Pranay Manjari Samal
We, the Chest Thumping Feminists
I once read an inspiring post by a very good friend on Facebook. As good a post it was, it was also something I couldn’t get over. She mentioned about how she isn’t a “chest thumping feminist.” I have known her for a couple of months and I know she is a feminist. A feminist who believes that women should have the same political, social, and economic rights as men. But I couldn't help but wonder why she said that.
When another friend asked her what she meant by ‘chest thumping feminist,’ her reply was: “Chest thumping feminism distances rational people, even if there is a point.” I then wondered how people can be rational if they don’t get what feminism is? And why would rational people distance themselves from “chest-thumping feminists”, who have valid points to communicate? But most importantly what bothered me was why can’t one take pride in her identity of being a feminist, even if it was a “chest thumping” one?
My bio in my social media handle reads as – A Daughter Sister Friend and Feminist. I am married, but I still feel proud of my identity as a daughter to my father and a sister to my brother more than being a wife. My most important identity is that I am a feminist who believes in equality of opportunities for all. And that makes me believe that as a feminist I do care about the rights of my father and brother too. I have read the bio of several women leaders who feel proud to declare themselves as proud mothers, aunts etc. Then why should declaring oneself as feminist be chest thumping and other declarations not? Why should one be silent and reject one's own identity? Is it just to be validated in the eyes of self-declared rational people? If that is the case then, definitely either the former isn’t really feminist or the latter really rational.
Democracy Express - The beginning
Why did I write all this, when I had to write about my experiences of Democracy Express?
My experience of being a woman or a feminist is almost similar everywhere I go. It is filled with hope, sadness, moments of anger and also those of grit, hopelessness and helplessness, fear of rejection, character assassination if I am bold enough to say that what matters, some strength to move ahead, a ray of hope to do something new, creating a new possibility, taking one baby step towards that possibility and a whole range of emotions to deal with.
The voyage of Democracy Express was no different. When I applied for it, I knew it’s not going to be easy. I don’t consider myself as an “intellectual being” and my academic scores prove it too. (Yes I belong to that generation which believes scoring good marks is equivalent to being an intellectual person). I have been an average scorer. I also take time to understand things. My mind doesn’t act in the moment, it starts throwing questions about the topic after a few hours, even after days.
My challenges were also even more basic like surviving the bus journey. I hardly travelled in my childhood as I have motion sickness. When I stayed in a hostel during my diploma, I visited home only during long vacations. Bus journey always restricted my willingness to travel. Even today, I prefer to travel by train or auto rickshaw, but not by taxi or bus. So this journey reaching its completion was the biggest achievement at a personal level. It broke a barrier in my mind about bus journeys.
Another physical challenge was that I was always conscious about my monthly cycle. I plan my travel as per my periods. And my periods have been irregular too. And I had to finalize the plan of this journey two months before, so there was no way of knowing if my period days will fall during those ten days or not. But I still kept up with this plan. To ease my periods, I generally take at least two days off from work if I get them on working days. I don’t move. My periods are painful with body cramps and heavy bleeding.
Initially I was very happy that I didn’t get periods which were delayed by a week. But then, they came on the ninth day. The next day we were supposed to walk from our venue to Sabarmati Ashram which was approximately 3 kms. I requested Hemakshi (our mentor and co-founder of Indian School of Democracy) to take an Ola Auto. She agreed. When I was waiting on the road to book the auto, I decided to take the chance to walk a few meters and then take the auto. I ended up walking all the way to reach Ashram. I was new to the city. Google map was my co-passenger during the journey. It was really liberating. I also had a high fever one night and vomited throughout the night. Still I attended all the sessions. This cohort made me aware about my strength (both mental and physical) for overcoming barriers, going beyond my prejudices over certain ideologies, listening to the opposite thought processes and genuinely making an effort to accept those.
Birth of the political thought
My interest in politics started when I was working with children of construction migrant workers through one of our CSR interventions. While dealing with these kids, every day was a challenge in our site school. We didn’t know if they will be present the next day in the school or not. The people who build our dream homes, live in temporary sheds. It couldn’t get any more apathetic than this. They build school buildings for our children and their children remain out of school as they keep changing their sites very frequently. And thanks to the technological development in construction tools and latest techniques the group has become even more vulnerable. There was no way for us to track these kids. Even when we could manage to send few children to regular schools, they wouldn’t be found attending them after one month. It was extremely de-motivating for all of us. But I soon understood such issues can’t be tackled by the bottom-up approach. It has to be solved by the top-down approach by working with policy makers not just in education but also from the labor department, real estate agencies, city planners and social justice ministry. So political intervention was a must to end child labor and school drop-out issues due to migration of families.
My belief soon turned to conviction, when I started reading about Delhi government’s intervention in its public schooling system. About 25% of the budget being invested in education is a new thing in Indian politics. I could see, hear and relate to politics differently and positively. Till then, I had always used the word ‘politics’ in a negative context, associated with the meaning of backstabbing, cheating and manipulation. I started watching the news of politics with an interest, with the purpose of empowering myself.
But then, I had to start thinking of politics being part of my life, and my personal life. (While I am aware that being apolitical is just a myth, I still never wanted to confront and accept that politics directly impacts my personal life) It was after my marriage and particularly after my mother’s death that I became more mindful of my political side. The struggle that I had to go through to support my father financially and being there with him when he needed me was overwhelming.
I started questioning the idea of the existence of women like me. If existence had to be a struggle and a fight, I didn’t consider myself a free human being in the largest democratic country. It might sound silly to many but for me it is real and very challenging. I travelled, read, met and spoke to women and men regarding this issue. There were many who laughed at me or avoided answering this. Many women shared similar stories of struggles too. I wanted to know why women alone face these challenges. It is a basic human right which we are denied.
Hence, my experiments with politics began. I knew that any amount of campaigning, petitioning and fighting would come to stand-still if there aren’t women in the highest decision-making positions. The representation of women is so low, and the decisions are being taken without consulting us, without representing us and those kind of decisions are being thrown to us which are absolutely not acceptable.
If there aren’t role models present in the highest authority working for this cause, the struggles of women will be normalized. Every day we hear of children being raped, and now we don’t consider eve teasing or groping in public transportation as big issues. As a society, we have become very numb and indifferent. The practice of women not being allowed to meet their parents after marriage is not even an issue for the society now. And hence, it is also now that we don’t have a choice to ignore these issues and move on.
Equality and harmony
I wanted to know if there is equal representation of women in politics, police, judiciary; and if there can be harmony among our family, office and communities. I still don’t have an answer. But my instinct says that it is possible. We can live a more peaceful and harmonious life when enough and required number of women are leading these institutions that are responsible for policy making, establishing law and order and delivering justice.
With these thoughts actively working in my mind, I had bumped into ‘Political Shakthi’ and started volunteering in their different campaigns which were working towards maximizing women’s participation in politics. My involvement with Political Shakthi gave me an opportunity to hear a few women political leaders. That had cleared my doubts and insecurities, and increased my conviction to be part of politics – be it political activism or participating in electoral politics. When there is an intention, one also keeps getting opportunities of different paths. And one such path was “Democracy Express”.
When I applied, my main intention was
- to understand if there is a space for common women who come from non-political backgrounds to lead Indian Politics.
- to find out if there was any space to do politics with principles without compromising one’s integrity
- could I gain enough confidence and feel safe to contest electoral politics, if I make that decision. The most threatening reason for women not entering politics according to me is the character assassination (as there are enough examples of women politicians facing this when they stand against powerful men.)
Ups and downs during Democracy Express
During the journey when I heard a male politician say “father guards and mother guides the family” and a woman politician blamed women for their misery; my hope and courage to see clean and safe political space started disappearing. Someone even said, “Women’s dignity and safety can be compromised, but not the party.” I felt sad and sick. It was suffocating for me. But yes, there were also moments of hope and courage. A woman didn’t stop when bombs exploded but continued with her qualifying speech. A woman didn’t allow authorities to use her as a puppet and she used her agency to express who she was and what she was capable of. A woman gave up her comfortable life in Delhi and settled in a village in Bihar without any basic facilities. All these gave me courage to get over my fear and to commit myself to contest elections if there is a need for an honest candidate from that particular constituency. I will now not give the excuse of politics being a dirty space.
When a male politician made us aware of the current realities of party politics, it showed me that honesty was still alive in them. They were not bad people. It might be the case that they just compromised a little to save a little humanity in politics. One thing which was very distinct to me was when men in politics were sharing knowledge, practicality, money and masculinity power of politics, women in politics were sharing emotions, values, courage, love, equality, children, wellbeing of marginalized communities. So, I am convinced and confident now that we (women) must participate in direct politics to bring that harmony and balance in it. We have to be creative and courageous. We have to contest elections even though major political parties don’t give tickets to women to contest elections. We have to go beyond the party politics.
During the middle of the journey, in our dormitory when seven of us were just chatting and sharing our experiences from the days, each of us shared similar experience that hearing women politicians had brought us hope, energy and a little courage to be part of direct politics. Our mutual energy dismantled our collective fear and made us one group, one community – the chest thumping feminist group who was willing to support each other, love and stand for each other. A new idea emerged in that new space, new environment. #BeingIndependent was supposed to be the New Politics. We will contest elections even though no party gives us a ticket. We will contest as independent candidates and challenge the patriarchy that exists in politics. Our politics will be of not the concentration of power in us, but to distribute power for equal access to education, health and wealth, the safety of everyone, conserving our forest and natural capital and much more.