Groups not only challenge exploitation by the more powerful sections of community and society, but also exploitation between each other, in local communities and within the family – where women particularly are affected. Dowry, divorce, polygamy, child marriage, wife beating, rape, restrictions on women’s mobility, and preference for boy children are all discussed and dealt with by both women and men’s groups, although more often by the former, who may initiate support from men’s groups. Divorce may mean social and economic death for women, and group members try to dissuade men from divorcing their wives. Dowry – asked from women’s families upon marriage is particularly damaging to women’s status. Girl children are unwelcome because families know that a daughter will cost them while a son will bring money into the family upon marriage. New brides are often pressured to continue asking for money from their families after marriage, and tortured by new husbands or mother in laws if they refuse to do so. In Shaghata, with a high level of NK membership, group members commonly arrange marriages between each other’s children to avoid dowry. In other areas, dowry may be more difficult to resist. While it is possible not to take dowry for sons, it may be difficult to get daughters married without it.
In one year groups organised a total of 400 movements on issues like dowry, divorce, polygamy, rape, fatwa and other fundamentalist sanctioned violence against women, as well as on microcredit and exploitative money lending (Annual Report, 2002-2003).
Mobilising against domestic violence
Although group members learn about exploitation of women, one male group member could not apply what he learnt. He had a bad temper which he took out on his wife by beating her. He knew she depended on him and could not leave him, and saw her as his property. Women group members came to Jasim, the president of the local NK thana committee, saying they had heard this group member beating his wife, and that if they didn’t intervene urgently, she might end up being killed by him. When Jasim heard this, he and his wife called some women and men group members to sit together and discuss what to do. They immediately called a ‘shalish’ attended by 50 people, both women and men, in which they threatened the man that if he did not stop beating his wife he would be punished. After this, the man still sometimes is aggressive towards his wife, but no longer inflicts physical violence. She had previously not been interested in joining a group herself, but after this intervention by groups on her behalf, she joined a NK women’s group, which gave her greater strength to defend herself against her husband (story as told by Jasim, Thana committee president).
Family dynamics may become more mutual and egalitarian. One men’s group member asserts ‘both women and men are poor and exploited, so we should work together and think jointly’ including sharing decision making with one’s wife.
Rahima, now a widow, first joined a group in 1988. Fundamentalists came and talked to her sons and said women should stay at home, you should stop your mother behaving this way. Her sons used to try to stop her organising, but she persisted, getting strength and advice from the group and NK staff. Now her sons have joined mens’ groups, and their wives have joined women’s groups. They give her more respect, food, and do more work in the house. Rahima has now become a group leader, and a member of the village and Thana committee. She feels a constant anxiety that society needs to be changed, and things need to be done. She’s become an activist (as told by Rahima, NK Thana Committee member).
Group members meet resistance not only from the family, but also from immediate communities. They challenge both themselves and others in dealing with this opposition.
Changing family and community dynamics
(Story from interviews with group leader and Union Parishad (local government) elected member Achhiron Begum and her husband, Thana Committee President Jasim.)
Achhiron: 23 years ago, a NK staff member moved in with her family for four years, moblising in her area. He encouraged her to start a woman’s group. She thought that was impossible, women don’t go out of doors, and besides she was shy. But when she learnt about her history and the causes of poverty she was persuaded. Only a couple of women in each village agreed to join, so they started a group which included women from a large area. Villagers would interrupt their meetings, asking why they were talking with a man (the male staff member). So they started meeting covertly in members’ houses, and posting someone to keep watch at the door and stop anyone coming in. Village leaders would still harass them and she met with society’s disapproval, but she says ‘we are building a new society’.
Jasim first joined a group in 1980 and gradually through discussion he started to gain awareness and know about rights. He didn’t used to like his wife going out of the house and interacting with people, but through participation in the group he has changed his views. With group support he was elected to local government as UP (Union Parishad - local government) member. When he stood down after two terms his wife was persuaded to stand for the post. He is proud of her and says he never imagined either of them were capable of this.
Acchiron is the first landless woman elected to the UP in her area. She now has the strength to talk in public, protest, go anywhere, move anywhere, participate in shalish, understand public functions and fight for public good. Now, she doesn’t even give people a chance to criticise her. Once, upon hearing that a fundamentalist man had criticised her, she went to his house with 12 other women and confronted him. He said ‘why do you behave like that, going out and giving strident speeches in public?’. She said ‘I’ll keep doing this a hundred times over so you better get used to it.’ He eventually apologised. Male group members heard about the man and asked her if she needed them to go sort him out. She replied she had already resolved the situation.
Jasim: Family relations have also changed. Jasim says he does some housework (‘tell the truth!’ threatened the interpreter, ‘we’ll be asking your wife later’). He collects water, cleans and sweeps, helps with the cooking, and looking after grandchildren. Some people say ‘this work is for women, why are you doing this?’ He says ‘ this work is too much for one person, women and men should share responsibility inside and outside the house’. Before joining the group they just acted ‘like husband and wife’. Now they discuss and decide matters together. For example, Jasim consulted his wife on arranging his daughter’s marriage, and his daughter was also given veto power over the choice of husband for her.
Nanda Rani has been a member of NK group for 16 years now, and is the only elected female member of the 21 person Thana committee in Shaghata. She joined the group because her parents were members, so when she moved to her husband’s village she started new groups, both Hindu and Muslim. She’s Hindu by background, although she says she no longer has any religion. ‘I am a human, that’s my belief’ she says. The leader of the village – a Hindu village - asked her ‘Why are you doing this kind of organising? Why do you mix with Muslims?’. The community ostracised her, never inviting her to religious festivals, or to other people’s homes, and refusing to talk to her or eat food she had cooked. This ostracism lasted about ten years. She was able to endure it because of support from her group and her husband, also a group member. Now many groups are organised in her village, and people are friendly again (from interview with Nanda Rani).