It is a universal fact that women’s rights are still a long way away from being met. The poor and illiterate women, who form the vast majority of this country are still waiting to get the basic rights – of livelihood, literacy, medical facilities that will help them combat infant and maternal mortality, protection from local goondas who kidnap them at will, and the freedom to decide if they want to keep their female fetuses.
They don’t ask for lifestyle rights — the right to go to a bar for that glass of beer with friends, the right to wear the clothes of their choice, the right to maybe have an affair as freely as their male counterparts. All they ask is a chance to climb one small step out of their lot. And when they get it, they grasp at it with both hands and pull themselves and their sisters up along with them. Give us a chance and we will overtake you, they say, we will manage just fine with shouldering two burdens of being homemakers and wage earners.
Last year around this time I met a school teacher from Patna on one of my train journeys. She told me then that Patna had changed so much and for the better and how it had become safer for women to go out after dark ever since Nitish Kumar had come to power. And then she spoke about the bicycles.
Truly, a pair of wheels can do wonders to a woman’s confidence. It gives her independence and mobility, which can’t be quantified. The Nitish government in Bihar did just that – gave the girls mobility by giving bicycles to the girls in 9th and 10th standard, to prevent them from dropping out of school.
In the year 2007-08 when the scheme had started, 1,70,000 girls came to school and the figure went up to a whopping 500,000 a couple of years down the line. It also greatly reduced the marriages of minor girls, which stands around 65% in the state. The girls riding their bicycles to school must be an energizing sight to the mothers and is sure to bring a look of pride in their eyes, they, who themselves never got a chance to study.
Talking of bicycles, I can’t but mention the dynamic IAS officer Sheela Rani Chunkath (presently Chairperson, Tamilnadu Industrial Investment corporation (TIIC)), who had understood the power of mobility way back in the early 90s. As the Collector, she had brought about a virtual revolution in the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu by providing the twin impetuses of mobility and literacy. And armed with the two, the most downtrodden of women – mostly stone quarry workers had formed cooperative societies to become owners of the very same quarries they mined as underpaid labourers! Read more about this here.
In the words of Sheela Rani, “It broke the caste, class and gender barrier in Pudukottai.” When there was a shortage of women’s bicycles, the women settled for men’s bicycles and found the extra bar useful enough as a seat for a child! The sight of all those women riding their bicycles had inspired a whole generation of women and even today the name Pudukkottai rings mental cycle bells for me.
Ela Bhat was another woman who organized the huge body of women labourers into micro entrepreneurs as SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association). The organization included vegetable sellers, rag pickers, bidi rollers, incense makers, cleaners, laborers, cart pullers, and silk and cotton workers who worked for their own upliftment. Today her model is being replicated all over the world and her work has garnered her many international awards including the prestigious Magsaysay Award.
In the 80s film Mirch Masala featuring Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Deepti Naval, there were many memorable scenes. But the one that was burnt into my memory was where the village women led by Deepti go on a silent protest march through the streets of the village, beating on brass plates as they go. The defiance and hatred in her eyes are still fresh in my mind’s eye. The atrocities against the women of the village didn’t stop after the procession, but the point had been made and it gave the courage to the women for the final act of defiance. The women had stood up to be counted.
Well so much for organized woman power. Coming to individual achievements, remember Rahat Taslim, the first woman crorepati and the first of woman winner of KBC 4? The simple Muslim housewife from Jharkhand just had Rs.3 balance in her mobile phone and did not even have a bank account when she got selected for the show. When asked how she was so confident while answering the questions, she replied to host Amitabh Bachchan that she not only knew the answers but had self belief and her destiny. How true!
She is the best example of cutting your coat according to the cloth while keeping the spark alive, as I had mentioned in one of my earlier posts. When she couldn’t study medicine because she was married off, she studied for her degree in History honours after her marriage. Her second dream of becoming a teacher was thwarted by her ‘unsupportive husband’. So she began running tailoring classes from her home and made money stitching clothes. But when she got a chance, did she grasp it with both hands and reach up there! In short, she went on opening a window whenever a door was closed and most of all — never gave up dreaming.
These women who create chances when there are none within grasp, form a large number of our invisible women force. They grab their rights from the situations that present themselves and often these rights are basic, not lifestyle ones.
When I hear women complain about their lifestyle rights being denied I am disturbed. They pale in comparison to those of millions of poor women who are struggling to find their feet to even stand up; to get through another day without fear of being abducted by the local goondas; to be able to go to school; to spread their wings.
I am not suggesting that lifestyle rights are trivial – women should have the right to decide what is best for themselves. But when compared to the basic rights for which the majority is fighting, they seem insignificant in comparison lacking in a sense of proportion.
Reservation for women can be a great tool of social change if the women who are getting them remain true to their sex and not just to their party or their selfish personal goals, much as the backward community elected representative do. They can do wonders with the powers they have and turn the world around for their less fortunate sisters.
The latter is resilient and hardy, ready to grasp at the flimsiest reed and turn it into a pillar of support not only for herself but even for her sisters. We need more Sheela Rani Chunkats and Ela Bhats to help them on their way.
Homepage image courtesy: https://si.wikipedia.org/