Of rebellion by women in a UP village

Over 70 per cent of women say they have to ask permission from a parent, husband or in-law if they want to go out to a clinic or to see a friend

Of rebellion by women in a UP village
Eight months ago, on one of my first visits to the village of Peepli Khera (near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh), I saw a scene that captivated me, the way a character in a novel can sometimes captivate me.

I was writing about a village that had bitterly split over the question of whether women should be allowed to work in factories. Seven women who refused to quit their jobs had been made outcasts. I had been sitting with their neighbours, who were passing on terrible rumours about the women. I was taking notes.

As this was happening, one of the outcast women, Geeta, strode into the circle with her chin up, fiercely. She said, loud enough for the whole village to hear, “We will not apologise.”

I had been in the village long enough to recognise the powerful force of collective punishment; there were times when I was interviewing a woman about the factory dispute and, mid-sentence, she would change her answer and begin to voice the opposite view, just because one of the village elders had walked into earshot.

But Geeta, the leader of the band of outcasts, was not afraid. I could not understand it. I had driven to Peepli Khera from New Delhi after reading an article about the women’s rebellion there. I realised quickly that it would be virtually impossible to do my job. As an outsider, a white person from the United States, I created a frenzy every time I set foot in the village.

When I arrived to do interviews, an older man would be fetched, someone with the authority to speak to me. Someone would drag over a chair, an honour reserved for dignitaries or bureaucrats.

And those I wanted to speak with, the women, would slide down to the ground, which was the only place they could sit when older men were present, or disappear into the dark interior spaces where they did their chores. It was like trying to interview a ball of mercury.

The idea of exploring the subject of women and their place in economy came to me in a roundabout way. When I was preparing to move to India, a savage gang rape had transfixed the country, and the media narratives were about sexual violence.

Rape is an incendiary topic in this country, though the incidence of reported rapes remains a fraction of what it is in the United States. A warning seemed to run through these stories: A woman ventures outside the protected space of her home and family, and something unspeakable befalls her.

I found myself more interested in the reverse of that story: What kept the women inside in the first place? How did women spend their lives?

At this point, I delved into shocking statistics. Despite India’s prolonged economic expansion, the percentage of women in the workforce remains dismally low and it is dropping. Over 70 per cent of women say they have to ask permission from a parent, husband or in-law if they want to go out to a clinic or to see a friend.

Peepli Khera seemed like a good place to learn why this state of affairs had persisted. Life there was being rearranged in tangible ways by economic growth — specifically, a booming meat export industry.

 In the summer, the increase in female employment had erupted into a raw power struggle, with the conservative male caste leaders demanding that the women quit. I thought we — the photographer, Andrea Bruce; the interpreter, Ravi Mishra; and I — would merely plant ourselves there and watch them duke it out.

This was easier said than done. In the end, we made nine reporting trips to the village, arriving before dawn and staying until late at night. We collected firewood with the women, accompanied them as they went looking for work, and tagged along on court dates. We spent so much time there that the villagers began to regard us with sincere pity.

Then they began to ignore us. This is when the work began to bear fruit. We became professional eavesdroppers. Four months in, we were in the village for a series of tense, clamorous late-night meetings, in which the elders grudgingly decreed that the women could return to work.

Humiliated, shrunken

That night, the headman, Roshan, pushed us out with his hands pressed against our backs; later he admitted that he did not want us to witness violence.

We returned to New Delhi and learned that a group of villagers had assaulted Geeta and her friends, also leaving her husband badly injured. We returned to find our subjects utterly changed — unhurt for the most part, but humiliated and shrunken. One teenage girl never forgave us for failing to protect her.

In real life, stories do not have crisp endings, and the battle in Peepli Khera was no different: When we returned this month, it looked as if Geeta and her friends had gotten much of what they had wanted. They had held on to their jobs and avoided begging for forgiveness or paying a fine.

Roshan was very sick, apparently with tuberculosis, and carried out long, expletive-laced conversations with the goddess Kali. “How are you coming? Are you coming on a horse cart? Are you coming on the wind?” he said to the goddess, then paused for her response. After a moment had passed, he remarked, “They can go to hell.”

Geeta, meanwhile, is rebuilding her house - a full story above street level so she can look out over her neighbours’ roofs. I started to explain that the article was being published, but she was busy collecting a debt for the lending collective and had no time to talk.

“I’ll say to her face, bring her in front of me and I’ll say it to her face — two months have passed and she will have to give the money up,” she snapped into her phone. She waved goodbye — every inch the cheerful, ruthless village power broker. That is the last image I had of her.

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