In a land of stories – of knowledge passed down through generations from teacher to student in oral form—the unwritten word has unique significance. Looking back a decade, I remember how much I loved two stories in particular that my father would narrate all the time.
The first was like the script of a fast-paced action movie: Dad left Lahore along with the rest of his family in bulletproof buses. They fiercely guarded their favorite toys, and had to keep throwing them out one by one, to make room for other children trying to cross the newly created and increasingly violent border between India and Pakistan. The year was 1947, and despite all its promises, the Partition –leading to the largest mass migration in history—had left a trail of refugees and massacres behind. The second story reached further back in time into the pre-colonial days of the Mughal dynasty, weaving an intricate web of intrigue within the royal family of old Delhi. As a 6 year old, I internalized the richness of a culture feeding off of its diversity; the unparalleled era of Muslim emperors ruling over a primarily non-Muslim population.
Did these stories leave any trace on the path my life was to eventually take? I majored in History, devouring theories on the medieval and colonial periods; followed by a degree in Conflict Resolution, where I focus on identity conflict, particularly Hindu-Muslim relations in India. It’s fairly clear to see – the power of a story well-told.
The women-led courts are based on stories.
I have been listening to the stories of the constant stream of women who walk through the doors of Vikalp’s office everyday. Sometimes the narrative consists of stories that justify oppression – stories embedded so deep as to be unquestioned: ‘Of course I can only eat after, and less than, the men in the house’, ‘My brother died from sickness as a child – it is understandable because God will take away what is more precious’, ‘I cannot leave my husband – who will look after me? A single women has no existence’, My in-laws beat me constantly, of course my husband cannot do anything but watch – it is not his fault – he cannot disobey his parents’.
Other times the stories are subversive – they justify a radical shift towards ‘justice’: ‘If he lays a hand on me again, I will beat him likeKali, the goddess of war’, ‘Why should I give my wages to my abusive,jobless husband?, ‘He is not a guest in the house-he can cook for himself’,’He has a financial responsibility towards his children-I will threaten to call up his employer in case he does not pay this month’s maintenance for the child’. The official legal system is conspicuous in its absence.
Some of these women weave their identity and belief systems into stories of acceptance – justifying oppressive structures through myriad myths of creation, destiny, reincarnation, the mysterious work of the gods, the opacity of the legal system, and other infinite narratives passed down by the powerful to mute the marginalized. And it is often through stories themselves – alternative stories reclaimed, re-ignited, or invented that these women fight back, inch by inch, laying their first claim to justice. This demand is just the beginning, but it is a critical beginning, one that begins to reverse generations of structural violence. Too often, socio-cultural norms are, or are posited as, contradictory to women’s rights and justice. Alternative stories attempt to bridge this chasm.
Perhaps in a land of stories – justice often begins with a tale well told.
Note: I attended my first Nari Adalat (women’s court) yesterday, and will attempt to answer many of the crucial questions asked about the alternative dispute resolution system in the previous blog entry as soon as I can make sense of it all!
Posted By Jasveen Bindra (India)
Posted Jun 12th, 2013