Atita Verghese came to my attention a month or so ago due to the noble work that she does with Girl Skate India, featured in a piece for Vans.
Skateboarders, generally, come from the white, middle-class gene pool, so discovering someone from a completely different continent is always exciting for those of us trawling for stories. Anyone who knows just a little about the treatment of women in Indian society can imagine that choosing skateboarding as your pastime would be even more challenging than usual for a young girl, so tracking Atita down and getting her story firsthand was a must.
Currently 24, Atita spent her formative years in Bangalore, the capital of the southern Karnataka state known as the centre of India’s tech industry. Atita was a sporty girl, growing up with her mum and brothers, and says that in her household, she wasn’t treated any differently than her brothers and male cousins. This, by definition, would class her upbringing as “progressive”, in Indian terms.
“I could do anything I wanted like my cousins and brothers,” says Atita. “But in school and other places outside of home there were a few biases around. I feel like society in general here just has these set standards and expectations of what it means to act like a girl, so it kind of sucks if you’re different and don’t fit into that. But it’s also fun because you get to show people a different perspective.”
Atita goes on to explain that being a bit of a tomboy made her a target for male bullies at school.
“I got bullied by boys in my schooling years for being different,” she says. “I once got randomly taken, hands held back and just punched in the stomach for a reason unknown to me still. Kids are weird. But I did weird shit too. Life goes on.”
Atita admits that in general, her childhood was a happy one. Time was spent playing “all kinds of sports, talking shit with my friends and family,” as well as more traditional Indian activities like singing (“I sang, a lot.”)
As you’d expect with it being the tech centre of the world’s largest democracy, Bangalore is liberal by Indian standards, and this is reflected in the treatment of women in the city. However, in a country of well over a billion people, making assumptions based on a person’s upbringing in one particular city, is perilous. Atita is intensely aware of this.
“The majority of our population are still rural and it’s pretty hard out here for the girls,” she explains. “Even in the cities I’ve seen girls, mostly underprivileged, barely 10-years-old, not allowed to go out and play because they have to do chores and look after their siblings while the parents work. In a lot of cases they do not go to school for the same reasons; because Indian women are not considered a worthy enough investment for education because the only investment to care about is for their marriage.”
Not wanting to steer the interview away from Atita and her achievements, but also not wanting to fluff over the hugely contentious issue of the, at times, barbaric treatment of women in Indian society, I couldn’t avoid asking Atita about India’s Daughter—a 2015 BBC film telling the story of the brutal 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student on a bus. Her crime? Being out after dark. She had been to see The Life of Pi with a male friend who was also assaulted in the attack. The film received worldwide media attention and shed a light on the horrors inflicted on women, that are all too common in Indian society. As Samar Halarnkar, a columnist in the Indian newspaper Hindustan Times wrote at the time of another heinous assault, “Men abuse women in every society, but few males do it with as much impunity, violence and regularity as the Indian male.”
Tellingly, India’s Daughter was banned from being shown in India. Although Atita hasn’t seen the film, she speaks passionately on the subject matter.
“There’s been a gruesome attack on the female and minority sexes for a long fucking time now,” she says. “We’ve been silenced, oppressed, erased in large numbers and it still goes on. Just in more refined ways. By banning a documentary such as this, the message that gives off is basically that we don’t care about the evolution of mankind towards the oppressed by awakening to the severity of our situation and changing it as a multi-gendered species at all. That we care more about our public image to the world instead and defending our systems of patriarchy and brutality is more important, even if we are in the wrong. It’s sad but that’s India’s biggest problem and deterrent for growth.”
Atita’s foundation, Girl Skate India, is her way of using skateboarding to empower women throughout India. She speaks fondly of looking up to female pros like Elissa Steamer and the profound effect having strong female role models had on her formative self, as well as her own personal skate journey giving her, “the freedom, the community, the weird shit, the laughing,” that she craved at the time. Through the foundation, Atita runs demos, skate days, helps to build DIY skate spots, and generally provides a safe space for young women to give skating a go.
“I’d like to make it established and start working with kids on a regular basis, so we can really foster a place for skateboarding and creativity and hopefully have some of the rising female skateboarders get employed in some way,” Atita explains. “It’s a rough sketch but the road is long so seeing how it unfolds is exciting for me.”
Despite there being a long way to go in the fight for women’s equality in India, Atita is not one to doubt her cause. When I ask her what she would like to see change for Indian women most of all, her response is as eloquent and fired up as ever.
“Equal opportunity, equal pay, equal representation, equal rights, equal importance.”
She then added, “The only real way for change is to look within ourselves—male or female—and to acknowledge when we are behaving in conditioned ways, accepting that we’re all flawed and making changes to our behaviours with every woman or girl in our lives. From the smallest of interactions to the most intimate.”
“And to all the men that realise we need you to let us in and help fight the fight and shine the light.”