I was in a meeting of voluntary activists. We came from different states. We were of different age, spoke different languages and worked for different organizations. The common thread was: we were all working on Women’s Issues. I do not like the term ‘issues’; I think ‘cause’ is a much better word – but all of them kept introducing themselves as ‘working on women’s issues’ – hence the term! The meeting organizers had a definite purpose in inviting all of us. The idea was that people would discuss challenges faced by women, strategies to address those challenges, discuss various activities and programs implemented by different organizations etc. I liked the objective of the meeting and so went all the way to participate. To my surprise, there were also men (though very few) who were working for the cause of women.
When I listen to the status and situation of women in other parts of country, I sometimes feel to be fortunate to be born and brought up in Maharashtra; especially with the opportunity to stay in cities like Mumbai and Pune – which are comparatively progressive about women. I am aware that all the women in the state; unfortunately are not in a position to say so! I do not mean to say that all women in Maharashtra are happy and lucky – actually women face lot many problems in Maharashtra too.
The crowd in the meeting had very stereotypical views and ideas regarding women’s role, women’s responsibilities and women’s participation in development process. In one of the informal discussions when I said, “Does not matter if a man has to prepare tea sometime” – it was taken as a rebellious statement and I was surprised by the reaction of others. By that response I knew that I could not expect much in the meeting.
According to the participants: women are soft, they love family, renunciation comes naturally to them, they hold the family (and ultimately) society together, they need protection, they are inclined to household work .. and so many other ideas - which one normally happens to listen everyday and everywhere. I was little disappointed with my decision to participate in the meeting. But frankly speaking, I had no choice. I was tired of arguing and kept quiet.
A woman from Andhra Pradesh came to the stage and started talking about how Sex Determination Tests are bad for girl child and women. She was a medical practitioner and had come across people (including women) who wanted to know sex of the child before birth. She was speaking with commitment; she had lot of data to support her. When you flow against the stream, you face loneliness and I could hear some of it through her speech – a sure sign of conflicts one has gone through! Like any good speech, her speech raised more questions than providing answers. Listening to her, I felt good about coming to this meeting.
The young doctor was followed by another doctor – Dr. Jaanakee – who was about 75. She too had practiced medicine in rural areas and had lot of experiences regarding causes and solutions to women’s health. She started by saying, “The problem of Sex Determination Tests is very serious” and added smilingly that “However we should not worry about it; as our ancient scriptures do offer a solution to this problem.”
Everybody woke up from whatever they were doing. Most of us were not articulate but certainly had strong opinions on this topic. Maybe because most of us were women, we were able to identify with the gravity of the problem, the fact that girls do not even have a right to be born and if born, they have to face so much abuse in their life. Dr. Jaanakee continued speaking, “To kill a girl child before she is born is absolutely cruel – there could be no two opinions about this. The problem in society is, people want ‘son’ and not daughter. If we want to address the problem of female infanticide, we should see that those who want son – the women in that family would conceive a son. To be assured of a son, in ancient scriptures there is a ritual (vidhi) named Punsavan…..”
Some of us were completely taken aback by the statement and some of us were extremely angry. Surprisingly many were interested in knowing more about it – which was a shock to some of us. Dr. Jaanakee started elaborating the topic and some of us were disturbed by her choice of speech and her perspective!! But the problem was -how to stop her? We could shout, but somehow we were aware that we were in minority in that gathering. Also, as democrats, we believed in dialogue and discussion rather than hooting out anyone. In fact we were sure that we would be hooted out!!
From eye contacts, from facial expression we could ‘team’ together – a few of us, but not very few! One of us shouted, “We want girls in this world”! To support her, someone said very mildly, “We are wasting time on this topic, let the next speaker come…” Then another person said something. The wave kept rising. Everybody in the crowd had some or the other opinion on the topic – on whether Dr. Jaanakee should continue speaking or not. The protesters gathered courage and raised their voice. The gathering seemed to break loose. The organizers who always took pride in discipline did not like the tone of the atmosphere. Then the Chairperson of the session – who was herself a woman in her 70s – whispered something to Dr. Jaanakee. Dr. Janakee smiled, and left the dais.
To calm down the atmosphere, to defuse the tone of protests, the organizers wisely declared a ‘Tea Break’. That actually helped people to discuss the topic vehemently. One elderly woman scolded me, “Why can’t your generation listen properly? You are not proud of our cultural heritage.” I smiled at her (that again offended her) and moved forward. One not so famous writer was saying to her friend, “But if only boys are born, who will they marry when they grow up?” (As if girls are born with the sole purpose: boys when they grow should have girls to marry!)
One Economics Lecturer was saying, “I feel that let it happen. (Did she mean that let girls die – before birth, after birth ..) Once they have fewer women than required, they will learn to value women”. I wanted to tell her that her supply-demand-value logic in this case was rather unwarranted, violent and devastating. Who gave her the right to ‘feel’ that killing of girls today was right for the betterment of women tomorrow? I was aghast!
One young girl was passionately arguing – “Now I realize that woman is the worst enemy of herself. How can this old lady talk so cruelly? They all are victims of Patriarchy. We need to build their capacity, we need to sensitize them, and we need to make them aware of the facts ….” Another one reacted with hatred, “Don’t waste time in sensitizing them; they need to be shot at first sight!”
While moving through the crowd, I could observe and listen to varied responses. How many different viewpoints were there in that comparatively small gathering!! Some were balanced; some were analytical; some were traditional; some were prudent; some were unsympathetic; some were rebellious; some were frustrating: some were reckless; some were insensitive; some were isolated; some were uncultured; some were wicked… I was as if looking at a vast kaleidoscope of human mind.. of human thinking.
On the way I came across the Chairperson who had somehow managed Dr. Jaanakee to stop talking on the topic. I stopped. I said, “Thanks a lot for your intervention in making Dr. Jaanakee stop talking on that topic. It is shockingly frustrating that an educated woman should speak like this in this gathering……”
Before I completed my statement, she said, “That is what I told Janakeebai. She should have realized that there were many young unmarried girls in the audience, there were men also. Women’s topics – especially such sensitive topics – should not be discussed with young girls and men. This is a ‘woman only’ topic …”
I helplessly looked at the Chairperson. I did not know how to respond. In that lonely moment I realized that in the kaleidoscope of ‘Women’s Issue’ there are nothing but pieces of glasses which hurt, hurt acutely and hurt terribly!!
Maybe with all the efforts, we can change the kaleidoscope, make a new one.
What about our perspective? Can it be renewed? Can it be repaired?