Sunday, March 6, 2011
Look forward to more Virtual Hall of Fame entries - here's an article to motivate you!
Dreamers & Fighters
March 6th, 2011
It has been a century of struggle. A century of fighting for their rights; to be given their due in society and to be treated at par with men. And while today’s woman has come a long way since 1916, when Regina Guha was refused to be registered by the Calcutta High Court as a pleader (as lawyers were called then), she only has her ilk to thank for it.
The very fact that we are still dedicating reams of newsprint to the “emancipation” of women bears testimony to the fact that a lot more needs to be done. This does not, however, take anything away from the decades of strife women have undergone in India and abroad to improve her standing in society.
On March 8 we will be celebrating 100 years of the International Women’s Day and to try and list all the remarkable achievements of women in the past century would be futile. But try we must, if not for anything else but to convey the fact that for every act of defiance that we know about, there are hundreds of such instances that we are not aware of.
In the years between the first woman Congress president, Sarojini Naidu, and the latest incumbent, Sonia Gandhi, women have organised and led movements for political rights, a safe environment, education and livelihood. They have brought nationwide attention to injustices and proposed solutions for the same.
While women were fighting for their rights from much earlier, the example of religious and communal integration set by Aruna Asaf Ali, the heroine of the 1942 Quit India Movement stands out. Aruna was a Bengali Brahmo girl who, against centuries of social mores, married a Muslim gentleman from Delhi.
Decades later, in India’s quest for communal harmony, Teesta Setalvad from Mumbai would play a critical role, undertaking a well-orchestrated legal campaign to right injustices against minority communities.
Setalvad’s example proves that women are running neck-to-neck, if not forging ahead, of men in important worldly matters too. As leaders, women are better negotiators and peace makers; they bring about broader social legislation that benefits people across the spectrum. And when it comes to staying power in fighting for what’s right, women easily outlast men.
Take the case of Irom Sharmila. For the last 10 years, Sharmila has been on a hunger strike. It is a world record only because she has been force-fed by the authorities, who look on her as a criminal for attempting suicide. Her demand — repeal of the barbaric Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — has been ignored in spite of nationwide protests. The AFSPA, a colonial legacy that suspends citizens’ democratic rights, allows the Army to kill and torture citizens without any repercussions.
Sharmila, a 28-year-old poet and human rights worker, started her fast-unto-death after Assam Rifles troops shot dead 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop in Manipur on 2 November 2000. But as she is force-fed in captivity, the AFSPA continues unabated in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir.
On a different spectrum, we have Amrita Shergil who not only established women as serious artists on the Indian art scene, but also brought women’s sexuality out of the closet. Thanks to her and others like her, today, women in India openly declare and campaign for lesbian rights and writers like Shobhaa De are celebrated for their sexual frankness and not relegated as smut.
Mathurabai of Gaintoli Village in Madhya Pradesh, India’s first woman sarpanch, significantly took forward the tradition set by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Sucheta Kripalani, India’s first woman minister in the Union Cabinet and woman chief minister, respectively. Today, women constitute a third to half the decision-makers at the village level and if all goes well, they will soon get reservation in Parliament too.
And then we have Medha Patkar who was one of the first social activists in India to focus attention on the plight of those displaced by mega infrastructure projects.
Similarly, environmentalist Sunita Narain and geneticist Suman Sahay have focused attention on issues of sustainable development, addressing a range of concerns, from polluted water bodies to genetically modified foods, and have proposed solutions that have positively influenced policy.
Author and activist Arundhati Roy perhaps puts it best when she talks of women’s standing in society 40 years ago: “I was the worst thing a girl could be: thin, black, and clever.” A far cry from today’s ad world and the fashion scenario where tall, dark and skinny models rule the roost.
And when we look at the corporate world, it is evident that the proverbial glass ceiling has finally been shattered.
Heads of global organizations like Indra Nooyi, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Chanda Kochchar and Naina Lal Kidwai have made it to the top in a traditionally male-dominated corporate world through sheer grit, intelligence and determination.
The fight of Sabrina Lal for justice for her sister Jessica — the Delhi model murdered on a whim by Manu Sharma in 1999 — is now immortalised on celluloid. While Neelam Katara’s struggle for justice for her son Nitish, murdered by the son and nephew of a UP politician in 2002, continues. The political influence of these murderers made it a hugely unfair fight, but these women would not give up.
If it is near impossible for these upper-crust Delhi ladies, we can only imagine what the fight for justice would have been like for a widowed peasant woman in Kaithal, Haryana. But Chanderpati, mother of Manoj, who was killed along with his bride, Babli, in 2007, fights on for justice. Manoj and Babli were murdered by a blood-thirsty khap panchayat while under police protection.
Chanderpati and her daughter, Rekha, live in isolation now, boycotted by the village that opposes their struggle for legal justice. Their farmland lies in waste, but their hope is unflagging. And the Sessions court’s sentencing five of the accused to death last year makes the struggle worthwhile.
While the girl child still takes second place to her brothers in access to education and healthcare, across India’s most backward states, a significant number of parents are asking for education certificates from prospective grooms as well as brides while arranging marriages.
Child marriages continue but the average age for the child bride has moved from nine to 16 in just six decades. And people like Ela Bhatt of the Ahmedabad-based Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) have quietly and steadily helped women to improve their livelihood and their economic and social status.
Fighting against all odds, women like them around the world show the real power of human will and determination. From Rosa Parks refusing to budge from her seat in the US that sparked the civil rights movement to the magic of Mother Jones in organising mine workers, the American dream was largely shaped by women.
Given half a chance, women have led the fight for dignity and freedom, from our Rani Lakshmi Bai to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi; and in caring for people and the environment, like the tireless medical work of Dr Hawa Abdi Dhiblawe in violence-torn Somalia to Medha Patkar. Women have demonstrated the power to change, from activists like Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay to Shirin Ebadi, from feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Kamala Das right to the fun-loving folk of the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women, who cheekily send pink chaddies to nasty, sexist Indian men.