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Speciwomen A conversation with Leslee Udwin, founder of Think Equal

Sep. 10, 2018
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Philo Cohen: How do your childhood and adolescence influence the work that you do today?

Leslee Udwin: I come from a Jewish family and was born in Israel as a seventh-generation Israeli-Palestinian. I always describe it this way because, seven generations ago, there was no Israel; it was Palestine. I hate the oppression, discrimination, and hatred that are flying on both sides of this horrendous conflict. When I was nine my father accepted a job in South Africa, [of] which he [was] a native, with the apartheid system still going on. I lived through the Soweto uprising [in which] children were literally mowed down. [Under those circumstances,] no curious child—and all children are curious—can grow up without feeling a terrible sense of injustice, wondering why some people are so privileged and others aren’t. For example, I couldn’t understand why our maid had to live in a room the size of a prison cell at the top of our building while we lived in an apartment. I used to sit with her in that room and ask, “Where are your children? Tell me about them!” She’d only see her children once a year. 

My father was a very religious man, so I was put in a Jewish school. When I was thirteen, I remember discovering in a Bible class that every morning there’s this prayer that men say: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe who has not made me a woman.” Those are the exact words. At the first break, I ran in search of the chief Rabbi of the school. I was so appalled, so angry, so hurt. I confronted him and said, “You can take your Jewish Torah and shove it up your ass.” He, of course, expelled me. There’s always been a healthy or, some would say, unhealthy measure of outrage in me when it comes to injustice. I started life as an actor since that’s all I ever wanted to do. However, there were only two theatres in the country that I could work in. One was in Johannesburg and the other was in Cape Town. All the others [operated on the policy of] “No blacks. Whites only.” I went to Cape Town and acted there for six months in a so-called “multiracial” theatre. At the same time, I [found myself on] station platforms that were for “blacks only” and handing out leaflets about Mandela’s banned book No Easy Walk to Freedom. This was a very repressive, fascist regime; at any point, I could have been arrested and thrown into jail. So many were. Eventually I got to the point where I just thought, “I can’t keep staying in this place. I can’t really make a difference here.” All I was doing was taking risks. I just knew if I stayed here I would be arrested, so I had to make a choice… [I] decided that I couldn’t give up my life and my career. My father did not want me be an actor, and so he basically said, “If you want to do this, you’re on your own. You fund it, you do what you like, but I’m not having any part of this.” So [starting] when I was seventeen, I would go into the school I had graduated from at 8 AM, teach the first two periods of the morning—they let me teach since I had had really good marks—then go to university, do my drama, and then [work] as a theatre manager in the late afternoons and nights. That’s how I got myself through university and saved enough money to go to London. The determination to prove my father wrong was a real motivation for me. Within a few weeks of my arrival in London I got my first job in a pub theatre, and then my theatre career in London really took off. I consider London to be my ‘home,’ because it was the first place I had chosen to go to.

Philo Cohen: What gave you the confidence to take action and have an independence of choice?

Leslee Udwin: I feel that absolutely everything I've done in my life [has been] somehow necessary to [getting me where I am now]. Everything I've done has led me to this point where [I’ve been able to] go and sit with a prime minister, a president, or an education minister and be absolutely certain that I can persuade them. It takes a certain level of confidence, a certain level of knowledge, and a huge amount of faith. I have also found my acting past to be really helpful because you know how to express yourself when you're an actor; you know how to read people, how to be sensitive. Those skills that an actor has in terms of being open with the way an idea is being expressed are utterly crucial when you are in the business of persuading people [to agree with] something they don't necessarily see yet. Something else that I think might have contributed to the degree of confidence I had when I was younger could be the to-do with a certain apocryphal story within my family. I'm one of two children. After my sister’s birth, my father really wanted [his] second child to be a son. 18 months later I was born. When he came to the hospital, apparently a nurse got it wrong and told him he had a son. He was over the moon, so happy, and the way it is told in the family is that he “danced in the ward.” And then, it turned out to be me. I think, subconsciously, I became his little boy. The one he wanted. He used to take me and have me stand with him [and] the men at the synagogue and he would make me pray with them, in the male section. Maybe I was the one who was allowed that ‘male privilege’ of being a bit more ‘entitled’; I felt such approbation and love from both of my parents that I was made unbelievably confident. 

Philo Cohen: How did you portray the situation in India in your documentary, India’s Daughter?

Leslee Udwin: The documentary revolves around Jyoti Singh, a physiotherapy student who was gangraped on a moving bus in Delhi, which quickly led to her death due to the several severe injuries caused [by] the assault; at the end of the brutal ordeal, her intestines were outside of her body. When we interviewed her family, they told us how she kept begging her father to sell his ancestral land to pay for her to go university. The last time he said no, as he did every time she asked, she was in such shock that she fainted. When he saw her lying on the ground, he thought, “What am I doing? What is life about except to have children and have them be happy? That's it. I'm doing it. I'll sell the fields.” The father is amazing. Even Jyoti’s brothers were unconventionally supportive of their father’s decision because she was such a remarkable young woman. That girl would have done amazing things for the world. She was strong, she was powerful to a degree that Indian girls generally are not allowed to be. She was changing things; she used to stand up to people. Her best friend, the girl who lived with her at the university, told me that she once stopped a rickshaw they were in because some guy put his hands on her friend’s knee. She shouted, “You treat women with respect! Get off, get out!” She was a warrior, an extraordinary young woman. Unfortunately, the father and brother of her best friend forbade the friend to come on camera and tell her extraordinary stories about Jyoti in the film, because they did not want her to even be associated with a rape victim. The loss of Jyoti contains a terrible irony. She was a fighter, she was fighting against all these misogynistic behaviors and prejudices plaguing India. One of the convicted rapists, Mukesh Singh, claims, “She shouldn't have fought. She wouldn't have got so hurt. A girl should just accept the rape. She's being raped, just lie back and accept it; don't say anything.” The atrocity.

Philo Cohen: How did you feel about leaving your home and family for two years to make this movie?

Leslee Udwin: I've been really lucky to have such a supportive husband and such supportive kids. I had always been too driven about my work; I swore to myself I would never get married because I would never have anyone stop me from doing what I needed to do in my work. Then, I met this amazing guy, he was lovely and completely different from me, he's soft and sweet and very sort of ‘un-masculine’ [as opposed to] the way that we've been taught to see men as masculine, or as men see themselves. He genuinely doesn't see me working as a threat. He's grateful that I work because I've been the breadwinner up [until] now. Since I started making this film, I haven't earned a penny [in] four years and will not earn a penny from now on because I refuse. This is my life's work. It feels to me like if I ever take a salary for Think Equal it will be a betrayal, and I know it's ‘stupid,’ but I can't help it. My trustees, even funders, say “Take a salary.” I [tell them] that the money can go to getting another country on board. How can I take the money? This is my life's calling—I don't need to be paid for this. I made East is East which was a very successful film and gave us some family savings. So now my children are okay. I don't have to worry about my duty to them: that's fulfilled. Now I just live to make the world a better place. The world has been a very misleading, cruel, deceiving place to tell us that life is about accumulating wealth and property. The people in pursuit of that have given up pretty much everything and it's at proportions of absolute crisis. My kids are partly a product of the values that I instilled in them, and they have absolute belief that what I'm doing is right. They want [to] do the same thing, help the world be a better place. My eighteen-years-old daughter is vegan, she is a feminist, and she's going to go to college to study international development. She is also a strong part of the foundational thinking behind Think Equal. She brainstormed it with me and was responsible for probably the most important decision I made: not making this only about gender. We brainstormed and realized that violence against women is in many ways the same as violence against anyone. There's no difference really. Somebody is either of ‘value’ or not. If they aren’t for whatever reason—they're dark-skinned, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc., you are ‘allowed’ to be violent against them. And if they're of equal value to you, you don't. You can't and you won't. 

Philo Cohen: How did you feel as a non-Indian person when directing this film?

Leslee Udwin: I think, to some degree, you need to be an outsider. It's interesting that I'm also an outsider as far as the education system is concerned. I'm not an educationalist, I'm not a trained teacher. I've got nothing to do with the world of civil society as far as knowing how it operates. I think that it is a huge advantage to be an outsider. You are allowed to look at things in ways that are so totally fresh. If I had been working in the world of NGOs, I would not see what I'm doing as possible, I wouldn't have tried. I wouldn't have started, because I would've said, “Well you'll never get governments to agree.” But I didn't know that. I thought, “Why not? It makes sense, it's logical. Of course they'll agree! They're not idiots.” So I went in and said, “Agree! You must do this!” And they're doing it. Sure they’re slow sometimes, and it’s a battle, but it’s happening. Now, anybody who I spoke to from the world of NGOs, civil society and the U.N., all said, “Impossible. You'll never get that. Not from governments.” Well, they're wrong. To push a mountain, you have to believe it can be moved. No one thought it would be possible to get the permission from the director general of the prison to be allowed into [a] maximum security jail and interview the most notorious criminals in India. But I wrote the letter and asked for it. And I was granted permission. If you don't ask, you don't get it. What motivated me to make this film was the glorious and courageous protests by Indian men and women after this rape. They went on, defying the water cannons and rubber bullets and baton charges for over a month, and I fell in love with their courage and their spirit. These [mostly young] Indians made India the only country in the entire world that has ever stood up so admirably for so long and actually called for an end to violence against women. I thought, “They are fighting for me. I was raped at 18. They are there and doing this for me—my own country hasn't got the guts or the foresight to stand up as they are doing.”

Philo Cohen: Do you think it is more efficient to dedicate yourself to one cause or to do a little bit of everything, everywhere?

Leslee Udwin: Well, you have to focus on one cause. It takes every ounce of your energy and all the time you can possibly spare to move that mountain. Of course if you’re content with just creating awareness or improving rather than changing things, then of course you can achieve this [through] a number of causes.  The question of bandwidth becomes very important. At Think Equal, we are only 10 people. Every time I go abroad, I come back with another possible country where I’ve made a strong contact with someone or an organization [that] wants to bring THINK EQUAL to its country. And I know my COO and my trustees are going to yell at me. They're going to say, “We've told you no more countries.” But there are 190-something countries in the world, and this is urgent. We can't sit around… If we join hands and do it all together, [everyone’s] work will flourish. Meryl Streep says it so beautifully in her video about Think Equal: “It's a fragile ship that we are rowing here. And it takes all of us to move this ship.” She's been so supportive and certainly one of the most admirable, dignified, caring, and committed human beings I know...

Philo Cohen: What’s the next Think Equal project?

Leslee Udwin: We're slowly getting more countries committing. Sri Lanka, for example—what they’ve done is completely rare. They've changed their policy through a joint cabinet paper in support of Think Equal to mandate this learning from the age of three. We have to get the other countries up to speed in the same way. Argentina has committed to rolling out in four provinces. We have an incredible partner there in Paula Wachter, who has the fire on her belly burning so bright and is so committed to this change. Botswana has committed to rolling out in their reception classes (4-year-olds). Canada is rolling out in one whole school district form this September. Pilots started in Singapore this January. We’re about to start in Mexico and next year in South Africa… It does not end. I talked at a UNESCO conference in Ottawa. After the talk a man came up to me with tears streaming down his cheeks. He held me, and he showed me his badge; he was the advisor to the Prime Minister of Iraq. He said, “Please come to Iraq. Please bring this, we need Think Equal in Iraq. Will you come and do a workshop?” We need this to happen. So we have to raise funding. And we badly need unrestricted funding which can pay the rent and the team that will run the programs. But we also need the volunteers and the partnerships to do the programs. For the first year, there were just two of us: myself and one paid member of staff. Now there are ten people. We need thirty, forty people. There's so much work to be done. The only thing that stands in the way at the moment is lack of funding. That's it. We have the model, we have the product. We have proof of concept. It's plug and play, and incredibly cheap to implement. In two days, we’ve trained the teachers. That's how simple it is because this is so concrete and so prescriptive. That's the beauty of it. It ensures that every child has what is [their] right; it removes the variable that is the degree of training or talent in the child’s teacher—and ensures that every child gets this crucial learning which ensures later life’s outcomes. 

Anyone who is moved to support Think Equal in any way, please contact us at or visit

Illustration from @byphilo