HER WORLD Sunday, October 21, 2001,  Chandigarh, India
 

FROM THE GRASSROOTS
Women as agents of change
Neelam Gupta
I
t was a meeting with a difference. What the women participants from 11 districts of Rajasthan were demanding was not roads or hand pumps but schools where they could send their daughters to study. And working out possibilities of water harvesting with the help of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh, the founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS).

Earth Mother worship not bound by borders
Ranjita Biswas
A
utumn heralds the biggest festival for Bengal's calendar, Durga Puja. However, the concept of a warrior goddess fighting against evil is not confined to Bengal alone. Particularly in the tribal societies in the North-East, the fearful goddess (like Kali, another projection of the Durga, in the Hindu pantheon) is a long tradition.

Is City Beautiful smug towards feminism?
Sakoon Chhabra
W
hen I joined a semester-long course in feminism during my pre-Ph.D. programme last year it was nothing short of a revelation to find out as to why some others in the class preferred to opt out. In and out of the corridors of the Department, I was sufficiently enlightened about the imminent distresses and disasters that await budding feminists.

READERS’ RESPONSE
Striving to break through the glass ceiling

This refers to Vimla Patil's article "Striving to break through the glass ceiling’ (October 14). While gender inequality is inherent in our society and must be eradicated, it cannot be denied that women have made creditable progress in almost all the spheres of socio-economic and political life.

  • Who works harder—mom or pop?

  • Resigning to fate...

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FROM THE GRASSROOTS
Women as agents of change
Neelam Gupta

It was a meeting with a difference. What the women participants from 11 districts of Rajasthan were demanding was not roads or hand pumps but schools where they could send their daughters to study. And working out possibilities of water harvesting with the help of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh, the founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS).

Yes, the women needed hospitals for their children but what they placed over these requirements were facilities to educate their girls and conservation of water. This region has faced drought for the last three years.

The women - 2,000 of them - most of whom live below the poverty line and are illiterate and overburdened with work, were brought together by TBS in collaboration with UNDP. The main aim of the gathering was to explore the possibilities of forming a women’s Jal Biradari (water-sharing community) and also to take stock of a UNDP programme which has been working for women’s empowerment for sustainable natural resource management.

The main focus of the meeting was water harvesting using local techniques — something that the TBS has been focussing on. Among the various techniques used is digging pits so that rainwater could be stored. Moreover, the Alwar region has a number of small rivers which overflow during the monsoons. To tap this water, johads (check dams) are made on these rivers so that the water does not overflow and get wasted.

Over the years, TBS has made about 4,000 harvesting structures in more than 350 villages of Alwar, Bharatpur, Jaipur, Tonk, Karauli and other districts of Rajasthan.

During the day these women interacted with TBS members and others who had come from New Delhi to help work out a modus operandi for conservation of water resources in the region. And at night, they gave voice to their dreams and aspirations through song and dance.

Though sitting on stage with their faces veiled and embarrassed at talking in front of the male members of their villages, these women still managed to express themselves in small groups. They were persuaded by leaders of Bachat Mandals (savings groups) and Water Gram Sabhas (village water committees) to learn from the experiences of other women.

And most of the women went back having learnt a few lessons. For instance, Bhaunri of Dang village learnt "a new method of saving". When asked how she would be able to face opposition from her husband, she replied that while he was working in the fields, she would approach other women in the village to start a savings cooperative.

As far as the management of water resources is concerned, the women maintained that a beginning had already been made. In many villages where they have their own self-help groups (SHGs), the women have moved on to the construction of tanks for storing water.

Equally important for the women was educating their girls. And they needed schools for this. Many women said that they wanted to educate their daughters further but could not because there was no secondary school in their villages. Others spoke about the opposition that the faced from the male members of their families when they wanted to send their daughters to nearby villages to study.

In a group discussing ‘How to get rid of social suppression’, many young girls asked Madhu Kishwar, a woman activist from Delhi, about how they should deal with the attitude of the villagers who dissuaded their parents from letting them study.

Realising the interest shown by women in educating their daughters in this district, various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the region too have made this their focus area. For instance, these NGOs provide employment, run self-help groups, evening schools and do community work with the literate women in the villages. These women manage to earn between Rs 300 and Rs 1,000 per month. NGOs have also started small schools where girls who cannot go to government schools can get basic education. The teachers in these schools are women from the villages, and earn between Rs 600 and Rs 1,000 per month educating other girls.

The women of these villages are keen on educating their daughters for two reasons. First, if the girls are educated they can contribute more to the family income and second, because there is a realisation that education can get a better life for the girls. The women in the district work from dawn to dusk, both at home and in the fields. At times they are subjected to physical abuse by their husbands and other male members of the family. And it is this life that they don’t want their daughters to have.

This in turn has improved the income of the families, which have now started focussing on other social problems like illiteracy and alcoholism. Groups of women have already started raising their voice in favour of prohibition because alcoholism is the next problem that they want to tackle.

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Earth Mother worship not bound by borders
Ranjita Biswas

Autumn heralds the biggest festival for Bengal's calendar, Durga Puja. However, the concept of a warrior goddess fighting against evil is not confined to Bengal alone. Particularly in the tribal societies in the North-East, the fearful goddess (like Kali, another projection of the Durga, in the Hindu pantheon) is a long tradition. From days of yore, eastern India had been a seat of tantricism for both Buddhists and Hindus. Worship of woman power as a source of' Shakti or energy that flows through the universe is an essential part of this philosophy. Durga, Kali, Uma and other incarnations of goddesses are seen as exemplifying this energy.

Recognition of woman power in an essentially patriarchal Hindu society is an interesting phenomenon. But it would not seem contradictory if seen in the light of the non-Aryan cultural ethos embedded in Hindu religion and rituals say pundits. The cult of' Shakti' worship is rooted in the worship of mother earth in non-Sanskritised communities commonly referred to as pre-Aryan. Later, the concept of the veneration of mother earth emerged in the form of worship of deities like Durga and Kali.

Durga is seen both as a protector who destroys evil as well as a goddess who blesses with abundance. The common preoccupation of agricultural communities with a good crop contributed to their likening the earth's fertility to that of a woman or Earth Mother.

All over the world early societies worshipped natural phenomena and wildlife under different names. Their deification as goddesses was a part of social evolution. "The identification of earth with women pervades the thought of all stages of culture and pages could be filled with illustrations of this universal equation," writes sociologist R Briffault.

Yet, goddesses are not exempt from the taboos imposed on women. In Assam, the famous temple of Kamakhya, a revered seat of 'Shakti' worship, is closed every monsoon for a week for Ambubachi, a period when the Devi is supposed to menstruate and thus becomes 'untouchable', akin to the 'impurity' associated with ordinary women during menstruation.

The analogy between Mother Earth and women is taken further during the rituals associated with the worship. During Durga Puja, the earthen pitcher in which the goddess is evoked and worshipped throughout the period as the real abode of the goddess is shaped like a pregnant woman's stomach. Besides, at the start of the 'puja', the priest draws a circle, places five kinds of leaves and a coconut on the pitcher and chants mantras to pray for the earth giving birth to anna or rice. The goddess-fertility link is reinforced by nature herself. Autumn also heralds the harvest season. The golden colour of the idol of Durga illustrates the resemblance to the harvest. Another name for her is 'Suvarna' or 'the golden one'. She is also known as 'Shakamvari' or the goddess of vegetables. The ritual of worshipping the 'nabapatrika' or the plantain plant, as wife of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh is reminiscent of the importance of vegetation.

The constant identification of agriculture, woman and goddess is also due to the fact that agriculture was the discovery of women. With agriculture, the man evolved from the hunter to the householder. Scholars point out that the woman's status was much higher in the hoe culture stage till the plough took over. Ploughing became restricted as a male activity and the plough thus became the symbol of the phallus and earth the receiver of the seed. In many communities in the sub-continent, the woman is never allowed to plough but she does the sowing to ensure a good harvest.

Interestingly, anthropological evidence shows that Durga-like images were also prevalent in societies other than India. What is striking is that these deities, although geographically diverse, show great similarity. Colours too, had no international borders. Many icons of mother earth from ancient Europe are painted red, and in Hindu Devi worship, vermilion, the colour of blood symbolising fertility is essential.

In ancient Babylon, Mexico and Iran too the worship of the Earth or goddess of vegetation was prevalent. These trends are echoed in the Indian subcontinent as well. Terracotta images of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation excavated from Mohenjodaro show a woman upside down and a sprig of paddy emanating from her genitals. Just as cultural and social interaction resulted in non-Aryan symbols being inducted into Aryan deities, in the West too there are examples of assimilation. Cybele, an earth goddess of Asia Minor was transformed into Magna Mater (Great Mother) when the Romans started worshipping her in 204 BC. As Durga rides a lion, Cybele sits on a throne of crouching lions. Greeks absorbed Cybele as Rhea. Her worship was centred in Crete, and Rhea is also projected as a harvest goddess. Goddesses, it would seem, like human reverence, are beyond boundaries.

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Is City Beautiful smug towards feminism?
Sakoon Chhabra

When I joined a semester-long course in feminism during my pre-Ph.D. programme last year it was nothing short of a revelation to find out as to why some others in the class preferred to opt out. In and out of the corridors of the Department, I was sufficiently enlightened about the imminent distresses and disasters that await budding feminists. I was warned of choleric nerves, convoluted ideas and marriage, if any, perpetually on rocks. It didn’t affect my decision but it did open up a Pandora’s Box buzzing with problems –those about city’s value and attitude systems.

How do sufficiently educated people view feminism today? Chances are that it still evokes scenes of groups of unattractive spinsters ,bitter of tongue, razing men to ground, kind of men-hating brigades out to ruin happy homes, whose company they’d much rather avoid.

If we rely on stereotypical symbols to represent any multivalent concept, we inevitably misconstrue. Also, if we trace the source of these simplistic ideas they inevitably emerge from certain obvious quarters —a popular cinema that is more eager to keep the box-offices ringing than modifying social ethos, and from all those quarters which are always resistant to changes of any kind. It is time we stopped thinking of feminism as a theory and started inculcating it as an attitude. It is high time we applied it to our own lives than those of fictitious characters in dated books. And time also we adapted it to our present circumstances.

Personally, to me some women in the Chandigarh of the 1970s and early 80s represent a better sense of emancipation than so many women today. Those were the times of our mother’s generation. Earning a degree on the one hand was a matter of privilege and pride; on the other hand it was still largely choice-based. The women who chose a degree in those times when housekeeping was equally valued and more easily attainable seem more self-assured than today when we flit from course to course amassing degrees and diplomas trying to figure out half our lives which is the most ‘fetching’ one. More than a spirit of emancipation, it is harsh economics that is making choices for an urban woman today. As long as a woman pushes her way into hard core professional courses like medicine, engineering, journalism etc., it is fine but with a simple BA she’d better be married off in good time.

Nothing colonises Chandigarh better than women’s fashions. Recent days have seen the hemlines go up dramatically fast. It is currency rather than personal expression that dictates fashions. One is bound to encounter a full and profuse flowering of latest styles but rarely an experimentation, however humble.

In terms of attitudes, Chandigarh is a traditional place. It is a city with a fossilised sensibility-believes too much in sorting and classification. Maybe it has something to do with a sense of false class consciousness that the city’s creator inadvertently created in creating sectors. The city being excessively impregnated with neat fragmentation, our space having so tidily marked out for specific uses by the draftsman, has in course ,influenced our own ways of viewing reality .Chandigarh possesses a great sense of maintenance, little of modification. So it is with gender roles. The city still largely believes in all-girls and all-boys colleges. Boys and girls in the university and college classes still huddle together for the first few days. While they are strangers, only gender classification seems to work. It is not an individualistic town. It does not value an individual, per se, but is more interested in his/her various trappings. ‘What does your father do?" "Where do you stay?" in that order become the two questions that one is bound to encounter on meeting somebody for the first time. In the marketplace or in the University Students Centre, groups of well-dressed young men make it their rightful business to know who descends from which car and why. It is not highly unnatural then that most women derive their identities more often than not from their fathers and husbands than from the good work they do.

Women’s Liberation is not a dharna away or short of any one elusive revolution. It is no longer a fight on the streets, it is one in our minds. To be socially and economically advantaged as a group, for the people of our city is no license to be smug. All it changes for us is the exterior of the struggle.

We have to fight patriarchal attitudes in highly disguised forms-all the more reason to be discerning .Simplistic assumptions like ‘In our house there is equality between me and my brother and therefore the question of women’s freedom is redundant today" at best signify crude judgments and over-generalisations. We need to take into account more than personal experience alone to judge theories. Our road to redefinition of gender roles and women’s space will truly begin from interrogating our deeper belief-systems.
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READERS’ RESPONSE
Striving to break through the glass ceiling

This refers to Vimla Patil's article "Striving to break through the glass ceiling ’’(October 14). While gender inequality is inherent in our society and must be eradicated, it cannot be denied that women have made creditable progress in almost all the spheres of socio-economic and political life. It is painful that for every difficulty faced by a woman in her personal and professional life, gender-inequality should be made the whipping horse. So much so even the pangs of childbirth are attributed to a woman's oppressed status.

Is it not ironical for the writer to feel that "the tussle between motherhood and career ambition creates yet another glass ceiling in a woman's life.’’ Why should one forget that the real and lasting significance of life is much more than just "materialistic and monetary attainment"? It is only a woman who can intstil in a child culture and values . Though a man's participation in this process can be equally important .

Motherhood is no less than the greatest ambition ever attained by a human being, Why should not one change her personality and goals to adjust and fit  to the new role ? Every ambition requires such an adjustment and change. Ask a woman, who despite her success in every other field of life, has failed to bear and rear a child ? The basic problem with our socio-cultural system is that while the lower strata of our society remains unawakened on such issues and women of that class remain suppressed and exploited, the upper and middle class woman seems to ignore the thin line between freedom and licentiousness.

They fail to realise that equality of their rights with men cannot be measured by any law or material share. It is a state of mind which must be attained through reasoning and persuasion.

Ved Guliani
Hisar

Who works harder—mom or pop?

The article 'Who works harder—mom or pop?' by Nirmal Sandhu (Oct.7) was very very "interesting". The writer represents the typical middle class Indian male who has been nursed on ideas that the only role of a girl is to get married and keep her husband and in-laws happy. She should work like an ass from dawn to night, hanging on to every whim fancy of her pati parmeshwar, while he provides for the family 'financially'. Who cares whether what he earns is enough or not? It is her duty to see that the household is run smoothly. And the writer seems to be a great supporter of child labour. In his own words, "The contribution of a child forced to quit school to labour in a factory or work as domestic help is far bigger than his mother, no matter how rigorous her chores". Have you ever thought who induces children into working? It's the father and why does he do so? To provide money for his daily alcohol intake, his drugs, for his tobacco and gambling. And if you are so concerned about rickshawallas, labourers, daily wagers, unemployed villagers, do you mind looking at what their women do? They work in others’ houses, sweep, wash clothes, clean utensils and do other such things so that they can provide for the numerous children which these women are forced to bear by their least -bothered husbands. And if she dies during the delivery, which is complicated by lack of a nutritous diet, an unhygienic environment, no awareness at all about medical advancements, complete ignorance about vaccines and medicines, well and good as the ill-fed and neglected child will be forced into working even if mother lives, the fate of child is going to be more or less the same.

Over the ages, society has forced women into submission, keeping them within the four walls of the house, sacrificing even their needs for the comfort and pleasures of others. They were taught to keep their mouths shut, not at all encouraged to go to schools and colleges and even less to go to work. But once women did start working, the men initially had no problems, who does not like a double income? Problems arise when women became aware of their rights and began to question their 'inferior gender' .They began to ask why were they doing all the household chores ,while men were not even lifting a finger to help. The scenario began shifting to "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I do the chores, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, you take care of them and on Sunday we both pitch in or go for an outing." And this precisely is what males hate because they don't want to do the household chores, because these chores are not interesting at all. Sweeping, cleaning utensils, laundry, cleaning bathroom and toilets. Yuck! Dirty tasks and if someone else can be made to do them, instead of doing them yourselves, won't it be better?

There is no denying the fact that women work harder, even the writer acknowledges it when he asks "but why shout about the fact from housetops or make it known to children.?" He is afraid that women might realise this and when they do, they sure are going to demand more contribution from men at home, something that the men do not wish to make.

NANDITA
CHANDIGARH

Resigning to fate...

This refers to the article "Resigning to fate is the only way for working women" (October 7) by Peeyush Agnihotri. To take care of the family and its needs, a talented and qualified woman always have to make a compromise with herself. If a working woman is transferred, she either leaves the job or faces the upsetting of her family life.

Parents spend a huge amount of money on the education of their daughter so that she may become economically independent in the due course. If a woman is educated, she will have a good job and will not have to beg before anyone. The situation, after marriage however, is exactly the opposite. She is forced to quit the job and given an option to choose between husband, children and family and her job. As a typical Indian woman who is born for making sacrifices, she agrees to leave a well-established career and agrees to be a house wife, since she is not chicken-hearted. The education of her children, fulfilment of her husband’s desires comes in the way of her independence and identity. Therefore, it's the death of her own ambitions..

Is it necessary to crush the ambitions and dreams of a woman to protect the interests of the family? Why does a woman have to keep herself aloof from society? It is not the duty of mother alone to focus on the education, comforts and development of children thereby leaving her job.

A woman is always forced to quit keeping in view the rearing, caring of her children and family. Why do we always look towards a woman whenever there arises a situation where a compromise has to be made?

SUMIT SABHARWAL
HOSHIARPUR


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