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Self-Determination

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Dec. 28th, 2011 | 04:09 pm

Our three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw, a tiny open bus, shorter than me, the length and width of a twin bed, barrels down the single lane to Nawaskha. The locals fit six, eight passengers—we are four, and on the way home last night an old man wrapped in a dhoti and shawl was suddenly in the back, open firelight gleaming on his tooth. We dropped him two villages down, he paid the driver with a one-serving packet of chew.

Today we’re going the other way, passing goats in shirts against the unseasonable cold, it dropped to 5C last night, though this afternoon I’m down to jeans and t-shirt and enjoying the ride. Everyone here honks their horn when passing, when approaching—too many pedestrians and animals and other vehicles sharing the mix of dirt and pavement not to let them know you’re coming. Our driver sounds the horn almost continuously, I start to suspect he’s doing it for fun. Heads turn as we pass, and I namaste anyone staring longer than a few seconds. Men look embarrassed, old women smile, but most namaste right back, consciously or as a reflex.

Our translator leaves us in the sleepy heat of the concrete roof we call “the terrace.” Grain dries in pools, our shoes are beside the mat, chai cups empty on the tray. Our heads are below the low wall at the edge of the roof, but everyone in Kawaspur knows we’re here, waiting to see if today anyone will come and talk to us. The American civil rights attorney dozes in the sun. The French feminist law student demonstrates ballet steps for some of the children, and I fold paper cranes for the rest. “One paper, Sister, one paper please” – some of them want to learn. It’s hot enough I long to be able to roll up my pants, and settle for taking off my socks.

The translator comes back up the stairs and onto the roof. There’s a flurry of called-off children and waking and pulling out our notebooks and squatting in a circle—the women have arrived. Each wears the pallu of her sari over her head as a sunshade, or for modesty, as most women do in this province. They are brown or nearly black, teenagers to grandmothers, mostly thin, and all of them have been prostitutes, or have prostituted their daughters or nieces or a sister-in-law, perhaps recruited with a false marriage or trafficked from another province or from Nepal.

All of them are less educated than they’d like to be. Their low caste’s traditional occupation gets them teased, beaten, driven out of school by classmates who refuse to drink from the same cup, share a desk, play with them, “Why are you here at school? You know what you’re going to be, we know what your sister is.”

The women are not especially interested in a Public Interest Lawsuit. Reducing discrimination, getting police protection, reparations for the women, will take years. It will cost money. A grant paid our flights, our time is donated, our lodging out of pocket, but there will be filings and more flights and the billable hours of an Indian lawyer in sympathy with American-style feminism, as yet un-recruited. The women would have to partner with a Non-Governmental Organization for funds and a communication structure, and they dislike the only social welfare group in town even more than prostitution. The internationally-awarded woman leading that NGO has paraded them in front of too many donors without result; 2009’s American-style “speak out” led to a woman tortured, gang-raped, her hands burned, and the feminists from New York have not returned.

One woman leaves almost right away, our translator saying hurriedly, “She says it will not do anything for her.” The rest, except 19-year-old Meehta, whose house this is, and Priyanka, the sister of a program officer at the NGO, drift off in ones and twos without saying goodbye.  Even if they understand, if our native translator and the law student’s intermediate Hindi are getting it right, they aren’t buying. We ask Meehta and Priyanka to ask around the village, make it clear we aren’t asking for money, and tell them we’ll be back tomorrow.

“Tell them it doesn’t have to be everyone—even if only a few women are interested, we’d like to answer any questions they have.”

* * *

Again, everyone watches as we pass, and I wave to kids and namaste adults. Wheat is spread across the road for the traffic to thresh as it passes, sticks encrusted with dung are drying into fuel, propped against the lathe-and-grass walls of homes. On a 100-yard stretch of straightish pavement next to a public grazing land, a brown calf is on its side,  half on the road, a wet pool by its mouth. I think it’s dead, but as we pass it blinks to clear the flies.

It’s only 19-year-old Meehta today, on the roof of the house she built for her family with money from her and her sisters’ prostitution, a year or two ago she married out. Priyanka has said on the phone—thatched huts, concrete-walled houses, but they all have mobiles, it’s the leapfrog over the lack of infrastructure, the power lines visible from the terrace don’t work—she’s still getting cattle fodder and can’t come.

We talk about Meehta forming a legal self-help group, making a structure over the next two years that can communicate with the American attorneys without an NGO as intermediary. Meanwhile, she could come into town, and at the offices of the hated NGO, research what rights the village is entitled to—electricity, for one—and get help filling out the paperwork to get those things. Perhaps other women would join if the benefits were more immediate. And then we go. Effectively, we’ve suggested to a teenage black girl in rural Mississippi in 1955 that she study the 14th Amendment at the local White Ladies’ Auxiliary.

We’re nearly silent on the ride back to town. There’s no honking, perhaps our driver’s horn is broken, thank God. We pass the grazing land again. I don’t see the brown calf. I want to write in an identifying mark, a white spot over one eye to say I saw it, it was the calf nursing in the field, or tethered by a thin rope around its neck, the other end held by a child in sweater and shorts, but I can’t make it so.



whipchick wants to know if you know an NGO with an interest in trafficked women, rural India, or civil rights for women on a national scale.


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Comments {6}

sikander7

Moving

from: sikander7
date: Dec. 30th, 2011 02:28 am (UTC)
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Another very good piece of writing, and I think the reflection that you make in the reader is great. Sorry I can't help with information about NGOs.

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whipchick

Re: Moving

from: whipchick
date: Jan. 5th, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)
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Thanks :)

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java_fiend

(no subject)

from: java_fiend
date: Jan. 3rd, 2012 10:28 pm (UTC)
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It is such a sad state of affairs for so many women in so many countries around the world. I can understand why so many hesitate or choose to do nothing when the consequences of that action can be so horrific for them. It's absolutely heartbreaking.

Beautifully written piece about something that's really difficult to read.

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whipchick

(no subject)

from: whipchick
date: Jan. 5th, 2012 04:31 am (UTC)
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Thanks - I wish the people in the USA who want to slap their names on a glorious lawsuit were willing to get down in the trenches a little more. But everyone's got to do what they're good at.

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java_fiend

(no subject)

from: java_fiend
date: Jan. 7th, 2012 03:35 pm (UTC)
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I hear you. A lot of people talk but don't do anything about anything. I totally hear you.

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A Karmic Sandbox

(no subject)

from: karmasoup
date: Jan. 27th, 2012 10:55 pm (UTC)
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I am glad someone is doing this work, even if it feels like it will never be enough.

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