Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mission Women’s Reservation

Fifty five women from 12 states left home for about 20 days so that they could travel through 60 diverse towns and cities and meet thousands of men and women to generate discourse in favour of Women's Reservation Bill
Shaweta Anand Delhi
Twelve Toyota Innovas got transformed into railway coaches of 'Reservation Express' that whistled through three routes by road, covering a distance of over 20,000 km through the northwest, northeast and southern parts of India. The campaign was flagged off by, among others, 84-year-old Qamar Azad Hashmi, who is one of the oldest activists supporting the cause, on May 20 from Jhansi - the land of the all powerful Jhansi ki rani (Queen of Jhansi).

The campaign culminated on June 6 at Delhi's Constitution Club where the karwans (caravans) converged again to communicate their experiences to Congress President Sonia Gandhi the next day. "Each karwan had many Muslim and Dalit women who campaigned tirelessly for promoting 33 per cent reservation for all women, irrespective of their caste, class, religion and ethnicity," Shabnam Hashmi told Hardnews. Hashmi is the Managing Trustee of Act Now for Harmony And Democracy (ANHAD) and is the brain behind this national-level campaign in support of Women's Reservation Bill. The campaign generated support from 200 rights-based organisations, hundreds of intellectuals, activists and students from all over the country.

When asked about the reason for her association with the karwan, Sultana Sheikh, who is also a survivor of Godhra carnage of 2002, said, "In 2002, drunk Hindu fanatics put a sword through my raped body to see if I was dead or alive before leaving me behind at the river bank. My infant child kept howling as I was being tortured. What could he do? What could I do? There was no one to stop them. This happened when we were trying to escape after hundreds of armed men beat, maimed and burnt members of our families in front of our eyes."

"That is why I am a part of this campaign today so that I can talk to women about all their rights, especially their political rights. By getting the Bill passed, we will be able to activate women power in this country and protect our rights in a violent, male-dominated world," she added.

Sheikh was part of the karwan that covered southern states on route number two. They traveled to Jabalpur, Raipur, Bolangir, Bhubaneshwar, Vishakhapatnam, Vijaywada, Chennai, Kanchipuram, Madurai, Cochin, Calicut, Bangalore, Anantapur and Hyderabad before converging with other karwan members in Delhi two weeks later. It was led by Sania Hashmi, an emerging documentary film-maker and Manisha Trivedi, who is a community leader associated with ANHAD.

Also on the same route was Mohini Jatav, a Dalit activist from Jaipur, Rajasthan. Her husband's legs were mutilated by Gujjar Panchayat members as Jatav refused to comply with their corrupt demands being a Panch herself. Her husband also refused to work for the Gujjars, angering them further. "I am here so that I can travel far and wide while connecting with more women like me so that we can heal together and also fight for our right for representation in politics," said Jatav.

"The government will have to open its eyes and pass the Women's Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha this time. Through this karwan, I appeal to every women of every village of this country to join us in demanding for passage of this law. Why is it that I still haven't got justice even though I have been running around in courts for 15 years? If more women were in power, they would have ensured women like me got timely justice," roared Bhanwari Devi.

Bhanwari was a sathin (woman companion) working for Women's Development Programme of the government of Rajasthan in Bhateri in 1992 when she was gang-raped as punishment for trying to stop the marriage of a nine-month old girl, who belonged to an influential upper-caste family. Shockingly, the Court ruled in 1995 that upper-caste men could not have raped her - a dalit woman.

A Jaipur-based NGO called Vishaka had taken up her case that led to the historic Vishakha judgement by the Supreme Court. The Court, for the first time, set guidelines of behaviour with women in public spaces, acknowledging that women do get sexually harassed when out of home. Vishakha judgement still remains a crucial litigation for all working women in India.

Haseena Bano, Rubina Bano and Jawahira Rashid, all of 15 years, were the youngest campaigners aboard Reservation Express. They traveled all the way from a remote place called Tangdar in Kashmir to be part of the group traveling to northeast India on route three. "We never thought we could get out of home and travel so far and speak with so many people about the bill. It has given us so much confidence," they echoed in chorus.

"Every karwan has few women from Kashmir. This was a chance of a lifetime for them as they got out and mingled with people from the rest of the country for a cause they can relate with. It worked wonders for their self-esteem and it shows in the way these young girls are carrying themselves now, some even without the traditional veil," said Seema Duhan, leader their karwan. She spoke with this reporter when their karwan stopped at Aligarh. Prof Irfan Habib, renowned historian from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Prof Shireen Moosvi, director, Women's Studies Centre, AMU and Dr Namita Singh from Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) endorsed the demand for immediate passage of the Bill in Aligarh.

Although we got good response from most people, but this Muslim man mocked me while I was campaigning in Aligarh saying that I couldn't be a genuine Muslim woman as I had stepped out of the four walls of home and was speaking with ordinary women folk about their political rights," said Rashida Ansari from Gujarat, another Godhra carnage victim and an Aman Samudaya activist. "I asked him to tell me which aayat (verse) of Quran says that women cannot get out of home, do politics and run the country. He just stared back at me, speechless," she told Hardnews.

"I want to see the killers of my sister punished," said Musarrat Jahan, sister of a fake-encounter victim, Ishrat Jahan. "I am traveling with this karwan to tell more and more women about how they can change the face of this country. Had there been more women in power today, my sister's death would have been avenged and many more such deaths, prevented." Ishrat Jahan was kidnapped from Mumbai in 2004 and killed in a fake encounter by police in Gujarat for plotting to kill Narendra Modi. This was the conclusion given in a report given by district magistrate SP Tamang in 2009. The Supreme Court has ordered the High Court to restart investigations and submit a report within six months.

"When we got the news of Ishrat's death through the media, we didn't even understand what an encounter killing meant or who Narendra Modi was," said Shamima Kauser, Musarrat's mother, who was also a part of Campaign Reservation Express. "If there were more women in positions of power, there would be less harassment of women in society," she told Hardnews.

If you thought this was an all-women's affair, think again. There were men on each karwan too, albeit only a few of them. Mohan Kumawat is a documentary filmmaker who traveled with women activists on route three. "I was made fun of many times. Once, a group of men accosted me for speaking about 'women's causes' and traveling with so many of them. I was told, agar auratain rajneeti karengi toh hum kya chudiyan pehenegain? (If women enter politics then what work will we do?). Someone even said that women will invite more violence against themselves if they entered the public domain. By coming out they will compromise on ghar ki izzat (dignity), so they are better suited inside homes."

"I argued back saying that if you feel that women are ghar ki izzat, then will you oppress and torture them inside homes? It is a human right to come out in public spaces and it should be seen as such, not as an absolute right that only men have. Women need to come out, fight for their rights and empower themselves," he said. The film-maker is from Rajasthan and has eight sisters. Most of them have suffered because they were exposed to marriage at a young age. He has made acclaimed films like 'Umeed ki lau' (Flame of Hope), 'Awaaz ajanmi betiyon ki' (Voice of the unborn daughters) and 'Crying Shame'.

Activists on route three travelled to Rewa, Daltonganj, Ranchi, Kolkata, Baharampur, Balurghat, Shillong, Guwahati, Siliguri, Katikar, Patna, Varanasi, Allahabad, Lucknow, Aligarh and back to Delhi. This karwan was led by Duhan from ANHAD.

Anandi and Eashwari from Tamil Nadu traveled as part of the karwan plying on route number one that covered northwestern part of the country. Social workers by profession, they both felt that OBCs don't need a quota within 33 per cent women's quota because OBCs already have proportional political representation. "As far as Dalit women are concerned, they will get 33 per cent reservation out of the existing 22.5 per cent SC/ST quota. For Muslims, both men and women need quota since both are grossly under-represented in legislatures but that is a separate fight which cannot be fought within the ambit of Women's Reservation Bill," explained Anandi.

Route number one destinations include Bhopal, Indore, Aurangabad, Mumbai, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Chittorgarh, Bhilwara, Ajmer, Jaipur, Hissar, Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Dharamshala, Mandi, Bilaspur, Shimla, Solan, Dehradun, Meerut and finally, Delhi. It was led by Mansi Sharma from ANHAD, who has worked extensively on issues of women's empowerment and livelihood in Kashmir.

"Out of the 543 seats in the Parliament, why do we still have only 59 women representatives?" questioned Philomena John, senior member of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), who also traveled with this karwan. Annie Raja, general secretary of NFIW and Shabnam Hashmi stayed connected with the three karwans by meeting them at different destinations.

"The anti-Women's Reservation Bill argument made by people like Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh and other Muslim conservative groups is to divide women and stall the passage of the bill in some way. These people have done nothing in the past for protecting interests of women in their own constituencies and when the question of political representation of women is raised, they have problems with it?" argued Hashmi.

When the three karwans met again on June 6 at Constitution Club, Delhi, their exhilaration was perceptible, almost tangible. They were greeted with flowers, drums and trumpets and gifted 'Campaign Reservation Express' trophies and umbrellas. The euphoria got enhanced as artists from all over the country communicated the importance of women empowerment in the country through some great performances. Members of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Gujarat, performed a poem-based act called The Mask choreographed by Mallika Sarabhai.

A dance-drama called Giselle ki kahani '(The story of Giselle) was met with loud applause as Rea Krishnatraye enthralled the audience with her smooth movements depicting the dilemmas in a woman's life. There were performances by SWRC group from Tilonia, Rajasthan, BGVS from Haryana, Rozi Roti Adhikar Sangathan etc. Groups from Kashmir, Rajasthan, Haryana etc sang movement songs with impromptu dance performances from the audience in front of the stage.

Though the campaign drew overwhelming support from all over the country, amongst those who endorsed the campaign and made it to the event that day include Dr Syeda Hameed, member of the Planning Commission, Dr Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission of Women and president of the Guild of Service, Dr Beulah Shekhar, general secretary, YWCA, Sehba Farooqi from AIDWA, Vrinda Grover, who is a well known feminist legal expert, Prof Vimal Thorat from All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch and Kavita Shrivastava, leader of the Right to Food campaign, Rajasthan. Anne Stenhammer, regional director, UNIFEM and Nisha Agarwal of Oxfam also expressed solidarity.

However, the final halt of the karwans of Reservation Express was at Congress President Sonia Gandhi's residence on June 7. They demanded immediate passage of 33 per cent Women's Reservation Bill in its current form in the upcoming monsoon session in Lok Sabha. Activists handed over more than 10,000 signed postcards to her demanding the same.
At Sonia Gandhi's residence
(For more photos, click album 1, 2, 3.)

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