When I joined Akshara, I was curious about the workings of a ‘feminist’ organization, since although I was exposed to women’s empowerment work, it had been limited to assisting my mother in the trainings she did of elected women representatives of Gram Panchayats. I had a general idea of what was going on, but wanted to know more, understand the why’s and how’s of the Indian women’s movement more deeply, and be a part of it myself. Last year, a couple of months before I joined Akshara, I had witnessed an incident of wife-battering in a village I was visiting, and it had traumatized me to the extent that I had my first couple of sleepless nights following it. I couldn’t understand why it had shaken me so much, perhaps somewhere coming to a realization that I, too, was a woman and, although I had grown up in a secure and progressive environment, without facing any overt discrimination because of my gender, the world outside definitely wasn’t as egalitarian as I thought it to be. Had I been born in some other part of the world, with the same chromosomal structure but with different upbringing, who knows, I also might have been subjected to oppression and violence. Just for being a woman. Trying to deal with and overcome this newly articulated fear, I wanted to do my part in a movement that was making an effort to change this attitude of discrimination and suppression of women, and in the process, accept my position in this world as a woman too, as a FREE woman.
Coming from an ‘NGO’ background and having spent a huge chunk of my childhood in the community environment of ‘Abhivyakti’, I immediately felt comfortable in Akshara’s Gender Resource Centre office. On my first day itself, I was invited to be a part of a unit meeting to brainstorm about the ‘Maa Beti Melawa’, and the ideas I had to offer were warmly invited and accepted. This made me feel immediately connected to the team and already considered myself at part of it! The entire GRC team was extremely supportive and in the internship of two months I developed a deep and long- lasting connection with all of them. Listening to the stories shared by Sunita ‘Maam’ about her work with tribal women and by Yasho-tai about her life and how she struggled to stand on her own feet became a sort of daily ritual that was inspiring; it helped me realize my own potential and get over my fears of being victimized as a woman. Soon, I started walking alone to and from the office; as well as started to travel alone within Mumbai, something, again, that I was doing for the first time.
Another source of inspiration was the dialogue with the BFCT (Barefoot Counsellor’s Training Programme, started by Akshara) women. I interacted with them during the Safety Audit, and then later individually with three BFCT women for my case studies. Hearing their stories, especially of Nilima Kamthe who was a survivor of domestic violence and oppression, and who had come out of it to slowly build back her life and support her only child on her own, I came to understand the resilience and tenacity to life that these women showed. They were ready to face and determination to get out of ordeals they faced, not only for themselves but also because, most of the times, they knew they had other lives to support. I remember having a dialogue with the afore-mentioned Nilima Kamthe—soon after she told her story, I asked her if now, after re-marriage, she had found happiness. She replied, “But I was always happy!” Whatever situation life threw at her, she tried her best to deal with it in a way she could, and not run away. Maybe running away wasn’t a choice, because she had a child to look after, whom she was the sole provider of. Could she forsake that child, the way her former husband had forsaken it as well as her? And do women really HAVE that choice, even in today’s ‘liberal’ times? A gender-just world would be where men are as accountable to their wives as wives are supposed to be to their husbands, and both are equally responsible to the offspring they bear. And we’re moving towards that, surely. But looking at it through another perspective, one may say that women, being the natural child-bearers, may feel that responsibility slightly more potently, and hence wield a power to look at any obstacle holistically rather than individualistically, and find collective and creative solutions.
But again, this is far too much generalization, and here I come to the basic understanding I developed regarding the roles men and women play in society, that they are all constructed by society. But then, these roles are also imbibed- been fed into our brains from the time we’re in our mothers’ wombs, and we continue to behave according to them as we go through life. My identity as a woman, as a Hindu Brahmin, as a brown-skinned person, influences and will influence the way I behave today, but it is up to me to decide the importance I give to these identities. To decide if, as a position in society, it makes me superior or inferior to others. And to let anyone else make themselves feel/act superior or inferior to me. To realise that, ultimately, the choice was in my hands, and if I tried, I could not let these conditioned hierarchies influence me, was my biggest learning from Akshara. I maintain it is still difficult and something I struggle with daily, since this monster of oppression is so huge and operates on so many different levels, that if I try to cut off only one hand, say that of sexism, it will continue its stranglehold on me with its other hands, say of classism and racism. If I am fighting for the emancipation of women as a group, I cannot harbour within myself prejudices of class. And then at times this monster looms so large that I don’t know when, if at all, it can be vanquished!
All I know is, I want to, in my life, with my potential, try to end it. The ‘how’ part of it is something I haven’t figured out, as of now, and perhaps need the most help and guidance in. Related to this are some question that started taking form in my head from the period I left Akshara until right now. I put some of them forth, hoping that finding their answers lead me to more clarity on the work I want to do, again, figuring out the ‘how’ part of it!
• How did patriarchy, as a global system, evolve? What was the role of both men and women in creating and sustaining this system, and what is our further role going to be, to change it?
• For that matter, how did any and all systems of oppression manifest and create strongholds on society? Why do they sustain themselves and each other?
• Why are cultures that are more connected to nature, such as tribal communities, more egalitarian in their role distribution system and allot equal (if not more) power and respect to women? Is there a connection to proximity with nature and equality?
• How does the media influence in the creation of societal norms, values and ideals of beauty, of right and wrong, or even of normalcy and how are women (in particular) and relationships between men and women affected by this influence?
• What was the role and status of women in different cultures of the world throughout history?
Now the question is, where do I start?
-- Sakhi Nitin-Anita describes herself as a 'non-conformist' who is currently challenging the institutionalized system of degrees and certificates by being a part of an experimental learning program called Swaraj University that believes and work in self-designed learning.