Years before women embraced the power and catharsis of #MeToo, Jordan was a single mother who lived with her daughters in Kolkata, in East India. One evening in 2012, when she was on her way home from a club, she was abducted and gang-raped by five men in a car. Bruised and battered, three days later Jordan filed a complaint against her rapists. Although Indian law forbids the press from naming or identifying rape survivors, in an interview with the BBC in 2013, Jordan refused to be identified as the “Park Street Survivor” and reclaimed her identity:
“Why should I hide my identity when it was not even my fault? Why should I be ashamed of something that I did not give rise to? I was subjected to brutality, I was subjected to torture, and I was subjected to rape, and I am fighting and I will fight,” she told the interviewer.
Owning her truth opened Jordan and her family up to further humiliation — Kolkata’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee insinuated Jordan had fabricated her story to malign the government. She was dubbed a prostitute, stigmatized, denied employment, randomly barred from eating in certain restaurants, and threatened with murder by her attackers. But she never gave up.
Until she died of encephalitis in 2015, Jordan worked as a women’s rights activist, supporting a helpline against domestic and sexual violence, while juggling her work, court appearances, and looking after her young daughters and their pet cat.
Across cultures, women unable to bear children naturally battle with the stigma of being infertile. Thimmakka, born to a poverty-ridden family in rural Karnataka, southwest India, was no exception. When she and her husband could not conceive despite years of trying, Thimmakka decided that she would plant trees and care for them as her offspring instead.
Thimmakka began to plant her babies on a 4-kilometer stretch near her village, protecting each sapling from the elements, animals, and other predators with her husband, until every one of them grew into a gigantic and independent tree. Along with several state and national honours, Thimmakka was given the title of “Saalumarada,” which means “row of trees.”
Now 105 years old, Thimmakka has planted over 400 banyan trees in her lifetime, and has finally passed on the responsibilities of looking after her green family to a foster son.
Every year, the occasion of Valentine’s Day in India causes the right wing to get their knickers in a twist. In 2009, a far-right Hindu outfit called the Sri Ram Sena began to attack young people in Karnataka — beating couples seen in pubs, young women feeding stray animals on the street, and just about anyone who caught their eye. The justification offered by a member of the group was that women who drank, smoke, and walked around at night were ruining other “good” women. “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapattis [Indian bread]? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.,” he told an Indian newspaper.
In response to the Sri Ram Sena attacks, a group of women from Bengaluru formed the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women. The group urged women from across the country to flood the Sri Ram Sena headquarters with pink underwear on Valentine’s Day.
The Pink Chaddi campaign (chaddi means underwear in Hindi) inspired a Hindi film many years later, in which Nisha Susan, the journalist who originally came up with the campaign, was replaced by a male character. “We can’t show the campaign as being run by a woman! That won’t be realistic,” the film’s creator told Susan.
Arguably one of the most iconic images from recent Indian history is of a group of naked women holding a sign that says “Indian Army Rape Us.”
The women in the photograph assembled outside the Assam Rifles headquarters in Kangla Fort, Imphal, northeast India, following the brutal rape, torture, and murder of a young woman named Thangjam Manorama, who was picked up by the Indian Army under suspicion of being a rebel.
The women protesting Manorama’s death were aged between 43 and 75 and belonged to the Meira Paibi (or “torchbearers” in Manipuri), a women’s civil rights group formed in 1977. While Manorama’s death was the immediate catalyst for their protest in 2004, the Meira Pabi have witnessed a long history of gendered violence from the Indian Army. Even today, stories of sexual assault and torture are common in Indian states where the Armed Force Special Power Act (AFSPA) is enacted, granting officers immunity from legal proceedings against them.
Often described as “Lady Mohammed Ali,” pugilist Thulasi Helen was born to a Dalit family in Chennai, South India. When she turned 14, Thulasi’s family tried to marry her off to a much older man, at which point she ran away from her home, sleeping at hostels and looking for a way to live her dream of becoming a world-famous boxer.
In India’s casteist society, being Dalit — particularly being a Dalit woman — is to be constantly at the receiving end of incredible social and economic discrimination and violence. Thulasi was well on her way to achieving her dream of becoming a professional boxer when A.K. Karuna, the secretary of the State Boxing Association in India, asked her for cash and sexual favours if she wanted to be considered for the government programme. Risking her life and professional future, Thulasi called out Karuna — and ended up becoming a voice for dozens of other young women who had been abused by him as well.
“We are expected to be obedient and follow a set path. But this is my life. Girls like me of a lower caste have no value. Because I was born Dalit, I’m expected to stay at the bottom. But I dream of a different life,” Thulasi said in an interview.
(Watch a trailer for the documentary on Thulasi’s life, Light Fly, Fly High, here.)
Akkai knew she was a girl at the age of 8; the only problem was that she was assigned a male gender at birth, an identity her family was unwilling to let go of. At 12, Akkai considered killing herself. As she grew older and began to face sexual abuse and harassment from her peers, life only seemed more bleak. One day, Akkai spotted a group of transgender women by the side of the road and asked them how she could be like them.
In India, while a community of transgender people (hijras) are revered on certain religious occasions, a vast majority are still denied basic rights. The only means of livelihood available to most transgender women is still begging and sex work. Akkai was a sex worker for a few years, but found that it left her feeling unhappy and incomplete — men were often abusive, and the work had to be carried out covertly. (Transgender women who work in the sex trade are still living under constant threat of violence.)
But in 2004, Akkai joined a nonprofit organization to help sexual minorities and she continues to be the first port of call for any kind of advice, inspiration, and assistance for the LGBTQI community even today. In 2017, she became one of the only openly transgender people to be invited to a town hall event with Barack Obama.
Married at 16 to a much older man living with tuberculosis, Soni knew that she would have to become the breadwinner of her family. From the very beginning, her in-laws and husband were opposed to her working, but nonetheless happy to live off her earnings. Finally, Soni decided to take her daughters with her and leave the house — becoming a local reporter for a women-only newspaper in Uttar Pradesh.
Four months after she had left home, her husband showed up at her work, begging her to come back. Soni and her daughters moved back in to their old home. Within a few months, her husband began to return to his old ways — he wanted to know where she was at all times of the day, called her constantly at work, and accused her of sleeping with other men. In 2004, Soni was asleep at home with her daughter when her husband poured acid on her face.
Soni ran out of the house, to a government hospital where she had gone just the day before to interview a doctor, and begged him for help. As her treatment began, her husband was admitted to the same hospital, three beds away from her — right after she had left their home, he had attempted suicide. Five days later, Soni’s husband died.
In the years that followed, Soni, an acid-scarred mother of three, trained herself in law and began to fight cases for women undertrials (those detained in prison while a trial is ongoing) in Lucknow’s jails.
“If no one accepts you, reject all of them,” she said over the phone. “I would tell people, if you don’t like my face, don’t look at me, I know just how beautiful I am. Remember, the day you lose your nerve, you lose everything. Keep fighting.”
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