As an India Fellow, I got the opportunity to learn closely from women, who are actively working towards empowerment and livelihood at Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Cooperative Federation Limited, Ahmedabad. The central theme of the organization is to provide social security to women and they do it through their cooperative structures. It is incredible that women of all caste, class, trade, tribe and faith come together. They own, manage and run their cooperatives. The federation that I’m closely working at, is an apex body within SEWA, a Self-Employed Women’s Association.
SEWA is the brainchild of Ela Ben, who is an Indian cooperative organizer, activist, lawyer and most importantly, a glaring example of hope and strength. On the special occasion of Women’s day last month, we were together to celebrate womanhood and a meeting with Ela ben was arranged. We assembled in a room and suddenly, I hear everyone going, “हम सब एक हैं” ( We all are one!). Ela ben took her first step inside, and that coupled with the collective voice of the community, gave me goosebumps. The energy level instantly went high. There was a sense of excitement, hope and ecstasy all at once. Personally, while saying “हम सब एक हैं” out loud with other women, I was feeling extremely joyful.
Even though it was women’s day, our discussion was not limited to women. The talk with Ela ben began with a straight forward question by her, “Do you feel scared of men?”. Many of us said Yes! we are scared. Of rape, of our safety being not in our control, of how it will affect other women. We accepted our fears. In that brief period of time, we connected on our vulnerability to which Ela ben responded with outright confidence. She said, “We should be fearless. We, as women, should understand that an inhuman act like sexual or physical abuse can happen to anyone of us and as a society, we must learn to be sensitive to the victim because most of the time, women who are subjected to such acts are shunned by the society.”
We need to be together, we need to build a common understanding and we need to live as a fearless human being. While talking about fear from women’s perspective, another question was raised, “Could men be scared of women?” The conversation turned intense. Men could also be afraid and we must not forget to be empathetic towards them. In the light of an incident of suicides by young boys in the area, we talked about the dire need to understand men as individuals.
This led us to an important question, “Do we, as women, really know how men feel? Do we really allow them to be vulnerable and talk about their emotions? Do we know their fears?”
The conversations made me wonder about how our conditioning has grossly impacted us not just as women or men but to all of us as a society. We don’t need to be against each other but to work on our understanding and sensitivity. We must bear in mind that empowerment, equality, justice and rights are needs of human beings irrespective of their sex.
Moving ahead, the interaction went deeper. Ela ben went on to say that the time has come that woman should be free to decide for herself. She firmly said, “let it be a choice of woman whether she wants to marry or not, whether she wants to be a mother or not.” Women who have spent a major part of their lives working with Ela ben strongly appreciated her forward thinking and through the discussion, I resonated with everything I learnt.
As a fellow, who had just joined the organization, I did not imagine to get an opportunity to be a part of this vibrant gathering but to my surprise, I also got to interact with Ela ben in person and I’m truly grateful. The moment I sat beside her, I was so excited that I didn’t know what to say. Since I have been reading her book, ‘We Are Poor but So Many’, I expressed my feelings on her inspiring and powerful journey.
Furthermore, on knowing how she has used law as an instrument to bring social change and to hear about SEWA’s struggle behind the central law of protecting street vendors, my curious mind wanted to know her opinion on public interest litigation in the interest of women farmers, to which she said, we will talk about it the next time. She asked my name and the kid in me did not want to leave, but at the same time, I did not want to take others’ share of time with her and left the space, feeling overwhelmed.