Women of the Watershed

As a city girl with access to almost all the basic needs and privileges and most importantly access to a good education, I looked at feminism from a very different light. I was mainly exposed to feminist activism in academic circles that debated theories on gender discrimination, violence and rights in the country. This classroom activism blurred my vision on the everyday struggles and approaches of women in urban and rural India that lived the real feminist movement. What I now realize is that there was a neglect of ‘spaces and approaches’ in different cultural contexts in mainstream feminist debates that never really got me to understand the feminist movement in entirety.
And ever since I set foot on the sands of Rajasthan and observing women live in one of the most patriarchal and misogynist societies, I am even more convinced that there are different forms of feminist approaches in rural India that rarely gets highlighted. Rajasthan is one of the most gendered states in the country. The ‘ghunghat system’ of women covering their face with a veil in front of the male members is a very common practice here. Or a woman sitting on the floor in the presence of male members is still practiced. Preference for a male child is no secret in these areas. Privileges and rights for women are taken as a strong offense in this society and many women are conditioned to believe the role and status of a woman are below all else. In such a highly gendered space, loud feminist activism is absolutely impossible as gender discrimination runs through the blood and veins of this structuralized and unbalanced male dominated society.
But in this complex societal maze of gender inequality, what goes unnoticed is ‘everyday feminism’ of the lived experiences of rural women who try to bring about a conscious change. This everyday feminism or I would like to call it the everyday feminist struggles came into my purview when I rarely seen women or girls gathered around a hand pump or near a pond. The only time was once in seven days or sometimes fifteen days when water flowed from the Bisalpur (1) taps. The most common site is that of freshwater tankers coming to the doorstep of each household for human and cattle consumption. Though the tankers are a convenient source of water especially for women and girls who have been saved from the drudgery of searching for fresh water it has come at a huge cost. For a resource that was freely available in the streams and hand pumps to now paying an amount that is almost half of the family monthly income, water has become a priced commodity increasing the rural family burden monetarily. When interacting with some of the women who participated in Manthan’s watershed initiatives in the area, what particularly struck me was how these women were determined to make fresh water easily accessible in the villages in order to reduce the dependence on the costly tankers. But what was more striking in these conversations was how these women fought different challenges to get these watersheds operational.

Through these observations and conversations, the everyday feminist struggles started ringing in my head and that is when I started rethinking the way I looked at feminism and the feminist movement. I became conscious of the rather neglected rural feminist space where stories of perseverance, self-determination and self-belief, egalitarianism, leadership and collectiveness were factors instrumental to bring a change.
That is when I started thinking about the ‘Women of the Watershed’ and how some of their exemplary acts of everyday feminist struggles have been crucial in our understanding of not only resource conservation but also discussions on feminism. These values are what women in these rural spaces believe and strive to achieve to bring about a change. I realised that diverse cultural backgrounds make women approach feminism through a different lens that goes unnoticed in the larger feminist movement. Though many of us perceive the rural space to be silent on feminism in the modern age is it not always true. The rural feminist movement is maneuvered very differently to navigate a specific cultural context. And that is when I decided to document the stories of women who are actively part of the everyday feminist struggles and contribute to the feminist movement at large.
The following are stories from five watershed sites, where specific women have come to the forefront challenging all odds to make some of these development initiatives possible. These women have inspired me to write about these neglected everyday feminist stories and bring in a more practical discussion to the entire feminist debate.

1. Perseverance for change
A firebrand of the village Jajota, this lady will give any modern day feminist a run for their money. Whenever, I meet Gangama there is some kind of inspiration that transcends through me. She along with her band of 20 knights (the local village women) are determined to bring a change be it banning female foeticide, girl education gender equality, village cleanliness and conflict resolution. While making chai (tea) for my colleagues and me she tells me the story of the watershed.

Picture 1: - Gangama swinging in her barn as the sun sets down in the western sky
Picture 1: – Gangama swinging in her barn as the sun sets down in the western sky

In the initial stages of the project, not a single person in the village believed in the watershed or in Manthan. So Gangama led a group of eight women from the village and started digging the site. After the initial payment, and seeing the perseverance of these women to bring about change, slowly other villagers came to site and in the end 150 villagers worked collectively to complete project. Gangama describes with such great passion how someone at her age (she is around 65 years old) was able to carry mounds of mud and climb slopes of the watershed to get the project smoothly running. She promptly tells me the length, breadth and height of the watershed that she dug everyday and how she would go to the bank every week to withdraw money from the bank (which is 8 km away from her village) and pay the labourers. She was the project manager and director of the projector. Though Gnagama has never been to school (she jokingly states that she has completed her B.ED when I asked her about her educational background), she stated that one doesn’t need an education to get such feats completed, but a small amount of perseverance to revive the dying wells in the area. While we are about to leave, she invites me for the International Women’s Day 2017 celebrations in the district. Gangama has been passionate about social change especially women related issues. Her perseverance for change (though it is a slow and gradual) and her everyday feminism not only in relation to the watershed but in overall village development is surely a good sign for gender equality in the area.

2. Self-Determination and Self-Belief for change
Pinky is a young tailor in village Nosal. At the age of 17, she was selected to be the accountant of the watershed project in the village. Being a woman in Rajasthan is considered to be curse and being a young women in charge of a project is definitely not an easy task. Pinky studied only till 10th grade and left school as her father couldn’t fund her education post that. So she picked up the art of stitching to contribute to the family income. When she was selected as the watershed accountant she was nervous as she could not even measure the length, breadth and height of the designated site and that was needed in order to pay the labourers on a daily basis. After a rigorous three week training at Manthan, she was ready for the job. But it was not all-smooth sailing for her especially since the men kept challenging her position especially when it came to handing out daily wages. But Pinky was determined not to get side tracked by these taunts. She followed the rulebook on being transparent in money matters to handle the troublesome men at the watershed.

 Picture 2: - Pinky in the cow shed

Picture 2: – Pinky in the cow shed

The gutsy and courageous Pinky has showcased self-determination and self-belief in order to bring about change. And with these two qualities this girl has been able to bring about some change in the way the male dominated society views the role of a woman.

3. Egalitarianism for change
Lali and Radha narrate the story of Moriya Naka (the small dam) in village Jhakolai and how a few women fought for egalitarianism while working on this project. The men from the village demanded a higher daily wage since carrying big stones (that was their job) was a strenuous job. But since the pay for both men and women were equal the men, the men refused to work assuming that the women will not be able to carry the big stones and eventually the men would be called in and the pay would increase. But women like Lali and Radha were determined that there has to be no discrimination in pay. So 10 women carried out the construction of this dam single handedly for three months. Realizing that they had lost out to a daily wage, the men tried to come in towards the end of the construction. But the women refused to allow the men to work on this site.

Picture 3: - Lali (left) and Radha (right) just back from collecting firewood from the forest
Picture 3: – Lali (left) and Radha (right) just back from collecting firewood from the forest

These 10 women have shown the importance of egalitarianism for change especially in a society that discriminates largely on the type of wages that men and women get. Their sense of egalitarianism and their fearless to achieve this has indeed been an inspiration for the urban feminists striving endlessly for equal wages.

4. Leadership for change
Sitting on a khat (village bed) in Khedi ki Dhani, Jhag and listening to the fiery talk by Nandu and Bawri on the need of a watershed, got me thinking on how important leadership is for change. Nandu and Bawri come from the Gujjar community. This community is traditionally pastoralist where cattle require large amounts of fresh water. With declining rainfall and depletion of all fresh water in the area, this community has been affected the most. So when there was opposition by the main village Jhag to construct the watershed (due to a political and economic nexus between salt production owners and some of the villagers) Nadu, Bawri and five other women from the dhani took on the responsibility of the construction. This leadership came from the fact that fresh water was an absolute need for human and cattle consumption and this was their only chance to achieve this. Eventually seeing these seven women, around 200 people eventually worked on the site. They also narrated the story of how during the 2014 monsoons, due to excess rainfall the bunds around the watershed collapsed. It was at this time that the entire village came together to prevent the excess water from flowing towards the saltpan area. This depicted the value fresh water started having on the lives of these people

Picture 4: - Bawri and Nandu who posed willing for this picture
Picture 4: – Bawri and Nandu who posed willing for this picture

If it weren’t for the leadership of these two women, Jhag wouldn’t have seen fresh water again.

5. Collectiveness for change

Balaji ki dhani, Bawli is deserted and I do not mean that it has nothing or non-one resides in it. It just has salt on one side and agricultural fields on the other. This dhani that relied on water from the streams and wells thirty years ago, now relies only on tanker water, which is very expensive. Manthan conceived a water storage structure for the cattle in this dhani. But being a highly economically valuable land, the construction soon saw troubled waters. Tejadevi and Choti narrated how the dhani with all its three caste communities held together in the face of opposition.

Picture 5: - Tejadevi sharing her stories in her courtyard in Balaji ki Dhani PC: - Jitu
Picture 5: – Tejadevi sharing her stories in her courtyard in Balaji ki Dhani
PC: – Jitu

The salt production owners refused to allow the construction stating that this was government land. But the community especially the women were determined to go ahead with the construction. While the men went to higher up authorities to showcase the need for fresh water for the cattle, the women collectively decided to start work by shifting the structure away from the salt pan site while threatening the salt owners that if they only interfere with this construction then the onus of getting fresh water falls on them.

Picture 6: - Choti’s (left) anecdotes of the simple things of live and her beautiful smile couldn’t stop me from getting a picture with this local change maker PC: -Jitu
Picture 6: – Choti’s (left) anecdotes of the simple things of live and her beautiful smile couldn’t stop me from getting a picture with this local change maker
PC: -Jitu

The collectiveness of the women from this community to bring about a change in the face of severe opposition is one of the crucial factors needed in the face of strong opposition.

These anecdotes are just a few of the many women in rural Rajasthan that strive to bring about a change. There are countless women who everyday through their small acts of perseverance, self-determination and self-belief, egalitarianism, leadership and collectiveness try to bring about a change in mindsets in a highly male dominated society. Many of these women struggle everyday to challenge power structures to either preserve a resource or bring development to their villages. These everyday acts of feminism can be change-makers in trying to bring about structural and cultural changes in the development sector. And these acts need to be highlighted in the mainstream feminism debates.
For me, these stories have made me rethink on how feminist activism in rural spaces in not silent but responsive to cultural circumstances where women navigate in the most effective way through which they can identify or familiarize themselves with. In this case, the women were able to identify with water as a basic necessity for societal survival and thus navigated through the many obstacles to bring that change. My own views on feminism that was largely acquired through classroom debates has been challenged with a more ground reality of how women struggle to bring in that change. I have now been looking at feminism as a concept largely through the lens of ‘women’s empowerment’ that is essential to bring about community change. Through empowerment, I mean that women realize their importance as an individual in the larger contribution of societal wellbeing and not merely as someone who is supposed to be housebound. And once a woman realizes that her role in the larger societal wellbeing is important and that it will eventually impact her very own household, it will surely bring the feminist out in every woman.

Thanks to Deanne Fernandes and Katrina Dikkers for helping me put my views and opinions on feminism into perspective.

(1) Bisalpur is a dam in Tonk district, Rajasthan. The water is supplied to the arid parts of the state

Denise is excited about interacting with diverse people in different environmental, social and cultural settings through her coursework, work experience, volunteering stints, travels and field studies. She believes that AIF and the project will bring in a new set of challenges and learning experiences that will help her appreciate new perspectives and innovative solutions for sustainable development. She wants the fellowship to deepen her learning experiences and enhance her passion and research skills to understand sustainability issues and the inter-relationship between societal and environmental systems. Her greatest achievement is being able to learn and appreciate the everyday lives of people in rural India and she believes that these interactions with people from diverse rural settings will help her during her fellowship journey.

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One thought on “Women of the Watershed

  1. Great to read your experiences and perspectives, and to see them evolving Denise! You might like to read Sumi Krishna’s books to gather more narratives of the ‘every day struggles’ of ordinary women of rural India.
    Hope you also have access to ‘Ujala Chadi’ a newsletter that is published bi monthly from Jaipur by Iptada that also focuses on these struggles and achievements
    Look forward to more…keep the manthan going. Do check out MAKAAM’s website and FB page. Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch is a broad alliance network of rural women farmers. Do send me contact number and address so we can invite them for meetings.
    Solidarity

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