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Talking To India’s Unheard, Invisible Women


“… cutting up women is a sport older than cricket but just as popular and equally full of obscure rituals and intricate rules that everyone seems to know…”

Mohammed HanifOur Lady of Alice Bhatti

I’m reading Our Lady of Alice Bhatti as I travel trip my way across India, meeting women for the newest campaign of our NGO- an ambitious one where we’re hoping to dismantle patriarchy using videos and discussions. I’m looking for young women, who want to work with us as correspondents, to document patriarchy preying on them in its own unique style in their areas. As I read about Alice, a fiercely independent former jailbird, from a poor, ‘low-caste’ Christian family in Pakistan, I am struck by how similar life for women in India is to the life of Alice.

As I travelled from Goa to Kerala, and move to Tamil Nadu, I met Nandhini, from a tiny village just outside Tiruppur, in Tamil Nadu. She’s just opened a beauty salon, enrolled in English classes and is pretty pissed off with the various ridiculous kinds of caste based discrimination she’s often subjected to. She came to pick me up from Tiruppur railway station on her little pink scooter, and we sat in a café and used broken English and silly sign language to understand one other. She’d learnt photography and had some radical thoughts on the futility of gender discrimination. We giggled our way through this ‘interview’ till Dhurga joined us, confusing us further with her broken Hindi!

Dhurga, is from a tiny village on the border of Erode and Tiruppur districts of Tamil Nadu. A recent graduate of Defence Studies, Dhurga’s family profession has traditionally been manual scavenging. An accident left her father bedridden. Her mother, a labourer, was devastated at Dhurga’s decision to pursue a degree, but Dhurga moved to Coimbatore and enrolled in college anyway. Working weekends helped her pay her way through college. She often came home to visit her parents, and volunteered as a community mobilizer and teacher whenever in her village.

There was Survanti, in Sonipat, a migrant Bihari labourer who told us how her father’s travels through the country as a labourer helped him have progressive views on women working out of their homes, out of choice, and had insisted Survanti finish school. Now living in Haryana’s heartland, she uses these progressive ideas to teach both her sons to cook, clean and learn ‘feminine’ roles, while her daughters are encouraged to study, and are allowed as much playtime as the boys. She is pleased; her husband’s support gives her the space to lead a village core group to encourage financial independence and empowerment of women.

There was Meena, in Rohtak, a Dalit girl who’s educated herself. Meena explains to me in a thick Haryanvi accent that patriarchy is why they are five sisters, with two little brothers. She explains that patriarchy is why her mother earns less money than her father does – for the same work! Her mother of course, also manages their household before and after her work hours, while her father plays cards, and sometimes gets drunk with his friends. Meena is hell-bent on smashing this social norm that tells her that her ‘duties’ in life are limited to being a slave to whichever man currently commands her life. She’s refused to get married just yet, and aspires to help her mom retire, before she ‘settles’ for a man who will ‘permit’ her to live her life with freedom.

Whenever I meet these women, we always talk of ‘freedom’, inevitably. Such a touchy term it is. Most people are curious, whether I’m married, and why not. I tell them of the inability to comprehend the idea of sharing my life and dreams with a person who would expect me to be nothing more than their slave. Not all men are like that, they say. I agree, slightly skeptical. I also ask them why they never ask men if they’re married. My male colleagues are rarely questioned about their marital status.  We discuss how our society brings up children in gender-specified and well-compartmentalized roles. We talk of how ‘mard ko dard nahin hota hai’, and laugh about how the good men are always taken. I wonder aloud if there are instances of same-sex relations in their villages, and some of the women giggle, others blush, and someone lightly slaps my hand as she says, ‘let’s talk about something else now…’

We go on to argue about who are the biggest perpetrators of patriarchy. Sunita, an educated, ‘liberated’ young woman with a college education, is married to an army-officer. Armed with a degree and nationalistic fervor, Sunita tells us that women are the ONLY reason why patriarchy continues to perpetuate, and goes on to describe how over-population of the minority communities is the reason why our country is in such a mess. As she speaks, I’m desperately looking for the correct Hindi words to respond in the ‘right’ way, but before my mind can come up with a response, the other women laugh her into silence. These Haryanvi women, compelled to live in ghoonghat and rarely allowed to step out of their homes, have possibly put their lives at risk to be here. And they’re not willing to accept more patriarchal shit dished out for free.

They describe to Sunita with gentle disdain, that she’s just another unfortunate victim of patriarchy. Men are not taught to cook or clean, or maintain homes. They’re taught that their sole purpose in life is to father children, get good jobs, have a house, a car, provide for their children… they’re brought up with parochial, patriarchal terms and conditions, ‘humare ghar ke auratein bahaar kam nahin karte hai, kya zaroorat hai, itne saare mard hai, paise kamane ke liye…’ (women of our house do not leave the house to earn, what is the need? There are enough men here…).

That society compels men and women alike to fit into certain social roles and norms, and that this, in it’s entirety, is patriarchy. They go beyond my limited understanding of gender in a Haryanvi village, and tell Sunita that her pride in her husband’s gun-toting ways is patriarchy. An older woman takes Sunita aside to further explain to her how peace is the only answer, and war is a weapon created by corporates and politicians. The rest of us continue to talk about the limits and conditions with which we understand“work”. I am amazed at the depth and understanding these women of the ‘dehat’ have about life beyond their village. They tell me some of them have learnt to read from their children, and regularly read aloud for others from the limited newspapers that reach their village. I am convinced they are far more empowered than the pouty, hair-straightened specimens which Instagram their way through life in the cities.

We talk about how ‘work’ is usually understood within the narrowed realms of glass-encased offices, 9-5 jobs as someone’s stooge or a corporation’s slave. Washing, cleaning, cooking, feeding and managing household expenses, rearing children, massaging in-laws, and submitting to their husbands’ sexual advances are not yet considered ‘work’. Failure to submit to these terms and conditions mean that women are beaten, burnt, raped and tortured, tonsured and hunted as witches, and harassed, touched without consent, jeered, stared at, stoned and slaughtered with absolute impunity.

As these women’s collectives share stories, my mind is left reeling with the cruelty and injustice meted out to women. The stories get progressively more depraved. There was a time when none would complain when a woman had been raped. The dishonor was too much to deal with. However, as courage seeps through the masses, people are no longer content to ‘simply’ rape, but they feel compelled to torture, disfigure, slash and burn women, to hide evidence, disfigure beyond recognition, terrify and threaten survivors. The trans-community don’t have it any better, as we have only just begun to react to violence against women, we haven’t yet made it to acknowledging and shouting vociferously for the rights of transpeople.

A lot of people usually ask me what it is like for a woman to travel alone. I tell them I make friends with people, that strangers help me. I make friends with coach attendants, and ask them about their lives. They show me photos of their grandkids, and feel sad they’ve missed most of the milestones in their lives. One showed me a photo of his granddaughter’s first tooth. The Chaiwallah at Chennai helped me find a “non-cheater autowallah”. Former colleagues, interns and relatives host me as I crisscross across the country. A generally small build and malnourished look compels people to feed me.

Friends and their associates take me on city tours, done via bumpy scooter rides and rickety buses. People are always fascinated with the backpack and boots. I tell them the boots aren’t to be badass – they’re only for the horrific public toilets. They want to know about my parents, what made them ‘allow’ me to lead my life as I wished? I show them photos, and they think my parents ‘look’ liberated. Maybe it’s Mom’s short hair. Or the fact that Papa has his arm around her, not clutching, not grabbing, but loosely holding her closer to him. They find it funny that my clothes are covered in dog fur, and that I say I don’t live alone, I have several dogs, chickens and even a piggy. They guffaw when I describe Piggy’s teeny weenie feet and his plugpoint nose … Many people have told me as I leave, I’m wonderfully weird, ‘Aap kitna ajeeb ho, aapko milke bahut achha laga’..

One Haryanvi woman wistfully tells me she wishes she could bring up her daughters like I was…

I tell her, “Anything is possible…”

We both know I’m lying.

Radhika is a Travel Tripper, Dog Lover, Hippie Blogger, & Trance Dancer currently engaged in advocacy & awareness for animal welfare & human rights. She believes in body art, the power of karma, pure freedom & the possibility of a happier world. When she’s not playing with puppies on the beach, she can be found at Video Volunteers in Goa. She blogs at http://dogblogsrandomtrips.blogspot.in/

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