At a crossroad in the civilised world

“We came to know about her only through the mobile number she was in possession of...the jury that sentenced her...didn’t have time to ask her name... nationality, relatives, neighbours or friends...they underline the religion she practised ...and spend hours at stretch ...relying on the charge sheet and affidavit..that enumerated...the nature of books in her library, the nature of music found on her laptop, the nature of video clip on her DVD rack...and traced back her political ideology... not from the meetings she was part of ...not from speeches she wrote...not from letters she sent ...”

Lines from –“elegy to an unknown person” – by Himanshu Upadhyaya

Standing at the crossroad, the multiple signs read – empowerment, liberty, human rights, economic independence, tradition, identity. The arrow marks to the bye lanes say: women on top,... it’s my life .Women today have choice provided by modernity and civilization. With due credit to the feminist movements of the past, the present and the continuous fight to enable women to explore a niche in a man’s world. Many have made it to the top, while larger numbers are yet to decipher the signs over the highways, subways and flyovers on the journey to a better world.

A series of decades after decades of women’s movements and a breakthrough from playing second fiddle to their male counterpart were recorded. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848 in New York. In the following century, in Europe the 40s and 50s recorded women coming out to seek employment. The women’s liberation movement of the 60s fought for basic rights, political rights to reproductive rights. The 70s recorded establishments of numerous colleges and institutions for women exclusively. Women movements in early 80s proclaim the 8th of March as international women’s day – to mark their struggle and to celebrate achievements. Women in the 21st century managed to find seats as Managers and Chief Executive Officers in multi- crore business establishments.

European women in the 40s and post World War II were forced out of their homes to seek employment due to economic depression and unavailability of man power. Women’s war “ Nupilal” of 1904 in Manipur was fought against the British due to the rising price of rice and illegal export by merchants from outside the “Kingdom”. Today’s north east India, comprising of Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, plagued with violence, unemployment and conflict, one need not explain the reason behind the women of these region for looking towards the north : Delhi, west: Mumbai and south: Bangalore. Simultaneously, economic independence was and has been the major force of liberation for women. The market and global economy further permits an easy entry into employments at various levels and forms. A large number of women throng metro cities and urban centres for an earning to keep the kitchen fire burning as well as feeling a sense of independence. An opportunity too, for women from the “backward” yet highly literate North East India, a breath of fresh air from turmoil and being sandwich between the state and non state actors.

In contradiction, living in a city like Delhi does not seem to be a “dream come true”. Reports of harassments and rape of girls were major “Delhi news” in the daily papers published in the North East states. Some of the space that occupy news about north east in the national / capital newspapers were articles with lines like “walk into a spa you will meet professional doctors rather than a Linda from North East , the Times of India, dated March 2, 2008 and sentences like “ the next time a cocaine addict in Delhi orders for a fix...standing at the’ll probably be a North East girl...and for a few extra thousand she will put sex on offer ...Mail Today , January 28, 2008.

For the community and student leaders in the national capital it was a mandate, literally, to list “rape cases” as one of the main agenda to be looked into. Though few feminist and women’s organization have come out to condemn and raise voices, in such “women related cases” it draws from within and outside the community similar responses. How to dress , when to go out, whom to go out with, gossips and “sexist , racist, indecent” remarks ,a typical patriarchal response like “Security Tips For North-East Students/visitors in Delhi” published by the Delhi Police headed by a person from the region himself ( read Robin Hibu ).

The fact remains that, though rape and harassment happens to any women, irrespective of age, a salwar / sari clad or a women with a minimum covering, in wee hours or in broad daylight , there has been a “value added” hype and exaggerations when the prey happens to be an unfortunate North Easterner. The national media loves to carry the news and the consumers had extra bites to salvage. It became the talk of the City. So also reports of such kind or police actions created an undesired attention for the victim within and outside the community. Known among her people as “that girl who bring shame to the community” and to the “others” all the daughters of the seven sisters were a “branded piece”.

The choice of jobs and lifestyles in the metropolitan cities are further influenced by the mainstream economy. One of the city hubs of the north east youngsters were at the call centres, shopping malls, Mcdonald’s and the like. A handsome salary with a package of western lifestyle it gives them a perceived edge over their peers back home in the “village”. The nature of jobs, flexibility, shift duties, isolated them from the society and particularly their own community, besides being just plain “North East Girl” in mainstream India is in itself a connotation. Two girls from Manipur, who were looking for a better placement, were harassed, black and blue, by their land lord in Gurgaon (Delhi) in December 2008. This is not the first and will not be the last. Such frequent incidents in Delhi showed a somewhat similar trend of victimization of girl employees particularly from the said hubs. Their attitude, how they take on their lives, decision making in personal and professional front, send wrong signals and messages to the mainstream Indian mass.

Not to say that the urban “other Indian” women do not face reactions for their intrusion in a man’s domain. In January 2009, girls were beaten up and chased away from a pub in the heart of the city of Mangalore. Journalist Vishwanathan of Headlines Today was quoted as “too adventurous” when shot dead on her return from work late night in one of Delhi’s posh area in 2008. The flag bearers of women and feminist movements like the US and European countries too were caught in the web of contemporary discourse. US first lady, Michelle Obama’s decision to give up her career for her husband’s election campaign and Rachita Dati, the French Minister for Justice, who returns to work after 5 days of her delivery, draws much criticism from the feminist angle. Surnames in pre and post marriages raises debate, particularly within the elite circle and the educated, career women.

What so ever the context or perspectives one fits them , empowerment, economic independence or necessity that forced them , women comes from the far east of India to find a living in the metro city , in a populously popular places like the national capital Delhi with a hope to find a better life and an earning. Tagging along with Her origin, Her look, Her dress, as a defining identity, with quotes like ‘easy going, broad – minded “ as an underling factor in any acts of performances and whichever circumstances she falls into. Caught in the junction, amidst a variance of ideologies, perceptions and attitude, looking yonder ahead, the civilised world does not seem to be so civilised. Take the drive or be driven, slow and steady, women from the North East India “You have a long way to go”.

The Imphal Free Press, March 2009.

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