No Mad Women In The Attic

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An all-woman panchayat in Haryana is breaking stereotypes to carve its way into the system, showing men their place. Neha Dixit reports

Woman is immeasurably man’s superior
Mahatma Gandhi

Determined Ashubi Khan, 47, decided to include only women in her panchayat
Photo:  Tarun Sehrawat

THE PANCHAYAT Ghar in Neemkheda village in Haryana’s Mewat district is right in its middle. Adorned with a kitchen garden on the campus, ducks and dogs make a perfect domestic set-up. Symbols of machismo embellish the wall with four rifles, eight bullet belts and deerskin. Ashubi Khan, 47, the sarpanch, and the nine panchayat members drop in within a minute of each other. They shake hands, giggle and settle down like excitable schoolgirls. When we introduce ourselves to Ashubi, she holds the business card upside down. Even the police officer on the way sounded skeptical: “An all-woman panchayat? This is Mewat. Not possible.”

Another panchayat member, 60-yearold Sakina, notices our discomfiture. “We are allanguthateks (illiterate),” she says, smiling. “We have memorised the panchayat policies and our children read and write whatever is required.”

After the 73rd Constitutional amendment of 1992 mandated that one-third of all panchayat seats across India be reserved for women, Neemkheda was made a reserved constituency. In 2005, Ashubi, the daughter-in-law of the first family of Neemkheda village, was elected as sarpanch. In a feudal setting, Ashubi’s election wasn’t path-breaking. What was was the day of Ashubi’s election. “I was told to choose members” she recalls. “I said I can only work with women.” The men protested, but Ashubi used clout to garner support. One woman from each of the nine village wards was elected, and the all-woman panchayat was formed.

Apart from illiteracy, gender was also generously used against them. “The men ridiculed us saying women are meant only to dance inside the house,” says 56- year-old Salma. “We said why are we then made to work in the fields, fetch water, fetch wood? They said the panchayat is different. We said just wait and see.”

All the panchayat members are above 40 years of age. They say their age helps them get rid of unnecessary baggage. “Becoming a panchayat member is educating,” says Mohammeddi, 54. “Before this I didn’t know that even for simple things like water the panchayat has to implement policy.” The panchayat’s greatest achievement is that it has managed to connect their village to the inter-state Ujina canal that flows from Delhi to Rajasthan. Before this, 79-year-old Asini had seen women fetch water twice a day from a pond 2 km away for 50 years. “On top of it,” she says, “these insane men insisted that we wear a burqa in the evenings.”

Mewat suffers from water scarcity, has negligible irrigation and is entirely dependent on rainfall. Even though the village has been connected, the pipeline is still to be laid. “The bureaucrats treat us with contempt,” says Ashubi. “We don’t understand theirkhadi boli (Hindi). Because we are illiterate, they think that we are good for nothing.” Yet, these women have managed to push the irrigation department to open the sluices. They hope to see tap water in the village soon.

THE PANCHAYAT set new standards in assertiveness when it forced the local block development officer to grant permission to start a girls’ junior high school. “Once, the school opens, a lot of girls who otherwise could not go to school earlier will now be able to study,” says Bakhtiar, 45. Mewat has one of the lowest sex ratios of 893 females per 1,000 males in India, lower than the national average of 927 per 1,000 males. The district also has one of India’s highest incidence of child marriages and teenage mothers; a maternal mortality rate as high as 166 per 1,000 births; 98 percent female malnourishment; and an average family of eight members.

Among others, a primary school has been upgraded to the secondary level. Enrolment has shot up from 97 to 800. A primary health centre, a pucca road and proper regulation of government ration shops are other feathers in the panchayat’s cap. The panchayat has also built 72 toilets. “Not having toilets was good because that was our only time out with the friends,” says Firdaus, 48, with a chuckle. “But not if you had a running stomach.”

The adult literacy programme is also a big hit. Says Sarpanch Ashuba: “We may be able to read what you have written about us when you come next year, so don’t compare us to Rabri Devi.”

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POWER PUNCH

Connected Neemkheda village to the inter-state Ujina canal. Tap water to reach the village soon

Primary school upgraded to secondary school. Enrolment shot up from 97 to 800

Built a pucca road, primary health centre, girls’ junior school and 72 toilets

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‘Men Misruled For 17 Years’

Sarpanch Ashubi Khan, on managing a women’s brigade in a jungle of patriarchy

Why did you ask for an all-woman panchayat in your village?
I had never stepped out of the house all my life. Suddenly, I was expected to preside over a team of 10. Wasn’t this the logical solution?

What was the response to your decision to only include women?
Villagers lampooned me. Some said, “Bahut advance ban rahi hai.” [She is trying to be too ‘advanced’.] But the women were thrilled. The older ones were most supportive. One said to me, “My son is an alcoholic and wastes my entire income. Now you set him right.” For the male panchayat members, alcoholism did not merit punishment. For us, it became the number one crime. Now no alcoholic in Neemkheda gets home-cooked food.

Male panchayts did not punish alcoholics. But now, no drunkard gets home-cooked food

How do you rate the work of your panchayat compared to those that the men ran earlier?
The men ruled the village for 17 years. They never called meetings. Funds were misutilised for organising gigs and fairs. Now, we have regular weekly meetings where we proceed according to a priority list.

How seriously do the men take your work?
The onus lies on us to prove ourselves. We take our work seriously. So when we are in a meeting, we don’t break away to cook food or answer our husbands’ summons. They mock us, but we aren’t bothered.

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