October 10 marked the first day of Navratri. While we worship nine different avatars of Goddess Durga, we need to ask ourselves if we’re really serving the real purpose. 38-year-old Visithra Manikam, a photographer and artist based in Malaysia, is doing her bit in creating a wave of change.

In 2016, Visithra, in synchrony with Navratri, created and worked on a project named “Goddess Within” with nine wonderful women. It showcases strength, capability and flaws of women who are standing up to societal constraints. Through this, she also intends to show how there’s a goddess in every woman. SheThePeople.TV spoke with Visithra about photography, the Goddess Within project, gender-based notions and more.

Photography and self-teaching

Visithra, at a young age, got her first digital point-and-shoot camera with manual settings. She began learning by solely shooting in manual settings. “This helped me learn how to control light through aperture and shutter speed. I spent a lot of time reading about techniques, light manipulation and practised them. I also joined critique groups on Flickr where we critique each other’s photos and that helped me grow,” she reveals.

“Sometimes the best camera you have is the one that’s always in your hand”

She is an avid believer of the fact that it’s the person’s view which is more important than the camera device.

“A lot of time people see an image and say ‘oh you must have a DSLR’, but it’s really not all the equipment that you use. That was why my first exhibition was done with photos taken with a digital point-and-shoot camera even though I had a DSLR camera. Photography technique and knowledge enables you to take a good photo with any device. Today, you see people taking amazing photos with just their mobile phones. At the end of the day, the device is a tool you use to show what you see and that’s what sets photographers apart,” she reflects.

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#goddesswithin #bodypositivity #effyourbeautystandards #justwearlah People have such a hard time saying the word FAT. So instead they use cute, curvy, chubby, voluptuous, because being associated with fat means you are saying that someone is ugly, lazy, unhealthy and unsuccessful. I was always told that the one thing that was standing in the way of me and success was being FAT. That in order to have a good job- I had to lose weight, in order to have a relationship I had to lose weight, in order to be successful in life- I had to lose weight. So that is what I did. For the most part of my teenage and early adult life, I was on a diet. I drank those disgusting shakes, went on protein diets, went for aerobics classes, the gym, vigorous intense exercise routines, etc. I remember so clearly, when I was 19, and having just come out of home and living the life in college, I was losing weight..and everyone started complimenting me, so I thought in order to be that, to be complimented, to be told that I was beautiful, to be validated and accepted- I HAD TO BE THIN. I always wanted to travel and I enjoyed being in nature and also meet people..but somehow, I felt like as long as I was fat I could not enjoy these things, because it would all make more sense if I had lost the weight. When I first found out about plus size blogging and body positivity, I felt like I had come home. The only difference between me and them (plus size- body positive bloggers), was the confidence. They were so confident about their bodies. I learnt through fashion about accepting my body the way it is, I slowly started to wear clothes that I really liked aesthetically but what people would think unflattering on a fat body, I started with clothes and fashion but the idea of body positivity grew on me and that’s when I decided that I could not put my life on hold any longer because I was not losing weight. Instead I did the things that I thought I could not do, I went and got PADI certified, I went hiking, I backpacked for months. I continued to life my live, but this time, I took the focus off the weight loss. I think that was the time when I really started to LIVE. Continued in comments

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The Goddess Within Project

As interesting as it sounds, the ‘Goddess Within’ represents the very idea of laying an empowering impact. Visithra conceived this idea out of frustration and anger. “Over the last few years, pages were sprouting on Facebook policing women on what they do or how they dress. A lady decided to shame a girl for wearing a sleeveless salwar to a temple and her son decided to shame her online and people joined him,” she narrates.

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#goddesswithin #workingmother #hijab I wear many hats. Mother, wife, a career woman. I handle the procurement and finance for Tech procurement for a company that has more than 900 branches. Can a mother be a career woman? Why not? Motherhood actually drives me to achieve bigger dreams in my career. While some companies do practice not hiring women for the fear that they may get pregnant and have to juggle motherhood, they have failed to realise that the woman that rocks the cradle can easily rock the world. Being a mom to my beautiful baby girl has been an exceptional experience. It is in no way a hindrance to my career. Instead it drives me to be excellent in anything and everything possible. I want to set an example for my daughter. So that in the future she will believe she can be whoever she wants to be just like her mom. Here in Malaysia it is an amazing feeling to be respected and not treated differently for wearing the Hijab. While covering the aurat is deemed compulsory in Islam, I do it by choice. However in the western world it is often perceived to be forced upon. Well, open your heart and understand what Islam is all about.  Each and every religion embraces differences and celebrates similarities. It is ignorance that often leads to animosity. Women empowerment comes from their strength within, not by the dress a woman chooses to wear. Photographers note: This was the shortest shoot but we made it work in 30 mins! I was glad my friend decided to join my project. It gave me the opportunity to explore this social constraint – where women are told their choice to cover up is wrong. Again people forget they are still telling women what to do. Let our choices be our own. #sonyimages #a6000 #a6000sony #sonymalaysia #igersmalaysia #igersmalaya #ig_malaysia_ #ig_malaysia #malaysia #igersmy #igasia #igersasia #ig_asia #travelasia #asiavibes #potdmalaysia

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“All I wanted to do was to inspire other women and to tell people they cannot and should not focus on what they deem is a person’s flaw”

Also, an incident, where a mother-daughter duo was brutally murdered in their home, had a major impact on Visithra. “This was just before Navratri. I was thinking here we have a Hindu celebration where, while we celebrate the goddess, our women are being killed, their every move dictated etc. That’s why I decided to do this photo series for Navratri to let everyday women talk about the different issues they face while dressing them up as goddesses in an urban, modern context,” she explains.

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#goddesswithin #womenatwork #genderbias I work as an IT analyst. I’m married and I live with my in laws. While I love my job, it’s been really tough to survive in this male dominated field. I will often be cut off while voicing my opinions. Initially I had to learn everything on my own as very few people wanted to help me learn. Today, I share my knowledge with new comers as I don’t want them to suffer like I did in the beginning. I think people forget that everyone needs guidance in the beginning, no matter what job they are in. We have very few role models to look up to, as there are very few women in the C-Level of my industry. Shouldn’t we have more women making decisions? I’m lucky that my husband is understanding and supportive of me. I also have a pet poodle who brightens up my day, every day. Being a career woman and home maker comes with its own constraints. We are never our own priority. Everything else comes first. No matter what happens at work, women are expected to come home ever smiling to ensure the house is filled with happiness. But there are days we are very stressed out with work. I want society to understand that we are individuals and need to prioritise ourselves as well. Only then can we confidently care for our family and society. The Goddess Within While we are smack in the middle of the 21st century, women still face many challenges and social constraints. In conjunction with Navarathri – the celebration of the female goddess, I started this amazing project with 9 wonderful women. Each one is a different women but what unites us all is that we are strong, capable women who are overcoming and standing up to the constraints of society. I aim to reveal the goddess within each of these women over the next few days. For there is a goddess within every women, let us make our choices, stop telling us what we can or cannot do. copyright @visithra – no stealing the pictures Visithra Manikam visithra(@)gmail.com http://v-eyez.blogspot.com #sonyimages #a6000 #a6000sony #sonymalaysia #igersmalaysia #igersmalaya #ig_malaysia_ #ig_malaysia #malaysia #igersmy #igasia #igersasia #ig_asia #travelasia #asiavibes #potdmalaysia

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On selecting women and their stories

Visithra decided to work on the project just a week before Navratri. She posted the call on Instagram and Facebook and received responses from ten girls. “I did not pick my goddesses, I said yes to the first ten girls who approached me,” she recalls. Visithra, who did not know their stories, shared her idea and vision with them. She did not plan any of the social constraints that she featured. “It all came from conversations and back-to-back messages. Every photo represents their individual style and beauty,” she shares.

Challenges and learning

Every step, from the conception of the idea to its implementation is never easy. Something Visithra realised while shooting was that there were countless stories that go untold because not everyone is able to share these serious issues. Interestingly, most of these women were being photographed for the first time. Visithra shares she hadn’t met most of them before, so there was also a trust she had to build.

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#goddesswithin #everydaysexism #navarathri #navaratri My mad passion for sarees has led me to start the #keepcalmandsareeon movement. I sometimes get discriminated when I try to style sarees in ways that I love. Some days, I get attacked on social media when I decide to wear something other than a saree. I once wore a saree with a bikini inspired crop top saree blouse with my saree mundhani covering only one side of my chest. Apart from hurtful words that were thrown towards me (I was asked to go to bed with some of them and as far as I know no god approves of this harassment), I was also said to be putting my culture and tradition to shame. As much as I wanted to get mad, I was forced to understand that most of them have been fed with the notion that an indian woman is obliged to uphold the Hindu tradition and culture they think is right. Is it wrong to take the goddesses in the temples whom we worship and the illustration of women in our Hindu epics as my style icons? Now don't tell me I should not compare myself to these goddesses because let's not forget that the first thing most of us say when we see a woman in a saree, all decked in jewellery and is someone who conforms to social obligation is "she looks like goddess mahalaksmi/ amman". Why should we only represent the idea of goddess some of you have fixed in your mind? What if we have our own interpretation of the inner goddess within us? It's very easy to criticize a woman for standing up for her beliefs, but do you know we are often burdened with the task of dressing, speaking, walking,sitting (the list is never ending) a certain way? I wonder whatever happened to the quote "be yourself"?. To me, tradition, culture and even religious beliefs should be followed only because a woman wants to. Not because she fears a back lash that follows if she chooses otherwise. We often forget that what was accepted in the past may not be necessarily be accepted now and vice versa. Change is the only constant. For full msg check link in bio and comments

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“If you can change 1 person because of your efforts, I think that itself is a big success”

Visithra’s interaction with each woman she photographed turned into a personal learning experience and joy. “Each session turned into conversations that I did not expect to make. Some shared personal stories, insecurities and struggles, a lot of which was not shared in their final stories, but they are stories I remember,” she says, adding that we all need someone who believes in us and that’s when we can confidently realise our true potential.

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#goddesswithin #genderbias #femaleconstraints #navaratri #navarathri #wonderwoman #visithra The Goddess Within In conjunction with Navarathri – the celebration of the female goddess, I started this amazing project with 9 wonderful women. Each one is a different women but what unites us all is that we are strong, capable women who are overcoming and standing up to the constraints of society. I aim to reveal the goddess within each of these women over the next few days. For there is a goddess within every women, let us make our choices, stop telling us what we can or cannot do. Wonder Woman – Overcoming Gender Bias I work as a Technical Advisor or better known as a Front Line Service Engineer in a male dominated oil and gas industry. I cover the industrial sector where I deal with people in the technical and commercial sector. My job involves understanding the machineries in order to be able to recommend the righ products, provide technical services and most importantly be able to trouble shoot issues the clients may face. Our customers are men, foreman, boilerman, mechanics, store keepers, lorry drivers up to the senior management be it the general manager or even the MD. Even my internal stakeholders are men and there I am one of the few women in this industry. But learning wasn’t my biggest challenge. Being heard as an equal and knowledgeable voice was and still is my biggest challenge – simply because I’m a woman. There have been so many times that I have been cut off half way through my sentences during discussions. Basically people would cut me off from voicing out my views. I have also been verbally bullied and continuously been doubted on my capabilities simply because of my gender. Read the rest on my fb https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153957308066989&set=a.10153957307971989.1073741904.529131988&type=3&theater Copyright @ Visithra #sonyimages #a6000 #a6000sony #sonymalaysia #igersmalaysia #igersmalaya #ig_malaysia_ #ig_malaysia #malaysia #igersmy #igasia #igersasia #ig_asia #travelasia #asiavibes #potdmalaysia

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On changing gender-based notions

Women have been subjected to preconceived notions, regardless of the country they’re living in. Visithra feels these notions will only break when women stand together and support each other. “Many times it’s not only men who force down constrictions on women but women themselves who have been successfully brainwashed by patriarchy. So, for starters, we need to support each other, not put down another woman and stand up for women when they are wronged,” she urges.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153965325921989&set=a.10153957307971989&type=3&theater

“It’s not an easy process, but let’s start somewhere.”

She believes parents need to significantly teach their their children about the importance of equality, respect and consent. She says that support also equals to standing up for women who are trolled online for how they dress. This includes supporting women who take legal action against these people. Visithra believes, especially with the current #MeToo wave riding, that there’s even more need for everyone to come together to believe the survivors. She says women must relate to each other’s stories and know that they are not alone.

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#goddesswithin #stereotype #onlychild #navaratri #navaratri I am an only child Usually after someone has known me for some time, they would ask how many siblings I had. The moment they hear I am an only child they would say – “oh no wonder.” And I’m like "no wonder what?" They would immediately make remarks that make no sense like “oh that’s why you look ‘well fed’” “oh you look so manja (pampered)” How is it that these remarks only came after you found out I was an only child? If your initial reaction was that I was such, shouldn’t you have asked me "are you the only child" instead of “how many siblings I have?” Here’s the thing. It does not matter how many people a person is born with. That does not dictate their character or their attitude. Modesty, patience, tolerance, politeness, or any form of social behaviour does not come with the fact that a person is the only child, first born, youngest or even the 15th child. Character develops over time through upbringing, experiences and events in a persons’ life. My parents are open-minded. They trust me to make my own decisions and that includes who i am friends with, what time i come home or where I decide to go. This is simply because of whom they are and what they believe in. Not because they only have one child so they're going to let her do whatever she wants. Till this very day, I still get disciplined by my parents. So if you want to pass a comment about the way I look, the food I eat, the places I go to, the people I am friends with or anything, do so based on what you see in me/ who I am, and not because God or the forces of the Universe decided that my parents shall have only one child. Full note link in bio #sonyimages #a6000 #a6000sony #sonymalaysia #igersmalaysia #igersmalaya #ig_malaysia_ #ig_malaysia #malaysia #igersmy #igasia #igersasia #ig_asia #travelasia #asiavibes #potdmalaysia

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“Photography allows you to connect to strangers that you would generally miss on a daily basis.”

She exhibited her first solo photography exhibition in 2009. She also went on to document a school in India the same year. These experiences, she says, have shaped her beliefs too. A lot of Visithra’s photography involves people and, therefore, exhibitions, for her, are an interesting platform for discussions and new concepts.

“You could walk past the same road every day and miss so many things. It has opened me up to interacting with perfect strangers and giving them something that is actually precious – time,” she says. Interestingly, she also engages in a conversation with people she photographs on the streets even if they don’t speak the same language. “Sometimes we laugh, sometimes they share concerns, sometimes they look away. Each experience is different and you need to open yourself up to these experiences,” she adds.   

Visithra, who has also done wedding photography earlier, decided to leave the segment since it took her time away from indulging in what she loved – documentary and street photography.

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#goddesswithin #healyourself #iamsacred #navarathri #navaratri When I worshipped you in temples, I felt like an impostor. I didn’t know the mantras, I couldn’t dress the part. How was I to hold my palms together in prayer for inspiration when my mind struggled to muster the courage just to enter your holy shrine? I have heard the tales of women who brought shame to the family one too many times. I know society never deems a woman with tattoos, short hair, and certainly not one with that much skin showing, as a good being. I wasn’t enough of a woman in your man-made temples, Saraswathi, so I searched for myself elsewhere. I looked into a lover who garlanded my self-esteem with the wilting numbers on my weighing scale. I sought to find love of one’s self through the eyes of another. “Just a few more kilos and I’d be beautiful. I’d be enough.” By the time he left me, I lost more than my weight. I lost my worth. I turned to philosophy as my community turned its back on me, and assumed moral superiority. “The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply” said Nietzsche of amor fati. Among other things, I returned to your vedas for answers. Fortunately, it was not written in an ancient, handwritten mantra in a forgotten tongue that I cannot, for the life of me, decipher, but rather eloquently in Times New Roman. I didn’t fall to my knees in devotion right away or wear a saree with flowers tucked in my hair. I didn’t recite your splendors and glories with the perfume of incense in the air. Of course people assume I do not ever pray, because you, Saraswathi, were never seen to be worshiped by women in pyjamas with messy, unkempt hair in a room lingering with the scent of cigarettes and littered with cans of beer. But you, Saraswathi, you heard the silent prayers I had whispered to the amethyst stone I wear around my neck in your stead. I sought for you in churches, and museums, in art galleries and dance performances. I saw your light gleaming across the borders of every new city, your knowledge flowing within the veins of every new stranger that I chanced upon. Read the rest in the comments

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On what lies ahead

Goddess Within was not Visithra’s first attempt to re-educate society on the constrictions they place on women. She has been writing on these subjects for a long time now. She’s now working towards creating and pushing her messages across platforms. Visithra has also been been trying to get her project exhibited in a public space so more people can witness her intentions. “It’s an ongoing process that hopefully will see the light one day,” she concludes.

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#goddesswithin #clothedinstrength #navarathri #navaratri Don't need to be a bride to dress up like one. Having called off an engagement, the hardest part of which should have been ending things with my significant other and taking time off to heal turned into having to explain myself to people and pacify them instead. Even people who claim to be family and friends. I've been told they feel sorry for me, that maybe I should have compromised more, that sometimes I'm too strong and stubborn, that I should have made it work. Even with All fingers pointed at me, I stand firm by my choice. Sometimes fairytales aren't what they seem and that's okay. I chose not to listen to people who say so much but mean so little. I chose me and I chose to be happy. That's the hardest and best decision that I've ever made. The Goddess Within While we are smack in the middle of the 21st century, women still face many challenges and social constraints. In conjunction with Navarathri – the celebration of the female goddess, I started this amazing project with 9 wonderful women. Each one is a different women but what unites us all is that we are strong, capable women who are overcoming and standing up to the constraints of society. I aim to reveal the goddess within each of these women over the next few days. For there is a goddess within every women, let us make our choices, stop telling us what we can or cannot do. copyright @visithra – no stealing the pictures #goddesswithin Visithra Manikam Photographed by Visithra visithra(@)gmail.com http://v-eyez.blogspot.com V-Eyez Imagery on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/veyezimagery #sonyimages #a6000 #a6000sony #sonymalaysia #igersmalaysia #igersmalaya #ig_malaysia_ #ig_malaysia #malaysia #igersmy #igasia #igersasia #ig_asia #travelasia #asiavibes #potdmalaysia

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This Navratri, let us all find a goddess within each one of us; let us learn to respect women as we respect goddesses. And this does not limit to nine days alone, we need to understand and value the thought every single day. Let us not dilute our Navratri but gain a new perspective and collectively come forward to break taboos surrounding gender. Because if we don’t value the women in our lives or anywhere around us, for that matter, there’s absolutely no point in praying to the goddess above.

Also Read: This Navratri, A Look At Feminism In Hindu Mythology

More stories by Bhawana

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