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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Activist Monisha Behal On NRC Draft And Northeastern Women Facing Demeaning Identity Remarks

  • IWB Post
  •  August 19, 2019

Monisha Behal is no lesser known name in the Northeast. A social development activist, she dedicated her life to working for the social and economic upliftment of women in Assam, Nagaland, and other neighbouring states, and continues to do so with the same dedication and vigour. 

A strong believer of rights-based ideology and commitment to vision philosophy, Monisha Ji is currently serving as the CEO of North East Network, a women’s rights organisation set up in 1995, and that connects with women without giving any consideration to their background or ethnicity. Largely it aims to connect to different civil society organisations on development and social justice issues within Northeast India.

“Our organisation works with different states, and our major challenge is to minimize patriarchal structures to bring social justice to women,” she told me, and what followed was a very insightful conversation, wherein Monisha Ji talked about the consequences of the NRC Draft in Assam, enlightened me on the problems that Northeastern women are made to face, and among other important topics, also shared her views on youth political activism.

Excerpts below:

In light of the final NRC Draft list, which as the news read has stripped the citizenship of some 4 million people in Assam – in what capacity can NEN help them reclaim their identity?

The NRC draft issue has created problems for many women in Assam, though our
organization is not directly working on it. If we address it has political implications and a lot of animosity. But yes we do interact with the local government bodies, and sensitize them about the vulnerabilities of these women. We can never get the women out in the streets to protest because women tend to be apprehensive about the next day and the next. Therefore we talk to the rural authorities to address the situation.

Our intention is to help them pave the way forward by enlightening them about their right of citizenship, of court procedures, and of the very basic, right to life. This draft is a product of discrepancies in documentation, and I do wish it was done in a consultative process. The patriarchal nature of our society stands out a woman who loses her right to stay in the state because her husband is not registered. No one considered the fact that the woman’s father may have been a resident of the state for a long time. Thus patriarchal attitude has a major contribution to make in it, especially with the poor and the illiterate. In some cases RTI is applicable, but as compared to when it was implemented, the functioning of RTI has become weak in Assam.

And the immigrant tag makes the women more vulnerable to trafficking and sexual violence; how can they be protected from it? 

Those women have been left out completely, and in this identity crisis, they have become more vulnerable to sexual violence and encounters of rape. But this problem, is an old one and not confined to NRC or low income migrants only. Because of poverty and social exclusion we find a lot of women in the worst situation. And often women out of facing oppression within the family, out of tiredness from being treated as liabilities, and facing abuse in their own home, are themselves willing to step out. Trafficking being either through through consent or forceful, needs to dealt by society, but unfortunately little is being done about it. Though the one good development in this regard is that the response and action of police has seen a lot of improvement, especially since 2013.

In the last few decades, social activism and movement around women’s empowerment has gathered significant momentum. What direction has it taken, in terms of awareness and skill generation, and must it take a newer direction now, in your opinion?

From when NEN started in 1995, to now, a lot has changed. There is more activism, more awareness through the means of films and social media, and more women are empowered and fighting for their rights, today. But perpetuation of certain oppressions, and I am sorry to say this, like purdah system in many parts of North India, really upsets me. And looking at the current situation, hats off to predecessors who talked about inequality and fought against it decades ago.

In my opinion, young women in their own individual capacity can and should set examples – help and support another woman in need, say in a bus, through social media, in filing an RTI, it could be anything – if all of us do it, it could amount to a big change. There are enough sexist jokes going around social media, a terrible reality, but it can be countered by taking parallel steps that can enable you to safeguard other women.

Do you think a parallel concept of the #MeToo movement, which being a social media campaign was a rather urbanised platform, could be of help to women in rural areas?

It is a mass movement, but as you said, a campaign that is very urban, and which may not appeal to women in rural areas. But following the concept, if rural women are guided, and supported in getting vocal about their experiences of abuse and sexual violence, examples could be drawn from it and that would help many others in addressing theirs in public, and to the government. This could turn into a mass movement and with more people writing about it, it will surely influence the block development officers and other concerned officials – to take action. These people are now quite exposed and are trained more sensitively compared to earlier times. But at the end, it’s all got to do with knowing the laws, and your rights.

There has been an issue of invisibility of women’s issues in media; what struggles and challenges that women are facing in Northeast would you want to be communicated to the rest of the country?

In the case of Northeast, there would be very few people in India who even know the region, which is something I blame our school education system, as the lack of familiarity with the region and its people has led to some degree of alienation. And with respect to the media, I know it may not have highlighted this gap in understanding as much as it should have done.It is perhaps not be too keen  to cover stories of here, and I have been told “editors want something different” many times, and I have realized that there is not point in fighting.

To my mind a counter approach of publishing more success stories from Northeast is something that can help bring some difference. Like the recent one of Hima Das (Sprinter, hails from Assam) who became the first Indian to win a Gold medal at the World Junior Athletics Championships in 2018, and another of Rima Das, who has made it big through child actors wanting to start a band playing an ‘electric’ guitar. More coverage of such stories can really contribute in drawing the north east stories to India and liberating people’s minds here in the region will encourage parents to allow their daughters to step out.

I read in one of your earlier interviews that you believe in the approach of having a thorough understanding of social norms before taking any action; what path would you advise to the number of organisations and NGOs that exist today?

So many organizations exist today and each of them would have a different approach, but if we talk about the ones that are specifically working on women’s issues and social injustice, a lot of work needs to be done. We need to be more well read and informed, we need to find out the minutest of details of the concerns our laws – for instance when I started out in Nagaland, the laws there being very different from Assam, I could not make interventions without first learning about them. Understanding of customary laws is of critical importance in my view, and one must substantiate their knowledge before steering ahead.

Next I want to seek your thoughts on political activism in youth, an ism that has earned a lot of popularity in many big universities. Do you see it as a disruptive power, if not, how can it be channelised for the bigger cause? 

Taking on a very feminist understanding of politics, I find that whatever we do is political – because we are fighting inequalities in the home, the community the office and so on. Yes, there are more challenges inside home. It is great to see the government doing campaigns such as Swachh Bharat, and addressing other political agendas only if the policy makers could understand the needs of women in those toilets – the water that is required 24 x7 and issues of menstruation, a lot of rights-based issues need to be responded to. If we talk about party politics, I have never been involved in it, but certainly, the way I have been brought up, I stand for equality of religion and in equality of different castes. In the largest sense, what is needed is for us to be extremely liberal, accepting, and sensitive.

And it may sound silly, but in my opinion, the right of animal life is just as important. I once read a quote by Gandhi, which made me admire him even more, it goes like this ‘The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’

Monisha Behal

A heart-warming glimpse that speaks of Monisha Ji’s love for animals.

I very much agree with you on that, which takes me to my next question that India being a diverse country, do you see its problems also as diverse?

I travel and do a lot of research, and I feel that within households or outside, the situation is same all over India. But talking about Assam, social mobility here is much higher as compared to say UP in the North. The caste system is more flexible and no stratification of people are based on it. And another thing is that though we live with different ethnicities (Mishing, Bodo, Karbi, Tiwa etc.), we have assimilated with their culture as much as they have in rural areas very well and surely minus the without purdah system, which makes it quite a liberalized society. But the levels of exposure is still very less, because of weak institutional support and the late intrusion of the Government of India in 1940s that perhaps slowed down developmental support in education, sports and so on.

And lastly, what negative contribution has the uninformed attitude of disrespect and racism made in making the fight even bigger for women in the Northeast? 

It indeed does, and the reason why it exists in the first place takes me back to our education system. I wish our education system had substantial documentation of Northeast, the situation wouldn’t have been this bad had boys and girls learned better about our region and our indigenous methods of farming, weaving – young girls wouldn’t have to deal with demeaning identity remarks and abuse. Also, what I was just talking about, on one side there was purdah system in UP where girls could not even look towards their elders, like brothers-in-law, and on the other hand, in Nagaland, girls work in fields with their men relatives and could even share a plate of food during break, and boys and girls would mingle together ever since their childhood.

With such disparity in cultures, conflict is bound to happen, and the girls of Northeast are facing its brunt even today. So much so that simply talking to a boy can also make him to feel that the girl wants to make herself “available”. I have experienced it myself as a young girl when – I moved to Delhi quite young, and I used to mix freely with so many young people – On some occasions I was misunderstood, and I faced it through tears, fights, and even physical blows.

She rested her case on the note of the recent news of Delhi Police inducting India’s first all-woman SWAT team for anti-terrorist operations, which is perhaps a blessing in disguise. A total 36 women constables from Northeastern states have been selected and trained. She said, “The news made me really happy, and I hope that they not only prove their mettle in their job, but also prove that they are intelligent girls with values, unlike their wrongly built perception that they are out there for any kind of work, and that they are ‘chinky’ and ‘out for sex’.” 

This article was first published on August 17, 2018.

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