“Never underestimate the power of a woman.” ~Nellie McClung –
Sushma Bhadu of Dhani Miyan Khan village in Fatehabad district not only fought to swagger among bête noires, but also took a pop at the centuries-old cultural tradition that dictates she be covered with a ghunghat in public places. A state where khap panchayats have a final say on almost all issues and a district that is considered to be one of the most backward ones, the task required extraordinary courage. “With the backing of my mother-in-law and husband, I went against the grain and lifted my ghunghat amid 2,000 people from 25 neighboring villages on June 22, 2012,” Sushma said. This 30-year-old mother of three had been telling her husband since long that the piece of fabric had nothing to do with respect. “Izzat to dil se hoti hai, muh chupaane se nahi (respect comes from the heart, not by hiding faces),” she said. She managed to convince her 70-year-old mother-in-law. “Meri bahu ne bahut achcha kaam karyo. Main iske saath hun (My daughter-in-law has done a great job. I stand by her),” said Ram Kumari, Sushma’s mother-in-law.
“Initially, I was a bit apprehensive of my wife’s step as all women in the village followed the custom. But the day she discussed things with me openly, I decided to stand by her and trigger a social change. Now, when I see 98% of women here without a veil, I also spot a sense of equality in men’s eyes for their partners,” said Sushma’s 35-year-old husband Bhagwan Das.
But the young sarpanch had evidently touched a painful nerve in the women present on the occasion. “It was like a flood,” recalls her 35-year-old husband Bhagwan Das. Scores of old and young women stood up and cast aside their ghunghats, vowing never to let the customary piece of cloth “hold them back again”. At first, Das felt a great relief that his wife was no longer alone and could not be singled out for ridicule. “I now feel tremendous pride in what she seeks to do,” says the cotton farmer, who had never understood the logic of the straightjacketed traditions of his Bishnoi community.
A week after lifting it, on July 22, 2012, she publicly discarded the “infernal” veil at a conference of women panchayat members, girl students and anganwadi workers from 25 neighboring villages. “The ghunghat no longer works for me. It holds me back and stops me from fully participating in my family, or things that concern our village. But most importantly, it robs me of my identity as a person,” Bhadu declared, enunciating wisdom that belied her meager education. Defying the trend in the state, Dhani Miyan Khan has a zero dropout rate at the village’s only school. A class VII dropout, Sushma got the school upgraded to Class VIII in August and makes sure that every child in the village attends school. The change is already palpable in the tiny hamlet. As you near Dhani Miyan Khan on the bumpy ride from Fatehabad, there is something different about the colorfully clad women riding home on bicycles, or others urging bullocks pulling carts laden with bales of cotton.
“It is not easy,” she says, narrating how men from neighbouring settlements mock the women of Dhani Miyan Khan. “Ab to tumhe chhoot mil gayi hai, kuchh bhi kar sakti ho (Now you have all the freedom, you can do anything),” they call out derisively, often adding unprintable suggestions of what the “kuchh bhi” could be. “But we are not about to give up. Catcalls and jeers are a man-thing. If we give in, they will find something else,” she smiles again.
Inside the village, a feminine touch is evident everywhere. The streets are all paved, neatly laid over with interlocking concrete blocks, the streetlights work, and every home has a power and water connection. The drainage is open, but free of any blockage or the mosquito-infested cesspools one finds in adjacent settlements. Dhani Miyan Khan, which shines like a well-kept home, was awarded the 2012 Nirmal Gram Puraskar for its sanitation.
Even before she discarded her ghunghat, sarpanch Bhadu had evidently been hard at work. She successfully managed to get Rs.10-lakh grant sanctioned to build a training centre for teaching sewing to women, and roped in Punjab National Bank to sponsor training programmes. “We (she never uses the singular) also got funds from the state government to build a water-boosting system to augment our household supplies,” she says with pride. The young sarpanch, who failed to complete her schooling, ensures that every child in her village goes to school. The Rajkiya Prathmik Vidyalaya, which was upgraded to a middle school in 2013, has a zero dropout rate since she became sarpanch. And, the district is already showing signs of improvement in terms of literacy rate, which stands at 69.10% in the 2011 census against 58% in 2001. The sex ratio stands at 903 per 1,000 men in 2011 census as against 884 in 2001.
Close on the heels of a khap panchayat against female foeticide at Bibipur village in Jind, a mahapanchayat of a number of villages resolved to save girl child in a “Beti Bachao Abhiyan” launched on an initiative of Sushma Bhadu. Participants of the mahapanchayat, mostly woman sarpanches and panchayat members from some neighboring villages, resolved to boycott families found indulging in female foeticide. “We will constitute a vigilance committee of villagers to keep an eye on pregnant women and report the matter to the authorities, if any case of female foeticide came to our notice,” said Bhadu, who has three small villages, Salem Khera, Chapla Mori and Dhani Mian Khan, under her belt. Terming the lack of education and awareness among women and dowry system responsible for parents’ choice for a male child, the mahapanchayat resolved to educate their girls to make them independent. “The mahapanchayat has also resolved that the girls belonging to poor families would get financial help to pursue their education and for this, villagers would collect funds,” said Bhadu. A resolution was also passed to create awareness against dowry in the villages. The mahapanchayat also supported a resolution passed in Bibipur earlier this month that the perpetrators of female foeticide should be tried for murder under Section 302 of the IPC.Though the mahapanchayat was organised on the initiative of the woman sarpanch, it took the shape of an official function with SDM Baljit Singh, Civil Surgeon Dr SB Kamboj and Deputy Civil Surgeon Ramesh Chakarvarty occupying the centre stage.
Under Shushma Bhadu’s guidance, her village won the “Nirmal Gram Puruskar” given by the Union government for its sanitary conditions, has zero school-dropout rate and a better sex ratio than any other village in Haryana. For the moment though, the sun shines brightest on the little hamlet of 426 women and 416 men. The future looks good too. Sushma delights in reading out the numbers for the zero-to-six age group in their village: “We have 51 girls and 44 boys.” Maybe the days of the khap panchayats are truly numbered. She aims at eradicating female foeticide, dowry menace, illiteracy and alcoholism from her tiny hamlet. Sushma has proved to be the true Iron lady for her village.