Among the beautiful hills and valleys of Himachal Pradesh, she is busy creating another kind of utopia. In these angry times, she swears by the young men and women working with her, who, she knows, will never be violent. And why just the hills, years ago she swore to make the smooth, but not so suave, roads of Delhi safe for women. Abha Bhaiya, founder-member of Jagori (Awaken Women) which is well-known for its ‘Safe Delhi’ campaign, in conversation with Shruti Kohli about empowered women, unshaken patriarchy and non-existent matriarchy:
But on the other hand, violence is actually becoming more brutal at times….new forms…new ways of terrorising women like acid throwing, cutting their body parts, the Khap panchayats. There’s also a very strong reactionary politics all around us. So, it’s kind of very contradictory picture in some ways. And that’s what’s mindboggling and at times much more challenging. How do you take on these fundamentalist, very reactionary, fascist organisations? Homes continue to be unsafe places for women. But again the issue of child sexual abuse, issue of incest all that is out in the open today. We have statistics, there are helplines…you know, there’s a lot that’s happening around. So, it’s a very mixed picture I must say.
Women are changing. They know that they are going to gain something by changing. But, men, if they are going to change or let the change happen, they are going to lose their power, lose their control and therefore it’s really threatening for them. I think that patriarchy is such a threatening system which is so deep rooted in this system and culture. We spoke about kanyadaan in today’s press conference. I say why do you still say kanyadaan for a girl who has a right as a citizen to be equal. You do “daan” (donate) of an object. In India you even do “daan” of an animal. How can you do daan of a girl? And what does it mean in terms of relationships?
Shruti: You definitely see a ray of hope…
Abha: O yes, definitely! When we do our campaigns, women come out to volunteer. We ask them if they think it’s worth it, it’s useful. They say yes. Maybe not 100 per cent or even 75 per cent or 80 per cent…but at least 25 per cent girls will see the point and they will get the courage. That’s something that gives us hope. And that’s the kind of window opening on the process of change. We get cases now. In Himachal Pradesh a woman is raped and another woman who is a security guard is sexually harassed by her employer. They both came to us and said they had had enough. “Let’s tell the world what’s happening to us,” they said. So, they have filed an FIR and are fighting the case in the court. We also did a demonstration and made it clear that the company had a sexual harassment rule on their campus and if it’s not there, we’re going to file another case. That frightened them. They are going to change the head of the company. But this is not going to change everything. The next one may be the same or worse because all security companies are headed by ex-army people and you know what they think of women. So, this thing that women are not a full citizen, they should be subservient. That entire notion of “good girl” that we stuff into our girls by telling them, “don’t talk loudly, don’t respond, don’t react. “sehna toh tumhari zindagi ka hissa hai (suffering is part of your life), ye tumhari kismet bhi hai (this is your fate), tumhari duty bhi hai (it’s your duty). Toh saho, thhoda sa compromise karo (So, suffer and compromise a bit). You go to the police with a case and tell them that the husband has been beating the woman for the past three years, they will tell you, “So what? That’s a man’s right!” If police thinks like this, where is the question of justice?
Shruti: What is the reaction of parents of girls?
Abha: We did a programme with adolescent children. Over 500 hundred people came over. And the mothers were so moved. We spoke about a lack of communication between daughters and mothers among various other things. At the end of the programme they said “you have helped us so much.”
Shruti: We have seen such cases, in urban areas as well. Husbands, brothers, and even fathers tend to get violent. And they all happen to be highly educated, professionally well-placed men.
Abha: That myth is broken Shruti, that only poor beat up their women, that only the ignorant, uneducated people do it. Educated people are worse. Look at the gender ratio among professionals and the educated. South Delhi is the worse in terms of sex ratio. So we know now that education has no relationship with the change of consciousness. At times it works against it. I’m very critical about this sloganism of “School! School! School!” What are these schools teaching? Everybody talks about 100 percent enrolment. But what kind of education are you providing our children. We work with school boys and girls. They can’t even write three lines in Hindi correctly even in class seven and eight. So, nobody is talking about the quality of education. Nobody is talking about the content of education. The violence in highly educated families is fallout of such ignorance.
Shruti: Yes, I have come across a case of an educated, professionally well-settled woman who was beaten up by her ex-bureaucrat father-in-law for telling her mother-in-law that she will make tea for her during the commercial break of the TV show that she was watching. She got beaten up on her face with a gold club even as her bureaucrat husband watched. And when her colleagues told her to end the marriage, she simply said, “It doesn’t work like that.”
Abha: That’s because she has a feeling that she has no alternative. That she can’t live alone. How will she look after herself alone? Women in our society are raised as dependents. They are never able to come out of that mindset no matter how independent they become otherwise.
Shruti: I agree. I have been told so many times by some friends and distant relatives that why should I be struggling so much when at the end of the day, I’ll be married! And then, my income will only be secondary.
Abha: I am not surprised to hear that!
Shruti: What is the role of men in the whole scheme of things?
Abha: Tolerance towards each other is not only a women’s share of the bit. Men need to change. It is men who need to become more tolerant, more caring, more understanding. And there is no substitute to dialogue. All this is lacking. If families are not democratic, how can we call ourselves a democratic nation?
There is nothing in the name of women. No property… nothing. Women tell me so many times, “We have nothing to fall back on! Na maikaa apna, naa sasural apnaa! (neither the parents’ house is ours, nor the in-laws’).” Suddenly the man stands up and says get out of the house.” Nothing is officially in the name of women. Even the LPG cylinder which the man never touches in his entire life, is issued in man’s name. So, technically, there is nothing that a woman can say it is in her name. And her name is also not her own. They change that also. Surname changes as it is. Some families also change the first name of the woman after marriage. Ghar badal do, naam badal do, uski pehchaan badal do…fir bachhaa kya? (change the house, change the name, change the identity…what’s left then?) Oh Shruti! It’s so deep, it’s so deep in the system.
But I am so, so hopeful…in spite of my age and in spite of 40 years of activism. The girls and boys who are working with us…my God! How changed they are! It’s worth seeing that changes can be brought about. It’s a very long, systematic process. But it can be done. They will never accept subservience. Never! And these men who are working with us, will never be violent. Not knowingly. We’re all violent some time or the other unknowingly. But these men are so sensitive today about these issues.
And there are a lot of sensitive people all around us and they are our hope. I hold on to them. I appreciate them. I pat them and I say, “Bravo that you are able to do this…because the…because the tide is against you.”
Shruti: What about women who strongly believe in patriarchal system, women who side with men to impose patriarchal beliefs on other women?
Abha: I also feel we must talk about women who oppress other women. Any injustice whether done by a man or a woman is unacceptable. Feminism is about humanising everyone….and not only men. If we dream of a society that is violence free each has to look deep into our own behaviour – there is dormant and obvious violence within many of us….qualities of care, compassion, love and sensitivity are gender neutral…all have a great potential to acquire them.
Shruti: What difference do you see in the mentalities of people in various parts of India? For instance, South India is largely a matriarchal society and north and other parts are majorly patriarchal. Do you think that in south India the atrocities and crime against women are less as compared with other parts?
Abha: There’s nothing called matriarchy Shruti. Correct yourself. There’re matrilinear societies and that too very small section called “Nair” if you talk about Kerala. There is no matriarchy in the world! Why do women have to control men? They know whose child it is. They know it’s their own child. Why should they care about the men? The men need to control women because they don’t know whose child the woman is carrying. They know whose child it is. Ask her whose child it is. She says, “Mine.”
Usko baandh do, usko mangal sutra pehnao, usko churiyan pehnao aur bolo ye meri hai (Tie her up with a mangal sutra and bangles to be able to declare she is mine). Women don’t need to do all this.
Matriarchy has never existed historically. All women, sociologists, political scientists have done enough research in the world. Yes, matrilinear societies have existed like in north-eastern India and among a small section in Kerala. In Kerala, they are a minority. In north-east, they are a large group of people, tribal people, who are matrilinear. So, okay. Now when you say that south, esp Kerala, has had this, but they are under the regime of communist party and who said the class issue is the primary issue and other issues can wait and watch. So, women’s issues were never raised. They were never allowed to say “look what’s going on in the home?” So, again the so-called educated people were totally uneducated.
So, you have very high enrolment, you have almost full literacy …95% …but literacy does not ensure justice. And at times, just the contrary. The women we are training and also most of the judges at Naari Adalats are not literate but they are knowledgeable…they are “gyaanis”. And we need to build on that rather than tell them that they are illiterate therefore they are stupid. Without the women’s knowledge systems, I don’t think the world would have continued. The knowledge they have about farming, health, justice…the intuitive understanding they have about it…it’s much superior than what the world knows. We’ve read books. That’s why we talk this language, they talk this language because they have a notion of feminist justice. And they are very just towards men also.
I hesitate and regret to say that literacy has taken away the power of that knowledge from us.
Shruti: What’s your message to women?
Abha: Break the silence! Speak out! Don;t take it anymore because you don;t need to…you don’t have to. There is a strong supportive system. Of course there is opposition. But use that support system, use that knowledge. Use all kinds of support that is now available… Helplines, Naari Adalats…you find them all over the country.
This somehow makes me recall what a late friend used to say. She would always say, “Thank God! They cannot censor our imagination!” (laughs) …I would say yes, they can’t! And they can’t censor our dreams! Thankfully!
Shruti: What would you say about initiatives like The Petticoat Journal?
Abha: Shruti, you are doing a very good job…a very noble thing. Never give it up! We need platforms like The Petticoat Journal which make women feel strong …which provide courage to women to speak out. Keep it up!
And I would like to add that I wish some day you will interview sensitive men…and let the world know they exist and have changed their own lives and therefore the lives of women.
I believe that once a husband changes the entire home changes, once a young boy changes, the street and the college campus change and once all men change the entire society changes.
And they all benefit because they find a partner, (and not a slave), a friend (and not a girl to tease and harass). They exist as a complete citizen working together (a responsible and active citizen who is part of a responsible nation). So simple….