The seed for change is sown
Courageous women are changing India’s patriarchal society and business culture. One of them is German-Indian Theresa Moozhiyil, who – inspired by her parents – has been making her very own mark on the subcontinent for nearly 30 years. Her biography is therefore worth more than a passing glance.
They say everyone comes into this world with a purpose and mine became clear to me very early in life – that of standing up against everything that traditional society and its impractical norms impose on women.
It all began in 1989 when my parents, with us kids in tow, decided to leave home in Germany after two decades and return to their former home in the state of Kerala in south-west India. Life in Germany had strongly influenced my parents and they wanted to give back something of their experiences to their homeland. So they returned with a suitcase full of new ideas that they wanted to put into action. I definitely got my courage from them. My parents stood and still stand up for their many social ideas, such as employment and training for all, and equality of gender and castes. And I am keeping their mission going.
Before I talk more about my life, it’s important to put into perspective the hurdles a woman coming from a rural area in India faces day in, day out. Their personal opinions count for virtually nothing. Except in the states with high literacy rates – like the one I come from – the rate of female infanticide and the number of women killed is alarmingly high and the lack of education and sanitation for women is shocking to say the least. There is practically no concept of equal gender rights. Everything a woman wears, speaks, thinks or does is governed by the powers that be and must be approved by them. It starts with the birth of a girl child which is seen as a disappointment and continues with a lot of traditional social cues and norms. I can clearly remember when my younger brother was born. People from the village enthusiastically congratulated my parents, to their surprise, for finally having “a child”.
For example, my sister and I, even as young girls, upset a lot of people because we would leave the house without wearing any gold jewelry. In what we thought was a bizarre custom, a girl was considered worthless if she left home without gold ornaments. It indicated coming from a poor home where the parents couldn’t afford much. Things in this regard have changed now but back then it was reason enough to be frowned upon. Another example is when I travelled across India as a young woman without any companion. It opened a whole new world to me. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made. Though shackled by the social norms around them, many of those people I happened to meet seemed, to my surprise, more amused than shocked that a girl was traveling around unaccompanied.
Starting with BASIS
Back in Kerala, my parents set up the BASIS initiative – “Bio Agriculture and Social Improvement Schemes” – in order to develop the village Sreekandamangalam and its surroundings and to bring social change. Their first project was a free sewing workshop for young women. The training was to help them take the plunge into self-employment. The course immediately met with rejection – despite the high levels of local unemployment. It was an arduous road towards acceptance over many years and – sure – there were also threats, especially from brothers and husbands.
Today BASIS Holidays as sustainable tourism is one of the pillars of the BASIS programs, and contributes significantly to the social and environmental activities of the village. Parts of the revenues from tourism flow into projects that promote wealth and economic independence. BASIS also finances the training centers and small entrepreneurial endeavors and plays a role in raising the living standards of the community.
While BASIS was really picking up pace, I pursued an MBA in tourism before going to live and work in Bangalore for a period of 11 years. Bangalore is the IT capital of India and at ten million and counting, it is the fifth most populous city in the country. Together with my husband Sebastian, I started a small software company there called CATEGIS in 2011.
The decade we spent in Bangalore was fantastic to say the least, but I felt it was important to also initiate some projects in Kerala. A large part of Indians live in rural India and it is important to do something about the rather rigid role of women there.
Women’s rights campaigner
- Place of birth
- Date of birth
- December 5, 1982
- The family return to India and set up the village development project BASIS
- 1989 – 2006
- School and university qualification: MBA Pondicherry University/Puducherry
- 2006 – 2013
- Head of Finance & Administration at Goethe Institute in Bangalore
- Founding of the software company CATEGIS
City challenges versus village challenges
At CATEGIS, we once had an interview with a female applicant who was very attached to traditional standards. Everything about her was very cautious, but on the technical front, she aced every aspect. She knew her job and knew it well. We hired her as a senior software developer in 2012, making her our very first employee. Today she is our head of IT, even though some of our male employees have problems with having a female boss.
It all started with a table and a chair in our home and so much has happened since. Today, our company consists of a smart, efficient and harmonious team of 25 employees, 60 percent of whom are female.
But the challenges I faced in the city were different from the ones that I had to battle with in the rural settings of the village. In the city I came across educated and professionally qualified women who made their way with confidence. But nevertheless, in job interviews when I ask them about their goals in life, their answer often narrows down to “I want to be a good wife and mother”. Some battles last forever. While village life is about the oppression of women by archaic traditions, there was and still is another name for it in the city: gender inequality.
Digitization and the way ahead
Things around us are changing at an unimaginable speed, also in India, and I have no doubt that archaic traditions will be overtaken soon. India, with an average population age of 27, is a young country that is not afraid of questioning norms and traditions. And it is a country that is prepared to do everything necessary to overcome social obstacles to growth.
Digitization is a key aspect of CATEGIS and my employees have benefited a great deal from it. Digitization has seen us create flexible work-from-home solutions that have helped our female employees in a big way. At BASIS we use digitization to reach out to the world, for our social media communication and for the online processing of inquiries and travel advice.
“If there is a rebirth and I had a say in it, then I’d definitely want to come back again as a woman, and in India!”
Down, but never hopeless
Of course there are days that are frustrating and disappointing and there are even sometimes tears. But somehow, something always comes up that demands my attention and urges me to continue.
I have been able to rekindle the spark of change in me again and again. This would never have been possible without my parents. They were always my role models – especially my strong mother. I am still learning every day and like my father says, “Only those who do nothing make no mistakes.” I am grateful to have been born a woman. If there is a rebirth and I had a say in it, then I’d definitely want to come back again as a woman, and in India!
The Indian state of Kerala has
The literacy rate in Kerala is
the highest in the whole of India
The average age in India is
Women make up
of the populationin India
My parents stood and still stand up for their many social ideas.