EARLIER this year, Period. End of Sentence, a film on menstruation, set in rural India won the Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category at the 91st Academy Awards. More than the award, it was the recognition of the quiet, women-led revolution in Harpur village, near Delhi, that felt like an achievement. 

Along with the imposition of patriarchal and orthodox boundaries on their choices, rural women are often subject to stereotypical biases based on cultural and religious beliefs that create barriers to gender equality. For instance in Period. End of Sentence, when a group of boys are asked if they know what period means, one of them says it’s a “rog (a disease)”. This is not his language, it’s the language that he picked up from the adults around him. 

Stereotypes can spawn an intergenerational cycle of harmful opinions and ideas that influence policies and practice. Like the women in the documentary who are breaking the stereotype around menstruation by making pads, creating awareness and ensuring accessibility, there are many more in villages across India who are fighting gender-based customs and attitudes.

1. Rajkumari Devi, Muzaffarpur district, Bihar

Teaching women skills and making employment opportunities accessible to them not only makes them financially independent but also drives socio-cultural development. In areas where women are restricted to their homes and housework, getting them to work for a living is an important step towards bringing about a change.

This is what Rajkumari Devi, popularly known as Kisan Chachi, has been doing in her village. She has helped more than 300 women take up farming and helps them grow vegetables, fruits, and grains.

After marriage, she wasn’t allowed to step out of the house even to buy groceries. Years later, when her husband inherited land and growing tobacco wasn’t profitable, Rajkumari decided to learn farming and enrolled herself in a university. Not only did she pursue agriculture, often stereotyped as a man’s job, but she also used her acquired skills to start a business and today she distributes 23 varieties of jams and pickles made from her farm-grown vegetables and fruits. 

To encourage other women to do the same, she mobilised hundreds of women to form self-help groups (SHGs) and taught them farming.

She was awarded a Padma Shri earlier this year. 

2. Jyoti and Neha Kumari, Banwari Tola, Uttar Pradesh

When their father suffered a paralytic attack, 14-year-old Jyoti and 12-year-old Neha Kumari decided to take a bold step ⁠— taking over his barbershop which is the family’s main source of income. They knew balancing school and the shop was going to be a big challenge but what really worried them was the community’s reaction to girls working as barbers. So the sisters disguised themselves as boys and started calling themselves Deepak and Raju when working in the shop. 

“We assumed that the villagers wouldn’t want to get a shave or anything from us because we were girls,” Jyoti said. 

Today, the villagers know their real identities and they don’t care. It seems as though the disguise forced the customers to unmask and address the patriarchy within themselves. 

“Until a few days ago, I didn’t even know they were girls. Now, it doesn’t matter. I’m here now and will keep coming back because they work hard, do a good job and charge reasonably,” one of the customers said.

Now, after successfully breaking the age-old barrier and forcing the community to change their gender norms, the girls hope to start their own salon someday. 

3. Sargam Mahila Band, Dhibra village, Bihar

The Sargam Mahila Band in Dhibra village near Patna is an all-woman band started by Sudha Varghese, founder of the organisation, Nari Gunjan. 

The band started with 10 women from the Ravidas community and are seen as Mahadalits, the most marginalised among the Dalits. The Dalit community are forced to settle outside the village as the upper-castes see them as ‘unclean’. 

Things were stirred when Sudha came to the village five years ago and offered to play to teach the women how to play the drums – a common practice but restricted to men in the community. 

“The idea struck me in 2016, when I was working with women of the Ravidas community, mostly agricultural labourers. I wanted to think of ways to bring about their social and economic emancipation,” Varghese told PTI.

When they started learning, the villagers made fun of them but these women were determined. 

“People used to laugh at us, but why should women sit at home?” Sabita Devi, one of the band members asked. “These days, women are flying planes – why can’t we be in a band?”

Today, the band is the only all-women band in east India and whenever there is a festive occasion, they are called to perform. For them, the biggest change is that no one now calls them ‘untouchable’ or puts them down because of their caste. Being treated as an equal is what they value the most. 

-by Aisiri Amin

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