WHEN WE stood in neck-deep water, in a way staking our lives, it was a turning point where you look back at the same time as you look forward. You look back on your friendships, on all that you haven’t found the time to do yet — writing poetry or building a youth movement. And you look forward to what you are doing this for. As I wondered what would happen behind me when the water rose, I was also very humbled. So many people — Adivasis, tribals, people of different castes, many of them women — standing together and putting their lives on the line without seeing recognition. It didn’t matter if I was a senior woman activist. At that moment, I was one of them.
Growing up, I never dealt with the idea of gender as a restrictive concept. My parents were activists themselves and always encouraged me without stressing on the fact that I was a girl. My mother was the main breadwinner. Seeing her work both inside and outside the household was a great experience. There was no discussion of ornaments or feminine customs in our house. All this had an impact on me. But as I grew up and started working in the field, I realised gender was very much out there, but there are distinct qualities of gender.
As a child, I’d go to the slums in Mumbai every weekend. I’d talk to women cooking at the stove, whom male activists couldn’t approach. There are advantages to being a girl. You can express your sensitivity more freely, use your gender effectively to mobilise people. Boys, trapped by the demands of stoic masculinity, could not. Their expression of sensitivity and passion was stamped out by convention.
It was difficult at first, when I started working in rural areas. I didn’t like to be delayed by unnecessarily waiting for buses at night, so I used trucks to commute. Once, a truck driver was drunk and misbehaved. I had to jump out at 1 am and find my way home. It was also hard to work with men in those areas. They didn’t expect you to make a difference in serious economic and political issues. I experienced this initial handicap for months, maybe even a year after I began working. You can jump the gender barrier, but a lot depends on how you behave and what you talk about. However, women can make their emotional nature an added quality rather than a disadvantage. They can talk to both men and women. In no time, I was working with Muslim leaders — the badi jamaat and the choti jamaat —who were very strict about the participation of women. Conscious effort is required to achieve such acceptance — my effort as a citizen, a woman, an activist.
I knew early on that the way I function, working in slums and the most interior of areas — always occupied with work and so much of it too — would not sit well in a traditional family set up. The problem between my husband and me was essentially one of dialogue that could not be resolved. As a society, we are on the tradition-modernity continuum. Women are allowed, maybe even encouraged, to work outside their homes, but if they cross a certain intangible limit, they are drawn back. Today, women are making both lifestyles possible, but I had decided to be on my own a long time ago, in 1983 or 1984, I think. I chose my larger family — the people I work with and for — as my primary commitment. Unlike what society thinks, women can remain alone with strength and confidence, but men cannot.
Working with both men and women, you have to be cautious and self conscious. If you are clear about what you want to do and what you don’t, there are no regrets. If it is the right choice, there is nothing to repent. My decision has helped me to commit completely to many causes. It won’t make a difference to anyone whether I’m in jail or somewhere else. If you are single, you can freely interact with all genders, castes and classes. No one’s eyes are on you, watching, monitoring, taking note.
As told to Shonali Ghosal