Roundabout: Daughters of the soil challenge stereotypes at farmers’ protests

Published on Jan 16, 2021 11:27 PM IST

Will women at the forefront of the agitation at Delhi’s borders usher in empowerment at home in the patriarchal states of north India? Only time will tell

Manjit Kaur (62) driving a jeep with female friends from a Patiala village to the Singhu border. (Sourced)
Manjit Kaur (62) driving a jeep with female friends from a Patiala village to the Singhu border. (Sourced)
ByNirupama Dutt

One of the pictures going viral during the farmers’ protest was that of feisty rural woman Manjit Kaur, all of 62, in her usual village attire, dupatta covering her head, driving a jeep, taking her female friends from Patiala to the Singhu border to participate in the farmers’ protests. Pictures of several women driving tractors to reach the protest sites followed.

Gender bender

There has been no dearth of stories from Punjab and Haryana about rural and urban women, old and young as well as lettered and unlettered, assuming leadership roles during the ongoing season of dissent against the contentious farm laws. Not only have they defied the voyeuristic male gaze in popular culture that denigrates them as sex objects, they have also shown exceptional skills in management, activism and resilience. This may come as a surprise in a society used to feudal prejudices of a patriarchal society which led to killing the girl child in the foetus, with modern age ushering in sex-determination tests to carry out the murders. In these times when these regions still have a dismal sex ratio; there is this tremendous evidence of the strength of the second sex, not just for mere survival but as a show of endurance in the harshest of conditions.

Heartwarming presence

It was heartwarming indeed to see pictures and news reports of male farmers of Haryana summoning drivers to give lessons to women drive tractors on the national highway on Republic Day, reportedly involving 500 women who will lead a tractor procession which is likely to be a never-seen-before spectacle in the country. Women have also taken the responsibility of farming and looking after their families while their men remain at the protest sites.

Not just this, as many as 100 protest sites in the state are being managed by women to keep the momentum alive.Mention of these facts are now being made by not just women writers but men too reporting from the Delhi borders.

Writer-journalist Sukant Deepak, who has been virtually camping at the protest sites for days, says: “It has been an amazing experience to see young women in command like the petite Kanupriya, the 24-year-old who broke the male bastion to be the first woman president of the Panjab University Campus Students Council two years ago. Now just farmers twice and even thrice her age listen to her intently”.

At the Tikri border one finds Navkiran Natt, 29, a dentist by profession and daughter of well-known left-wing activists, who has founded the Bhagat Singh Library at the protest site and also happens to be the curator of the much talked-about newspaper of the protest tellingly called the Trolley Times as tractor trolleys have also been the makeshift homes of the protesting farmers and families during the agitation.

A note was made in the newspaper of the female-male role reversal when a farmer serving langar to the young women volunteers exclaimed that it was a ‘revolution’ of sorts as men were running the kitchen and serving food to women.

It was Mata Khivi, wife of Guru Angad Dev, who carried the tenet of Guru Nanak of ‘sanjha jhakko’ (share and eat) by establishing the tradition of Guru da langar or community kitchen in which both men and women cooked and served meals. In many homes even now, however, women are still keepers of the hearth with men taking care of the fields.

Only time will tell if the visibility of empowerment of women will continue after the protest. But for the moment it is something to look at with joy.

However, one must not forget that the women’s movement for gender equality which spread all over the country, starting in the International Women’s Year in 1975 had not taken root in Punjab or for that matter in the interiors of Haryana. I recall going to a Punjab village not too far away from Chandigarh with a photographer working on a story on violence against women at home. Trying to talk to women had proved to be a no-no because they literally shooed us away asking us how we dared to try and find out what was going on in their homes.

This had reminded me of the classic ‘Ik Chaadar Maili Si’ (Translated by Khushwant Singh as ‘I Take This Woman’) in which the protagonist Rano is being beaten up by her husband and when a neighbour intervenes, Rano chides him. Well, he is beating his own wife, not yours, so stay away, says Rano.

Making a difference

“This is not the first time that women have been in prominence in a movement,” says historian Kamlesh Mohan, who has done extensive research on the role of women in the freedom struggle against British colonial rule. Mohan says that Punjabi women played a major and visible role in the Kirti Kisan movement of 1928 as well as the struggle for freedom which led to Independence in 1947.

That, however, did not lead to role assignment and empowerment for the women, Mohan says, adding that in an interview with Congress freedom fighter Savitri Krishan, wife of Ram Kishan, a former chief minister of Punjab in the 1960s, she was told that while men draw women in protests and struggles they rarely share power with them. True, some of the well-known names of the times are referred to as the forgotten women of the struggle of Independence.

However, the journey to empowerment is a long and slow process but every step forward does make a difference.

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