In the first week of November, I was in rural Uttar Pradesh, sitting down with a group of women, interviewing them about the loans they had taken through Rang De. I was accompanied by four staff members from our partner organisation, who were there to facilitate the conversation. Two of these staff members were men.
The women started trickling in once we had settled down, some reluctantly, because I was eating into time they could use to attend to their chores. But as they all sat down, facing me – they started to tug their pallahs lower to cover their faces.
Sitting out in the open, where men from their families and neighbourhood were roaming around, they had to make sure that their faces were modestly covered. Somewhat irritated, K – one of the field staff members – offered to leave the area so that the women could lift their purdahs and talk to us women freely. But the younger women said that they weren’t really hiding their faces from him.
They couldn’t possibly lift their purdahs since their mother-in-laws and other elder women were present too. So concessions were made, positions changed, so that the mother-in-laws weren’t directly facing the daughter-in-laws and the purdahs were finally lifted.
It is hard not to be dismissive of such archaic practices and beliefs. Yet, for these women, this was the reality of their everyday life.
Some of the younger women mentioned that they were visiting each other’s home for the first time (since they had been asked to gather at a common location for the interviews), despite having lived in the same neighbourhood for more than 10 years.
The younger women battle patriarchy enforced not just by the men in their communities, but also by their elderly female relatives. And by being denied the chance to interact amongst themselves, their isolation is reinforced.
I was told later that the particular settlement we visited was that of the Banjara community. They have held on to their patriarchal traditions, even though some positive changes have crept in over the years.
The children of the women I met were studying or had at least attended a formal educational institution for a few years, irrespective of their gender. However, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to these young school-going girls in a few years – would they be able to break free from the shackles that confine their mothers and grandmothers, allowing them only a fleeting glimpse of the outside world? Or would they stand to lose whatever little freedom they have at present as they blossom into young women?
Most of the women I interviewed were dismissive of my questions, when I asked them about the financial security of their household, or about their plans to earn some money of their own. And yet, a few of the younger ones spoke of their desire to do something – they were vague about their plans, but the spark exists.
Though, it would take nothing short of a revolution to fan the flames into a fire.
By Tanvi Negi
Tanvi Negi is the Chief Impact Officer at Rang De. She visited the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, our Impact Partner in rural Uttar Pradesh, in November 2018.