Breaking silence to win a war

Breaking silence to win a war

In this DH file photos, women from rural areas, who came from Chitradurga after a 12-day march, stage a protest on Sheshadri Road in Bengaluru demanding ban on the sale of liquor in the state.

The #MeToo movement in India that happened last year unleashed the collective energies of women coming out to support, protect and bear witness to each others’ stories of violation, of abuse and grief. Lot of it. 

#MeToo was the collective wail of predominantly urban women in fields allied to the communications industry for the most part — media, films, advertising — that pierced through the stratosphere of an insensitive and unequal social structure where women’s bodies are a site for power play.  

On the face of it, it was a movement geared against flagging how widespread workplace harassment and abuse is. But underlying this was a coming together of sisters, speaking up in different but allied voices about the proverbial elephant in the room. While the movement was unfolding online, many questions were asked about whether #MeToo was an entirely urban phenomenon and whether large swathes of women in the country would be left out of this movement to bring about a semblance of equality in social relations between men and women.

The answer to this is, of course, that there are many movements for women’s rights and not all of them can be addressed by a single attempt at righting patterns of behaviour ingrained over many decades, if not centuries. 

Without hashtags

One such movement that happened less quietly but no less radically was a march by rural women in Karnataka in January 2019 to demand a total ban on the sale of liquor in the state. There were no hashtags to their campaign, called simply the ‘Madya Nisheda Andolana’ (movement for a ban on alcohol), but like its online counterpart it too stopped people in their tracks, forcing them to ponder what had gone so wrong that women had to leave their homes and livelihoods to march for days in protest. As support for Karnataka’s women marchers poured in from prominent citizens in Bengaluru, intellectuals, academics and leaders of many religious mutts, underpinning the effort was an act of solidarity and support, a linking together of arms by the women of Karnataka. 

This is what made it possible for hundreds of women (figures from activists involved in the march put it at around 3,000) to march from Chitradurga to Bengaluru, a distance of about 200 km, over 12 days staying in villages and towns along the way and carrying nothing but clothes and some basic utensils. They found courage in each others’ company and a sense of security. For it is not easy for women to muster up courage anywhere. But this display was especially significant because it asserted itself in a setting where social codes are dictated by a crippling patriarchal order complicated by the fact that the men these women want to wean off alcoholism struggle hard to meet conditions of basic economic sufficiency. Yet these women persevered. 

As activist Swarna Bhat of Grameena Kooli Karmikara Sanghatane, an organisation that helped in organising the March, says, the women were clear that this was their main demand, their one-point agenda. “They know that without tackling the problem of alcoholism the money they earn as wage labourers will end up in the hands of their husbands, fathers-in-law or sons-in-law and then in the hands of the bar shop owner,” she said, explaining that prohibition was a cause that the women had identified themselves as most important to them.   

This was not the first time that Karnataka’s rural women had decided to make their demands public. In the run-up to the 2018 Karnataka Assembly polls, women from North Karnataka held a 71-day sit-in at Raichur making the same demand. That experience strengthened the agitation, although Bhat admits that political parties, including the current ruling dispensation, has refused to take their demand on board. The economic implications of banning alcohol are far more important to them than the social cost that the malaise extracts, she says. Even as the group contemplates a boycott of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls to make their point — we have 40 lakh families with us, Bhat says, to bolster what it could mean electorally — the movement cannot be assessed merely from the point of view of what it has achieved.   

Hovering above this act of protest is a question that women in all social settings have faced and answered in these times. The question is almost unarticulated, but nevertheless fully understood, by those who decide to speak up is — who will support us? The answer has been found instinctively in the implicit faith that women put in each other. This faith has brought courage and agency to them. It has managed to not just to amplify what they are saying but to hold each other aloft, back each other up when they take a step that requires them to go against decades of conditioning to suffer in silence.