Personal note from Rukmini
“We shaped the women’s movement and the movement shaped us.” My sentiment is true of a generation of young women who were active across the country starting from the late seventies.
Anti Dowry Campaign
My involvement with the women’s movement started off in the late seventies to stop harassment for dowry of young women in Delhi. A group of professionals and social activists, we supported campaigns to punish the men, guilty of killing their newly wedded wives because they could not or did not give into constant demands for dowry by the husband or the in-laws.
Mrs Sathya Rani Chadda, the mother of a dowry victim became a rallying point for our struggles. We demanded police action, proper investigation of the case and punishment for the guilty who had murdered the vulnerable women. Action India, a voluntary organization working in the slums of Delhi along with many women activists came together to run a street play called “Om Swaha.” While I was not a participant in the play, I accompanied it to several centers to help with the discussions in the community. The play was special since it scripted alternatives—- where a woman was not ready to get herself killed but demanded the right to live a life of dignity. We followed up the play by discussing the problem of dowry and its implications for society. Often, we would have men come upto us for help, fathers and brothers who demanded legal and financial help for daughters and sisters harassed by their in-laws for more and more dowry.
Saheli is born in 1981
As a group of concerned women, we felt that demanding action after a girl was dead was of limited use. We wanted to create a space where women in distress could come and seek support to live a life of dignity. That is how Saheli, a Resource Centre for women, was born in 1981. Gauri lent us her garage and a small group, including Bharathi, Kalpana, Ashima, Buchi, Mrs Amiya Rao, Runu, Prabeen, Geetha, Amritha, Sheeba and several others were in action. The space acted as a drop in the centre for poor women living in Nizamuddin Basti, students, middle class women and whoever needed help. Through Saheli we were able to support hundreds of women seeking legal aid as well as a shelter. Collectively we solved the problem of providing a safe home to women in distress by taking them home.
Working on the premise that women must take control of their own bodies and destinies, we worked together with a range of women’s groups in Delhi as well as in the rest of the country.
The Mathura Rape case
A young adivasi girl, Mathura was picked up by the police in Maharashtra and raped while in police custody. When a case was filed, the lower court acquitted the policemen, but they were convicted in the High Court. On appeal however, the men were let off on the grounds that the girl had loose morals. This decision outraged women across the country. While senior lawyers wrote to the government, all of us were galvanized into action. Demonstrations against the judgment were organized throughout the country in a coordinated way and we felt part of a larger movement. Over several years, the campaign led to a change in law, resulting in higher levels of punishment for custodial rape, i.e., rape occurring when women were in government institutional care.
Demonstrating for justice
When a nurse in a private nursing home was raped in Delhi, I participated in a demonstration at the perpetrators’ village in Haryana. We, a small group of women, were almost attacked by the women in the village who cussed us for several hours. That event was a learning experience for all of us. How patriarchy is instilled in women as well as men was demonstrated by the women in the village who supported criminal men in their own village at the cost of justice and “other women”.
Campaigning with young women
I worked as part of the Saheli team to campaign against sexual harassment on the street – the so called eve teasing of young women on university campuses. We refused to be treated as objects harassed for using public spaces and commodified through advertisements for sale of various goods. One particular offensive hoarding near Lady Shriram College was for women’s underwear. We decided that it had to come down. One evening at the rush hour, several hundred women gathered around the hoarding and stopped all traffic at the busy intersection. We did not budge till our demand to bring down the hoarding was met. After an hour, the police brought in ladders climbed the tall hoarding and tore it out. We ran workshops for women on understanding our own health. We developed and shared how to keep menstrual calendars, understand contraception and other health issues.
Campaigns against Communal violence
In 1984, Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated leading to a blood bath in Delhi. On the following days, Kalpana and I went to the Shahdra Police station to help Sikh families who had not eaten for several days. We demanded the Kumaon Regiment Chief on the spot to provide them food from their military rations. He refused but helped us to open up restaurants during the curfew period so that 200 people could get food. As a follow up, a small group of us along with Swami Agnivesh marched for peace in the Trilokpuri colony where several hundred Sikhs were killed. Kalpana and I decided that we needed to do something more to create awareness and distributed printed pamphlets about the issues at the ITO bus stand.
Fighting against Communal identities.
The Muslim women’s Right to Protection Bill, 1986, in reality was the anti-thesis of what it was stated to be. On the day the Bill was to be introduced in Parliament, a group of us gheraoed the Lok Sabha Speaker, Mr Balram Jhakkar for more than an hour. At the gate, the armed policemen lost their cartridges in the melee to stop the speaker’s car and we helped to pick them up. Though we knew the effort had limited impact, we wanted to register our protest. Earlier we had encircled the Parliament building. The women’s movement always stood for solidarity across class, caste, religion and for justice. On 8 March 1985 we organized a mass rally in Delhi to protest against use of communal identities to divide women. We vigorously protested against the practice of Sati and widow immolations.
Reaching out to working class movements
While most of our actions were in Delhi, we reached out to rural communities regularly. Particularly, the health exhibitions of Saheli travelled to Kanpur to working class areas where textile workers and their families lived and to rural Rajasthan. I took illiterate visitors around the exhibition to explain women’s health issues, health and contraceptive policies of the government.
Working with rural women
In 1989, I decided to move back to Andhra Pradesh to work with rural women. Since then, I have worked to bring awareness of feminist issues to dalit and adivasi women. Sharing and learning from our early experiences of how to prevent violence against women, we have prepared hundreds of women for leadership positions in their own community. Today they not only work for their own rights but promote food security, education and health rights for all. Initially, working only with women, today I work with a cross section of men and organizations that stand in solidarity with us on issues of Justice. At Gramya Resource Centre for Women we continue to prepare the next generation of strong women. The era of globalization has increased the divide between rich and poor in our country. However, the continuing struggles of women and men for their rights, gives me hope that we will move towards a more just society in the future.
When I look back, I see thousands of women at the National Autonomous women’s meet at Patna, sharing 14 languages and solidarity. During our 8th March campaign against communalism in the old city of Delhi, Muslim women watched us from their balconies with a wish to join in. The Police stations of Delhi, where many of our struggles were waged to get the police to accept the First Information Reports lodged by women are imprinted in my mind. The High court and Supreme Court of Delhi, where our legal battles were played out, are all part of the movement experience. In the last two decades, the small and long marches of rural women continue to give me hope that we can build a better world for tomorrow. Starting only with street demonstrations, we have learned to lobby and advocate our cause across the board with local male Panchayat leaders as well as the Government of India.