Just another day at Sadbhavana trust office
Lucknow is a city of age-old tales, oily snacks, dust, and decadence. In older parts of the city, where I lived, the women walk by dressed in black, as if they represent ghosts of all the women who lived before us and would come afterwards. It took me almost a month to settle down and become acquainted with the work that the organization, Sadbhavana trust is doing here. By the time I could understand the perspective of people working here, and know them better, the COVID-19 crisis hit and they were once again out of sight. For the next few weeks, there was hardly any soul I saw. It made me think about who these women really are…
There are women in this city who fight to claim agency of their own lives. They hail from neighbourhoods decorated with stories of war, and legacy, and most importantly, tradition. The stifling nature of which allows them the urge to challenge patriarchy.
Some of these women can be found in the office of Sadbhavana trust, sitting in front of a computer, editing videos clips, taking bytes, and designing posters and infographics for the social media platform. With the power of technology, they are leading change in the communities to which they belong. The group is known for their daily updates on YouTube where they share stories of different personal experiences or of other women they feel have it hard. Their identity as a group is not limited to only themselves.
The idea behind Leading Lucknow is a part of a larger vision to create ground-level feminist movement. These women know that there is a stark contrast in how they are treated by the rest of society because of their religion, caste, and class ranking and sometimes, for their sexual orientation as well. Mobilising women in their communities and making them conscious of their basic rights has been a large part of their work.
They believe in creating a chain of change, where the baton is passed from one individual to the other. It has happened through sharing what one has learnt either from their own experiences or from the organization’s training, mentor-ship programs. I’ve heard so many of their heroic tales, of them breaking boundaries along with a large number of defeats that they are well aware of. It is important to note their close ties with the institution of a family that is supported by religion. They have had to carry its norms and practices on their shoulders for generations now.
What seems to be obstacles to me, such as having to abide by the curfew or draping themselves in the ‘naqaab’ before stepping out of the house, are not as stifling for them. They look at it as ways of manipulating society’s gaze to the terms that they have set for themselves. The level of consciousness is so high that it gives them the confidence to negotiate.
In activism, we often don’t consider negotiation to be a go-to method of resistance. The general idea that I have grown up with, and have also tried to practice, has always been to charge head-on against the established set of rules and regulations set up by patriarchy. These leaders of Lucknow taught me that there is a sustainable way of challenging the status quo through the art of negotiation as well, the essence of which lies in conversation.
When we worked on a campaign called ‘Todi Bandishein’ for International Working Women’s’ Day this year, I was introduced to multiple ways of initiating conversation through games and activities. Some of it revolved around gender roles, some were focused on inequality, and the others on stereotypes that women face in public as well as private spheres.
Throughout the day, the community members engaged in conversations with these leaders who had put up stalls for each and every activity. As I walked through the crowd, I heard them carefully placing their counter arguments to educate and empower the people they live with. If one heard phrases like “the one who kneads dough at home is a woman“, the leaders promptly questioned the notion and argued stating how it shouldn’t always be the case.
These leaders know that they have certain responsibility and a role that they must hold themselves up to, especially because they have proved many preconceived notions wrong. Oftentimes, I would hear about their personal struggles with their families where pursuing higher education is a luxurious trade-off against getting married. But that luxury is becoming an attainable reality for most of them. Day in and day out, they speak to their family members, making them realize why it is important for women to be educated. They talk about the possibilities of employment and how that would support the household in the long run.
After every conversation that I would have with them, I’d be left in awe of the zeal they all share, to bring change at a personal level, as they themselves form the community. They have been able to equate it with their political consciousness as well. To be able to bring their day-to-day struggles into the fabric of fighting for their fundamental rights is an attitude they’ve picked up without much textual knowledge on movement building — one of the highlights in my ‘unlearning’ process.
Uttar Pradesh, in today’s time, as a state with the highest population in this country and a fairly autocratic government is a difficult place to live in, especially if one is a woman from a marginalised community. Lucknow, I feel, in its archaic glory stands out from the rest of the state as it carries in its heart such formidable women youth leaders. These are the women who taught me the trick to give any simple daal recipe a delicious twist, and these are the women who also showed me how to stand up for one’s rights without compromising one’s belief system.