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What’s in a ‘last’ name?

“So if you are so much against all kinds of discrimination and claim to be a feminist, how come you have adopted your husband’s last name?” – It’s a question I have been asked numerous times! Those who asked me this didn’t know me before marriage. Hence, they didn’t know that I have always been Sejal ‘Parikh’! It was a co-incidence that my and Pulkit’s last names were the same. Around the time I got married, I was even told by some that I got lucky, as I wouldn’t have to change my last name! The fact is that well before I decided to tie the knot with Pulkit. I had made up my mind not to let marriage alter my name. In fact, I have spent many days wishing that Pulkit’s and my last names were different, because, then, people around me wouldn’t have been led to the misconception about me being a hypocritical feminist who doesn’t walk the talk!

During the time I was in Gurgaon, my eyes opened to the many ways through which men in our society oppress, exploit or discriminate against women. One of those ways is the name changing post marriage. One’s name is an important part of her identity. That’s what everyone around has all along recognized her through. Yet, when she’s married, she is supposed to change her middle name (or last name in some cultures) to her husband’s name, and his surname as her last name, as if she is an object, whose identity is immaterial to the society and her property rights are transferred from the father to the husband.  (I had a friend from Rajasthan, who was asked to change even her first name!).

I think 21st century women have woken up to this issue to some extent, hence we see the flourishing a new trend – hyphenating two surnames (usually only for informal settings like social networks – nothing changes legally though). It is an attempt to save her original identity, but sadly, she is still unwilling/unable to get rid of the hubby-stamp completely. Why can’t she just be what she was before marriage?

It’s unfortunate that due to decades of patriarchal conditioning, many women also have internalized the notion that they are second-class members of their families and the society. So, many think that it’s their duty to assume their husband’s last names, and they would be doing something wrong if they didn’t adhere to the “societal norm”. This attitude needs to change. Women have to start demanding to retain their identity and rights to do anything we wish, not only with our names but also with our lives, just like men do! Of course, the struggle becomes easier if husbands too stand by their wives against the pressure of society. In my case, since changing last name wasn’t needed, I was asked to change my middle name. Needless to say, that never happened. And, strong support from Pulkit made things go smooth.

Hypothetically, if the situation was to reverse, as in if our society was to turn matriarchal, would men be okay with changing their last names (or even first in some cases)?

Wedding woes

She calls herself a 21st century girl, perhaps rightly. Having been given a good quality education, she has been able to bag a high paying job in a multinational company and attain financial independence. She considers her equal to men in all areas, be it at education or work. She wants her right to go out late at night and wear any cloths of her choosing. However, all this independence and equality goes right out of the window when it comes to the super-hyped mega event – the wedding. No, a big fat Indian wedding. She wants flashy dresses and heavy jewelry, a grand bash, even if it costs her parents a fortune. Many of the rituals/practices during and after the wedding are deeply patriarchal, yet this advocate of gender equality has no trouble embracing them. Yes, she is a 21st century girl, but far from an ideal one.

Pardon me if I came out a bit too harsh in the above paragraph, but this has exactly been observation so far (with few exceptions). Being a girl, I wrote this with a female focal point. But, that doesn’t at all mean that girls are not the only guilty party. Many girls don’t have the support of the would-be-husband, even if they want to keep things simple. I was shocked to find many of my male colleague openly sharing expectations of a hefty dowry plus a working wife! The blame, though, doesn’t fall on the bride and groom completely. The parental pressure too is immense. The parents, in turn, succumb to societal pressure. And come to think of it, who forms this society? You, me, our parents and people around us!

Ever since I gained this perspective, I had decided not to fall into this trap and was determined to a simple wedding for myself. Fortunately my soul-mate too had similar ideas and we clicked immediately. And today, after almost 5 years, I still think of it as one of the most significant decisions made by us. I thank a dear friend for coaxing me to write this post and capture how we got married.

Our initial plan was to have a registered marriage but later we agreed for a simple wedding in Arya Samaj Mandir in presence of immediate family members numbering around 30-35 and a small lunch in a nearby restaurant. We did not want any relatives to make their own assumptions for not inviting them to the wedding. Hence we came up with a concept of a ‘wedding intimation card‘ which explained in detail our reasons for the simple wedding. As for the parents, they took some time to make peace with our beliefs, but they did come around later.

I was recently asked if I have ever regretted this decision. Forget any regret; I am proud of it! I am proud that I was not a financial burden to my parents, that I broke many male chauvinistic stereotypes of conventional marriages. If I hadn’t done it, I would always have felt the guilt of not walking the talk of independence and equality.

Marriages should be thought of as a coming together of two souls. Today, we emphasize more on the coming together of caterers, bands/DJs, decorators, jewelers and dress designers. Is it the right way forward for the society?

Jagrutha Mahila Sangathan

JMS Hut in Potnal

I came to know about the existence of JMS during the AID-India Conference, where Savitri displayed terracotta jeweleries. Later Sudha mentioned to me about the help required for terracotta unit, and that’s how I ended up visiting them.

Jagrutha Mahila Sangathan (JMS), a collective of dalit women and agricultural labourers struggling for their rights, was started by Premdas (who’s now working with CHC) and his friends in Potnal in 1999. It has found its office in a hut kind of an arrangement in Potnal, a village in Manavi Taluka, Raichur district. JMS now has grown in to 50 Sanghas (covering villages in Manavi and Sindhnur talukas) that mobilizes women agricultural laborers.

Weekly meeting with Women's SHGs

I reached there on 7th Feb around 11am. I was taken around the place by Savitri, a young JMS worker who’s from Potnal itself. She briefed me about JMS activities in general till the Karyakarta meeting started. It is a monthly meeting, where in 2 women from all the 50 Sanghas come as representatives. There are 7 full time Sanchalikas who manage these Sanghas. The meeting begun with kannada songs that discussed issues with PDS, Devdasi system, etc. Savitry tried her best to give me a running commentary about the songs in English! Later the women came up with various issues regarding NREGA, NRHM, untouchability, etc. that prevail in their villages. For instance, there was a complaint from a woman that she hasn’t been getting full pay for her work under NREGA; later we discovered that she had handed over all her account books to Gram Panchayat people and relied on them for her money!

Thadakkal village has a new PHC sub-center coming up, for which a gowda has been handling the contract. Even though the government has issued a grant of 2 lakh, he is planning to build the center in a relatively small place (it’s not that there is not enough land available), so that he can put the rest of the amount in his pocket. Just when the women were discussing this issue, someone informed about a Taluka level public hearing in progress at Potnal PHC. Everyone headed towards PHC to share this concern. Savitri and other JMS workers helped the women to frame their complaints.  Finally,  the officer agreed to set up a visit to the village next week.

After coming back to the JMS hut, Ratna (JMS worker and Taluka level coordinator for JAA-K) and Snehalata (JAA-K resource person) gave information about some of the new NRHM schemes to all the women. When they discussed JSY, there was a mention about nurses taking money for the delivery, let alone JSY benefits. The women were scared that if they refuse,  the delivery of the next child in their family may be affected!

Women Making Terracotta stuff

Post lunch, I spent some time with the Terracotta Unit. Koshi, another founder of JMS had trained around 150 women several years back, out of which only 14 consists the SHG at present, each drawing 50/- per day as salary from the income.  There are other women wanting to get involved , but due to high inventory and slow sales, they are suffering from a huge backlog of payments as of now, hence can’t expand. Though Dastkar has been able to provide some help in arranging ~4 exhibitions a year, it has not been enough. None of the women knows Hindi or English to communicate effectively in big cities. I and Savitri exchanged several ideas, one of which was to create a brochure and web presence. Hopefully, I shall be able to help them with that.

Chilipili kids

Later in the evening Chilipili kids positioned themselves in a circle outside JMS hutf or tuition. Chilipili is a residential school (running inside the JMS hut) started  a year back to help ex-child laborers, funded by SSA and NCLP.  They have around 40-50 kids (mostly drop-outs) and 3 teachers. However, the funding per child and teacher’s salary that they received from government is quite insufficient, hence the rest of the requirements are supported by JMS funds. Kids started the session by singing songs on child labour. I tried to talk to some kids having Savitri as interpreter. I thought I’d make them talk to me in Hindi, but kids turned out to be smarter,  forcing me to learn to converse in Kannada :-).

Next day early morning, I was awakened by the morning prayer and Yoga sessions of Chilipili kids. Sunday is the cleaning day for the kids. Since it’s not possible to afford any full-time maid for the premises, kids are taught to be self-sufficient. They clean their rooms, wash vessels and clothes, plaster the compound outside with cow dung, maintain vegetable garden, etc. very efficiently. At 11 o’ clock, kids packed their clothes and headed for a bath at Tungabadra river. Some of the photographs in my album show their  innocent  exuberance. They just loved being photographed.

My noon time was spent with one of the workers in Herbal medicine group. Over 15 women constructed this group and a few of them have been trained in Herbal medicine at several places. Their herbal clinic on Thursday witnesses a big crowd from surrounding villages giving them a fair sale. Neem fertilizer group is another income generating group,  totally managed by 20 women and produces 50 tonnes of unadulterated need fertilizer that is supplied to various groups practicing organic farming. The unit begged ‘the Citigroup/UNDP 2005 Micro Entrepreneur Award’ for South India. Unfortunately time did not permit me to know more about them or talk to them. All the three income generation group fall under one brand coined as ‘Chirugu Enterprise’.

-)

In the evening, I talked to Chilipili kids about lifestyle in Gujarat. When Savitri suggested this to me, I was blank about how to begin. Somehow I ended up telling them about Gandhi/Sardar Patel and food/festivals later.  I understood the reason behind Savitri’s suggestion as soon as I heard the questions from kids. I truly wished I could spend a day more with kids when I found them asking – “do they have monkeys/buffaloes in Gujarat?”, “Do you find grapes, apples there?”. Kids then asked me for a photography session, after which I started back for Bangalore.

On the way to Bus-stop, I along with Savitri, Snehalata and Padma (a chilipili teacher) visited Potnal PHC. Though the board outside said the center functions 24*7, Sundays are treated as holidays by doctors. However,  Snehalata mentioned that PHC has improved a lot after NRHM in terms of facilities.

In all, the weekend at JMS proved to be eventful as well as educational, and I didn’t miss having Pulkit around at all  :-).

PS: In case anyone is interested in helping the Terracotta group, please contact me to discuss more about the possibilities.

Why are fasts a for-women-only affair?

Yep, I am not yet done criticizing some of the blindly followed Indian traditions, especially the custom of keeping fasts/vratas that is woven into the lives of Indian women! Recently, I came across an interesting theory that throws light on why Indian women fast for the long lives of their husbands (or would-bes). What it says is that the Indian society doen’t allow a happy/peaceful life for a widow or an unmarried woman, so it is critically important for a girl to not to stay un-married for long and for a wife to stay married perpetually.  Well, on the premise that you believe in the power of a prayer (I don’t), the argument does make sense in the current setting although I want the situation to be reversed asap i.e. I want to witness increasingly less dependence of women on men. That, btw, doesn’t imply that I am against dating guys or marriages or anything like that.

On the lighter side of things, as I had remarked earlier, there is a scarcity of decent guys in the country (and everywhere else, for that matter 🙂 ). Hence, unmarried gals have got to pray for a good dude, and those, who are fortunate to have found rare good ones, have to try all their might to hang on to them for their lifetime!

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