This Cambridge law professor has no time for your silly stereotypes

When Antara Haldar is present at a gathering of academicians, there’s one question she’s often asked: “Is your husband speaking at this conference?” The Mumbai-born development scholar cites this as but one example of the “benign patriarchy” that clouds her profession. “The moment I enter a room, there is a tendency to assume that I am a lightweight,” she says.

Haldar’s achievements, though, easily contradict this. In September 2014, she was appointed as a law professor at the University of Cambridge, the first non-European to hold this position. “It’s an honour to be given this role at an institute that’s invented concepts like gravity,” says Haldar, 30, whose research work straddles the fields of economics, law, development and gender studies, none of which is confined to classrooms and scholarly journals. Haldar maintains real-world relevance by aligning with governments, policy makers and organisations like the World Bank and United Nations. “It is believed that academicians study the world from ivory towers; their work irrelevant and tangential,” says Haldar, pointing out that her most rewarding and revelatory work was built from the heavy lifting of field research.

Her latest project, an ongoing study of the Gujarat Development Model, spotlights the multiple truths that grip our country. “I have been going through [Gujarat] with a fine-toothed comb, scouring everything from the factories to the farms. We are trying to be as thorough as possible, but I joke sometimes that I feel like I am in a Kurosawa film—depending on who I am speaking to, a shared reality is (re)presented completely differently. I hope that the end result will present a kaleidoscopic picture of the complex reality,” says Haldar, who was on a sabbatical for most of last year, travelling across the US and Europe for research projects and lectures (including one to a theatre full of Nobel laureates in New York). “[Now,] it is great to increasingly be on the Indian radar, particularly on the subject of demonetization. In addition, I will be editing my documentary on the changing face of India, and what is being lost in the process of transition,” she says.

Meanwhile, Haldar is also in the midst of a busy print run, with an in-progress thesis and two newly published research papers. “One is on India’s proposed labour law reforms that attracted a lot of policy attention (especially after India witnessed the world’s biggest labour strike last September) and the other is on the fallout of the Indian microfinance crisis that, surprisingly, has gone largely unnoticed—it has ended up ruining the lives of ten million Indian women, in the Andhra Pradesh and Telengana region, more than the toll of the global financial crisis. If a crisis of this proportion had taken place in the West, it would have made international headlines—it makes me wonder, is the life of the average Indian woman that unimportant?”

#ELLEMentors: Being a feminist in 2017

“In the wake of the result of the recent US election, this is a dispiriting time for feminists, and the promise that you can “be anything you want to be” seems a little false. The enemy is real. The battle has not been won. But I think that even this historic setback holds important lessons: despite the provocation, don’t become shrill and hysterical. Be tough, but don’t become unkind. And most of all, don’t underestimate the power of being underestimated. I remember being asked at a scholarship interview how my having long hair squared with my being a feminist. I didn’t get the award, but a few years later, [I] was invited to be a professor at the same university. I have always tried to find a middle ground between the Margaret Thatcher versus Victoria’s Secret model dichotomy that young women are presented with; we are not either masculine and powerful or pretty and gentle. I think many women feel stymied by this false binary, and it stifles creativity and leadership. The mind is the site where this war must be waged and, together, we can change the paradigm of power. I can promise that the sound of the glass ceiling shattering makes it all worth the while!”

(Photograph: Manasi Sawant)

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