Rasheeda Bhagat

When adversity opens doors for women

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on June 21, 2021

Women farmers In the forefront   -  PTI

It is heartening to see women sowing the kharif crop as the men continue to protest the farm laws on the Delhi borders

Just a few days ago, my morning was made by a picture on the front page of BusinessLine, showing three women farmers at the Daun Kalan village in Patiala taking charge of their paddy field.

While an elderly woman was at the wheel of a tractor, two other women clad in salwar-kameez, with large hand hoes slung across their shoulders were wading through a field submerged in ankle deep water. The caption said that with the men in their family away at the Delhi border protesting against the three farm laws, the women had swung into action. With the monsoon setting in, and the sowing for the kharif crop in full swing across the country, the women had taken charge.

The picture rekindled memories of the feisty women, mainly from Punjab’s agri families, who stood shoulder to shoulder with their men, as the anti-farm laws protests gathered force near Delhi’s borders. Even as the farmers were protesting, with several women joining them for shorter periods, many women in Punjab and Haryana set out of their villages to educate their local communities about the dangerous fall out of “corporatizing farming”, doing away with the mandis and the traps of contract farming.

Most of these women are from families with small landholdings — 2-4 acres — as they feel most vulnerable about the impending entry of big business into farming, and fear loss of their land, and along with it social status in their village.

For long decades we have known that women do some of the most arduous and backbreaking work in Indian agriculture, but reap the least benefit from it. The women in the picture appeared to be the bosses and not labourers, but female labourers working on farmland are often exploited through lower wages. While it is heartening to see women taking over agricultural tasks traditionally reserved for men during this agitation, but why does it always need an adversity to bring women to the forefront?

Remember, how during the first and second world wars, with thousands of men away at the battlefront, British women took on a variety of new jobs? Most of these were traditionally held by men, with the work considered “unsuitable” or too difficult for women. But necessity compelled the government and factory owners to employ women as factory workers, bus conductors, train cleaners, volunteer policewomen, and so on.

In the US too, World War II gave immense opportunities for women to enter jobs hitherto considered unfit for them, particularly in the defence industry. The war changed both the type and volume of work women did. It is believed 5-6 million women entered the workforce between 1940-45. The departing soldiers left behind ample opportunities for women to work in defence factories, which churned out crucial ordnance, as also the aircraft industry, till then the domain of men. But sadly, when the war ended and the men returned, large number of women were fired from their jobs in the US. The women had to let go not only of their economic independence but also a sense of social importance.

An interesting parallel

Women’s employment and higher social status in the developed world during the two world wars, and the slow but sure emergence of women leaders in the Indian farmers’ agitation, makes an interesting comparison. At the height of the farmers’ agitation, we heard many determined female voices talking with both confidence and knowledge about why the farmers of India had taken to the roads to agitate against the three farm laws.

Significantly, some of these voices belonged to women students from universities across Punjab, many of them from farming families. They were active participants in the agitation and they argued that if their family income from farming fell, it would be detrimental to their higher education. A report in The Hindu quoted Sukhpreet Kaur, a second year Master’s student in Economics from a Faridkot college: “With falling farm incomes, girls like us who could dream of education will be pushed back to household chores or raising children.” She said her own family had laboured hard to raise enough money to give her college education.

But what rankles is questioning the women for protesting either at Shaheen Bagh or with male farmers. So when former Chief Justice of India SA Bobde, while hearing a bunch of petitions on the farm laws, asked, “Why are women and elders kept in the protest,” and suggested they be persuaded to leave, he was off the mark. Does our Constitution not grant equal rights to women?

Published on June 21, 2021

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