coming here to New York and I feel that women everywhere face the same issues to a large extent. Therefore my advice to women is to stop looking for safer options and learn to live life with courage.
The world is definitely changing but I do not feel that violence towards women is going to change dramatically until we take strong action. Therefore I urge women to be proactive and positive and to proceed with faith. Be prepared to face life, fight for what you want and create your own circle of friends and family to support you along the way.
Q. People are not always equipped to deal with trauma when it happens to their loved ones. What do you think is the best support anyone can give to a person who is going through a bad time?
The number one thing you can do is to stop asking about the past. You have no idea how traumatizing it is to relive the events of your past as you explain it to someone. Definitely don’t ask for the sake of quenching your curiosity.
Instead, the best thing you can do to help a person at their time of need is to ask them what they’re planning to do next. Help them focus on their future. We can’t change our past, but we can change the future.
Don’t look at us like we’re victims. We’re strong and capable. Don’t stare at us or pity us, instead support us as we move forward.
Q. How do you feel about being called an inspiration to other women? Do you think it’s a responsibility and does it affect the way you behave and the choices you make?
It’s a huge honour to be considered a role model and it does come with a certain amount of pressure. I’ve been on the news for the past two years but it does not change who I am.
I come from a middle class family and I’ve never had the privilege to stay at home or never work. I had to work and focus on my plans and keep moving and that’s just me living my life.
Right now I’m considered an inspiration for living my life on my own terms. I feel humbled when I receive emails or messages saying that I’ve inspired others. I feel that if you live in a manner that inspires someone, then that’s a life worth living.
Q. What do you think we as citizens of a country can do to make the world a safer place for women?
Violence towards women affects more than just the women. My father had to watch my struggle. He was not alone in worrying about the safety of his daughter. Every time when a woman is victimized, her story instills fear in the hearts of thousands.
We need to join hands to make society a safer place for women and that means stronger laws, a growing awareness among men and women about the after effects of violence and ways to prevent it. Till then, I ask women to take authority of your own safety and take precautions.
Q. Do you have a ritual like yoga or meditation? How do you stay positive and energize yourself?
Do I sound like someone who meditates? (She erupts into laughter). Every day is a different day for me. I have my studies to take care of and along with that I’m working on my Mahendra Singh Foundation. Some days I have interviews and seminars and some days there are other events or work to attend to.
I do not meditate or do yoga though I do practice a bit of the latter due to my mother’s insistence. However, I personally believe that doing what you want is the best meditation and being happy is the best yoga.
I’m always occupied and I love meeting new people. I believe that everyone should commit to keeping themselves engaged and to explore what life has to offer.
Q. You’ve followed your passion and come so far. What advice do you have for others who want to follow theirs?
85% of people are doing something that they never thought they would do. I believe that you have to put in the effort to be the best at whatever you do but at the same time, if you have the desire to do something, then you need to focus on it.
I want to have my own design label, but at this particular time I know that it’s not easy to set up my own label, mainly due to the financial constraints and my responsibilities. But my dream is alive and I’m working towards it.
I feel that you need to make your own choices in life. If you’re inspired by someone, understand that even that person started somewhere and probably started small. They faced challenges too. Maybe you have certain obligations that makes it difficult to follow your passion right now, but that’s not an excuse to let go of your dreams. Make time every day to focus on what you want. And if you do not want to work that hard to follow your dreams, make peace with that. Be the best you can be where you are right now and enjoy your life. Don’t make things hard on yourself.
Image Courtesy: Monica Singh