Our world, Our story: Teesta Setalvad on Women’s Day 2013

Often people ask, what use March 8 or May 1? International Women’s Day or Labour Day? How is it relevant when women are seen and heard everywhere and we’d like to believe that late 19th and early 20th century tales of sweat shops and inhuman work conditions are a thing of the past?

women's dayLet’s do a social audit of how much we spend at marriages, better still how much dowry passes hands. Let us ask even more discomfiting questions of whether dowry is an ill befitting only one community or has this crude and dehumanizing practice, like caste, been grabbed by male beneficiaries, patriarchies who are not just Hindu? Some years back while in Puddukotai with an old friend Sherifa Daud who works hard towards her dream to have an all woman Mosque built, three horrendous cases of dowry-related torture and burnings were taken to the local Jamaat for adjudication. When no results ensued, women, with the Holy Koran in hand established an all-woman Jamaat. Then and now my sisters ask, why can’t we get the Shankracharyas and the Maulvis and the Priests to issue diktats saying clearly that the taking and giving of dowry goes against the breathing living tenets of any decent, civilized modern faith ? We still await the answers.

My work with the brute consequences of communal violence has allowed me into spaces and homes with raw, unabashed affection and respect. I was lucky to be born to a father who was proud that he had two daughters. A father moreover that was, and remains still with me every step of a difficult day. That, and my lived association with my colleague-husband, a feminist, has shown me the abiding difference in societies and cultures that allow women dignity and space. The figures of our state education boards in Maharashtra and Gujarat show our girls at the top, shining, and besting the best even in Marathi, Gujarati and Sanskrit.
Yet we live in a world and society that would want to treat girls differently. Figures of the girl child being killed inside the womb are frightening and is a phenomenon more seen among better – off caste Hindus and Sikhs. Treatment of women and girls by the police and men, in public spaces was illustrated in December 2012 in New Delhi, a few days back in Punjab and against a Dalit woman in Delhi.

And yet amidst this gloom lies the hope and the shining symbols of hope strength and commitment. Ghazala is a 14 year old only child, who lost her father Yunus when the brute swords of communal frenzy, led and inspired by woman MLA and doctor, Maya Kodnani claimed over 127 lives. See her report card and she has never dropped below eighty five per cent, that is if numbers matter. Shakila is in her late twenties, orphaned literally that fateful day of 28.2.2002. She along with Farzana, Jannat, Farida and Ameena bore witness in the Naroda Patiya case. On 29.8.2012 history was made because of these brave hearts when another woman, upheld Indian Constitutional values and convicted 31 persons including Kodnani to 28 years in jail. For 18-20 months as evidence was led before her, atmosphere in the courtroom heated up; vile accusations were made against me and my organization; our lawyer Raju Shaikh was threatened in open court by Bajrangi, the man who enjoyed patronage of the man at the helm in Gujarat. None of this pressure affected the equanimity of the Judge. “What Judges say tells us how justice is read,” AND THE 1900-ODD page judgement in the Naroda Patiya case is a worthy lesson for every student of Indian criminal law.

Over 3,000 children, scarred by 2002 have embraced life, urged on by the valour of their surviving relatives and wider community. Their story remains theirs to tell and ours to understand. To a country with a visibly impatient middle class with no time to reflect on concerns outside their own and immediate, turning away from their fortitude leaves us shorn. Darpan Kaur is another such widow who has waited 28 years with no justice. Trilokpuri remains ignored in the nation’s capital, with none of the political class engaging with restoration and rehabilitation. Trilokpuri was among the worst affected areas in the capital where young men all Sikhs were massacred on November 1 and 2, 1984.

After the brutality of violence comes the exclusion caused by ghettoisation. Over the past three decades our cities have become intransigent architects of a demarcated life with rigid borders; where the brutality of caste excluded 21 per cent of Indian to a shared and dignified existence over thousands of years, today the border seeks to outline another outsider. In 1984, Bhiwandi-Bombay, 1992-1993 Ahmedabad 1991 and Gujarat 2002, all bouts of violence that I had the misfortune to document, the ultimate aim of the instigators of communal violence was clear – create divides between communities, bar them from living together because that and that alone can ensure that the centuries old understanding and bonhomie between communities can be torn, fractured and broken. I came upon a map of Ahmedabad distributed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in 1991 showing the old city as “green” and the across-the bride Ahmedabad as “saffron.” Any real investigation by journalists into the cosmopolitan character of the city will leave many sorely disappointed. During the July 1991 Rath yatra related violence in the city, a particularly gruesome incident involved the brutal attack on a Mr Khan who had dared to move from the city into what he perceived as the more open Navrangpura. His assaulters were buxom Gujarati women.

There is a flip side and story to ghettoisation too. Our friend Firozsaab who was pushed after the brutalities of Bombay 1992-1993 to move into a Muslim Mohalla found his wife and daughters very uncomfortable—dress codes and a lack of privacy that they were unused to dogged them. Schools, jobs, a world with just the sky above beckons us all women, daughters, sisters and mothers. It is our job together to make this world a safe and comfortable space for ourselves; no more should we be told that because it is unsafe we best remain indoors.
“Women hold up more than half the sky” is a favourite slogan of mine from the women’s movement. A movement that asked for dignity and fair share; universal franchise, equal pay and inheritance rights. Every time I talk about this – even to a large audience of young Muslims gathered to protest the state’s treatment of them where not a single woman is present – I say that unless women who share more than half the indignities heaped on you are part of the resistance, we cannot win. Where are my sisters who you have left behind inside homes ? When the dance of hell was unleashed at Naroda Patiya, Gulberg, Sardarpura, Odh, Vadodara, Pandharwada, Randhikpur-Sanjeli, Kidiad eleven years back to the day—women and girls were not simply targeted specifically and shamefully.

In the resistance that emerged, be it Zakia appa, Shakila, Rupa, Bilkis, Shabana, Farzana, Bashirabi —and at least six dozen others – they were and are a crucial part of building it, brick by brick and thereby changing the course of history.

My Salaams to them, this Women’s Day…