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Feminism’s soul brother

Zainab Salbi admires Aamir Khan’s efforts to confront women’s issues in India

September/October 2015

Zainab Salbi, 45, is an Iraqi-American humanitarian and entrepreneur, who founded Women for Women International when she was 23. Aamir Khan, 50, is an Indian actor, director and television presenter

There are lots of good men who support women, but there are very few who speak up with courage about women’s lives and issues. One who has is Aamir Khan.

Aamir spoke when he really didn’t need to: he had earned great love and admiration in India as a Bollywood star. And then he launched a talk show called “Satyamev Jayate” (“Truth Alone Prevails”), that goes to the heart of the issues Indian women have to deal with. He was famous and successful, with everything to lose – this definitely isn’t something you do for popularity – so he risked a lot.

Why did he do it? There are probably two main reasons, both from his childhood. The first is that when he was 12 or so he loved tennis: he was good at it and often won. And like most children he would brag about winning, but his mother would always ask him about the boys who lost, and tell him to think about them. Her constant concern and questioning made him realise he needed to be compassionate.

The second reason was his best friend in high school. This friend was the boy that got all the top grades and who everyone said would do great things. When he left school, he went on to study social work. Aamir was surprised and touched that this man, who could have done anything, had followed his heart and worked for charities. They remained close and over the years Aamir’s friend kept him in touch with what was going on in the hidden places in India, the things that people don’t like discussing. So when one day a company contacted Aamir with the offer to do a show, he said yes, it was his time to do some good.

In the show he talks openly and honestly about some terrible things in his home country: foeticides, the untouchables, the attitude to women. It was incredibly gutsy and visionary – a sort of social entrepreneurship – because nothing like this had been done before, and who knew whether people would want to watch it?

One show in particular really sticks out for me, on masculinity. Khan interviewed men who talked very honestly about why they beat their wives; he really wanted to understand. And then he went on to work with them to change their behaviour. That has stuck with me because I believe that, in the larger feminist movement, there is still a lot of anger. But change cannot happen through anger. We have to create a dialogue with men and create a new path together. So Aamir is a soul brother to the feminist movement, and I deeply admire and respect what he has done. 

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