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Roti, Kapda, Makaan, and Feminism: Voices Of Lesser Heard Women

Posted: July 9, 2014

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Feminism means different things to different people. Here is an insightful post about the place of feminism in the lives of women from different places in society.

Recently, I read a quote which defined perfectly my journey towards becoming a feminist. It said, “I would much rather be the ‘obnoxious feminist girl’ than be complicit in my own dehumanization.” I came across this quote on one of the feminist pages I follow on Facebook, and it got me thinking.

I opened each of them to check when they were founded- A girl’s guide to taking over the world: in 2011; Feminists United, Everyday Feminism, Feminist India, and Being Feminist: in 2012; and Feminism in India and Godless Indian Feminists: in 2013. It was interesting because the timeline matched with when I began engaging with feminism, but not surprising since a couple of them were started by friends from college.

 I did not know enough about an ideology that could help me articulate my experiences as a woman.

Until my Post-graduation, I did not know enough about an ideology that could help me articulate my experiences as a woman. Feminism helped me do that. Since then, I have been following a number of feminist writers and making a conscious effort to focus on the intersectionality of different movements.

I work with rural women for a living. Being placed in a district and working on an anti- human trafficking project, I see them on an almost daily basis. So, the thought that kept eating at me was this- Did words and concepts like ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ hold any meaning for these women? What were their ideas on gender-based discrimination? Or starting at the basics- did they even perceive gender as an issue in their daily lives to have any ideas about it?

What does gender bias mean to rural women?

I asked some of these women about what they thought of लिंगभेद (gender bias). For a moment or two, each of these women was dumbfounded. And then she smiled. She immediately started to talk about the tradition of dowry, alcoholism, and wife beating. But I was not satisfied and asked them again, “Have you ever experienced any sort of gender bias? Did you or do you talk about it in your daily life?” The answer was a unanimous “No”.

Mind you, my sample size was just five women. That too from a body called the Block Level Federation comprising the heads of Panchayat Level Federations, in turn made of village self- help groups. So these women were the rural poor, but the ‘cream’ of rural poor. So when I heard the “No, I have never faced any gender bias” answer, I tried to know more about their familial structure and relationships.

All of them came from families with caring parents, siblings (both male and female), ‘responsible’ husbands, and children (more girls than boys). They valued education and “never discriminated based on gender”. But then one of the women, Sumitra, said, “I don’t have children of my own, but my husband’s second wife does.”

I was slightly taken aback, so the second woman, Merkha chipped in. “Her husband married a second time because Sumitra could not conceive. But they all live together.” Sumitra elaborated, “My husband is a good man and takes good care of me.” I left it at that, for this exercise was not about making judgments about their lives. But this did give me a peek into the fact that for Sumitra and maybe for Merkha also, it was okay for a man to have two wives, if one could not have children to continue the family name.

Sushmita, a Gram Saathi, corroborated, “Didi, ladka kyun chahiye sabko? Taaki woh humare marne par, hume agni de sake. Par maine apni ladkiyon ko bol diya- agar Munde ki beti unhe agni de sakti hai, to tum bhi hume de sakti ho.” (Didi, why do you think people prefer sons? So that when they die, their sons can perform their last rites. But I have told my daughters- if Munde’s daughter can light her father’s pyre, so can they when we die).

I was extremely heartened to hear this. Sanjukta and Jayanti credited their education for their ’empowerment’. Merkha’s idea of empowerment was not having to ask her husband for permission to go out and work. Her husband and she were “equals in their marriage. He cooks and cleans too.”

But I wanted to know if such examples were an exception or the norm. They were definitely not the norm, these women said. Sushmita is from the General category and married a man from the Scheduled Tribes category. It is not always so easy though, according to her. Sanjukta spoke extensively about alcoholism and how women faced physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Jayanti said most of these alcoholic men did not work and it was their wives who managed the households.

I asked them if it was right to blame the woman when it came to sexual violence. Sanjukta said, “If a man does ‘zor zabardasti’ (uses force), the woman can’t be blamed. But if the woman has given her consent, she is responsible for the repercussions too.”

I sought these women’s permission to use our discussions, their opinions, and names for the purpose of this article. Every discussion gave me a new insight. The answers would have perhaps been a lot different had I spoken to women from what we call, the “extremely poor and vulnerable households”- women who struggled to make ends meet and were perhaps subjugated but did not realize their ‘dehumanization’. I was thus aware that I could be trying to locate victimization where none existed, at least not from the point of view of the victim herself.

This brings me back to why I checked the feminist pages again on Facebook. I realized that there was a vast but bridgeable gap between (a) women, like me, who read/ share experiences online and realize that the personal is political and even every day conversations are part of a power struggle, and (b) women like Sushmita, Sumitra, Merkha, Sanjukta, and Jayanti, for whom the realization of the inherent politics behind everyday conversations and experiences is still at a nascent stage.

‘Feminism’ is at least a word, if only a misunderstood concept equivalent to man- hating, among many of my urban, educated peers. But it does not even exist in the rural poor’s dictionary.

It is difficult to draw concrete conclusions from such a limited sample and cursory engagement with rural women. A research study would be a better option for that. But, my one takeaway from this exercise was that not every woman, especially one at the bottom of the pyramid, perceives gender as we, the Facebook- using, protest march- organizing, self- proclaimed activists do. ‘Feminism’ is at least a word, if only a misunderstood concept equivalent to man- hating, among many of my urban, educated peers. But it does not even exist in the rural poor’s dictionary.

Yet, there is room for it still, for it does exist subconsciously in the mind of every woman who faces discrimination or violence. Feminism is a powerful idea, a language, a tool for anyone to express and validate their experiences, and I hope that feminism be accessible to everyone.

As for rural development practitioners like me, roti, kapda, makaan aur kaam (food, clothing, shelter, and work) might be the foremost agenda. But unless we realize that the quest for these rights marginalizes women and normalizes discrimination as part and parcel of their lives, there is not much we can achieve by way of a just and equal society.

Social Worker. Feminist. Romantic. Foodie.

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