Sonia and I are walking down the narrow by lanes of her village to reach the nearest junction for an auto. It’s a long walk which seems longer on this summer day. There are no autos in sight. So we walk more covering our faces from the sweltering heat with our dupattas. It’s around 8 in the morning, not many women to be seen. We cross an old man sitting by the road who starts to mumble looking at us. The mumble grows louder and I hear him snarl at us “dekho do randiyan kaam pe nikli”. In India the patriarchal mindset in rural parts considers women who work for money “whores”. Honourable women do not work, they stay home is the general attitude.
I thought working on violence against women had hardened me, but nothing prepared me for this. Sonia was unnerved, she kept walking unfazed. As a woman, I have been stared at, pinched, bumped into by people I don’t know but because I’m a city girl, my experiences of discrimination are different from Sonia’s. While I accepted a certain degree or type of harassment as normal in Delhi, Sonia accepted hers as normal in Haryana. But when I came face to face with what she dealt with daily I didn’t know how to react. I felt humiliated and crippled, it was that word heavy loaded ‘whore’ that made me cringe.
That morning when we left Sonia’s home, I saw many women doing household work with their faces covered in ghoonghat, sweeping verandahs, cleaning buffalo shelters, tying the goats, making cow dung cakes and so on while the men sat there smoking tobacco pipes and some zipping past us on their motorbikes. I told Sonia, “I think you are the only woman who is carrying a handbag and leaving for work!” Sonia laughed and said, “Yes, I think I am the only woman in my village that has a 9 to 6 job!”
Sonia told me how women in her village usually don’t go out to work and bout her struggles. Financial conditions at home forced her to start working but her relatives did not approve. They could not accept that a woman from their village was leaving for work early morning and coming back in the evening. A panchayat sabha (village gathering) was also called by her relatives to put an end to this. But her husband stood his ground and told them that it was not their business to tell her if she works or not. Her family’s support has made her fearless, such comments are trivial matters. But it still took her some getting used to when it came to carrying a handbag to work, because that was so new!
Sonia is just one woman; there are many other women who have come out of their homes to follow their dreams, with or without their family support. The pressures created due to the character judgement passed on independent mobile women are covert way of confining them to domestic roles. Forcing the burden of honor, tradition, culture on women is just a roundabout way of telling them that your freedom is a threat.
I take pride in letting others know that I am working, I am earning and I am independent. As a woman, it is very important for me. But Sonia and many women like her have to fight for this right every day. Maybe that’s why Sonia works so courageously and passionately for disadvantaged women. Maybe now that she has tasted freedom and independence she understands its power. Maybe this helps her understand why it is important to help other women who are struggling for freedom or who have never thought of it as a choice.