Give them a hand – of support and applause

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:


  1. The stories you have mentioned in your blog are truly inspiring. It is true that we need to recognize resilience in women and that more awareness is needed for this. Your post is one such bold step in this direction and it conveys that if these women can succeed amid meager means then most of us can. Thank you for sharing this.
    With best
    Barkha Dhar


  2. That’s a superb and very well illustrated post ! Kudos to you !

    And imagine that you’d mentioned when we spoke recently, about Sheela Rani the ex-Collector of Puddukkottai who brought that small town on the map of progress by empowering girls of the town by giving them free bicycles. Nitish Kumar did replecated that formula with as much success !

    Lovely read that…..


    1. Yes, Chits. This post was in my head for some time now and that conversation actually gave it words Thanks. How wonderful to have friends with whom we can talk about such things! A similar experiment but with boys included was tried by the TN govt. but know what? the boys either sold off their bikes or used them for other things than going to school! Girls were a better bet as Both Sheela Rani and Nitish discovered. 🙂


  3. This one again a precise and well stated write up of yours, but you don’t think that even the educated one and from upper strata too have their set of problems.Basic needs are must have for any individual, but you don’t feel that even in middle class and in upper middle class families girls and women live as glorified slave.What you will say when an upper class educated girl lose her creative , young years conforming herself according to her family needs and then for rest of the life as bitter,ailing self .If you will move around you will see plenty of these women.


  4. Wonderful post, Zyphyr!

    Yes the bicycles given to the girl students in Bihar drives home the fact that creative measures can do wonders!

    And Ela Bhatt’s SEWA is certainly a shining example of ‘women power’.

    Here’s hoping that more and more women will receive a ‘helping hand’ when they most need it, so they can achieve their dreams.


    1. You should also read about the Pudukkottai experiment. It was a path-breaking one of its times. What a dynamic personality Sheela Rani was and still is. She is the original ‘mobility monger’. Most of the time women are looking for ways to break out and if they find a chink somewhere, they will gnaw their way through it and soar. I would like to hear of the work you are doing with the underprivileged too. can you give me some links?


      1. Of course Arpana. I never said that urban women have it all easy. But they have the wherewithals of opening windows when doors are shut. And the educated and middle, upper middle class women are demanding more of lifestyle rights than basic ones that the uneducated and poor are fighting or rather gasping for. I am one of those who has opened windows. I come from a very conservative and lower middle class background where girls were not even allowed to go to college. Yet I found ways even whille conforming to a traditional bahu and mother, cutting the coat to fit the cloth I was handed as I went. In my years of looking around me, I have realised that the urban-rural and well-to-do/poor chasm is sadly widening with former not even being aware of the kinds of privations that their poorer counterparts are facing, even as they are fighting for their rights to ‘do what they want’ without being repressed.’

        And I would like you to read Nalini’s comment to this post. Also please read my earlier post on keeping the spark alive, which I have linked in this post. I don’t write something of which I have no experience 🙂


      2. A few friends and I conducted a Sanskarvarga in an underprivileged area for a couple of years- on quite a small scale.

        Later I conducted some activities for young girls with the help of women from the ‘Vivekananda Mandram’ in Dharavi. The members of this association were mostly people from Tamil Nadu who had come to Mumbai to earn a living, and their families.

        I was also associated with various activities of the Jankalyan Samiti-

        A few years ago, however, I had to stop my volunteer activities because of ill health. So now I occasionally write about about my experiences instead. 🙂


        1. I remember that post of yours where you had made a wall magazine with girls. It must have been really fulfilling to work with kids who appreciate all these things. Nowadays, it is more of ‘achievement’ oriented activities, isn’t it?

          I am sorry to hear about your health problems; read about it too in your blog. Since MS is not reversible, I pray for its remission so that you can have more energy for such work. Will check out the link provided. Thanks.


  5. Whoa!!!wonderful post.
    Recently while I was working with some of friends on the idea of empowering women in Kerala by giving part time classes.Most of them are not even aware that women have reservation.They don’t get to read newspaper as most of them have not crossed 5th std.But we could see happiness in their eyes for a second but it vanished when they talked about the social constraints and the support from the family.
    I am going to share this post with my group.
    May be a small change lead to a huge impact..lets see 🙂


    1. Nice to have you here Bhavia and thanks for sharing my post with your group. If even small groups get together to do some constructive work with women, it will make a huge cumulative difference and a quantum jump in the standards of women’s lives. In the SEWA model, the women save a part of their earnings even if it is one rupee per day. That translates into such a huge amount when the numbers are large. What we need is a revolution and who better to bring it about than women themselves? Wishing you and your friends all the best in this noble work.


  6. Zephyr you are bringing the focus back where it shd be:Women who need it the most.Developing and Enabling a Woman Changes the Landscape of a Whole Family,a Village,A State (Bihar),a Nation.
    A great post!


    1. Thank you Varsha. We have such a large woman-force that if it is tapped properly, we can become a super-super power. The best part is that they are hardy and hardworking too. These election results should be a wake up call to state governments and smaller administrative units of the state.


  7. Wow! am moved reading this post!

    so well written. Yes, it disturbs me too when women crib about small things, when so many are fearing being raped, you can not be so selfish.

    But how many of us think like this. We still haggle with our house maids and are fine when she sends her kid daughter to work.

    happy to read your views on this.



    1. Well said, Restless. We don’t think twice about letting the maid’s young daughter fill in for her, do we? It is not that urban women have it all made, but they still are so much better off with perceptions changing in families. It is not a daily fight for survival for them. Equality is not about having everything your way — that is only exchanging male chauvinism for female chauvinism.


  8. This is a wonderful post, and you have presented it all gracefully. Our society didn’t even give women a proper chance in proving themselves what they are capable of. There is a significant improvement in this aspect in the urban community, but the rural community still stands behind. Can this be attributed to illiteracy? May be! I wish all this changes.


    1. I am glad that you agree about the urban women’s lot having improved. If one were to roam in blogospehere, one would come across millions of bytes lamenting the lot of the educated working women. That’s what had set this post off in the first place. And Vee, women should take their rights if they are legitimate as Nalini has suggested and support those who don’t have the wherewithals to do it for themselves.


  9. I think it applies to us women as a whole…we love to blame others for our plight. We forget that unless we are happy the family is not…and above any other duty, is the duty to ourselves.
    Protests from family members will always be there but to have the courage to open those windows of opportunity is what matters!…the family eventually comes around.
    Loved the issues you brought up!…a topic very close to my heart.


    1. The family indeed comes around. But how many of those women who have the relative comforts and security of life would go to the trouble? Isn’t it easy to follow the flock so that we can blame others for our plight. I had harped on this point in my earlier post too. and i speak from experience, not just armchair preaching. Boy, how many doors did I find locked and an equal number of windows to open all through my life!

      I feel passionately about empowering women in simple ways that won’t disturb their lives and yet enhance it.


  10. Applause! This is such a wonderful post!

    Amidst people who just complain, here are a few, who grasp at what they have and make the most of it. Yes, a helping hand, can do so much for women(and men) of such mettle!


    1. I think a whole series of books about everyday heroines who have risen above their circumstances is in order to inspire the younger generation and make them appreciate and build on what they have. Everything seems to be assuming the guise of ‘rights’ — the right to have a boy/girlfriend at the age of 12, the right to refuse chores, the right to blah blah …If only these kids/young people were to be sensitised to how the other half or should I say, three-quarters lives!


  11. I remember reading about Rahat Taslim…how she refused to let circumstances bog her down and defied her husband to participate in KBC. We need our girls to have role models like her and not the Barbie like movie stars whose world revolves around Guccis and Pradas.


    1. We have many everyday heroines who have managed to surmount all odds and make it. What impressed me about Rahat was that she was so endearingly simple, counting the zeroes in her 1 crore cheque. There was no artifice about her at all. And oh, KBC is one show the L&M and I like to watch 🙂


  12. I can just applaud this wonderfully moving post! I was saddened by the Congress’s propaganda to bring Nitish down – the best thing to have happened to Bihar. It was heartening to read his development efforts to tackle Maoists. The man has vision and is honest. We need more leaders like him.

    Loved reading your perspective on reservation and how the bicycle has changed lives!

    Hats off to you lady!


    1. Bihar, which has been in the news for the wrong reasons so far is now there for the right reasons. Nitish must be doing something right for Kosi, the district that saw great devastation due to the floods has voted en masse for him.

      Mobility is very very empowering. I should know. Ever since I lost the sight in my right eye, I have stopped driving and I feel more figuratively handicapped than actually being so.


  13. Yes women have been kept subdued for long,i think times are changing slowly now.


    1. Welcome here prophet666 and thanks for the comment. Things are still far from changed, because the leaders who get elected through the votes of women forget them the moment they come to power. We need to keep highlighting the work of those who are doing their mite for this large section of our population.


  14. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Vineet Rajan, Vineet Rajan. Vineet Rajan said: Give them a hand – of support and applause […]


  15. Very thought provoking. Next time I complain about me not getting my ‘rights’, I will think on these lines. But seriously, we do need more helping hands. Ela Bhatt has always been an ideal for me. Each one of us if we think, can do a lot. But most of the times we remain in the confines of our homes and responsiblities


    1. Sheela Rani was my heroine in those days. I would read up on every scrap of news about her work.

      We are so fortunate to have so much. What we should demand as our right is a safe environment. Today it has become dangerous to venture out of one’s house and not just after dark or late at night. Rapists seem to be lurking everywhere and no one is safe.


  16. Very good read. Esp the 2nd last para …

    One thing that always riles me is the ‘hijacking’ of feminist movt by women who have a small mentality of “pt men down for women empowerment” . They never realise that women empowerment is a completely different idea. Thats why we have gimmicks like Intn’l womens day etc while thousands of rural women still exist as if in medieval ages.


    1. Feminist movement has really lost its focus and even empowerment groups are largely doing lip service or descending into activism which is in contrast to action. the real problems of women needs a sympathetic approach which is in shades of grey and not black and white. Which is why women like Ela Bhat and Sheela Rani have succeeded. There are countless others but I need to write a book in order to cover all their works.


  17. If given a chance and menfolk keep their EGO at a distance, women can do wonders indeed.


    1. No Ayyangar. Sometimes, they need some help, especially when it is a social evil and women are unable to fight them on their own. But give them a little shove, pull or lift and they will come up, never to look back. Tamil Nadu is an example.


  18. BRAVO!! BRAVO!!
    Wonderful post!!!
    A superb read in a long time!!!


    1. thank you Magiceye. some things had been bothering me for a long time and I just had to pen them.


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