Ostracised and slapped with a huge “fine” by the community panchayat for going to work, six women of this sleepy village, 60 km from the national capital, tell a story more complicated than that of patriarchy feeling threatened by the idea of financially independent women. Ten days into the boycott, the women have shown a rare courage, an inspiring story to emerge from a deprived community.
Geeta, Premwati, Ombiri, Suman, Pinki and Rekha belong to the most backward Nat community, and they have “broken the social norm” by going to work in nearby paper mills and meat factories.
The Nat panchayat, in a diktat issued on May 10, banned them from working in the factories. When they did not abide by the order, the panchayat ordered the 200 Nat families in the settlement to boycott the women and their families. The panchayat diktat states that if the women want to be a part of the community again, they will have to bear hundred lashes in public, pay a Rs. 1 lakh penalty for each person and stop going to work.
‘Moneylenders behind boycott’
The social boycott of these women has started showing its impact as grocery shop owners have refused to sell them anything. On Wednesday, the six families were asked not to use the government water pump in the Nat colony.
“Right now, nobody talks to us. Even my brother-in-law who stays next to my house doesn’t want to be seen talking to my family because he will also be declared an outcaste,” says Geeta, more forthcoming of the six.
“Essentially, it is about a set of moneylenders in the community trying to prevent women from working, which has the potential to destroy their thriving business. Though my community is socially and economically deprived, the affluent ones among us lend money to maximise their capital. These men control the panchayat.”
The standard rate of interest is 120 per cent, Premwati says. “The moneylenders don’t want to see women working. Since we owe them money, they don’t want us to become financially independent,” she says.
“We can manage like this. The local administration and the people living in neighbouring areas have helped us a lot,” says Ms. Geeta adding that the local police have assured them of security. Having seen the community’s ways of dealing with issues, she is scared of violence. The women may have to migrate to some other village in case of violent reaction from the “frustrated community panchayat”, as she terms them.
A prominent member of the Nat panchayat, who does not want to be named because “the matter has reached the police,” rejects the allegations. “We asked these women not to go to factories because there were instances of rape. They refused to accept the panchayat’s order. So we penalised them,” he says.
Before announcing the social boycott, the panchayat members allegedly advised them not to work and instead borrow from them. But Ms. Geeta and her friends rejected the advice. “We don’t want to be slaves for our entire lives. Our defiance was a big jolt to their ego. They were infuriated,” says Ms. Premwati, who has seen how people in her community, even after toiling lifelong, could not repay loans.
She had borrowed Rs. 1.5 lakh for her daughter’s marriage. Her husband, Yashpal, cannot work for days at a stretch. So, she chips in. Rekha, a widow, borrowed Rs. 50,000 two years ago. She has returned just Rs. 10,000. Ombiri’s husband is sick. In all, the six women owe Rs. 3 lakh to the moneylenders. Without any asset or saving, they have to work as daily-wagers to pay back the loans.
Ms. Geeta says the panchayat spread rumours about them. “The panchayat members started telling people that we are sex workers in disguise,” she says.
Despite the Nat community being strictly guided by the rules of community living, the women have found support among other women.