Looking back, I can see that my getting involved with the Women’s Movement was kind of inevitable. Growing up in Delhi in the 1970s was not easy. The city can be rough for a young woman moving out of her home. It was an everyday struggle just to keep my physical integrity, and yet be able to be out there, doing things I wanted to. Your family fears for you and that fear restricts and controls you. I guess every woman in every family would have had to contend with such issues, and either acquiesce or carry a deep anger within. I was fortunate also to have a strong grandmother who, beyond a point, would not bend. More than anything, it was the affirmation and support of the, then nascent, women’s movement in Delhi that helped me relate my personal struggles with a larger feminist consciousness, and to understand how the personal was political.
We met and found resonance and solidarity with other women at places like Manushi (a women’s magazine) and Saheli (a women’s collective). It was the early 80s and news of brides being burnt for dowry extortion had become commonplace. We took to the streets, literally, with political theatre on the issue of dowry and that of custodial rape. Creating and performing plays like Om Swaha in residential colonies and outside government offices during lunch-breaks. While we performed, we’d sometimes see women in the audience begin to cry and we’d know that we had touched a raw nerve and we would connect with their particular struggle. It became increasingly clear, though, that it was not enough to engage with crises on individual struggles alone. The norms that validate prevailing practices, the larger systemic reality of patriarchy had to be challenged as well.
It was also inevitable then to begin working on other issues as one often nested in the other. With issues of health, for example, came issues of women’s sexuality. I began working in the squatter settlements and resettlement colonies of Delhi. Working with recent rural migrants, I gained an awareness of the deep divides of class and caste, and of the economic aspects of women’s lives, not just as housewives but also at the bottom rung of the work-force. To earn a living, I looked for work on aspects such as health, non-formal education, ’empowerment’ of women, aspects that you want to see change in. But I found Delhi, and our small efforts in this huge city, entirely overwhelming. There was also a yearning for a deeper and more immediate connectedness with people embedded in, not uprooted from, their landscapes.
In 1987, I moved to Rajasthan, first Jaipur then Ajmer, to work with a state-run womens’ development programme on issues of women’s health and sexuality. This work connected us to rural women across several districts, and it was such work in villages that made me feel more connected. It was the late 80’s and there was a prolonged drought situation in Rajasthan. Under famine-relief, there was a food-for-work programme, where women were given work on the condition that they had themselves sterilized. While our mandate was to make available information on sexuality and reproduction, we stood with the women against coercive sterilization, and were, predictably, kicked out of the programme along with all those who had protested.
We had undertaken, along with numerous Sathins (village level functionaries) of this programme, to create information on aspects of women’s sexuality and health. Eighty women got together to create a pictorial story-book with minimal text that brought together the local idiom of art, a scientific perspective and a political understanding of women’s sexuality, reproductive biology and gender politics. We called it the lal kitab or the red-book. Our reward was to see this book go on to be adapted and translated into many languages, and used extensively in India and elsewhere.
In five years though, my life seemed to be ready to take the next step. However deeply engaged I was in the various issues while in Rajasthan, it was, at one level, an engagement in abstraction, in that, political consequences were not quite the same for me as for the local people. I was always in a sense an ‘outsider’, speaking with and working with people to change their situation. I wanted really to engage as a citizen on issues that affected my life as well and that was more organically connected to a particular landscape and its future. My ‘political’ needed to become more ‘personal’ again, not just at an individual scale but at a larger, collective, community scale. With stakes that were also my own.
In 1992, when my son was six months old, I moved to live in a village in a remote mountain area in the state of Uttarakhand, near the borders with Nepal and Tibet. I now live on a 4 acre farm here, in a village called Sarmoli, in an area called Munsiari. Among other things, I farm the land for food and, like other farmers in mountain areas, am dependent on forests for cycling nutrients through livestock. It has been almost 20 years now and I am not so much an ‘outsider’ any more. I was the elected head of our village forest council (Van Panchayat) for seven years, and have been actively involved with issues that interface with forests, people’s livelihoods and conservation. My engagement is increasingly at the collective, community and regional levels now.
I work here with a local women’s collective that we call Maati (earth). We work to strengthen women’s livelihoods, be they from agriculture, wool handicrafts or nature-tourism related work. Collective citizen-intervention in cases of violence against women remains as much of a need here, as in urban areas. Our group synergizes with a larger state-wide women’s forum called the Uttarakahand Mahila Manch, on state-level policy issues that affect women’s lives. Uttarakhand is a relatively new state and it is presently on over-drive on the ‘project of development’. There are plans underway for hundreds of hydro-power projects to dam every river in multiple places. This is in order to export electricity from the state. Should this be allowed to happen, it will effectively snuff-out our rivers and all life in them, apart from causing serious displacement of rural people from their homes, their land and their forests. The question we raise here is ‘whose development at whose cost?’
Where do I see the women’s movement in India heading? I see it growing in rural India and in the smaller towns across the country. While issues such as sexuality, legal battles, policy interventions and women’s representation in the political mainstream remain the concerns of urban women, it is the increased involvement in local self-government and determining the kind of ‘development’ they need, that are increasingly the concerns of women in rural areas. Working for change almost always faces resistance from the established order and it can often seem that being a part of the women’s movement involves going from one fight to another. But for me, it is the old movement song that sums it up: ‘लड रहें है इस लिये कि प्यार जग में जी सके…’ (we fight, so that love may live on this earth…)
Malika Virdi is AID Saathi, Van Panchayat Sarpanch & Social Activist