Women Activist Writings from the North-East: A Perspective
By Sabreen Ahmed
The term ‘activist writing’ connotes a sense of resistance and protest. In such writing, the authorial voice is pitted against the established norms that prove detrimental to both public and private identity of an individual. In case of activist writing by women in the North-East, which is still a virgin area in terms of extensive research and analysis, there is a sense of tripartite resistance –first, towards the norms of patriarchal control against women; second, the forces hindering feminine freedom to move out as agents in the public sphere; and third, the tenets of neo-colonization in the North-East at different points of time. It is still a little early to locate the specific trends or the methodological features of activist writing from the North-East. The areas that specifically come under focus are Manipur and Nagaland, where there are highly functional activist groups like North East Network and Naga Mothers Association respectively and the comparatively much lesser politically active Mahila Samities in our own state of Assam. Literature from this region is replete with women’s voices like Indira Goswami, Nirupama Borgohain, Arupa Patangia Kalita, Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao, Sabita Goswami, Rita Chowdhury, Easterine Kire, Mitra Phukan, Uddipana Goswami, Indrani Raimedhi, Binalakshmi Nepram, Teresa Rehman, among others. These voices, both in English as well as in the vernacular tongues, fall within the larger body of women’s writing from the region but in the domain of activist writing we don’t come across such a polyphony of voices.
Before making a list of radical texts on women activism, we need to draw a brief outline of the kind of women activism that has been historically and sociologically documented from across the North-Eastern states. Beginning with Manipur, one can historically situate Manipuri women as active social agents, who have never hesitated to come out to the public sphere for protest. Nupi Lan, which means “Women’s War” in Manipuri, has long been an integral part of the state’s political history. The first Nupi Lan dates back to the pre-Independence era in 1904, when 5,000 women joined the week-long struggle against hard labor imposed by the British, and the British eventually reversed the order. The second Nupi Lan focused on policies that resulted in an artificial famine during harvest season in the late 1930s. Both continue to be celebrated till this day. In 1980, Manipur was declared a disturbed region due to insurgent activities and AFSPA was imposed in the state. Around this time, well informed women, including Lourembam Nganbi, led a spontaneous movement known as Meira Paibi (“Women Torchbearers”) in the districts to negotiate and protest against conflicts of all kinds. As Manipuris in the valley say: Every Meitei woman – i.e., woman belonging to the state’s dominant ethnic community – is a Meira Paibi. From being an informal group to punish drunkards and anti-social elements, the movement has evolved as a potent political force. Women have learnt the power of group effort and have taken up many social causes, the latest being the Manorama case, when a dozen Manipuri women stripped to protest against army exigencies in the state. The Tezpur-based journalist, Teresa Rahman, in her recent book, Mothers of Manipur, offers a graphic description of the heinous scenario of subjugation through her bold activist narrative, one of the very few from the region. Rahman’s narrative depicts how the twelve naked women protested against the social evil of rape and human rights violation because of AFSPA. Similarly, in the case of Nagaland, the NMA or Naga Mothers Association has a strong foothold and it played a major role in the political negotiations – the latest leading to a 2015 ceasefire – but was conveniently excluded from the negotiating table with the Indian States. It apparently was a “dialogue of men”. The activism of groups such as the NMA has encouraged women to join pressure groups to defend their rights; yet Naga women have still a long way to go to gain greater space in active political participation.
Much has been written and negotiated on the colonial struggles where women performed an active role as agents in the context of the Assam Women’s Movement but there is still a need to analyze the different feminist waves in relation to these struggles and the writings coming out of these struggles. Women’s activism in the Brahmaputra Valley has to be situated within the broader context of nationalist mobilization, where these women organizations played a crucial role and students as the ‘organic intellectuals’ created the necessary strategic alliances with the women, peasants, and workers during the Indian National Movement (Deka : 2012b). The greatest feminist icon during the freedom struggle was Chandrapra Saikiani, the founder of Asom Mahila Samiti. She was both a political activist and a feminist writer. In her book, Mahila Samitir Ittibriti (History of the Mahila Samiti), published in 1961, Saikini wrote of the strong support the Assam Mahila Samiti got from the Assam Sahitya Sabha and Assam Literary Association. In the present scenario, the Mahila Samities in the state do not have such a strong public consensus. The most common means for progressive women to advance social goals is through organized activities and concerns regarding the pressing issues, something which is heavily lacking in the present day Assamese society. In a similar vein, Joanna Mehjabeen rightly points out:
At the historical level as pointed out by sources, women of Assam did mobilize and play historically significant public roles since independence and subsequently during the Assam Movement of 1979. But such mobilization did not however translate into greater political roles or make any significant impact on the masses of women. Second, at the more contemporary level, issues specific to women in Assam which has a larger pan Indian connotation like trafficking, human rights violation by armed forces aimed at women, witch-hunting, etc. have failed to make it into the agenda of the so called Indian Women’s Movement unlike issues such as dowry, sati, bride burning, etc. Notwithstanding the presence or absence of a coherent women’s movement in Assam, the myth of women in the region being better off continues to be at play.
In Assam, there are a number of interventions for peace by women’s groups but they are largely based on local, specific issues. During and after the army atrocities in Nalbari and North Lakhimpur in 1989 and 1991 respectively, consequences of the heightened activities of ULFA, a number of women’s groups for peace sprung up. The most outstanding of these was the Matri Manch based in Guwahati. This group became the rallying point for mothers, whose sons had disappeared. They rallied around the issue of abuse of women. They took out protest marches against sexual abuses and violence against women. When their protest became more general, different insurgent groups started threatening them. There is still a scope for research based on the documentation of these protest groups as no activist writing is available on the same. There are other groups such as a number of Bodo women’s groups, like the Bodo Women’s Justice Forum, that organise issue-based peace marches and protests. Birubala Rabha silently carries on her protest against witch hunting in Goalpara district. Currently, Monisha Behal, the founding member of North East Network (NEN) indulges in activist writing from Assam. NEN is a women’s rights organization working in the North-East with a focus on women’s human rights. It acts as a facilitator for the Northeastern women regarding issues of livelihood, health, conflict governance through capacity building, awareness raising, networking research and advocacy (Raimedhi 129). Indrani Raimedhi, a columnist from Assam, is eloquent about gender concerns in her writings. Her book, My Half of the Sky, a pen portrait of twelve pioneering women achievers from the North-East, can be considered as a valuable resource for the study of activist writings from this part of the country.
Coming to Meghalaya, the only North-Eastern state with a matrilineal social set up, the need for women’s activism has not been felt to that extent. However, at an individual level, the editor of Shillong Times, Patricia Mukhim is an accomplished activist writer. Further, Hasina Kharbibh of Meghalaya, a social entrepreneur, has devoted her life to end human trafficking. She is the founder of Impulse NGO Network, which developed the Meghalaya model to address the root causes of human trafficking. For her innovative work, she was nominated for the Ashoka Fellowship.
The analysis presented above is a glimpse of the activist issues and writings that need more vigorous documentation than is available at present. Meeta Deka’s book, Women’s Agency and Social Change: Assam and Beyond is a potential resource material for grafting feminist historiography in the region. Women activism and activist writings from the region as already mentioned in the beginning need greater intervention from current day scholars engaging in gender-based research.
Sabreen Ahmed teaches in Nowgong College, Assam.
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