When it comes to women, mainstream history has always projected them as mothers, sisters, daughters and wives. And if not that, they are projected as each other’s chief adversaries. Relationships of friendship, camaraderie and solidarity that may exist between them have negligible or zero mention in our textbook history.
So is it true that women are incapable of forging relationships beyond their marriages and families, or even if these relationships exist, they are trivial and irrelevant?
Last month, I spent a day in the district of Alwar in Rajasthan. This peaceful albeit slightly dusty district is surrounded by the picturesque Aravali range. Driving through the narrow lanes in the outskirts of Alwar city, I reached a small village. An organization called SPECTRA has been working in this village (and many other villages) for many year now, collectivizing women around issues of development that affect them and their communities. These women do not share any familial ties; they are each other’s neighbours, friends or well-wishers. So deep and meaningful are their bonds, that when their own families do not recognize their dreams, talents and aspirations, they encourage and support each other. And while doing so, they break away from age-old gender norms, creating new ways of empowerment for themselves and their future generations. When they are together, they overcome all differences — of age, caste or religion. They challenge patriarchal stereotypes which pit women against each other, and come together to save money, to do collective farming and take care of cattle. Their coming together is also bringing together their village and bridging differences to make way for a new and gender-just society.
Many miles away from Alwar, I reached the district of Rayagada in Western Odisha. Once known to be an area heavily affected by Naxalism, today it has become the hot favourite of development workers. While these development workers see women as part of the development process, they still do not see them as the architects and drivers of development. Amidst this, the women in four villages of Rayagada have developed very deep bonds of friendship. They call themselves “single” women, who are unmarried, widowed or deserted by their male partners. Also, women who are married or are in a relationship with a man, but find themselves alone and “single” in their relationships, are a part of this collective. Bhavya Chitranshi, one of the finalists of Martha Farrell Award 2018, started working with these women five years ago, when she was pursuing her M.Phil. In these five years, these women who have been rejected or vilified by their communities and families, have come together to share their sorrows and joys, grow rice and make small savings. They are each other’s families, best friends, caretakers, teachers and business partners. In fact, they are so strong together that they are asking critical questions about local governance and directly challenging the authority of male village heads. And sometimes, they also dance away the night in celebration of their freedom and self-dignity. So how can these women be each other’s adversaries?
Established in Maharashtra, the women collectivized through Mahilla Rajsatta Andolan often say, “Hum sagi nahi par pakki behenein hai (we are not blood sisters, but we are true sisters)”. Who are these women? Belonging to 30 different districts of Maharashtra, these women have been actively campaigning for their meaningful participation in local governance for the last 18 years. These are also the women who dare to contest and win elections and engender governance in the male-dominated political system of India. They have been doing this together, in solidarity with each other; reaching out to each other across 30 different districts to make possible policy changes and to influence the attitudes of their men, families and communities. And yes, these women are also not related to each other through blood/kinship ties. They are friends, sisters and well-wishers. Their relationship is true, uninhibited and liberating.
Martha Farrell Award for Excellence in Women’s Empowerment recognizes the spirit, resilience and strength of these women. Each year, the award brings out many such stories of change, where women contest patriarchal and patrilineal definitions of relationships to enable spaces for their friendship and togetherness. These bonds also help them in redefining and empowering themselves and to challenge and change the structures that divide and deter them. These women are each other’s new family; their togetherness is not a means to a shared goal or an end, it is the goal and the end itself. Their togetherness is the space where they realize their value beyond being mothers, sisters, daughters or wives, to realize new meanings of oneself, development, relationships, well-being and feminist consciousness.
Martha Farrell Award salutes the #StoriesofChange of these women!