In its celebrations of Women’s History Month, TYPF conducted an interview-series called “Movers and Shakers: In Conversation with History”. By engaging with feminist individuals from across the country, we hope to revisit significant moments and gain new perspectives on our understanding of history through the experiences of these remarkable women.
-This interview was conducted in Hindi and has been translated to English-
What made you start the Honor for Women National Campaign? What was your journey like up until that point?
I had this one ambition since I was a child. The village I was born in, I had observed that the women would always be very troubled, and there was a lot of domestic violence. These ladies were just not getting the respect they deserved at home; because of this, they would be resigned to being the food-makers, to being the baby-makers. And the area I came from, there were no schools close by, and levels of education for girls was very low. So I had this bug in my mind that if I ever get the chance, I would work for women, to develop and improve their conditions. Ever since I was a child, my one aim was that women should get honour, and that they should get respect. And that continued when I reached college - where I started actively working for women empowerment - in ’84, I started OYSS Women.
What all did you have to do to achieve this ambition of yours and further the cause you were working for?
Actually, I had some familial pressure on me. When I was doing my post-graduation – in the second year of my LLB - my mother got diagnosed with cancer. And at that time, my younger brother and sister were extremely young, and my father was bed-ridden. So the responsibility of taking care of my family fell on me. I was thinking that I would take up a job to provide for my family, but I couldn’t do all the work at home and outside. See, I had my own ambitions too, that of doing something for the society and for women. So any job that I would take up, I would put all that into my family, but I would still pursue my own ambitions side-by-side. So I started my own little industry [the Josodhara magazine], and I got a printing press, which I struggled and did on my own. I managed to start my printing and managed to be successful, and I got a lot of financial benefits from it. And then I finally made the decision to do some NGO work. And I got the support from a lot of young people – like writers, officers, and other highly educated individuals – and started an organization. You can only do so much alone, and I required the support of young people to build the organization.
So as I was going through your body of work, to see the kind of initiatives you’ve led. You’ve even been called a pioneer of the 21st century feminist movement. And you’ve been recognized for your work not only in India, but globally too. To have these expectations of you, does it motivate or inspire you work harder?
See, when you’re working and you get respect for what you’re doing, and you’re being told that you’re doing good work - and they want to reward you for your efforts - it is nice to be recognized like that. I didn’t start doing this work to get awards, but to get recognized that “yes, I am doing something impactful” gives you mental satisfaction; it inspires you work even more.
The fact that the public is so accepting of me, and my work, that is the biggest inspiration. Yesterday, I had gone to Bhagat Singh College as a keynote speaker for a Women Development programme. It felt so wonderful that as I was talking, they were really listening, responding, laughing, and learning. That’s it, I don’t need anything else. I don’t have some goal of being a rich woman; if I’m getting food, and I have a roof over my head, that’s more than enough. I’m just happy that I’m getting the opportunity to work. For example, you shouldn’t be thanking me for doing this interview, I should be thanking you for wanting to hear me talk. The fact that someone is listening to me, that’s all the satisfaction I need.
Your outlook is very refreshing.
See, when I was growing up, my father couldn’t afford educating me further. So I took it upon myself to educate myself and my younger siblings, and help them settle their lives. Even when my mother died, she left my brother in my left hand, and my sister in my right hand. She had so much faith in me and that was the biggest thing; my mother believed that her daughter could do it. If someone has placed their faith in me, then I will never break that trust. For me, my work is my god, and the faith to do work is my dharma.
When you put forward the four-point charter as a part of Honor for Women, this demand was made to the state governments?
So, when I made the enquiry in Orissa, it was unheard of because it was so dangerous; no one was willing to take it up. Even with the Munirka case - with the bar dancer - I had taken up that case. A lot of people told me not to because it would be dangerous, and all I could think was “So what if it’s dangerous? I have a duty to fulfill. What happens after that, I don’t know”. Then they told me that I have a little daughter, and that I should be thinking about her. To which I said “Yes, I have a daughter. And she is strong.”
So these four points that I had put forward to the Orissa government, one of them was to teach self-defense so that women can be strong physically too. I put it forward to the Government of India as well – four or five years ago - to put a ban on the liquor trade, institute fast track court, special protection for [vulnerable] women. I made this demand on the national level as well. Obviously, it hasn’t happened completely, but it’s happening in steps. Orissa has set up fast track courts, and there’s been much improvement otherwise too. I’ve been putting pressure on the government to get these things done. At the Mahila Vikas Samiti, there was a gathering of 4000-5000 women, many of them uneducated, who came together to talk about very important issues. For example, here you have these uneducated women whose husbands are daily wage labourers who earn maybe 200-300 rupees - most of which they spend on liquor - leaving some hundred rupees to run a household of four or five people. And when they’re not able to manage, they get beaten up. They get so disturbed that sometimes I get calls in the middle of the night asking me to help them, asking me what they are supposed to do. They say that their husband is doing this, their son is doing that, and about how they’re selling off her utensils to pay for more alcohol; they trusted no one. Now, when they start talking to someone about this, it shows that they are placing their trust in them. And then when someone does something – anything at all - to help them, that’s when they feel that they themselves can also alleviate their situations. It will take time, but it’ll happen. If the government helps, for example, by setting up fast track courts, and getting Special Investigation Teams, then it will create an environment where domestic violence can also reduce.
Another reason why I’ve been putting pressure for the four-point charter to be enforced, is because one of the points is of teaching self-defense to women. If they don’t get that training, how can they protect themselves? And once they are able to help themselves, they will be able to help others around them too. I cannot stress on the importance of being both mentally and physically strong. And the earlier you introduce it in their lives, the more effective it will be.
Do you think that in a few years all schools would have a self-defense curriculum?
I am hopeful. It is happening. But the speed at which it should be happening, that’s not there. It happens on pen and paper, sure, but that doesn’t matter. It needs to translate in practical terms. If it can start as early as school years, then it will have so much benefit.
What I really want is for there to be more awareness. The instances of high awareness that there is, is mostly in the cities. But Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore – these do not represent all of India, right? India has primarily rural and tribal areas, and there is less awareness there. When you have women stepping out, they are told “What are you doing? Your place is in the kitchen!” When their surroundings view women like this, how will the women view themselves? They worship all these devis, but they forget, that they have devis at home who they need to revere. You have the woman who comes to clean your house, why can’t you respect her too? She doesn’t come for two days, and the house falls apart, right? All us women - the ones who work inside the house and outside – we’re not asking for a lot. We’re toiling through the day, at least recognize that; recognize us as equals and give us some respect. That’s all.
Shannon Mathew studied History at the University of Delhi, completing her Bachelors from St. Stephen's College in 2016. She is currently interning with The YP Foundation.