The South Asian Young Women Leadership Conclave held at India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi, on February 9, offered a conducive space for conversation on various issues pertaining to women. It was organised by the Canadian High Commission in India with Women’s Development Cell (Miranda House), National Commission for Women and Women’s Feature Services as partners.
One of the sessions had young women delegates from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives and India, voicing their concerns on women’s rights and leadership. This session had moments of horror. It had stories of violence, the deathly terror which ravages these countries and the harsh and deadly patriarchy in persistence.
Tears welled in my eyes when Jalila Haider, a young Baloch female attorney and women’s rights activist, spoke. It is really unfortunate when a melancholic tone sets in storytelling, which is the reality of the lives of women in our neighbouring nations. We cannot choose to be indifferent to their struggles. Balochistan is reporting rising incidents of insurgency. Being from the Baloch community would once have been a privilege, but it is acting as a threat for the people from the community now and they are victims of violence regularly.
Many Hazara men and women have been gunned down. They have seen protests taking place worldwide. Children too are part of these protests. They choose the # way of showing their dissent, garnering international attention and support. But despite the adversaries, the people know how to smile and Jalila is tirelessly working towards upliftment of women in her society. She offers free legal aid to them and out of her earnings, supports females to start their small ventures. She didn’t shy away from admitting how religion is used as a tool to camouflage crime. Once a judge granted bail to a male accused of having unnatural sex with his wife on grounds of their holy book. She once asked her father, “Why Prophet is always a man?” Her father replied that she could choose to become one when she grew up.
Afghanistan, which is our good neighbour, had two delegates. Adila Ahmadi, the young women’s rights advocate spoke how over the years female representation in the Parliament, universities and embassies had risen, but violence against women continues to take place on a large scale. According to the World Health Organisation, one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime with the abuser usually someone known to her.
Even though the situation of urban Afghan women is better than those residing in rural areas, security remains a major concern as there are guidelines issued by religious clerics which say that women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with men in schools and workplaces.
Suraya Yousufi, another young women’s rights activist, from Afghanistan too shared similar sentiments. She shared that the women’s movement in Afghanistan has a long road to traverse. The need for grassroots strategy is greatly needed as women residing in remote areas need to be brought in the mainstream. She too expressed concerns on violence being justified on the pretext of religious belief.
Sharanya Sekharam, an independent consultant working with International Alert Sri Lanka on projects related to urban development, women in politics, youth’s civic and political participation and diaspora engagement, very happily declared how they look at India as their elder sibling. Back in her home country, armed conflict has drawn towards a close but the real conflict has not ended. Women are survivors of rape, violence and the society is largely male dominated. She was touched by the passion, energy and the fierce anger Indian women have towards the issues. She aspires to carry it back home and works fervently towards gender equality.
The smile on the face of Wangchuk Dema never left, making her the undisputed ambassador of Bhutan, the nation with the highest happiness Index. The young social advocate said that gender disparity exists in Bhutan also. There is an innate preference towards a male in comparison to a female. Abortion is looked upon as a taboo. Yet, things are becoming better.
Fathimah Isha Afeef, a young activist from Maldives, narrated her personal story of how her mother who was married at the age of 12, raised her four kids without much help from her husband. Her father was influenced by patriarchy in Bollywood movies and didn’t feel the need to assist her mother. She was saddened as religion was looked upon as a miracle to fix all problems. She considers the young population more marginalised and believes in a greater need for dialogue.
Soon the discussion had powerful stories coming from Shreya Ila Anasuya, Indian writer and activist. She spoke about how the first Rajasthani Dalit woman from her village to attend school was raped and thrown into a well. Another story was of the distribution of pink teddy bears to women and pen to men to allure them into voting. She also spoke on the ongoing protests in Nagaland against reservation for women in politics.
These stories sought to highlight how deep-rooted patriarchy is behind each action. She called for the need of reaching out to more marginalised women like Dalit, the ones with disability and queer. I was touched when she expressed how as a nation we are holding various constraints on its body by addressing women in politics as ‘amma’, ‘behenji’, ‘didi’. The narrative in political discourse needs a complete revamp.
The discussion revealed the urge to connect the dots and wage war against the issues faced by women across nations more forcefully. The joint forum of South Asian women will have more energy and force to dispel patriarchal forces. The discussion certainly brought into forefront the emotions shared commonly and our similar responses to situations. The curiosity which we had regarding each other also settled down. The display of the power of thoughts inspired all and it will hopefully move ahead with a renewed force. Kamla Bhasin the powerhouse speaker of the day and founder of Sangat very aptly echoed the sentiments of all females. “I am not the wall drawing a boundary, rather the crack on it.”