It is no exaggeration that the Asom Sahitya Sabha, a socio-cultural and literary gathering that happens in Assam every year, is one of the biggest gatherings of people and not just of artistes and writers. This year, the five-day extravaganza drew a record crowd of nearly 200,000 from every nook and corner of the state and from the neighbourhood as well. The Sabha was held at Kaliabor, near Tezpur,in an open field. Rustic in its demeanour, the Sabha is not meant to be an exclusive gathering of the intelligentsia but of anyone who aspires to recite a poem, act out a part, narrate a story, dance, sing, do a dumb charade... anything under the sun. There is a platform for all and this is what attracts people.
Women universally have a lot to tell but very few people listen to their stories. It is my belief that women write with their hearts and their emotions and that their experiences and their personal journeys, amidst great trials in a patriarchal society, are worth sharing if only to encourage many others to also tell their stories. Hidden in the deep recesses of every woman’s heart are stories waiting to be told but the opportunities are rare and the platforms for publishing such stories rarer still. The Sabha has provided some of these excellent story-tellers a platform to share their narratives. And indeed the Sabha has been scouting around for other lesser known women bards and story-tellers whose lives are in themselves examples of great courage and strength.These stories will inspire other women to record their own struggles and their humble attempts at peace-building within the family and society and also of their attempts to heal the deep wounds and scars inflicted by violence in a region that has seen conflict from very close quarters.
Women suffer on various accounts. There is deep hurt and pain that needs to be unburdened and this can only happen through narratives of other women. Let me list the explicit hurts that imprison women and prevent them from coming into their own. First, they encounter problems within their families and extended families by being discriminated against while given education. The first privilege is that of boys than girls. Hence, many women grow up semiliterate or illiterate because their parents believe that their brothers would be more useful to the family while girls would be married off sooner than later and, hence, educating them is a waste of time. How many millions of women have lost an opportunity because of this discrimination?
Then we come to early marriages and the burden of childbirth. Many women die during childbirth due to a host of problems but mainly due to under-nutrition and malnutrition and the complications of childbirth in villages that are beyond the reach of hospitals and health workers. The stories of such deaths are never recounted. The reason is because we have so few women journalists and reporters. To male journalists, the death of a woman in childbirth is just a figure in the Maternal Mortality Rate. To another woman, the story is worth recounting so that the death of yet another woman in the same manner can be prevented.
Then we have the problem of women as sex workers or, as used to be called, prostitution.Many are trafficked for this silent trade. Sometimes the traffickers and pimps are caught and arrested. But many more times the trade carries on even while women who get into that racket suffer a horrible fate. Many die of HIV-Aids or because of the cruelty of the person who sells them to different customers. Have we ever captured the story of such women? Perhaps not, because we ourselves have already passed our judgment on them and believe they are “bad” women even before we can understand what led them to take the extreme step of getting into prostitution in the first place. While we read of stories of such women in the West, there is no narrative on the life of a commercial sex worker closer home. Are these stories not worth telling so that a chain of empathy is built for women who are not so fortunate to have a “normal” life?
Stories are not made up of only heroic deeds. There are everyday struggles that need to be recorded. Look at the millions of women in our country, do they enjoy reproductive rights? Can they even today decide that they want to have only two children because it is difficult to bring them up and also because of the woman’s own health problems? No, even today it is the husband and in-laws who decide how many children a woman should have. Only women from educated and affluent families may enjoy sexual and reproductive rights.
We have so many stories of rapes and sexual oppression.Is there any writer from this region who has taken up her pen to write on the fate of a rape victim and her life after the horrible encounter? We tend to forget rape victims after the first flush of news has appeared in the newspapers. No one really cares to find out how the woman or girl who was raped actually lives life after the horror. Or whether they are able to find a husband several years down the line! How do they cope with the trauma? Many women are raped, especially during times of conflict. Do we know their stories?
Then let us come to witch-hunting. So many women have been killed after being labelled as witches but we are yet to have a full-fledged story of such women because, after they have died, there is no one to speak on their behalf. After all, it is the son or some male member of the family who kills a woman by calling her a witch. If such stories abound in the vernacular they also need to be translated into English so that we can all get to read about these hidden agendas against women.
Then we come to the problem of abortion. Many women have had to abort their girl-foetus at the coercion of the husband’s family. Who pays the price for the woman’s health after repeated abortions? Most times abortions are conducted in unsafe places, not in a doctor’s clinic. Many women have post-abortion problems. Has anybody thought about this? Why should the woman alone suffer for a chromosome problem that is very much a male problem? And when will female infanticide or foeticide stop in this country? When can girls be respected and be allowed to be born without a curse on their heads?
There are many girls and women who excel in several spheres in our villages. There are excellent sportspersons, craftswomen and intelligent achievers. Many times their stories are left unsaid.We only hear of great achievers like Mary Kom, around whose lives even movies are made. But what about the millions of girls and women in smaller towns and villages who conquer obstacles every day to remain alive? What about those who fight with their families and with the world to be able to be in school and to get an education because they want to go to college?
We have too few stories of women achievers in our country. We have fewer stories of women who achieve small victories. Women writers ought to make a promise to themselves to search out those stories and tell them to the world.They owe it to their sisters everywhere. After all, womanhood is also about sisterhood.
The author is editor, The Shillong Times and member, National Security Advisory Board