Monday, December 4, 2017

#nosgbv Politics, with passion

I heard the term Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) for the first time in 2011. I was not convinced of the category--and as with self-nominated awards which are the norm now--I was sceptical: How do we sift the genuine defender from the many pretenders? I did not contest that WHRD faced a special category of challenges in doing their work. That seemed obvious. When you layer patriarchy's obstacle course for women seeking to work in the public sphere with the state's antipathy to challenges, it is clearly going to be very, very hard--especially hard--for women to do human rights work.

The other concern is, what is human rights work? Pretty much everything, really. So again, who is a WHRD? It seems to me I am an ordinary person doing some work on gender, peace and rights until the state decides it doesn't like. So it really is the state's reaction to WHRD that necessitates and creates the category? Perhaps.

Six years later, the analytical concerns remain but they feel insignificant next to the work that WHRD do.

There are the famous ones. The women of Idinthakarai. Teesta Setalvad. Soni Sori. Ruth Manorama. Those names are only the beginning of a list. And then there are the countless others--the uneducated women who can talk labour law and economics as well as anyone in an economics think-tank; the women from communities in the crossfire between state and militants who are able to talk about counter-insurgency and impunity; the journalists who take risks and face rape threats for writing about what is happening in the world. Honestly, the list is very, very long, of women who get up and go out and do what is needed to build a better, a fairer world. All of them are extremely important to the world in which they work and most of them are insignificant in the eyes of the world. Whether we hear about them or not, all of them face any number of challenges doing their work.

The double burden of housework and outside work, that dogs women in any sphere, does not spare them. Women multi-task because they have no choice. They face criticism for neglecting their families, even if they don't, and many women receive zero support from their spouses and children, forget appreciation. They are ridiculed, reviled, threatened and in the case of women defenders, the threat extends to family members--"I will hurt your children. Your spouse." After all the work that they do, day to day, they are rarely the face of their movement. When time comes for the official dialogue, the negotiation or the UN conference, it is the man who gets to go. Women are sent out as the vanguard of protest marches, bearing the first lathi blows, but decisions are made by men.

And yet, women go on for the simple reason that Jody Williams, Nobel Laureate, gave me last month: "I can't un-see."

Against all the odds, they are out their fighting--not for their rights, but ours. They do it with passion, and with humour.

Both of which were conspicuously missing from a student debate last week on whether WHRD deserved special attention. It made me wonder whether making something part of a curriculum simply sucks the life out of it. Does education hammer out every last sign of life in the human spirit?

I have had the privilege of knowing--on pedestals and as peers--many, many women human rights defenders, most of whom may have not cared about the term. They do care from the bottom of their toes to the tops of their heads and back about the world in which we live, and they pour every last particle of spirit into what they do. They cry, they rant, they laugh, they sing, they listen, they connect with others and they love. Being with them is a renewal of one's own spirit.

The debate on Wednesday was lacklustre and ill-informed despite an OCD prep-sheet we had despatched in advance. And most heart-breaking, the speakers seemed to be going through the motions. I ask you, if those who fought for us everyday--through all the storms of life and through all the barriers of patriarchy, class and state--brought this (lack of) spirit to their work, where would we stand?

WHRD certainly deserve a fraction of the passion and love they invest, as a return.

Please support those who are trying to support WHRD, in their work and when they are in trouble, by supporting their evacuation and asylum:


Within India, you might consider donating to:

  • (PUCL does not accept donations, but you can certainly find a way to support their work)

These are some of the people who consistently work to defend human rights defenders. There are many others, and you can Google, do your own 'due diligence' and give. Bear in mind that you are making this decision to support human rights work at a moment that is fraught everywhere in the world. Governments take human rights activism personally and respond with pettiness and force. WHRD (and other human rights defenders) stand their ground in the face of this; won't you? If not now, then when?

No comments: