Mohini Giri: India's Voice for the Voiceless

Poster art for the film White Rainbows (2005).

NEW YORK, October 11, 2007 - Mohini Giri is a prominent women's rights activist in India. She has worked to rehabilitate war widows, to help women affected by militancy and violence in Kashmir; with destitute widows in Vrindavan and Kashi; child widows; earthquake and natural disaster victims, including survivors of the tsunami, and women rendered homeless due to communal strife and terrorism. She has received several honorary doctoral degrees from universities in India and abroad, as well as numerous awards and distinctions.

Dr. Giri was at the Asia Society in New York on October 11 to participate in a panel discussion following a screening of the film White Rainbow, which follows four women as they overcome the difficulties of widowhood in India. This interview was conducted prior to the event.

Can you tell us, Dr. Giri, about the work you do for the Guild of Service in India?

Yes, the Guild of Service is really a 100-year-old organization founded by a British lady during British rule in India. I started the north India branch in 1971. There has been no turning back, because the status of women was really very low then, and the developmental activities that were carried on were minimal. In a tradition-bound society where patriarchy rules, a woman’s voice is never heard, never seen, never looked upon, so woman was invisible. We have taken some strides since then; a kind of women’s movement became strong in India at that time, and many women’s groups came up from Calcutta, Madras, and other places, and we started building up capacities of women everywhere in the country so that we could have what we call a "voice for the voiceless." Atrocities against women were at the highest point then: dowry deaths, bride burning, rape, and sati, all these were rampant, absolutely.

Then we established these developmental centers everywhere. We have 18 branches in North India. We work with women who are elected members of the panchayat, widows, sex workers, other kinds of marginalized women. The total population of women is 49 per cent. Out of this 49 per cent, three per cent are either in mental asylums, or in jails or somewhere languishing like that, and another three per cent are sex workers. Eighteen percent are in agriculture, and the women in agriculture, they don’t have modern tools, they're toiling from morning till night. They eat the last, they sleep the last, and they don’t get any benefits from the whole thing. At four o'clock in the morning their work starts with milking the cows, etc. This is true of all of South Asia; it’s not peculiar to India.

So who is empowered? There are hardly any women who are really empowered. The one or two per cent empowered women that you can find, we think that they are empowered because they're rich, but money doesn’t make them empowered, because even they have to account for how they are spending each evening to their husbands, what they have done with their wealth. So there was no question of empowerment. Let me tell you, in these 30-40 years that I have been working, there has been a lot of difference. Now they're more articulate. Previously a woman would stand behind the door and talk to the visitor, and she would not show her face, she would not even come out. But now she opens the door, and she’s wearing a shalwar kameez which is a dress which is a little less conservative so things have improved. But only women’s improvement is not going to do any good until we change the mindset of the man. Now, all the training work that I have done for these last 30 years was with women; I think I should now direct it to men. In fact, it’s very heartening that men are now coming to our micro-finance groups and our self-help groups. The first two men’s groups I have formed just now before leaving India.

What do they do, the men’s groups?

They have formed self-help groups, and they're also depositing 20 rupees, each man. Instead of drinking and wasting the money, he puts it there. He saw how his wife is empowered now. And she can take a loan for debt, for illness, for the child’s marriage, or to set up her own industry. So they have also been tempted. And this is really a heartening feature for me, to see that men are coming forward, those who used to degrade women and laugh at us, now themselves are wanting help from us to do their own finances. So, the situation is like that. I got in at that time, and now the things are changing slowly. But because of tradition, she’s burdened by this tradition, the woman. And for her to get up from that is very, very difficult. There is hardly any difference, even now, between a cow and a woman.

Some people argue that the increasing levels of violence against women, and various forms of degradation to which women are subjected, have to do with rapidly changing social conditions more than with tradition – which would explain why you said this phenomenon was at its peak in the 1970s.

Tradition still has its roots in spite of women changing, in spite of men changing their mindset. But it’s just half a percent of the total society. So, tradition still has got deep roots in the social milieu. Wherever you find women in groups, even now they are bringing buckets and buckets of water from the well, the man doesn’t help her, even now the tradition is that she must be the doer of all things, looking after the child, cooking. And if she’s working, she’s working out of her own free will, that's extra work that she does. It’s very difficult to change that tradition, and it takes time. In rich families, the same tradition exists. And we are, today, fighting against that tradition. We are fighting to change that mindset of the man, to change it from there. But change is very slow. You can see it in some places. It’s creeping in. But women have become stronger at the same time. Although tradition has not given up, but women have been able to voice at least certain things in spite of the tradition.

One of the things that you said in another interview is that there are 42 million widows in India. That’s a very large number. Is that connected in any way to the phenomenon of child marriage?

Child marriage, and no remarriage. See, you can't re-marry also, so naturally widows will be more and more and more, because tradition doesn’t allow us to marry. And also child marriages bear widows, because if I'm married to a man who’s 40 years older than me, then naturally he will die, and when he dies I'm still a little young girl, and what will happen to me? I'm still a widow, I can't get married. And then I'm thrown away to places like those you see in the movie, to places like Vindrahvan or Kashi or Tirupati, where she has to fend for herself.

How prevalent is child marriage now?

On a particular day every year in Rajasthan, in a particular village, there are twenty thousand marriages performed. It’s called “Akha Teej,” and that’s an auspicious day when you don’t have to see the calendar, whether that’s a good day or a bad day, so there are twenty thousand child marriages on that day. I went in disguise as chairperson of the National Commission for Women, and stayed in that village for three days to get raids done so that these children don’t get married. But it was so difficult. You know, they do it in their own fashion, somehow or the other, at home, or here, or hiding somewhere. It’s so difficult to catch them. But it’s a huge ceremony. And even the government has not been able to stop it.

What incentive do the parents of these girls have to marry—

See, these children are a burden, these girls are a burden on the parents.

These are all presumably poor parents?

Even if they are rich a girl is a burden. Rich or poor she’s a burden. So, they're a burden, and the older the girl is the dowry demands are greater. So this is the age when they start getting these girls married. They don't send the girl to a husband’s house till 10, when she’s matured. Then only the girl goes to her marital home. By that time the husband is often dead. I mean, she has not even gone to her husband, but she has become a widow!

Have perceptions of widows changed in all the time that you’ve been working on this issue?

Very little, very little. In spite of all this work that I do, it’s just two per cent of the whole society that I'm touching. It’s so difficult.

And this is in North India alone, or have you worked all across—

I work all across, yes. It’s everywhere.

Are there regional variations?

There are regional variations, yes.

Are some places better than others?

Oh yes, sure.

What are the worst places?

Worst places are religious places.

Which religion?

Any religion. Religious places, yes, they're the worst. There a woman is most subdued, not only due to tradition, but because of religion. Because religion puts in certain kinds of taboos, and she’s bound by those taboos. It wasn’t like that for the Muslim women till now, but now, even a Muslim widow, she doesn’t get remarried, although the prophet Mohammed himself married a widow. And it is allowed according to the Qur’an. But even then, because of tradition, and mixing up all these cultures, even a Muslim woman remains a widow.

In the West, as I'm sure you know, the talk of India now is only about it emerging as a regional power, a world power, and economic growth and people making huge amounts of money. So the picture that you present, and indeed that is in this film, is very different.

Well, the picture that I'm presenting is really for the whole of India, 99 per cent of India. And the picture of nine per cent growth, of course it’s a picture of prosperity, people are earning more, people spend more, the consumer movement is very strong, and those who are making money are making money. But what is it to make money with the tradition and the mindset? Has that changed? While we have changed in money making, have we changed in the mindset? We have not.

What kind of effect do you think that the liberalization of India, the opening up of its economy, are likely to have on the way in which people perceive these kinds of traditions, traditions that bind women in the ways that you’ve described?

It’s going to have its effect sooner or later. Later, not sooner. But in the beginning it’s not going to profit women, it’s not going to help women, because these tradition-bound men, even if they come to America, or even if they’re of a developed society, their minds are still brought up in the way their mothers are brought up, or their parents are brought up, or the society is brought up in their childhood. So until such time that the second generation comes up, I won't say that equal status will ever be achieved, but we are waiting for that second generation to come now. In many places it has come, it has improved a lot, but it will take time. India is a large country with a billion population, and with that kind of a population, if I'm saying that this economic growth has touched everybody, I wouldn't be telling the truth. How can it? The villages are where they are. There’s still no electricity. I mean, they're trying very hard, but it’s impossible even for the government to do those things. Where is the power? There’s no drinking water. I feel so bad to take a bottle of Bisleri [Indian mineral water] when my thousands of sisters in the villages are drinking from the same pond where they wash themselves. India lives in two worlds, I would call it. A little part of India lives in the 21st century, and a major part lives in the 16th, 17th and 18th century.

How much is poverty responsible for the way women are treated? Here in the US and also elsewhere in the industrialized world, levels of domestic violence are extremely high, and most cases still go unreported. Now a lot of these women have incomes, and they're independent – whatever that means – and yet these problems persist.

I have a different view about the whole thing, it’s a very, perhaps, primitive view. My view is that we have not kept hand in hand along with the moral values. While we have developed so much, while we are starting to educate our children, while we are earning more money, we have not kept up with moral values. The value system somehow or the other has lagged behind, which used to be taught in the family. All of these values that we have inculcated must have been taught only in our families. Where else can you get it? And that is becoming less and less, because I think the parents are also in this fast world, they don’t have time for the children.

So moral values, you distinguish that from what you called tradition or religion or…?

Yes, I distinguish that, totally. Because tradition is not always what morals are, and those mindsets and patriarchy is not what religion is, or what morals are. These are all three different things, so we have to tackle them differently. Patriarchy is a mindset where a man has been told that he’s superior to everybody else, and he’s the lord and master for everything. That's full stop. And then I come to religion. Religion does not prescribe anything. All religions are good religions. No religious scripture has ever said to ill treat women. This, according to time, according to that patriarchal mindset, people have forced it on the community and on the society. Now, morals are totally different, and morals have no religion. I would separate, segregate morals totally from religion. Because no religion says tell a lie. No religion says that you do rape. No religion says lust for a woman. Morals are absolutely different from all religions.

What do you think the significance is in India of films like White Rainbow?

Well, in India, the significance to the religious heads is a lot, because I took this film to the religious people and asked them which religious scripture said that widows’ heads should be shaved. I have questioned them. Why are we doing it? Why are we putting a dress code of white on these women? Why are we taking off their bangles? Why are we taking off this teeka? And in some places, a woman is forbidden to eat twice, meat is totally forbidden, she can't eat meat or onions or garlic. Even food. And this is a patriarchy which has been put on us through these various kinds of things, it’s forced on us through food, through dress code, through looking ugly, so that a woman’s status is put down. So this has got something to do with patriarchy, but nothing to do with religion. But in the name of religion they might spread it.

How does this film compare to other films that have been made on widowhood in India, for instance Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali or Deepa Mehta’s Water?

Both are very good, both have brought awareness. I'm glad that people are making these movies which will bring about some kind of social awareness. Anything that gives a message for improving the status of women, I like.

How do you account for the fact that Chokher Bali, for example, is based on a Tagore story—

Yes, Tagore realized it at that time, imagine. And this was an old story, actually. Water.

Is that right?

Yes, Water is also an old story written by a Bengali writer.

So are you optimistic at all about—

Oh, I'm very optimistic. By the time I go from this world they will have changed status. It has changed in 30 years. I'm 70 today. And in another 10 years I think there will be a change. And also I cannot dismiss this growth that we are talking about, economic growth, that will also be responsible in some way for bringing about the change in women. Definitely, all these things put together, no single thing can change women, there’s no magic wand. Things will change slowly, people have to be educated, women will have to be educated, traditions will have to be re-set, morals will have to be inculcated into children. All these things together, it’s a five, six pronged effort that has to be put in to increase the status of women. And violence against women, for that I’ll say moral education is very necessary.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh