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India’s invisible widows: It’s time for a separate kind of feminism in rural India

A session titled Visible Work, Invisible Women, on the work done by women featuring Kota Neelima and Namita Waikar at the Jaipur Literature Festival highlighted how Vidarbha farmers’ widows coped with life and their dependence on patriarchy.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 27, 2018 13:15 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
From left: Namita Waikar, Namita Bhandare and Kota Neelima during the session titled Visible Work, Invisible Women at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
From left: Namita Waikar, Namita Bhandare and Kota Neelima during the session titled Visible Work, Invisible Women at the Jaipur Literature Festival. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

“Which fool gave birth to a woman, I am toiling on rent in somebody else’s house…” sings Kusum Sonawane, as she grinds grain somewhere in Maharashtra.

It is this sense of frustration at having no control over her own life and labour and her dependence on patriarchy, that was at the core of Visible Work, Invisible Women featuring Kota Neelima and Namita Waikar in conversation with Namita Bhandare on the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

For Jaipur Literature Festival full coverage, click here

“There was a report last year that 1.6 million jobs had been lost in the first four months of demonetisation. When I read the article I called up the source to find the gender break-up and found that while 0.9 million men came into jobs, 2.6 million women lost them,” said Bhandare setting the tone of the session – and highlighting just how the women work force in the country continues to be invisible.

Kota Neelime introduced her book Widows of Vidarbha: Making of Shadows during the session. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

It is the same in the rural economy – where Neelima pointed out only 11% of women own land, while the percentage of those who work on it in some way is much larger. Introducing her new book, Widows of Vidarbha: Making of Shadows, Neelima said, “This comes after three books which were fictionalised narratives of farmer suicides in Vidarbha. I felt what was missing was the perspective of women. In any distress situation, the perspective of the women is always missing. When I started asking why, I was told women didn’t know. Women didn’t know what killed their men. But the truth is they do know,” said Neelima. Six districts of Vidarbha have recorded 12,989 farmer suicides between 2001 and 2016. Neelima’s book follows the lives of 16 such widows for three years – “six invisible widows”. And how these women cope with life and support their children and families.

In an interesting parallel, Waikar presented the songs that are sung by rural women in Maharashtra while they grind grain. The women are mostly illiterate but in these songs they speak of their own lives, society, relationships and politics. “Often they improvise as they sing,” said Waikar, who is the managing editor of People’s Archive of Rural India, which is recording these songs and the stories in these songs.

Why do we fail to hear these stories, was a question raised in the session. “What we require, probably, is a separate kind of feminism for rural India. The country is so diverse and the problems are so different that the same measures don’t apply,” said Neelima.

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