What Is It Like To Be A Woman On The Ground At The Farmers’ Protests
We talked to three women, who told us why they refused to let this historical moment turn into a boy’s club event.
From anti-CAA rallies to MeToo protest walks to candlelit marches for rape survivors and victims, women are stepping out in splendidly larger numbers to stand up for rights, ideals and ideologies that are tied to their very survival, dignity and value system.
As more women take up positions in the ongoing farmer’s movement, the sisterhood of Indian farmers is staring at the twin authoritarian forces of establishment and patriarchy squarely in the eye. Their massive contribution discredited thus far, women are now pitching in their voice, might and rage to a revolutionary movement that has held the world riveted in awe. We talked to three women, who told us why they refused to let this historical moment turn into a boy’s club event.
Jagjit Kaur ‘Nikki’, 33
Jagjit Kaur at the farmers’ protest
“Most people still wonder why there are so many women at a farmers’ protest site. And that perturbs me deeply because we are so conditioned to think of a male figure when we think of the word ‘farmer’,” says Jagjit Kaur, aka Nikki, a music studies scholar from Punjab University, who has been camping at various protest sites near the Delhi-Punjab border for the past four months. When she arrived in Singhu from Sangrur, Nikki was part of a tiny sisterhood that stood out like a sore thumb amid the male-dominated confluence that had gathered from Punjab, Haryana and UP.
The 33-year-old, who comes from an agricultural family, remembers the skepticism with which she and her cohorts were greeted initially: “Men at the site were not exactly disdainful, but they were baffled by our presence. They wondered how women could contribute in any way.” Things have changed drastically since then—at present, there are hundreds of protest sites all over Punjab and Haryana exclusively managed by women, (children in tow). “Women have kept these sites closer to their villages, so they can return home every day and finish their daily household and farming chores,” explains Kaur. It also goes without saying that the same women also provide logistical support—rations, woollens, blankets—to the men who are participating in the agitation near Delhi.
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Nikki says the movement has been emotionally enriching in more ways than one. As a music scholar, she has been busy composing protest songs with inputs from other women at the site. “We pick songs that are traditionally sung during marriages and festivals and tweak the lyrics to make them relevant for the movement. Everyone joins the chorus because they are familiar with the folk tunes.” After one of her songs became popular, many men approached Nikki and appreciated her efforts. She felt prouder, though, when she saw village women going up on stage to present a point of view or to belt out a protest anthem. “Hearing a woman stand up on stage as an equal and raise her voice in a land where it is not always easy to do so—well, that is beautiful.”
Navkiran Natt, 29
Navkiran Natt with her mother, Jasbir Kaur Natt
Navkiran Natt is a dental surgeon, a student activist, and a podcaster, with a Masters in Film Studies to boot. A student activist since the age of nine, she credits her sass to her mum Jasbeer Kaur Natt. “I come from a family of farmers and my parents have long been agrarian and labour rights activists, who were jailed on several occasions for participating in protest rallies.” A chip of the same block, she too has endured her share of custodial beatings while protesting against a slum demolition drive some years ago.
Though she lives and works in Delhi, it was only natural for Natt to join her parents when they arrived at Tikri to participate in the rally. These days, besides making placards and developing slogans, she volunteers as a dentist at the makeshift hospital erected at the site. “Growing up, I had always seen my grandmother waking up before dawn to make 150-200 rotis for the field hands every day. This is par for the course with women in every household in the rural belt of Punjab. And that is also just one small part of women’s ‘behind the scenes’ contributions that go largely unacknowledged,” she points out. “Even at the site, most of the speeches are led by men. Of the 32 farmers organisations that are participating in this rally, there are only three led by women.” Natt is glad, though, that women farmers are asserting their rights confidently without letting themselves feel dwarfed in the male-dominated protest sites. The assertion of rights is not without trials—Natt recently suffered from dehydration because she hardly consumes any water to prevent trips to the ad hoc toilets set up in the area.
Navkiran Natt with her mother, Jasbir Kaur Natt and father, Sukhdarshan Singh Natt
“We have to walk a long distance to get to these toilets and there aren’t many for women.” Menstruation too comes with an extraordinary set of challenges in a setting that is held together by conservative beliefs of the old patriarchal order—women have to be extra careful about menstrual stains on clothes. Despite the odds, women are soldiering on and doing rotational shifts so they can help each other out with responsibilities and chores. “It’s wonderful to see men rolling out rotis and washing utensils at the community kitchen here. Suddenly, they are becoming aware of the effort it takes to do household chores.” Brusque chauvinism is fraying at the edges too—men are cautioned repeatedly by male leaders to avoid using misogynistic cuss words that are nearly legitimised in the local lingo. “They feel a sense of grudging respect,” says Natt, “but respect, nevertheless, that women have come forward once again to fight on the frontlines, even as they hold the fort back home.”
At this year’s Super Bowl, America’s most widely televised sporting event held on February 7, Americans glued to their TV saw an unusual ad—a 30-second commercial showcasing the farmers’ protest in India. The ad was produced by Indian-American woman Raj Sodhi-Layne, a banker based in Fresno County, California. Sodhi-Layne came up with the idea just three days before the event was scheduled. “My grandparents, on both sides, were farmers in Jalandhar who had moved to the UK in the Sixties. Back home in India and also among the ones settled in the US, I have many family members involved in farming,” says the soft-spoken Sodhi-Layne over a phone call. “For me, this ad was my way of respecting the legacy of my grandparents and also offered a wonderful opportunity to create global awareness about the issue. Peaceful protest is the right of every human being, and it was disturbing to see that being violated.”
Here’s the Super Bowl ad featuring the Farmers Protest
If you haven’t heard about it yet, now is the time to learn. It’s an issue of injustice that affects all of us. pic.twitter.com/a0WRjIAzqF
— Simran Jeet Singh (@simran) February 7, 2021
Within a day of setting up a crowd-funding page on GoFundMe, the 56-year-old raised $11,123 that she and her two friends then utilised to create an ad that was aired by CBS in the Fresno County area in California. Within moments of it appearing on-air, the video was widely shared on social media by the Indian diaspora. For Sodhi-Layne, the ad has also unwittingly revived conversations about life in rural Punjab and childhood memories of her grandparents: “Suddenly all the old albums are out in the living room and my kids and their friends get to know about the men and women from my family who defied so many odds to earn a living in a foreign land.”
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Someday soon, she hopes to visit Punjab with her little grandson in a post-COVID world. “No matter how far we grow away from our roots, we may not always realise how deeply connected we remain. Despite having lived all my life in the West, all this pain back home in India has touched something deep in me.”
Even though women add up to 42 per cent of the agricultural labour force in India, they stand shockingly disadvantaged when it comes to land ownership—they own less than two per cent of farmland. Farming has always been widely perceived as men’s work, but not many realise that women have steadfastly provided fuel to the fraternity—by taking charge of winnowing, sowing and harvesting; tending to cattle, and being hands-on with other labour-intensive farming processes. And lest we forget, cooking meals for labour hands.