Sangwan, Jagmati and Singh, Shamsher, ‘Women’s Participation in Protests against the Three Farm Laws in India Perspectives from the Ground’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 57, Issue no. 43, October 22, 2022
India has had a long history of protests against the ruling government, be it during the colonial rule of the British, or against the government in independent India. And despite the prevalent patriarchal system, women have actively participated in these protests alongside men. Women activists, politicians and leaders have emerged from even the most orthodox regions of the country.
While women have always found creative forms of protests within patriarchal structures, protests against the State or with a common cause gave them the opportunity to dissent openly, voice out their issues, and create a space for themselves within the larger discourse.
Many academic papers discuss the imperative role of women in protests. Among them Jagmati Sangwan and Shamsher Singh’s article ‘Women’s Participation in Protests against the Three Farm Laws in India Perspectives from the Ground’, documents and discuss the role played by women in one of the largest protests in world history against the three contentious agriculture laws passed by the government, which the farmers feared would lead to the abolishment of the minimum support price, leaving them at the mercy of big corporates. These protests were analysed through participant observation of the unfolding movement at different locations in and around Delhi. Documentation of the protests by the People’s Archive of Rural India, social media platforms like Youtube and independent media were also studied to understand the various aspects of the protests.
The authors explain that while not surprising, the enthusiastic participation of women in the farmers’ protest was a phenomenal event that unfolded during the course of the one-year-long agitation. The reasons behind their participation are rooted in the historic conditions and socio-economic factors that affect women throughout the country. Yet, it is notable that most women who participated, came from States where women, especially from rural regions, are disadvantaged by the patriarchal systems that constrain them. Though women play a crucial role in the agricultural process in these regions, they are denied land ownership and are expected to do unpaid or exchange labour.
With the coming of the farm laws, the already precarious condition of farmers in the country was expected to become even more unstable due to the lack of State protection mechanisms. Furthermore, the lack of food security directly affected women, who are already burdened with the responsibility of managing the domestic (food) needs of the family. Thus, the decision of the government seemed to have pushed them to the brink.
From being mere spectators of the movement, they joined the men demanding the repeal of the agriculture laws. They took up responsibilities of the production and distribution of food and bringing supplies to the sites. Many of them drove themselves in tractors to the protest sites, symbolising their status as farmers. Women’s dissent, though directed towards the government, questioned and challenged the society that burdens them disproportionately and acts oblivious towards their contributions to farming.
Women have always subtly challenged society; be it through clothing, gossiping, folk songs mocking their in-laws or expressing eroticism and folk art among others.
And in recent times, by participating in sporting events primarily associated with masculinity, preparing for the civil services or pursuing higher education, and engaging in mixed caste or mixed religion marriages, women from rural regions, especially from the north, have defied patriarchal norms.
Even during the demonstrations, womens’ presence added texture to the mainstream protests. Borrowing the rhythms of folk tunes, women created songs and slogans that mocked the new laws, discussed the problems of the peasantry and workers, and challenged the political system. Women’s participation in the protests also helped in creating a festive mood, boosting the morale of the protesters as they struggled with harsh conditions (weather, police harassment) at the protest sites. Local festivals were celebrated, where gender roles of certain local traditions were subverted.
An interesting aspect of the movement was that within the agitation against the government, women managed to assert their place in the protests, challenging the structures that constrained them. For instance, during a victory celebration event in Rohtak, when someone announced from the podium, “Brothers! Please have tea arranged for you on the right side of the stage,”, a woman from the audience intervened and asked, “… and what about the sisters?”.
While women were not allowed to give speeches or sit on the podium at the beginning of the protests, their opposition to such constricting norms, gave women a space on the stage to give compelling speeches that inspired more women to join the movement. It must also be noted that though the initial conditions of the protest sites were unfavourable for women in terms of sanitation and safety, they managed to organise committees to address these issues. Many women volunteers, lawyers and activists supported the cause, while women journalists from independent media actively documented the events of the protests. By becoming more gender inclusive, the protest managed to attract more media attention and support from the general public.
There is no doubt that the movement was historic in many aspects, though the authors caution us to look at the event with a pinch of salt.
There were many challenges that women faced during the protests. As the division of labour was mostly decided according to gender roles, women were made responsible for cooking, cleaning and taking care of the elders. In many of the protest sites they were asked to cover their face while on the podium and in a few instances, they were even harassed and molested.
Further, it was seen that the landless, irrespective of their gender limited their participation in the protests. This could be associated with the class and caste inequalities that replicated itself within the farmers’ movement, with oppressive structures like the Khap panchayats being reproduced in the sites.
Thus, women’s participation in the farmer’s protests against the State brought them to the centre stage of agrarian politics and proved that society’s attitude towards women activists and agitators was changing in the right direction. Yet, Indian society has a long way to go in providing equal spaces for people from different genders, castes and classes within protests.