Ela Ben: Women, Work and Peace

Women’s struggles in our country have persisted for centuries, with rays of hope coming from different sectors. Ela Ben’s collective SEWA is one such space

Right after Article 370 was scraped from the Indian Constitution, the news about two brother from Bihar marrying two Kashmiri sisters went viral. The two brothers had been working in Kashmir when they fell in love with the sisters, married them and brought them back to Bihar to settle down. The father of those girls filed a police complaint against the brothers as soon as he found out what had happened. The police didn’t waste any time to reach Bihar and capture all four individuals with the help of the Bihar police. Those girls’ plea that moving to Bihar was a unanimous decision, and none of them were minors so they had the legal right to accompany their husbands, fell on deaf ears. The two couples were transferred to Kashmir to be tried in a Kashmiri court. One the one hand, the politics of the nation is trying to merge all cultures into one, while on the other, basic fundamental rights and freedoms are being denied in the name of culture and security.

We’re living in a time when it has become a decisive question for many citizens across the states of India – whether to prioritise one’s ethnic identity or embrace one’s national identity over it? Irrespective of having successfully built a fraternity that paints its diverse layers proudly – with speakers from at least 150 languages – the writers, performers, activists, artists and thinkers of India are suddenly facing a crisis. A crisis that breaks down the fundamental values of humanity, collects all the broken pieces of mutual faith and creates a mirror showing us a face that we didn’t know was hidden inside and around us, like an invisible shadow.

For women, this is just another layer added to their social problems. It has always been a struggle for Indian women to prove their mettle to other women and men inside their house and in the outside world. Recent years have been demanding to the Indian women in terms of secularism, freedom of speech and practice, and most importantly, to their freedom of living life on their own terms. Several movements across India regarding social issues, demands and protests have brought the women from all sects of the society to the forefront, as a collective force, to reject anything the society bestows on women as sympathetic compensation. Instead, women themselves are gradually emerging as a collective power from a confluence of several unstable, ethnic, racial, regional, patriarchal, cast-oriented, physically and psychologically abusive orthodox cauldrons to transform their political status and reconstruct their hierarchy. It is a very gradual and steady process which encourages social governance born out of the fabrics of different initiatives from various layers of society, which are being executed by the women, for the women – understanding the need of women and creating a socio-economic texture to support that need.

Although M. K. Gandhi iterated several times that equality between men and women is of utmost importance, and that in his own experience, women in pre-independence India had taken up responsibilities and shown courage in conditions in equal capacity with men; he became confused with the distribution of power between men and women. He said that women should be taught responsibility and duty and that they had the right to rule the household, while the men were better suited to the outside world. In a country, where more than half of the population is below the poverty line even in 2019; where raped and abused women are still subjected to mindboggling, abusive questioning in police stations and open courts; where children’s education still has a long way to go to bring it even close to the satisfactory level and, child labour has almost been perfected as a classical art, and incidents of child marriage are a slap on the face of the Indian constitution in many northern states; in a country where feticide in some states has drastically lowered the number of women in those states within the past few decades  – we’re in dire need to reconstruct the idea of swaraj  and keep fighting for the fundamental rights of women.

It is not enough to make some efforts to bring a change; rather, it is absolutely necessary to lead people effectively, courageously, independently and selflessly, so that they can learn, practice, recreate and inspire through generations of communities, through different waters, and bridge the gap among different skies. When asked in Yale University to introduce herself in a public lecture, Ela Ben, the founder of SEWA said, “I would describe my life as ‘women, work and peace.” A woman who understands that a woman is the core of a society, and the only way to change the diminishing ways of a corrupt, confused and divided society is to change the way its women think, work, act, influence, and modify, has already created a destiny and a path towards it with a clear goal for the generations to come.

In this light, we feature Ela Ben as the Renaissance Person of our current issue. Over the decades, she has been an exemplary inspiration to help transform lives of thousands of underprivileged Indian women, not only fulfilling, but also reconstructing all the above-mentioned conditions. Conditions that are tailored to establish transformed governance – required as the foundation of a structural and systematic initiative towards a better, consistent, and more transparent nation-building principle, energetically dependent on the freedom and awareness of the confident mind of that nation’s women.

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