Ghisi Devi was collecting wood one morning near Rajasthan’s Dooni village when she saw a schoolgirl on a bicycle being chased by three boys on a motorbike. Blocking her way, they asked for her phone number. When she refused, they threatened to abduct her, “ utha ke le jayenge tujhe”. Devi went up and slapped one of them.
“I warned them if I see them near her again, they’d go to jail. They apologised and went away,” Devi told me when I met her at a gathering of 450 rural women leaders, organised by two NGOs in Delhi (Srijan, and the Women’s Federation of India).
Now 50, Devi is a symbol for women fighting against patriarchal violence in her village, dealing with wife-beaters, harrassors and inefficient authority figures, which are rife in Rajasthan, which has high levels of gender disparity. Neighbours bring their disputes to her, and seek help in dealing with cops, getting passports and ration cards.
Pushed to the wall by domestic and sexual violence (sometimes killed for not making round chapatis), Indian women from time to time have taken on patriarchal barbarity by fighting back through violence. There have been instances when they have had to resort to learning martial arts techniques, picking up sticks to deal with alcoholism or even beating their abusive husbands to death. In 2017, an Indian politician distributed wooden paddles to rural women to deal with their drunken husbands.
Devi is the leader of “Doon Jamata,” a group of 11 women from the area. According to her, drunk men are the biggest problem they face. “First, we make them understand through words—if it doesn’t work, we raise our sticks,” she said.
“Women have now grown wiser and violence is only used as a last resort. If a man tries to create hindrance in our way, we don our uniforms, put our ID cards and take out our canes," said Devi, "Then we don’t shy away from beating the hell out of that person."
Devi, who was married at 14, faced domestic violence from an alcoholic husband and hostility from her in-laws for dowry. After she gave birth to three girls in a row, her in-laws began to harass her. “They had an eye on my parents property after my only brother went missing,” she said. “Once they beat me, I went back to my parents home and didn’t return for 10 years.” In large sections of rural India, wife-beating is almost considered a husband’s right.
Without a source of income, Devi began working as a housemaid. “My employers gave me leftover food and used clothes, which I gave my daughters,” she said. She became a part of women’s commune, which made her aware of her rights. “I am now so bold that I help other women get pension, getting toilets built for them or helping disabled people in my village get free bus pass,” she said. “Our community also fights against teachers’ absenteeism, getting teachers suspended by raising it up with school authorities.”
Devi has a gang of six kids who are her eyes and ears. They call her when they spot someone behaving suspiciously. She claims her efforts have led to a local drug peddler shutting shop.
Caste is another major issue in the village. Devi recounted how some women created a ruckus when a group of Dalits came to fill water from “upper caste taps”. Devi broke the the “upper caste” women’s pots and “told them how untouchability is a social evil.”
Devi once went against the people of her caste over a local property dispute, which which led to and argument with the village sarpanch. “He threatened that he would get me out of Dooni using his connections in the state government. I dared him to even touch me, let alone forcing me out of my village.”
Devi said she’s been to police stations so many times that she’s not scared of men anymore. “If anyone is trying to suppress women or is violent, we interfere. People threaten me of murder and getting kidnapped, but I don’t care.” Devi said she’s even achieved a kind of settlement with her husband. Though the property dispute with her in-laws in goes on, “They don’t want to be on my bad side anymore," she said.
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