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Not a bill of goods

For many women, empowerment is not about a seat in Parliament. It’s about the ability to survive in a harsh milieu, says Lalita Panicker

india Updated: Jun 14, 2010 01:17 IST
Lalita Panicker

The only thing that ensures that she will wake up alive each morning is the fact that she became something of a cause celebre in 1992 when she, a Dalit, was gangraped by five upper caste men in her village of Bhateri in Rajasthan. Today, as people reel in shock at the travesty of justice in Bhopal, Bhanwari Devi still has some vestige of faith in the criminal justice system that has so cruelly let her down. Which is nothing short of amazing, considering that she has been waiting 15 long years for the Rajasthan High Court to hear her appeal against the verdict that let off the accused. She was attacked when she opposed child marriage in her village, the final ‘provocation’ being when she stopped a nine-month-old baby girl from being married off.

Still beautiful despite the knocks that life has dealt her, today she lives on Rs 1,000 given to her by the Mahila Vikas, wearing the same set of clothes day after day. The husband who stood by her valiantly as she fought for justice has today moved away from her as have her four children. She does not believe that it is because they do not care but because they live in fear of associating with her. Her rapists, exasperated by this woman’s determination to bring them to justice, made her an offer they thought she could not refuse. Five bighas of land and five lakh rupees. Take it and get back your life, they said. A princely offer for someone living a hand-to-mouth existence. She refused.

At every step in her struggle to bring her tormentors to justice, she has encountered obstacles, a notable incident being a sessions judge telling her that upper caste men would not rape a Dalit woman. Yet, she soldiers on and was recently part of a women’s karavan organised by an NGO, Anhad, to demand the implementation of the Women’s Reservation Bill. Bhanwari’s case; that of Musharrat whose husband had his legs cut off when she, a panch in Rajasthan, refused to be an accomplice to an upper caste sarpanch’s crookery; the struggle for justice by the mother and sister of Ishrat Jahan, cruelly cut down in her prime in a fake encounter by the Gujarat police, are the forgotten stories of India. But they all hope that the tide will turn once the controversial bill is passed.

The heated debates about empowerment among the chattering classes are very far removed from the concept of that word among the Bhanwaris of this world. For them empowerment literally means the ability to survive against the harsh odds stacked up against them in a feudal and patriarchal society. It is perhaps a pipedream but it has given them the will to fight on even when justice seems
elusive and distant.

The notion of empowerment for them does not mean a seat in Parliament, but at best a few crumbs at the panchayat level that may ensure that they get a fair hearing. Musharrat knows that being in a panchayat evokes more resentment than admiration or cooperation but she is not ready to throw in the towel. Rather she has used the minuscule amount of power that she has to pursue her case.

The issue of women’s empowerment seems to have fallen by the wayside despite all the hype over the UPA 2’s aam aadmi agenda. Apart for the hyperbole over the Women’s Reservation Bill, which we are bound to see when it comes up again in Parliament, real tools of empowerment like literacy, employment, matrimonial choices and family planning, among others, are hardly talking points anymore. The spurt in so-called khap panchayat verdicts suggests a resurgence of a patriarchal order aimed at silencing women rather than any adherence to tradition.

The women’s movement in India suffers from the drawback that it is fragmented. As Shabnam Hashmi of Anhad pointed out, the fight that women have on their hands ranges from domestic violence, social and religious discrimination, to sexual harassment. The karavan was meant to highlight all of these and more but no sooner was it over, so was the issue, at least in popular perception. The Reservation Bill has become such a hoary old chestnut that debating its finer points has become an academic exercise. At the prospect of any resolution, our political magicians are able to ensure that, like in a snakes and ladders game, the women’s empowerment advocates slide down to the starting point.

Yet, perhaps at no other time has so much lip service been paid to gender sensitisation, gender budgeting, gender equality and so on. It is almost as though by talking about them incessantly, our policy-makers feel that they have fulfilled their duty to women. But for women like Bhanwari and Musharrat, these rarefied words make no sense. They have experienced firsthand that being a woman means being the most marginalised in any socio-economic strata.

The foolish argument that women’s reservation will only empower the biwi-beti brigade stands exposed. Party bosses like those of the NCP or the DMK, to give two examples, need no reservations to ensure that their women are automatically elevated to positions of power with no particular merit other than their lineage. But for millions of dispossessed women, the myth that the Women’s Reservation Bill will give them a level playing ground still persists. When you are living on Rs 1,000 a month, no more than a tip at a five-star restaurant, the dream of an army of empowered women meting out justice seems so inviting. But somewhere there is also a strong sense of realism in these women who refuse to give up. Bhanwari told me that she knows that she is not going to get the justice she deserves in this world. But for the few brief moments of her life that she was part of the karavan, she felt the strength in numbers of the other forgotten women like herself.

In its new, improved avatar, maybe, just maybe, the UPA government will live up to its middle name — progressive. And put just a little bit of power into the hands of women for whom survival itself is a daily challenge. Until then, the little karavans have scant hope of becoming the kind of juggernauts that will bring about a real change in gender equations.

lalita.panikkar@hindustantimes.com