On Thursday, April 4, Indian women across the country marched in protest for their rights. Under the banner of ‘Women March 4 Change’, women and their allies conducted their own version of a women’s march in more than half the states in India.
Women from 143 districts of 20 different Indian states, especially in major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bengaluru, agitated against gender-based violence and discrimination, while encouraging people to vote in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
In a statement, Women March 4 Change organisers said that attendees marched to “reject the current environment of hate and violence and to claim their constitutional rights a citizens of a democratic republic.”
The organisation voiced concerns about rising “attacks on minorities, especially Muslims, Dalits and Christians, which have taken various forms including fake encounter killings and mob lynching by the cow vigilantes, [which has] created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity”.
In a nutshell, women across India marched for a range of issues from the inclusion of women and transgender people in workplaces and leadership positions to making public spaces safer for vulnerable minorities.
“Most importantly, we need to fight against the shrinking of our democratic spaces and the crackdown on dissent”, said the organisation. In fact, one of the most popular chants at the march was that of “Azadi”, like in Kanhaiya Kumar’s famous speech at JNU.
What is a women’s march?
The official Women’s March organisation in the U.S. said that the mission of these marches are to create communities interested in social change.
“Women’s March is a women-led movement providing intersectional education on a diverse range of issues and creating entry points for new grassroots activists & organizers to engage in their local communities through trainings, outreach programs and events”, said Women’s March.
Essentially, these marches aim to give women and other marginalised communities a collective voice and demonstrate for actionable change or against harmful policies.
In 2017, cities in the US saw huge turnouts for its Women’s March because people were protesting against Trump’s presidency. That same year, marches took place all over the world such as Europe, South America, and Southeast Asia.
In 2018, places like Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Iceland, UK, and countries in Africa also joined the movement and held Women’s Marches.
Protestors ushered in 2019 with marches on the streets of Berlin, Washington, and London, as early in the year as January. As the global protest entered its third year in action, people from 30 countries participated and took to the streets together.
Women’s safety in India
Rallies urging justice for Jyoti Singh and Jessica Lal have been two prolific battle cries for activists concerned about women’s safety in India. From Candlelight vigils to protests and sit-ins, even before the ‘Women’s March’ became a popular concept, Indians have taken to the streets to demonstrate peacefully for women’s safety.
However, the discourse on and condition of women’s safety has not budged.
After the mass molestation in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve in 2017, Karnataka Home Minister G Parameswara said that western culture- not molesters- was to blame for the crime.
“They tried to copy the westerners, not inly in their mindset but even in their dressing. So some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen”, he said while explaining that women’s dressing sense caused men to molest them.
Responding to the death penalty punishment for rape crimes, Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav said that boys should not be unfairly penalised for their “mistakes” and promised to change the law if voted to power.
RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat also suggested that the spread of Hinduism and removal of western culture will ensure women’s protection.
Women politicians also peddle these sexist and victim-blaming narratives.
After a woman was raped in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that the case was falsified to portray the Trinamool Congress in a negative light.
“I do not think any incident of rape has taken place. I hear a political party, of which the woman’s husband is a supporter, has planned to use its workers to cry rape,” Banerjee said.
Chhattisgarh State Women Commission Chairperson Vibha Rao made a similar comment about women being at fault for sexual assault because they behave “obscenely”.
Even Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi has flip flopped on her stance on marital rape. After first saying that sexual violence by spouses should be treated seriously, she later said that the international definition of marital rape cannot be applied in India because marriage is sacred.
This mindset is what the protestors partaking in the Women March 4 Change were agitating against. The existence of women’s marches in India prove that the democratic process is functional enough for women and other marginalised communities to peacefully protest in public space- this time.
Voices from the march
The march saw people of all genders, ages, and from all walks of life, show up to make their demand for women’s rights.
Qrius caught up with some of the protestors marching from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar in the national capital, Delhi.
At the march in Delhi, Reshma Khatoun, a Muslim woman, said that she wants “azadi” meaning freedom for women and the right to do as they please- from studying to working. Arbaaz, a young boy accompanying Khatoon, said that rape should not occur in India and women should also have “azadi”.
Prominent activist Nikhil Dey, who works with the highly effective Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), said that women are marching for basic change and using peaceful dialogue to do so, not violence. He also stressed that feminism is intersectional and stands against a violent form of capitalism that seem to have taken root in modern society.
“Women are saying that unless they speak out, things will keep getting worse. That’s something we have to support”, said Dey.
Venkatesh, an LGBTQ+ activist from Kolkata, said he was present at the march as an ally for sex workers, transgender, Dalits, Adivasis, and of course, all women.
“This is a man-dominated society… The government just tells everything but doesn’t do anything. Women should have equal rights”, he said. “As an androgynous-looking man, I get targeted too, and I realise the importance of equal rights to safety and opportunity for all.”
Kaysang and Pelyoun, two young Tibetan-Indian women, spoke about the major changes they wanted to see in the country in the coming times: “Economic & social equality and security for all genders; freedom to practice one’s faith and religious beliefs without fear; and happiness as a condition for [ensuring] development.”
Dr. Sneha Rooh from Orikalankini, a grassroots organisation that works on menstrual health of all genders (trans people menstruate too), said that she would like “young people to ask questions before they vote. “
“I’d like people to increase the diversity of narratives in whichever field of work [they are engaged in],” she added.
Sanjina Gupta, a Gender Lab fellow at Nazariya, a queer feminist advocacy organisation based out of Delhi, said that it was important for her to participate in this march as a “woman” and “menstruator”, so that “[we] reclaim our spaces in public, private, and politics freely. This march signifies the strength of democracy in the truest sense and shows the power of dissent.”
“As we move towards the 2019 general elections, we are reminded every day of the acute need to unite to defeat the casteist, communal, and divisive forces that threaten to tear the fabric of our nation. Our vote is critical in deciding our fate and the fate of our fellow citizens”, says Women March 4 Change.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius