Being Dalit-American: Article

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Thenmozhi Soundararajan writes about growing up Dalit in the caste-conscious Indian-American community:

The Black Indians,” August 20, 2012.

“We were also Dalits living underground. Caste exists wherever Indians exist and it manifests itself in a myriad of ways. The Indian diaspora thrives on caste because it is the atom that animates the molecule of their existence. In the face of xenophobia and racism abroad, many become more fundamentalist in their traditions and caste is part of that reactionary package. So, what does caste look like in the US?”

Does gender add to insecurities?

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Appeared in the Comment section of TOI-Crest earlier this week

Hell hath no fury
Moniben Gupta
May 19, 2012

Mamata Banerjee and J Jayalalithaa – two tempestuous and enigmatic women chief ministers currently dominating Indian politics – share two significant markers: gender and power. Feeding into and strengthening each other, both these elements have contributed to constructing their cult personalities in bewildering and striking ways. A year ago, the two leaders swept to power in their respective states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, defeating powerful political adversaries. Mamata even achieved what had at the time appeared to be an unattainable feat: she defeated the potent 34-year-old Left Front government with a sweeping majority.

While the Trinamool Congress leader finally made the transition from being a volatile, feisty street-fighter to Kolkata’s Writer’s Building, the scenario for her Tamil Nadu counterpart was somewhat different. The AIADMK supremo was anointed chief minister for the third time in her long and fractious political career. But unlike Mamata, Jayalalithaa was no stranger to state power and the advantages of leveraging its controls.

With both the leaders now marking the first anniversaries of their recent ascendancy to power, it is a good time to take another look at their personality cults. At the heart of the debate around Mamata and Jayalalithaa are several important and unresolved questions hinging on gender, and the complex power relations inhabiting the domain of politics. Are women politicians expected to be less competitive and aggressive, and more nurturing and compassionate than men? Or is it just a question of power corrupting those who wield it? To properly understand leaders like the women in question here, we need to locate them in a framework moving beyond gender, and then decode the inherent logic of power and how women negotiate it: especially when they alone are in supreme control of their parties and governments.

The narratives of Mamata’s and Jayalalithaa’s political lives are far from similar. Despite the varying trajectories however, both have shared comparable experiences, stemming from the overwhelmingly male political worlds they have inhabited. Both have encountered a fair bit of humiliation – political, as well as personal and physical. But that’s also where their differences begin. Tamil Nadu’s actress-turned politician shared an intense relationship with another icon, M G Ramachandran. Besides being the better half of a popular onscreen pairing, Jayalalithaa was later MGR’s political protêgê. The unconventional alliance brought her heaps of abuse and slander from political detractors, patently shaping in that process her dictatorial style of transacting politics as a way of reinforcing her position of authority – when she finally got it.

Mamata, however, has maintained a scrupulously chaste image: a woman politician who, seemingly, hasn’t ever been involved in a romantic relationship;and even more significantly, hasn’t had a male patron hovering in the background to promote her political career. But this hasn’t spared her the cut of male chauvinism. For most of her political life, Mamata has had to put up with intemperate, sexist comments and ridicule from her opponents.

Instances of patriarchal politics impinging on both women are fairly numerous. Like the shocking outrage witnessed on the floor of the Tamil Nadu assembly on March 25, 1989: when M Karunanidhi, then chief minister, rose to present the budget, and opposition leader Jayalalithaa, raised a privilege issue. What subsequently unraveled on the assembly floor was testimony to the state’s crude and sexist political culture. It is recounted by many that DMK MLAs attacked Jayalalithaa with paperweights. One pulled her sari, another her hair. But such behaviour is not unique to Tamil Nadu. One could argue that all strong, independent political women have to face the brunt of it in one form or another in India. Before coming to power, Mamata too, encountered CPM sponsored violent physical assaults. Most prominent among them was the vicious attack at Kolkata’s Hazra junction in July 1990, which left the Trinamool leader hanging on to her life by a thread.

Getting the better of a political system run mostly by men groomed in the school of patriarchy is perhaps the strongest testimony to the fortitude of both these women. In the process of coming to power in such a polity, however, both women appear to have internalised some of the worst attributes of a masculine political culture. These women have clearly found it difficult to inhabit a male political world. Their constant struggle has even, evidently, contributed to their penchant for political vendetta and megalomania. Mamata and Jayalalithaa have fiercely attacked their opponents and cultivated strong personality cults conveying that they are the final word on matters political. Mamata’s outrage over a cartoon and her imprisonment of opponents, and Jayalalithaa’s infamous midnight raid on DMK leaders are examples of their intolerance.

Yet, gender is not the only prism through which we can explain such tendencies. Women are not intrinsically more compassionate because they are women. Power, especially when unchallenged, evokes similar responses from women and men alike. It nurtures megalomania, greed, authoritarianism, and corruption. Mamata and Jayalalithaa are two exemplary products of such a complex system. Gender adds to their insecurities; it is not a cause of it.

http://www.timescrest.com/opinion/hell-hath-no-fury-7942

A slice of history: Interview with Ammu Joseph on women and media

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Ammu Joseph was recently interviewed for the University of Hyderabad FM radio station. She spoke on women and journalism and the space for serious writing on gender issues. Listen for a wonderful eyewitness account of the history of the women’s movement and changes in Indian media.

http://uohpodcasts.in/womens-magazines-have-become-vehicles-of-commercialisation/

March 24, 2012, Hyderabad, Usha Raman interviews Ammu Joseph.

PS: Ammu Joseph has been a Friend of Prajnya from the beginning and has recently joined our Advisory Panel.

Seven myths to dump on this International Women’s Day

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(These notes were prepared for the Deccan Chronicle, which is supposed to be using a subset for a Women’s Day feature. The link will be added when located.)

1. Women are the weaker sex.
The very framework of this statement is wrong. Neither women nor men can be characterized as weaker or stronger. This is true even in terms of physical strength, where women have greater physical endurance. In general, all we can say is that individual women and men have their particular strengths and weaknesses and both can be worked on.

2. Women invite violence by their behaviour.

Women’s clothes, their work and even their cooking is offered as justification for their experience violence–at home, at work   and in public spaces. But it’s a myth that women invite violence through their choices because the experience of violence is pervasive and transcends age, lifestyle and every other variable.

3. Gender roles reflect nature.
All women are not innately nurturing and interested in housework. And men are not necessarily assertive, logical and interested in mechanics and sports. We create these cartoonish stereotypes and then brainwash girls and boys into becoming like them, sometimes creating trauma for them.

4. Feminism is against men and women’s rights are somehow opposed to human rights. 

Feminists are not against men. They are simply against social ideologies and structures that discriminate against women. Feminism recognizes women as human beings and women’s rights as also being human rights.Therefore, the question of being opposed to human rights does not arise. Feminism actually benefits men who are also trapped and limited by the social pressures that gender roles and responsibilities place on them. Feminists seek to build a world free of violence where everyone can fulfill their potential as humans.

5. Traditional culture protects women. 
In patriarchal societies, both tradition and modernity treat women as objects, and women experience discrimination and violence in both traditional and modern settings. Tradition condemns women to early marriage, “adjustment to domestic violence,” mutilation and honour killings, for instance. Modernity offers the options of female foeticide, cyber violence, the effects of the spread of dowry and workplace violence. The interface between tradition and modernity also creates openings for harassment of working women on their commute.The root problem is patriarchy which sanctions masculine violence.

6. Women are women’s worst enemies.
Women and men both act out the roles that society teaches them they have to play. Individual men and women are the agents but the root cause of the many oppressions that women face is an ideology that treats them as less than human. Society is women’s worst enemy, if indeed blame must be apportioned.

7. If women are educated and self-supporting, none of these problems will exist.
Educated women live with domestic violence. Affluent women are subject to forced marriage and forced to abort female foetuses. Dowry knows no educational limits. The reality is that education and economic status are no counter to the entrenched injustices of patriarchal society.

Women’s History Roundtable: Feb 11, 2012, Dr. Chithra Madhavan

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Prajnya Women’s History Roundtable Series

Women in Ancient and Medieval South India

Dr Chitra Madhavan
11th February, 2012

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

The Roundtable by Dr Madhavan on the status of women in Ancient and Medieval South India was based on archeological and literary sources, mainly inscriptions. She began with the Sangam Age (3rd Century BC- 3rd century AD), pointing out that almost all the sources of information about this era were literary. Sangam literature dealt with a variety of subjects; including war, love, governance and trade. Amongst the plethora of Sangam literature, there are a number of references to women, from which one can infer their status in Sangam society. Dr Madhavan provided us with a couple of examples: Tiruvalluvar is quoted as having said that it is natural and proper when a man guides a woman, and “shameful” when a woman guides a man. Another (unnamed) source notes that “the wisdom of women is nothing but folly”. On the other hand, there are sources in which mothers express pride in having raised a brave son on the eve of sending him off to war. Thus, the evidence is mixed. However, even sources which speak of strong women (such as the mother referred to above) do not seem to move behind the woman’s role as a wife and mother.

A distinctive feature of the Sangam age was Sati. Sati stones, erected in honour of those women committed sati, can be found in large numbers all over the countryside. Unlike the “hero stone” (in commemoration of those who die in battle), which has the full figure of a man on it; only the arm of a woman is engraved on a sati stone.

A serendipitous discovery made post-tsunami was the remains of a Sangam age temple near Mahabalipuram. Dated circa the 2nd century A.D., a significant find at this site was a stone tablet which featured five dancers performing “Kuruvaikoothu”. With their arms around each other, and their mouths open to symbolize singing, the panel sheds light on how this dance was performed, the kind of clothes and ornaments the dancers wore, and the foot movements involved in the dance. This is the only archeological find that depicts Kuruvaikoothu; our only other source of information about this dance form comes from the literature.

While many queens are mentioned in the literature of the Sangam age, all indications lead us to conclude that the queens had very little actual power.

Dr Madhavan moved on to discuss the Pallavas. The Pallavas had many eminent queens, but very few sources tell us what they looked like. A little known temple in Mahabalipuram – the Adi Varaha Cave temple – contains a very rare sculpture; a portrait of King Mahendravarman Pallava and his two wives. A similar portrait sculpture of his father and his two wives can be found on another wall. This is probably the only place in which such a portrait exists. While the Kings’ names are inscribed on the temple wall, the queens remain unnamed.

A major archeological source about Ancient and Medieval south India is the abundance of inscriptions found in temples. This is especially relevant while discussing the status of women during this era, since many such inscriptions credit queens with having been instrumental in the construction of the temples.
An early example of this is the Kancheepuram Kailasa temple. It was built by Pallava King Rajasimhan in the 8th century A.D. Inscriptions in the temple prove that Queen Rangapataka (so named because of her extraordinary flair for dancing) was active in ordering the construction of the temple and it’s architecture. The Kailasanath temple was a Royal temple.

A similar inscription is found in the Muktiswara temple. It is said to have been build by Queen Dharmamadevi, wife of Pallava King Nandiwarman II. The temple was originally called Dharmamahadevi Isvaram temple, after the Queen who sponsored it. This temple contains an inscription (the first of its kind in South India), detailing the names of fourteen ladies dedicated to the temple as dancers. These Devadasis dedicated themselves to the service of God, including singing and dancing during the temple festivals.

Dr Madhavan then moved on to the Chalukyas, who ruled from Badami from the middle of the 6th century. In the Pallava-Chalukya war (during the 670s A.D.), Chalukya King Vikramaditya occupied Kanchipuram for a brief period. On seeing the Kaliasanatha temple, he was awed by its splendor. At the insistence of his queens, Lokadevi and Trilokadevi (inscriptions make it clear that he brought them along on the expedition), he left the temple undisturbed but took the architect back to Badami. His queens then commissioned the architect to build two temples, which were similar to the Kanchi Kailasa temple.

Vikramaditya VI, who belonged to a later branch of Chalukyas, came to power in the 11th century A.D. A 11th century inscription reveals that his queens issued royal records and were involved in administration of the kingdom.

The longest-ruling dynasty in South India was the Chola dynasty. At its peak, the Chola empire comprised almost the whole of South India and the Cholas had conquered parts of Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Many Chola inscriptions feature their queens. Queen Vanamahadevi, mother of Rajaraja Chola, is described in one such inscription as having committed Sati.

The Brihadiswara Temple of Thanjavur, one of the “Great Living Chola Temples”, has approximately 60 inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola I engraved on it. Built by Rajaraja Chola, it throws a unique light on his relationship with his sister, Kundavai. Around the main sanctum of the temple, only two names are inscribed- Rajaraja himself, and Kundavai. This seems to indicate that she had a great deal of influence over him.

One of the ways in which women of the royal family used their wealth was to donate it to temples or commission temples to be built. Such donations to the Brihadiswara temple were not limited to gold alone. 420 dancers were “imported” from various temples all over the Kingdom. This is reflected in a unique inscription found on one of the temple walls. It provides, in great detail, the names of all 420 dancers. It includes the terms of their employment, their pay, where they came from, where they lived, and each devadasi’s house numbers – all in a wealth of detail. The inscription further states that in case a Devadasi is unable to perform her duties anymore (in case of death or retirement), her closest relative who could take her place was employed.

Dr Madhavan also provided a fascinating insight on how the Devadasis were named: feminized versions of the ruler’s name; or the queen’s name; or their hometown. Devadasis were a highly respected class of women. They enjoyed the confidence of the King, and were treated with reverence. In fact, Rajendra Chola took an exceptional dancer around the city in his Royal chariot, much like he would parade around his capital with a victorious general.

A significant point that came up was the treatment of women in a conquered kingdom. Sources indicate that when Rajendra Chola defeated the Chalukyas in war, his armies didn’t spare the Chalukya women. They were treated harshly; as Dr Madhavan pointed out, they were “distressed”.

The Hoysala empire was contemporary to the Cholas. The Hoysalas rule from the 10th century to the 14th century. Their capital was Belur (later Halebid). King Vishnuvardhana (12th century) was the first Hoysala emperor who took steps to consolidate the Kingdom. His Queen, Shantala Devi was a noted dancer. Inscriptions indicate that she sponsored the construction of the famous Chennakesava temple at Belur.

An interesting point to note here is that both Vishnuvardhana and Shantala Devi were Jains. When Viashnavite saint Ramanuja was hounded out of Tamil Nadu, he sought refuge in the Hoysala kingdom. It is said that Vishnivarshana’s daughter was possessed by an evil spirit, and Ramanuja was instrumental in exorcising it. Whether this fable is true or not, it is clear that Vishnuvarshana converted to Vaishnavism and built numerous Vishnu temples. However, Shantala Devi remained a Jain, setting a precedent for religious tolerance. Shantala Devi is hailed even today as a noted queen; and Shantala remains a popular name in Karnataka.

No discussion about South Indian history is complete without mentioning the Vijaynagar Empire (established 1336). Dr Madhavan showed us a photo of a fascinating device: copperplate inscriptions, bound together in a loose file. These inscriptions have yielded a wealth of information. It tells us that Gangadevi, queen of Kumara Kampana, accompanied her husband in his campaign against the Muslim ruler in Madurai. She later went on to write an eight chapter poem about his victory; titled “Madhura Vijayam”.

A common feature in the Vijayanagar empire was the donation of money to scholars. Many such lists have been found. In one of these lists, the names of women have been mentioned as recipients of this money. It is unclear whether these women were actually scholars themselves, or receiving money on behalf of their husbands or sons.

A unique document dated 1358 was revealed to be the will of a woman: the only will of a woman found in the archeological data. A noted scholar was gifted a village by the King. When he died, the ownership of the village passed on to his mother. To avoid the infighting among the clan as to who would get the village after she died, the mother wrote a detailed will, leaving the village to the temple at Srirangam. This fascinating document is the only will of a woman in India (in medieval times).

Dr Madhavan’s talk opened our eyes to the wealth of information in temple inscriptions; and how fascinating stories which tell us of exceptional women are interwoven within other inscriptions. One such story was that of a devadasi (Velliamma), who was befriended by a Muslim conqueror of Srirangam temple. Velliama got the tyrant drunk, and pushed him off a roof (of course she jumped off herself as well, in remorse). She was hailed as a deliverer by the people.

While is was clear that by and large, women did not have a very high status in ancient and medieval south India, archeological sources open our eyes to the few exceptional women who were active in administration, construction of temples, or pushing tyrannical rulers off the roof!

Putting a period to hygiene problems

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When Arunachalam Muruganantham hit a wall in his research on creating a sanitary napkin for poor women, he decided to do what most men typically wouldn’t dream of. He wore one himself — for a whole week. Fashioning his own menstruating uterus by filling a bladder with goat’s blood, Muruganantham went about his life while wearing women’s underwear, occasionally squeezing the contraption to test out his latest iteration. It resulted in endless derision and almost destroyed his family. But no one is laughing at him anymore, as the sanitary napkin-making machine he went on to create is transforming the lives of rural women across India. Right now, 88% of women in India resort to using dirty rags, newspapers, dried leaves, and even ashes during their period. Read the full story at http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679008/an-indian-inventor-disrupts-the-period-industry

(And thanks to www.dailygood.org for this)

National Girl Child Day: “Tomorrow is here” by Natasha Badhwar

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Natasha Badhwar, Tomorrow is here, Mint Lounge, October 28, 2011.

“She was just like me except for the diamond earrings and solitaire ring she was wearing. We recognized each other instantly. South Delhi girls, modern Indian women, now professionals.

This was my third pregnancy and she was my ultrasonologist, the doctor who did my ultrasounds. …

Here’s what I learnt accidentally. I found out that a disdain for daughters and boy-worship isn’t just the domain of the poor, the ignorant and the illiterate. As a big-city snob, I hadn’t expected any better from maids and villagers, and random grandmothers. My illusions were smashed in one thunderous moment when we became witness to the callous and casual misogyny of my doctors, my city friends and general all around posh “people like us”. It was devastating at that time. Here we were, flushed with joy, holding a miracle of a baby. And yet I felt that I was stranded in a wasteland, surrounded by debris. Even joy needs validation, I found out.”

Read the whole article here.

National Girl Child Day: Naqvi-Shivakumar article on sex selection and the girl child

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Farah Naqvi and A.K. Shivakumar, India and the sex selection conundrum, The Hindu, January 24, 2012.

What was our immediate response to further decline in the child sex ratio in India? Within days of the provisional 2011 Census results (March-April 2011), the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reconstituted the Central Supervisory Board for the Pre-conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex selection) Act 1994 , which had not met for 3 years, and on November 30, 2011 the Ministry of Women and Child Development formed a Sectoral Innovation Council for Child Sex Ratio. But we are busy dousing flames in haste without looking to dampen the source. This fire-fighting approach is unlikely to succeed, because putting out fires in one district virtually ensures its spread to another. That is what has happened.

The decline in child sex ratio (0-6 years) from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001 and further to 914 females per 1,000 males in 2011 — the lowest since independence — is cause for alarm, but also occasion for serious policy re-think. Over the last two decades, the rate of decline appears to have slowed but what began as an urban phenomenon has spread to rural areas. This is despite legal provisions, incentive-based schemes, and media messages. Indians across the country, bridging class and caste divides, are deliberately ensuring that girls are simply not born. This artificial alteration of our demographic landscape has implications for not only gender justice and equality but also social violence, human development and democracy.

Read the whole article here.

Women in science: Glass ceilings, etc.

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The Indian Science Congress is underway as we write this. The theme this year is “Science and Technology for Inclusive Innovation: Role of Women.”

Here is an article by Dr. Sujatha Ramdorai on the glass ceiling in science:

Sujatha Ramdorai, Windows in the ceiling, Indian Express, January 6, 2012.

The economist and former president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers is (in)famous for the controversy he generated by suggesting that “innate differences” make women less capable than men of succeeding in maths and science. The aftermath of his statement, the rejoinders, responses and eventual recant, make for interesting reading. It is worthwhile to rephrase the question of whether women are “ready” for a career in science and research, to whether society is ready for women to pursue such careers, especially in an Indian context. “Enabling” and “empowering”, in India, are often confused with patronising and sympathising with — and this remains true for the narrative of women in science as well.

In the West, affirmative action has been entrenched for close to three decades now. Gender equity and diversity at the workplace are embedded in systems and hiring processes in a mostly unobtrusive and constructive way. The discourse is not on whether there is a “compromise on quality” in such practices, but on how best to administer such processes and ensure that actions translate into better enabling work environments at all levels, not just in the laboratory or departments or classrooms but in administration as well.

In my experience with teaching, especially at undergraduate levels, both in India and abroad, I have witnessed first-hand the tremendous sense of possibilities that women students experience in direct interactions with women professors and scientists. The power of role models and aspirations this can generate cannot be emphasised enough. A friend working for an NGO involved in taking science labs to rural and underprivileged children observed that many students, who earlier aspired to become truck drivers or postmen because of their limited exposure to possibilities and role models, spoke about becoming teachers or scientists or astronauts, after a very short period of involvement.

While it was heartening to hear Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dwell on the topic of women in science in his recent speech at the Indian Science Congress, it is to be recognised that a whole gamut of policy decisions and societal changes need to go hand in hand if we are to truly see a transformational change, with more women in science, academia and research in India.

In most science courses, both here and especially in the West, there are increasing numbers of women students. However, this does not translate into seeing more women at the scientific workplace, especially at higher levels. When I first went to Germany as a postdoctoral fellow, I was amazed to see the support structures in place at the university, towards creating a balanced work-life environment. Starting a family did not necessarily mean having to make a choice between careers! A simple but important support structure like professionally run childcare centres at the workplace can have an enormous impact. Additional enablers would be rationalised and flexible parental leave, counselling facilities, ensuring a safe working environment for women. Equally important is thinking of creative pathways that ensure that there are no barriers for lateral entry into academia at different stages in a woman’s life.

With funding drying up in the West, we are going to see larger numbers of people heading back to India and other countries where public funding in science is on the increase. Many couples in academia would like to work in the same city or institution. Time-sharing of positions for such cases is a possibility. Several universities in the West, which do not have the funds to create additional positions for such “two-body” problems, have come up with innovative solutions like allowing the couple to share a single university post if they can negotiate it convincingly with the respective departments.

While these steps are enablers via structures and actions, there is another crucial enabler that is more important and difficult to put in place. This has to do with mindsets within the academic community, policymakers and, of course, the larger society. It has to be dealt with at multiple levels. In a country where even a girl child’s safe birth into the world is not guaranteed, it is a gargantuan but achievable task to create awareness on the capabilities of women in areas like science and technology that have aspirational value. Many women students from smaller cities face opposition from their families in pursuing a scientific or academic career away from their hometowns. Institutions should have counselling sessions for parents in such cases.

At the level of policy-making, it is important to staff committees with gender and regional diversity so that different experiences and voices are heard. Within the academic community, it is important to embark on a honest and frank evaluation of the failures of the system. A telling example is the moving essay, “She was a star”, in the book Lilavati’s Daughters, where

S. Ranganathan speaks emotionally about his deceased wife, Darshan Ranganathan. He eloquently dwells on what a superb and prolific organic chemist she was, admitting she was far superior to him, but how difficult it was for her to find jobs despite her superiority, even as he clearly had no problem!

Within the community, women scientists, teachers and academicians can play an important role as mentors towards younger women. The importance of networking has to be recognised. In the West, there are organisations of women in various branches of science, who hold scientific seminars, workshops mainly aimed at women undergraduates. Special fellowships, especially travel grants, are exclusively devoted to women. These have gone a long way in addressing inequalities within the system. In India too, it will not be long before women become equal partners at all levels in the scientific quest, if there is thought and action put into implementing meaningful steps towards this goal.

The writer was professor of mathematics at TIFR till December, and is now professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, express@expressindia.com

Bearing Witness: A new report on women in conflict zones

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The Centre for North East Studies & Policy Research, based in New Delhi and Guwahati, and the Heinrich Boll Foundation, have just released a report on the impact of conflict on women in Nagaland and Assam, two states on India’s northeastern frontier. The study is based on intensive field work and documentation in these areas. http://www.c-nes.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/The-final-report-of-HBF.pdf

The researchers set out to speak primarily to victims of trauma and PTSD. But in Nagaland, they identified seven kinds of trauma, and found it hard to restrict their conversations to respondents that primarily fit their research design. Their listing of seven kinds of trauma brought home just how profound the impact of conflict can be and how long this impact can last (pages 10-11). Apart from the trauma experienced by individual women when they themselves were assaulted, they also experienced the trauma that others in their family, clan or village suffered or that they witnessed. Moreover, hearing of assault and traumatic experiences, either across generations through family stories or as researchers, also had an impact. Those interviewed experienced the hopelessness of their cause, however righteous, as trauma. Displacement, the loss of place and history, was another source of trauma. Being forced to interact with and adapt to the ways of others—even the ‘other’—contributed to traumatisation.

In Nagaland, the research team found that given the nature of Naga society, trauma was experienced by the village collectively, and people were hesitant to identify themselves individually, as if to suggest their own experience was somehow worse. Naga women drew sustenance from the support system provided by their traditional structures and institutions like the church. Whether or not women knew about the different laws that governed their region, they spoke to the brutality of the Indian security forces.

“All women respondents had stated that conflicts had affected all aspects of daily normal life whether they were socio-economic, health, education, etc. People cutting across class, clans, villages, gender, age, etc., had suffered tremendously over the years due to different conflicts… There were also many discords and tensions in society. There were divorces and broken homes. Conflicts had generated an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion as well as fear.” (page 27)

What the researchers stress is the need for counseling and legal services and for education about the same, so people could seek help. This is borne out by what they learnt in Assam too, except that the research team adds the need to generate and make available livelihood and educational opportunities, the absence of which was identified here as leading to trauma. Timely relief and rehabilitation was also stressed. Where Naga society already has such platforms, it is recommended in Assam that, “Women committees must be formed in conflict affected villages which check any sort of physical or structural violence against women and human trafficking issues.” (page 44)

The importance of this study is two-fold. First, it is based on really sound field research—thoughtful conversations sensitively reported. The report is full of stories that the research team heard and they are the heart of this report, bringing to life the experience of multiple generations living with a conflict that is sometimes with the state and sometimes (or at once) internecine. The research team has used photographs, film and research notes to capture and communicate the experience of women in Nagaland and Assam. This is an unusually comprehensive effort. Second, Nagaland and Assam are important Indian states, but even so, underreported and understudied in the Indian context. A project that begins to look at the marginalized in a marginalized region thus acquires tremendous importance for researchers and policy-makers, but also for other citizens of the same state. And so does the multimedia documentation and communication effort. The research team explicitly points to the limited scope of this project and states that more studies of this sort are needed; they are absolutely right. In the meanwhile, it is important to make this study widely known. Again, it may be accessed at the C-NES website: http://www.c-nes.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/The-final-report-of-HBF.pdf

 

Cross-posted at http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111bearing_witness/ and http://justswarna.blogspot.com/2011/10/bearing-witness-new-report-on-women-in.html