New Delhi: International Women’s Day, commemorated on 8 March every year, has a very specific origin story — of being a day to commemorate the struggles of women’s labour unions in America in the 18th century. Today, however, the day has been coopted by every entity, from the corporate world, which uses it to honour the few women it allows to lead at the top, to salons and restaurants that insist it is a special day for indulgence and pampering, and, of course, buying their products and services.
But 8 March has historically not been a day of mere celebration, but of agitation, protest, voicing one’s concerns and demanding a seat at the table.
In the past year, waves of different kinds of resistance the world over gained global attention through powerful photographs, videos, slogans, hashtags — moments that captured public imagination and offered strength and solidarity to women, and men.
From videos of Alaa Salah, the student protester who wore a white traditional tobe and gold moon earrings and towered above a crowd during the Sudan uprising in April last year, to the powerful photograph of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, pointing a direct finger at President Donald Trump in a room full of men during his controversial impeachment trial.
From spectacular visuals of the indigenous women of the Amazon taking to the streets to protest the “genocidal” policies of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro to the ‘silence breakers’ who dressed in red and assembled outside a New York court on the first day of disgraced Hollywood moghul Harvey Weinstein’s trial, which eventually ended in his conviction.
India, too, offered us many of these powerful moments to draw power from, whatever the struggle and resistance may be. Today, on International Women’s Day, ThePrint looks at these moments of resistance whose impact is continuing to shape India.
Sabarimala and beyond
On New Year’s Day in 2019, more than 30 lakh women in Kerala brought in the year with an extraordinary show of strength — a 620km human chain created in support of gender equality in relation to the tumultuous Sabarimala issue that has rocked the state.
The women stood shoulder-to-shoulder along national highways to form a “Vanitha Mathil” or “women’s wall” that ran the length of Kerala. The very next day, Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini became the first women below the age of 50 to enter the hilltop shrine of Sabarimala in decades.
A parallel to America’s much-publicised women’s marches, India had its own march that focused on ending the stigma of sexual violence. But it was not one that lasted a day and took place in one city. The “Garima Yatra” or “Dignity March” was a countrywide movement that cut across 24 states — covering 10,000 km over 65 days — with the final stop in Delhi on 22 February 2019. While #MeToo had taken India by storm the year before, the march took the online conversation around sexual assault offline, and saw the participation of Bhanwari Devi — the social worker from Rajasthan whose own rape case laid the foundation for the Vishaka Guidelines (against sexual harassment at the workplace).
In the Army
On 17 February this year, the Supreme Court ruled that “sex stereotypes” were no basis for denying equal opportunity to women in the Army, upholding a 2010 Delhi High Court verdict and directing the government to give permanent commission to women officers irrespective of their years in service.
Apart from granting women more room at the table, the ruling also dismissed many of the Modi government’s submissions about the “physiological limitations” of women officers, and explicitly stated that citing pregnancy and motherhood as reasons for not granting permanent commission to them were narrow “sex stereotypes” that were not to be tolerated. “The time has come for a realisation that women officers in the Army are not adjuncts to a male-dominated establishment whose presence must be ‘tolerated’ within narrow confines,” the historic judgement stated.
The right to occupy public space
On a more fundamental note, the past year also saw resistance from women on a simpler level of just being visible, and occupying space in public. A group called ‘We walk at Midnight’ conducted several night walks across different parts of the nation’s capital — a city infamous for being unsafe for women.
Each walk spanned 5-7 kilometres of a different Delhi neighbourhood, with the simple objective of taking a stroll through the night just as men can without fear. Started in 2013 as a result of one woman’s resolve to be able to walk in New Delhi for 24 hours, the aim is now to merely normalise the presence of women across the city at any time of the day or night.
View this post on Instagram
"After sunset, Dwarka appears desolate and deserted. So, like most of the places in Delhi, women here cannot go out in the night without any fear. Together, however, the fear subsided and we felt safe. Some of us were chatting and trying to get to know each other and several others were just strolling with friends; some women silently observed the night while listening to the music being played on our bluetooth speaker. Soon enough, the excitement took over and the music couldn’t be heard as most of us started singing along and playing antakshari; some even started dancing passionately and Dwarka’s streets witnessed a mini carnival that night." ~shares one of the nightwalker Have you registered for the walk on 29.06.19? Link in bio #dwarka #dwarkawomen #dwarkaatnight #delhi #dehilightlife #delhievenings #delhidairies #delhi #thingstodoindelhi #delhigirls#delhi_gram #delhimyhome #myhomemycity #goodgirls #girlswannahavesomefun #woman #womanempowerment #womanlifestyle #womanwalk #women #girlsnightoutdelhi #girlsnightout #night #nightwalkers #nightlife #nightwalk #wewalk #walking #walk #walkatnight
A different, yet equally spirited, attempt to occupy space through bodies and intentions was seen in a movement inspired by the now-viral Chilean anti-rape song Un Violador en Tu Camino (A Rapist in Your Path). On 26 November 2019, the song, devised by the feminist collective Las Tesis (the thesis), was first performed in the streets of Chile to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
It went on to find resonance in more than 100 countries where it was translated and performed by various other groups of women. In India, the poet Sapan Saran translated the song into Hindi and collaborated with dancer Aditi Venkateshwaran who put together the ‘Chilean Anti-Rape Squad’ and held several performances in Pune — six in 15 days to be precise. Venkatraman says that when she set out to bring like-minded people together for the performance, she received more than 100 thumbs-ups in less than 24 hours — including from men. Such squads are now performing renditions of the song in Mumbai, Kolkata and Goa.
View this post on Instagram
Thinking of you Sapan, thinking of you @dipnaa Thinking you @kalyanee_mulay and @sushama.deshpande and my many many more powerful sisters without whom we’re nowhere and no one really. Thinking of every woman, every man who’s thought of empowering many more along with their own selves. Thinking of everyone who’s had to shout to be heard. It’s pretty damn exhausting. But its all fine when I think of our future children, those who may not be born to me, but those who we live for and those we leave behind. . . . Powerful, kind and big hearted people of the Chilean Anti-Rape Squad Pune came together today yet again to perform on JM Road. Tomorrow we’re at Gyaan Adab Centre. I hope our paths cross! Photo Courtesy : @goldensnowyowl & @jaydeep__kulkarni #ofmagentaskies #musings #thisandthat #ArtistsOnInstagram #PerformingArtist #Performance #Contemporary #ContemporaryArt #Artist #ArtOfTheDay #Creative #Dance #Movement #Move #DanceTheatre #Theatre #Actor #Drama #IAPAR #ITI #Pune #India #YesAllWomen #ToTheGirls #MeToo #TimesUp #Feminism #GirlPower #AntiRape #antirapesquad
Against the State
Perhaps the most difficult and noteworthy acts of protest and rebellion from women in recent times have been against the State itself. If 2018 offered a victory to the LGBTQ+ community, 2019 delivered a harsh blow in the form of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, informally called the “Trans Bill”.
It claimed to protect the rights of transgenders in India, but in effect, does the opposite. But that didn’t stop thousands of trans and queer folk and allies to take to the streets to organise, agitate and educate. Then, the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act birthed a whole new wave of protest culture across the country, but with it the harsh reminder of the gap between the establishment and its people. The protests, which are still continuing, gave us many powerful moments, including the image of Jamia students Ladeeda Sakhaloon and Ayesha Renna protecting their friend from the harsh blows of police to the resilience of the Shaheen Bagh ‘dadis’ who sat through the biting cold of the winter and became the face of resistance across the country.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.