India’s Moon Catcher: Portrait Of A Feminist Activist

By Neha Dixit Al Jazeera, Doha, Qatar.

It was a winter's afternoon in 1980 when a women's volleyball match between two Indian teams was delayed by an hour.

The team from Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India, was on the court. But the team from Haryana, a north Indian state, had locked themselves inside their dressing room.

The officials were fuming and one was allegedly heard to say: "Instead of being grateful that they have got a platform to play, these girls are acting smart."

Inside the dressing room, intense negotiations were taking place.

Since Jagmati Sangwan of the Haryana team had returned from Mexico and South Korea, where she had played volleyball against women's teams from those countries, the attitudes of the Indian sporting authorities towards women's sport had jarred with her.

That day, she and her five fellow team-mates refused to go out onto the court until they had received some assurances. They had demands: better-quality kit, shoes and balls; improved training facilities; and an increased diet allowance. What they wanted, essentially, was equality with the men's teams.

The officials eventually conceded and assured the team that their demands would be met as soon as the tournament they were playing in was over.

Sangwan's team hit the court and won. She was 20 years old then.

Battle cries In the 35 years since, one thing has remained consistent in Sangwan's life: her belief in collective resistance.

The 55-year-old is now the vice president of the All India Democratic Women's Association, an independent, left-leaning organisation dedicated to achieving democracy and equality. In India, if anyone is responsible for putting the issue of "honour" crimes on the national and international agenda, it is Sangwan.

The day I met her, she had just returned to work a few days after her daughter had suffered post-delivery complications. We are sitting in her office in Shadi Khampur, a working-class district of Delhi.

"Just imagine," she says. "Thirty years back, I faced the same lack of mother and child care when my daughter was born. And now, she is facing the same. Nothing has changed really."

She speaks softly, the constant movement of her hands helping to articulate every point she makes.

But anyone who has ever attended a rally with her and heard her shout slogans such as "Patriarchy is a bluff. This is the time to smash it to dust" as though it were a battle cry, has witnessed the transformation of that soft voice.

'Honour' killings A conservative estimate by experts suggests that there are at least 1,000 honour killings in India every year. Many of those happen in Haryana, the country's third most prosperous state, according to a study by Crisil, and the one from which Sangwan comes.

It is also one of the five Indian states and territories with the worst sex ratio -- at 879 females for every 1,000 males -- and clocks 67 cases of crime against women daily, according to a conservative government estimate.

The largely agricultural state borders the national capital, Delhi, and has greatly benefited from both India's White Revolution, which started in 1970 and saw the country become the world's largest milk producer by 1998, and its Green Revolution, which started in the 1960s with the aim of increasing agricultural yields. Now, a booming real estate industry and service sector are also being kind to the state.

At 24 percent of the population, the largest caste in Haryana is the Jats, traditional pastoralists who became feudal landlords and have steered an identity politics movement through the Khap Panchayats, or clan councils. The Khap Panchayats largely issue diktats to the community on what they should eat and wear, who young people should marry and -- crucially -- on how women should behave. Violating their orders can sometimes be deadly.

The second-largest group in Haryana are the Dalits, the caste traditionally considered the least privileged and were formerly referred to as the 'untouchables'. It is a combination that can make for a particularly oppressive social hierarchy.

In 1995, 17 years before Indians took to the streets in large numbers to express their anger over the gang rape of a 23-year-old student on December 16, 2012, 1,000 women had brought the Sessions Court in the Jind district of Haryana to a halt in protest at one of its judgments.

After hearing a case about the rape of a 12-year-old, the court found the girl's complaint false because, according to medical reports, she was found to be "habitual of sex".

A few months before, the girl's brother had married a girl from his village against the diktat of the clan council, which had ordered all members of the clan not to marry somebody from the same village. As punishment, the council ruled that the boy's 12-year-old sister be raped.

Sangwan breaks it down: "Like in any patriarchal society, a woman is a commodity. If a woman transgresses, violates norms, asserts unconventional demands, firstly, it is assumed that it is not at her behest and free will and, secondly, it is seen as an offence to the honour of the family, clan, religion, depending on which one the 'offended' pick up. It is this notion of honour that the Khap Panchayats operate upon."

It was the first of many protests Sangwan would arrange against the clan councils.

She recalls how the court complex was full of men supporting the clan council on one side and women, some of whom were married to those same men, protesting on the other.

"It was a difficult protest to pull off because these women had taken on the same men who, as husbands, would have thrown them out of the houses in the evening," she says.

"But I have learned one thing: that the weak and vulnerable often understand the meaning of struggle and the need to fight for their rights better and quicker than the privileged. The women felt that they had something at stake in the treatment the court meted out to that young, innocent girl and that is what we channelised."

The court did not budge, but Sangwan believes the women's act of resistance left a mark nevertheless.

A lesson in sexism Sangwan grew up in Janta Bhutan village in the Sonipat district of Haryana, one of eight siblings in a family of farmers.

Like her male siblings, Sangwan was allowed to attend school. But there were differences in what the girls and boys were taught. She "did not even learn science in school", she says.

Then, once the girls reached the age of 15, their schooling just stopped.

It was at school that Sangwan encountered her first case of "honour" killing. A 13-year-old classmate was killed for "talking too much with boys".

When Sangwan was 16, she had her first experience of creating a collective, getting together with a group of girls from her village who wanted to continue their education.

"We would have never been allowed to travel to a college, an hour away in another town," she says, explaining how, as a group, they were able to persuade their parents to let them.

Every morning they would board the bus for the hour's drive to Gohana. And every day, they would run the gauntlet of name-calling, shaming and character assassination directed at females who dared to be in public spaces.

"You must have seen the video of those girls thrashing boys," she says, referring to a video of two young women beating two men who had allegedly harassed them that went viral.

"We did that on a daily basis. There was no other way to deal with the 'Eve teasing'. And mostly, we would be the only women travellers in those buses," she recalls.

For those women who want to pursue an education but cannot afford it without a scholarship, sports colleges sometimes provide one of the only options.

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