Around the world in 54 weeks
Two women knocked at my door and greeted me with outstretched hands and smiling faces. Rajni and Manju had come to take me along on a fact finding mission to a nearby village.
The pair of them have been mentored by Abha Bhaiya. Abha was a feminist even before she knew what the word meant. She resisted the ‘domestic schizophrenia’ of a traditional Marwari household, where she was trained to be utterly self-reliant, but was expected to be subservient to a patriarchal social order.
She laughs as she reminisces how at 21 she ran away from home to work in an ashram for underprivileged girls. And only returned home on the condition that she wouldn’t be forced to marry and will continue to work.
The struggles of a young girl from small town Rajasthan, almost four decades ago, are so distant from my 21st century urban reality. A reminder that I live in a freer country.
While studying in Germany in the sixties she witnessed the passion and irreverence of the youth, anti-war and feminist movements. The fact that nothing — no individual, ideology or establishment was beyond reproach, helped Abha find her voice. “It was then that I realised that I was a feminist. That gave a meaning to my own struggle and a purpose to my life,” she says.
Abha is one of the founding members of Jagori — established in 1984 as a ‘creative space’ for women to express their realities, “to articulate their experience of oppression, and to find ways of fighting it”. With Jagori, Abha embarked on a journey to awaken a feminist consciousness, especially in rural and small-town India, with the intent to demolish the ‘structural nature of women’s subordination’.
I had the opportunity to witness Jagori Grameen’s work. These women are barefoot lawyers in the ‘Naari Adalat’ initiative. They are trained to know how the law protects women in cases of domestic violence, dowry harassment, rightful inheritance, violations of the Hindu Marriage Act and marital rape to name a few. Their help is solicited by women, many who are illiterate and penniless to seek legal assistance independently.
There are no roads to some of the villages they frequent; we walked for over an hour on a fact-finding mission on a particular case. Both these women come from a humble background and suffered abuse and suppression in their own lives. Working with Jagori has set them free. They’ve recognised their strength and the might of their united voice. “The women we work with have so much self respect and to me that is precious,” Abha shares.
After a thorough investigation, they advise the woman concerned about her options. Taking great care to address the family collectively and mediating without aggravating the situations. They have helped resolve scores of cases, some through timely intervention, and others through lengthy legal proceedings. What’s clear is that the women in this district are more aware, safer and bolder thanks to them.
“How can we be a truly democratic nation, unless there is democracy in a family unit,” Abha asks.
Her words and the day’s experience linger on in my head. Sitting here at the Women’s Training and Research Academy, in the Dhauladhar mountains, mingling with a thought leader and rural activists of our country’s feminist movement, I feel part of this sisterhood and proud of how far we’ve all come.