Struggle, like water, is transformed by its circumstances, but finds its way past the most daunting of obstacles. Gender-based struggles, In India as elsewhere, have had a long and eventful journey over the centuries, more so in a society fighting patriarchy and other societal odds since time immemorial. Stories highlighting the struggles of the great Indian woman attract attention from across the globe because her struggles have been against her own people. The victory of the young football team consisting of eighteen girls from Jharkhand in the prestigious Gasteiz Cup in Spainlast year gathered attention not only because the team scored third position but also because they are a group of tribal girls hailing from a particularly ‘backward’ state. Their struggle too was more against their own people than against their competing team players, right from the time when they applied for birth certificates and were slapped and made to sweep floor by the Federation and local officials who sneered, “Tukaisejayegi?Kisnebola jaasaktihai?Wahanbechdenge.” (How will you go? Who said you can go? They will sell you there.)
Had they not won, their struggle would have received a silent burial, much like the struggles of countless women surviving in the conflict affected regions of our country where the limelight is on the bloodshed alone.
History is witness to how conflict has, directly or indirectly, affected the evolution of women. Be it the conflict that started with the creation of India’s borders in 1947 or the violent uprising of the communist supporters to redistribute land to the landless, women in conflict have had their fair share of struggles and achievements. Highlighting their achievements this new year becomes important as they chose to fight, not taking conflict as an excuse to compromise on their freedom. Here are glimpses of these indomitable women’s journeys starting, rather appropriately, from the northernmost Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir…
During the melee of 1947, several thousand families migrated en masse from West Pakistan and are surviving, till date, in most appalling circumstances across the Jammu region under the tag of “West Pakistani Refugees”. After more than 65 years of their migration, they are still bereft of the civil and political rights, exacerbating their dismal living conditions. Worst affected are the women who find no place in the demands of their representatives yet when they meet you, their sunshine smiles reflect their strength to fight against all odds. “As a child, I had dreams of becoming a doctor but poor financial conditions and no scope of a scholarship for a West Pakistani Refugee forced me to look out for other options,” said Sunita, a student of Class 11, who is the only sibling among five sisters not to drop out of school after Class 10. The others, demoralized seeing no job opportunities for West Pakistani Refugees, walked out of school only to realize too late that it was a bad decision. Born in a family with no grandsons, they were lucky enough to find support from their grandparents to pursue what they loved – from stitching suits to providing beauty services to the villagers, from helping their artisan father in his small business to drawing sketches, these girls have made their house a “happy home” despite their financial constraints. “Whatever little we have learnt is from our mother – Taro Devi. We have had no opportunity to get professional training under various government schemes to hone our skills as we are labelled ‘non-state subject’. However, compared to the stories of Partition that our dadi (grandmother) would narrate, we find ourselves in a much better position,” said Sunita, who believes that her fight is not to remove the label but to live a dignified life on the land she calls home.
This homeland has seen many wars and many sufferings. More recent is the Kargil War that, in 1999, left thousands of people in Kargil district of Ladakh coping up with the after effects of the war. The only good the war did was to put Kargil squarely on the Indian map in the minds of Indians elsewhere. People now knew where Kargil is and with this came a wave of change in this traditionally conservative society. The change is colorfully reflected on the streets of the Main Bazaar in Kargil town that leaves the visitors in awe. Draped in the traditional hijaabs is a stream of young Kargili women heading towards schools and colleges, clearly outnumbering the men.
This change in the young generation is the cumulative effort of the elder women in Kargili society who decided to come together to form women’s committees/societies and NGOs in post -war Kargil which aimed at employing women and making them financially secure.Founded in 2009, ‘Kargil Town Women Welfare Committee’ was one such. The brainchild of twenty four year old Chanchik town-based Parveen Akhtar hailing from a well-educated family in rural Pashkum, the Committee was started to offer cloistered homemakers and young dropouts wage earning opportunities. Today, their struggle is with their own administration that gives away funds to organizations run by their male counterparts.
“We will not give up easily. This is the fight for our existence and we need to sustain our effort. It took us years to come together; we won’t let our effort die.”
Taking a leaf from the effort of Kargili women is their adivasi counterpart Kamla Bai, a fifty year old woman residing in one of the worst naxal-affected states of our country – Chhattisgarh. Unfortunately an illiterate, Kamla is doing tremendous work in her village, Damkasa, bringing together men and women of her Gond Community to erase disparities among them. Kamla travels around her hamlet with the objective of sharing tales of rich Gond culture highlighting the importance of women in an adivasi community that seems to have lost its way in the years of conflict and underdevelopment. She focuses on girls’ education by influencing the villagers who only allow the male child to be born and educated. “In our time, there were no such differences among men and women. Considered to be gifts of god, all were seen as equal. My heart does not allow me to sit silently seeing the discrimination against women. I will work till my last breath,” are the words of a determined Kamla Bai, displaying rare self-confidence and determination.
Sitting safe in our cloistered metropolitan worlds, we struggle for our survival far removed from the gory realities of Partition or Naxalism. But these are women who live under the constant threat of conflict: the conflict of the past or the ongoing terror. Unaware of when shelling may start from across the border or when the Naxals will barge into their homes and take away the men folk – these women fight not for their mere existence but the development of their entire society. They are the first to stand up and defend our borders. And they are preparing themselves for the challenges that lie ahead. The entire nation owes them a debt; let us salute struggle!