Over 3,500 women attended Village Action's Women's festival 2008
India is changing fast, and the Women's Festival I am going to attend also represents one of the big shifts. Turning into the Auroville Village Action Resource Centre, I follow the pitted road lined with huts and homes built in the new ‘suburban plots' which surround it.
I join a trickle of women in bright coloured saris which soon becomes a stream, all heading for the Women's Festival, Auroville Village Action Group's major event of the year.
The women have paid for half the cost of this gathering; so much do they appreciate this rare day of carefree festivity in their lives. It is these women who are responsible for there even being an Auroville Village Action Group, four years after the crisis of 2004 when it came close to being shut down. Today they are celebrating their successes.
There's much to reflect on as I look out into the bevy of eager faces in the audience. The most obvious and most down-to-earth is the prosperity. When I came to Auroville in 1971 the poverty was gruelling. Village folk were skeletally lean, many children had the distended bellies of malnourishment, and most were dressed in shabby ill-fitting rags. In their low mud-walled huts there was no telephone, moped or television. Today the huts have been transformed into pucca houses, often built using Auroville-introduced technologies. The cheerful faces turned up to the stage are no longer gaunt, but wear beaming smiles from well-rounded cheeks. Although half these women cannot still read or write, their daughters do. When we started, illiteracy amongst women was 85%.
In the beginning, the women born and trained into submission for generations, unquestioningly believed (along with everyone else) that they were not only physically weaker than men, but also mentally weaker, and that they required the care and direction of men to survive. And this in spite of the fact that most men drank heavily and that running the household was the women's task.
Since 1990, Village Action has been encouraging women to join together into women's ‘Self Help-Groups' (SHGs) where they would learn to meet, organise and take up projects for the development of their village. Soon they were seen levelling roads, deepening wells, painting schools, visiting government offices to get street lights fixed and taps and doing everything which was earlier considered unthinkable for women to do. Perceptions began to alter. The village too began to think differently about women – they were invited to the Grama Sabha (village meeting), and sometimes were turned to for advice and direction. Now the women's voices are being heard.
It is this which is being celebrated today. In development language it is called “women's empowerment” but it is more subtle than that. This women's power is not ‘power-over' or ‘power-against' anyone; it is a ‘self-empowerment', and the confidence that comes from finding expression for the profoundly human wish for a better world for the children and for the future.
After the speeches, the women put on a show. And what a show! The first piece was a graceful choreography based on yoga postures set to Mother's music. It was by the group which has learnt to make designer-baskets out of newspaper, and simultaneously, was schooled in managing their business, while the Auroville-based unit, WELL Paper, markets their products. It is now well-known for it socially responsible business.
Lively Bollywood-influenced dances follow. In between the programmes, two feisty women from Pondicherry tell their sisters how they have become minibus-drivers despite all the discrimination, driven to stand up for themselves courageously due to early widowhood and the necessity of feeding their children. Today they speak for women's liberation in the job market.
And then back to art and beauty – a quartet of women from a far-off village swoop and lilt in Bharatanatyam poses. They are slim and svelte, the traditional Tamil type, but the modern prosperity is evident in their elegant saris, jewellery and make up – they are the princesses of the current day.
Photo credit: Giorgio