I miss my mom’s made chicken sandwiches. THAT never happened in last 8 years of staying away from parents. So this fellowship is certainly doing strange things to me. And while my mother has concerns like why her elder daughter isn’t getting brown bread, I have slightly more important things to worry about. One of them being ‘Women Empowerment’! A concept that used to sound lame has become a part of daily dialog.
In a phase when everyone from actors to corporate giants was making statements on women empowerment, I had my doubts. ‘All the talk is highly overrated and is targeted to upgrade market reputations’, I’d think. Recalling a discussion with a male friend back in Delhi, now it seems funny (and naive) how we had dismissed the idea and conveniently declared that women don’t need to be uplifted.
“It’s the weak who should be brought up”, was our argument and that women are already strong enough. They can scale themselves up.
No question about that. But it takes a hell lot of privilege to even say such things. Privilege, in the first place, to discuss these issues! To be liberated, self-dependent and carefree at some level. To assume that most others aren’t far behind.
Seven months later:
At Nayagaon village of Timarni block, Madhya Pradesh, we (I along with two female colleagues) are forming SHGs (self help groups). After explaining the concept, rules, benefits and importance, we request them to form a group of 10-15 women. They save Rs.100 per member per month so that in a few months they have considerable savings in their name. It can be utilized for inter-loaning within the group, starting a new venture and/or to solve socio-economic problems in the village. Strangely, they come up with bizarre excuses to not do it. We hear things like:
“Sau rupye mahina bahaut zyada hai” from women earning 200 rupees a day;
“Humare pati nahi maanenge”, confessing at the same time that they steal money from their husbands’ trousers and hide it into their saris every day;
“Hum is samooh mein jud bhi gaye to baaki mahilayen nahi judengi”;
“Ye sab mehnat wale kaam humse nahi honge”.
This repeatedly happens in Abgaon the next day and Kaathdi village the day after that. Let me also tell you that in the last two weeks, we had successfully formed 5 SHGs in the nearby villages. Hence, we thought it’ll be smooth. But smooth isn’t fun, no? So, thereafter, they asked us if we’re married. One of my colleagues is, and so she affirmed. They had suggestions on how she should put a bigger bindi on her forehead that’ll indicate her marital status better. One of them remarked, “Pati ko din bhar ke liye akela chhodke yahan gaon mein kaam karne aa gayi?!”
“Stick to your husbands, eat when they give you money to cook, get beaten up when they like. Ask God for help all day (with a puja ki thali and truck loads of sindoor of course), produce a bunch of kids and die.” This is what I wanted to scream in their faces and leave.
But, I realized they are stuck with age-old beliefs and that we are working against decades of socialization. If nothing, their daughters may start to see the wisdom and work on what their mothers didn’t do. On second thoughts, I doubt that. Even if we presume it will happen, I still have a problem with the lives being wasted right now.
Guess I’m struggling with optimism here but, more than that it is empathy. However discourteous it may sound, I just can’t imagine myself as a 28-year-old in one of these villages. It feels alien to fit in their shoes (actually sari). Someone who has nothing in her name, who has to take permission for everything she does, never gets acknowledged for her efforts, acts helpless even when she’s not and is always found with a kid lurking behind. The ever balidani abla naari!
Empowerment is NOT something someone does for you. Others can only guide and show a way. Maybe hold your hand for a while. But, ultimately you will have to walk the path.
So, yes I’m annoyed & confused, trying to hold on to empathy & optimism at the same time. Not a good mix of emotions? Who is to say?
It would be absurd to think we can change mindsets…
It would be fantastic to hope for and work towards it…