“I am a whole person, am I not?” महिला सशक्तिकरण की दास्तान

“I am a whole person, am I not?”  महिला सशक्तिकरण की दास्तान


Gayatri Dattal will remain one of the strongest, most well rounded examples of women’s empowerment. She taught me that women are “whole individuals”, writes Puja Awasthi


“I

am a whole person, am I not?”

 
That was Gayatri Dattal’s retort every single time she would be asked why she had dispensed with the time honoured tradition of the prominent display of the family’s menfolk on her election posters.


When I met Dattal in the summer of 2014, during the last days of her election campaign, she asked me the same question. I had neither expected it nor knew the answer. Till then, my two week tour of Uttarakhand had convinced me that the only way women could be considered worthy electoral candidates was if they had the blessings of their menfolk deduced by the prominent display of their pictures and names on the publicity material.


In all fairness Uttarakhand is not an aberration. Across the country the patronage of men is considered a given essential for women’s political success. Few women make it without the ‘wife of’, daughter of’ or ‘sister of’ tag. Those who do without these specific markers are often spoken of in hushed, derogatory tones about the compromises they made and the favours that were bestowed on them.


Dattal had consciously chosen not be part of this invisible sisterhood. She chose not to be known as an appendage to her husband- voicing thoughts she had not formulated, mouthing promises she did not believe in and fighting a contest she was not actually a part of.

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The contrast is clearly visible


That strength had taken years in coming.


She – a Bhotiya tribal, was married off young with little education and had resigned herself to a life of household chores. For 21 years she defined herself only by the children she bore, the food she cooked and the firewood she fetched. Then five years ago her village of Joljibi Datu Gaon in Pithoragarh was visited by an organisation working on tribal rights. Dattal was drawn to the public meetings and awareness campaigns they conducted.


One day she asked her father-in-law if she could participate in the programmes more fully. She expected a no, but got a yes.


“For the first time I felt there was a life beyond my home. I could touch it”, she says. Dattal was a quick learner. As she began to attend meetings and trainings, she understood how the rights of her people had been wilfully curtailed. She took the lead in addressing some of the most pressing problems of her village- the lack of potable water, the arbitrary giving of ration by the fair price shop owner, and the distribution of gas cylinders which weighed less than the stipulated weight.


For the last, she organised the women to block the road and have every single cylinder weighed before distribution. She also invited the local media to cover the issue and thus build pressure on the distributer, and complained to the SDM about the problem. One of the biggest collective successes was the sanction of a road on the path that the community used for its yearly migration to Darma valley every summer. The men had pursued the matter since April 2013, but when hordes of women led by Dattal descended on the district office, the administration was jolted into action.


In the meanwhile Dattal was appointed the accredited health worker- ASHA for her village. She also set up a shop stocking women’s garments, cosmetics, rugs and woollens- the last two coming from 61 women who had formed a cooperative.


Yet when it came to fighting the panchayat elections, feisty women who had stood with Dattal turned into just wives and mothers.


Dattal was pained and tried to convince them to speak for themselves. They retorted that politics was a serious matter and that was how it had always been done. “If you think you can do it on your own, why don’t you stand for elections”, they mocked her.


Dattal did that despite knowing that the three other candidates contesting from the seat reserved for women were backed by the money power of their husbands. “They did not even come out to campaign. It was their husbands who asked for votes”, she says.


She made just one small concession to tradition putting her husband’s name as a proposer. But nowhere was she introduced as ‘wife of Karan Singh Dattal’. She asked for votes on her own. Spoke of the goals she had set herself- Indira Awas houses for the deserving, toilets in every home and pensions to the elderly and widows and did not resort to the variety of emotional appeals that the husbands of her opponents had issued asking for a cautious response by the electorate to the ‘forward’ Dattal who was setting a bad example for the womenfolk.


A month after our brief meeting that afternoon Dattal called to tell me that she had lost the election.


But her spirit remained undimmed. “There is so much to do. You will see the change in our village when you visit next”, she told me cheerily.


While that visit might not happen, to me Dattal will remain one of the strongest, most well rounded examples of women’s empowerment.


She taught me that women are whole individuals. They only have to recognise themselves as such.



 Pooja 5

Puja Awasthi is convinced she was a fig tree up in the Himalayas in her past life. That is why when she is not writing or communicating for a living, she is plotting an escape to Uttarakhand whose people and music fascinate her as much as its pulses and monkeys. Her areas of interest are gender, terrorism, politics and education. A Chevening fellow, she dreams of writing the next great Indian novel before finding that perfect fig tree to retire under.



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