Speaking against Silence and Stigma in West Bengal
Jahanara Bibi could have been just another child bride from rural Bengal, silent and accepting of a violent and abusive marriage. Instead, she summoned the courage to take legal action against her violent husband and become financially independent. Today, she tells the stories of the women in her village as a Community Correspondent with Video Volunteers. With over 15 videos and impacts, Jahanara’s goal is to mobilize women to create change themselves.
Jahanara Bibi is sitting at a small table, paperwork arranged in haphazard rows. She has come to meet the Village Head, the Sarpanch. The room is cramped, and Jahanara fidgets with her faded sari, waiting for the Sarpanch to finish talking to someone else. There’s a brief lull in what is evidently casual chitchat, and Jahanara clears her throat to command attention. The Sarpanch doesn’t pay heed. Smoothly, silently, Jahanara stands up. As the Sarpanch is forced to look up at her, Jahanara smiles, and patiently repeats her request. She’s come to her village head to ask for a road to be built. She's made a video, she explains. It’s important for her people. The Sarpanch is brusque in her dismissal, “Yes, yes, we’ll look into it… after Durga Puja...” Jahanara thanks her and steps out of the office.
It’s not easy being a woman in West Bengal, let alone an outspoken one. 21st century Bengal is a far cry from the ‘cultural capital’ it used to be a few decades ago. Erstwhile home to social reformers who challenged practices of sati, dowry, caste system, and discriminatory attitudes against women, modern day Bengal has had the dubious distinction of having recorded the highest rates of violence against women in 2012, with 1,685 recorded cases of rape, close to 4000 incidents of kidnapping and abduction, almost 500 recorded dowry deaths and over 500 incidents of ‘insult to modesty’ recorded. A little over 70% women are literate, and of 35 States and Union Territories, West Bengal ranks at an appalling 27th. Just about 40% women opt to for a University education. Other reports indicate that barely 2% of India’s rural population study beyond the higher secondary level.
Challenging Domestic Violence
Born and brought up in #6 Kharua village of Harirampur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Jahanara Bibi’s childhood wasn’t very different from most girls her generation; they were barely literate teenage brides. Enrolled in a local school at the age of 8, Jahanara was forced to quit her studies when she was married off at age 13. Just another statistic in West Bengal’s shamefully high rates of child marriage 53% of Bengal’s girls are married before the legally permissible age. Once married, the beatings began. Jahanara’s husband soon brought home another woman, who joined in the physical violence and mental torture. Sickened by their treatment, Jahanara approached her community elders to intervene. They refused, dismissing them as ‘domestic issues’.
“Our village has always lived together in harmony. We’re many Muslims, and a lot of tribals too. There is a small pocket of Dalit families as well. Poverty is what we’ve had in common, and we’ve always helped each other out when in trouble. When my elders refused to help me, and instead suggested how I should perhaps put up with the violence, I was so sad. Just sad.” Jahanara then decided to deal with the situation herself and went to the police. Surprisingly, the police were supportive, and swung into action, arresting her husband. Moving back with her mother, she worked in their farm and rolled beedis to earn a few thousand rupees a month.
Small Steps to Breaking Free
Having realized the importance of financial independence and security, Jahanara convinced a few other women to form a savings group, each saving a rupee a day, every day. A few years later, their 10 member strong team opened their first ever bank account. Soon after, Nari – O – Shishu Kalyan Kendra (NOSKK), an organization supported by Poorest Area Civil Society (PACS) introduced their group to government initiatives and trainings on Self Help Groups which threw open a wholly different world of advocacy and awareness. Fieldwork exposed her to communities more impoverished than hers, strengthening her determination and resolve to bring change. This, however, caused a difference of opinion between Jahanara and her mother, who had previously supported every decision she’d made. Her mother was afraid and reluctant to let Jahanara venture out for fieldwork. She was not only worried about her daughter’s safety and security, but also hyper aware of the spiraling rates of crimes against women. In March 2015, when NOSKK nominated Jahanara for Video Volunteers’ IndiaUnheard, her mother flatly refused. It took a few calls from the staff of both organizations to convince her mother to let Jahanara travel up to Siliguri for the interview.
Jahanara’s foray into alternate media is an exciting time for her people - this is the first time someone is not only filming their grievances, but also is creating awareness on how to approach administration to address these issues. Jahanara realizes now the aching hole in their lives created by a complete lack of communication with the outside world. The only newspaper in their vicinity comes to a shop about a kilometer away, and as most people are barely literate, few know the world beyond their village. Not many know about ‘human rights’, and the training manuals Jahanara took back from the IndiaUnheard workshop are being read by the few who can.
As a Community Correspondent, Jahanara has focused on her community’s core issues like the failure in implementation of the Right to Education Act, lack of roads and poor access to health care. She also makes videos specifically on rights and entitlements of women. Jahanara believes that domestic issues, lack of infrastructure or lack of empowerment has a greater impact on women, as they’re usually responsible for managing homes, families and children.
Squinting in the sunlight, Jahanara rattles off a phone number committed to memory. She is filming her ‘Call-to-Action’, a phone number and an appeal for viewers to phone her village head to fix the road to the anganwadi in her village. Part of the Indian public health system, anganwadis are a core element of India’s Integrated Child Development Services program, and are crucial for primary and neo-natal healthcare. She has approached her Sarpanch, as their anganwadi is actually functional, unlike most others across the country. However, in order to access this anganwadi, pregnant women and children are forced to walk through a forest, and via a virtually non-existent road. All this situation needs is a small amount of paper pushing by the local Panchayat -- they need to float a tender for the construction of a proper road. Bureaucracy however, remains one of the biggest barriers for access to government schemes, but Jahanara has learnt a few tricks of the trade.
“I want to change how women perceive themselves, each other.”
Speaking of how life has changed as a Community Correspondent, Jahanara describes how her mother always disapproved of her travelling alone to conduct health and sanitation surveys. However, having seen the respect she has gained with her camera, there is far more support from home. The fieldwork is different, as a correspondent, and getting people to speak on camera is not easy either. As a woman from the community she finds reaching out to other women easier. Women trust her, and share with her experiences they might not have shared with a male correspondent or ‘an outsider’.
The Misogyny of Marriage
As the conversation veers back towards women, marriage, pre-decided gender roles and the part society plays in gender discrimination, Jahanara suddenly interrupts to say, “Didi, don’t get married!” The vehemence in her voice is an indicator of her strong sentiments on marriage, and a few gentle questions later she solemnly says, “We women are the ones who discriminate against our own the most!” She elaborates, that her mother allowed her to get married at a young age, her husband’s new wife joined him in thrashing her, and her community’s elders (women included) refused to intervene. Still trying to contextualize misogyny in the marriages she’s speaking of, she says, “There are these ideas that women should be demure, needn’t have an education, must bear with her husband’s wayward behavior…all of this comes from society, and culminates in the idea that women are meant to be married and produce children. Who came up with these concepts? It wasn’t you or me! If a woman never learns about the ways of the world, like men have a chance to, how is she ever supposed to be independent?”
Perhaps Jahanara’s perception that marriage is every young woman’s worst nightmare is a complex approach to battling everyday patriarchy, but she isn’t about to let society trample over her dignity again. “Nobody wanted to listen to my ‘domestic’ issues. Tomorrow if anyone wants to know anything about women in Kharua, they will know from the videos I’m making,” she says.
Patriarchy has perpetuated a culture of silence for far too long, and Jahanara’s here to smash the silence. Will you?
This blog is one of a series of candid conversations with our correspondents on what Patriarchy means to them. This series is part of our campaign #KhelBadal/ Dismantling Patriarchy
Written by Radhika.
Videos from Jahanara
Community Health Workers Play a Major Role in Lowering Maternal Mortality
Health workers in West Bengal are counseling and motivating men to undergo vasectomies, and addressing the social determinants of health like gender dynamics and conditions of living.
Women die in Childbirth as Hospital lies Vacant in West Bengal
Doctors refuse posting to a small village in a border district of West Bengal even as people suffer due to lack of medical services.