Where Are the Women? Field Notes From the Bharat Jodo Yatra 

Walking the length of the country as a woman made it plain how the real struggle for women in India is to emerge as a political force.

This article has been written based on my observations while walking on foot for 118 days from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. While I am a part of the Rahul Gandhi-led ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, the views below are my own.  

Amidst the cacophony of loud sloganeering, emotive faces of all ages, sharing the same curious look and glimmer of hope –  we have been wading through what seems like two banks of a river formed by enigmatic people, with warm eyes and warmer touch, all to behold Rahul Gandhi. And, as we would like to believe, perhaps us, the Bharat Yatris (a term used for those who have walked the entire stretch of ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ from Kanyakumari to Kashmir).

From Tamil Nadu to Kerala, all the way to Punjab – where we are now – via Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, we started walking on September 7, 2022, from the southernmost tip of India.

So far, we have covered 3,500 km on foot, and have 15 more days to reach Srinagar.

Photo: Avani Bansal

While remembering faces amongst thousands of people we met along the way becomes difficult, I would always look out for women and girls. I would smile and wave at them, occasionally shake hands and, every now and then, be surprised by a warm sudden emotional hug from a woman.

The reason I especially look out for women is partially selfish. It is to tell them (indirectly) and myself (in the process) that, “Hey! Here I am! A woman walking from Kanyakumari, headed to Kashmir.”

That recognition in their eyes that women are doing this too was both a self-affirmative thought and what I hope would be an inspiring one for them. I would wave at women standing atop their houses, or in balconies at the top floor of a five-six storey building, or a couple of yards away, or meekly looking at us from her purdah, or behind a half-open door.

I needed them to know that I ‘see’ them.

Snapshots from the yatra. Photo: Avani Bansal

As women, we very often suffer from the phenomenon of ‘invisibility’ – a feeling that perhaps ‘I am not seen’. There is an interesting section in the recent Netflix movie Qala about this. But why am I complaining? I am not the only woman Bharat Yatri – there are at least 33 of us (as per the original list – although some additions happened later on). We got ample media coverage as well, so what ‘invisibility’ are we talking about?

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra Has Turned Congress Into Main Opposition, But Electoral Test Remains

Are all those women who came out to support us invisible? What about those scores of girls and women who are seen sharing an emotional moment with Rahul Gandhi? Women holding flags and walking shoulder to shoulder for long distances; women holding flowers standing in long rows as an expression of their love; women dancing in their traditional attires on folk music in various states; women performing on stage on local cultural songs to welcome us; women from the tribal community putting on massive headgear and beautiful dresses to welcome us; women standing outside their workplaces in groups to wave at us; working women, girl students, old women – weren’t they all there at the yatra – to be seen by all of us?

Yes, except very rarely did I see women in decision-making roles and spaces. Women were holding flags, but very few were on hoardings and banners. Women were dancing on the streets, but very few were in management roles mobilising people for the yatra. Women were there on the streets waiting for us, running small chai shops, selling flowers, pausing from their cleaning work with their brooms still in their hands, but they weren’t running the kirana shops, or small and medium scale enterprises – scores of which we crossed on our way.

The beauty of living on roads, even if for a while, is that one gets to see a million stories in one frame of a second – as if everywhere you look, your eyes go ‘click’ and then in that picture you look for the unfolding of several characters.

Also read: The Agenda and Outcome of the Bharat Jodo Yatra Still Remain Hazy

We walked past and met several women working in the farms, on construction sites or at brick kilns. Women were seen selling peanuts, working on flower fields, in ponds, and most of these are low paying unorganised sector jobs. But very few women were seen running restaurants, or selling garments, or heading medicine shops.

I kept asking myself during the entire yatra – “Where are all the women?”

Yes, there was a Shakti Amma, a 70-year-old woman in Kerala, who had lost one of her slippers due to the crowds, so she walked with one chappal, holding a Mahila Congress flag for the entire day long. Yes, there was this mid-aged woman, who came running from her village with a hand-made bouquet of fresh flowers for Rahul Gandhi.  Yes, there was this group of Adivasi women, who didn’t speak our language and danced to completely unique music and dance steps – because someone told them that we were coming.

Women continue to be ‘invisible’ in all strata of society, including politics, because one expects them to do what is told – and not act with agency or make decisions. In the Congress, there are honourable exceptions – of strong women who have made it on their own – but their numbers are still far from ideal.

While the Congress is the only party to boast of having ushered in many progressive laws for women’s safety and empowerment, the representation of women – not just symbolic but effective representation of women by  providing them with a real say in decision making – remains an uphill task. Ensuring 33% of reservation for women in the panchayati raj system was a great start, but we need to strive towards ensuring 33% reservation in parliament. Priyanka Gandhi’s decision to give tickets to women in Uttar Pradesh elections was itself a very bold move. But beyond just political representation, the real struggle for women in India is to emerge as a political force, such that no political party can do away with mere lip service to their cause.

Snapshots from the yatra. Photo: Avani Bansal

After speaking to hundreds of women and having multiple conversations across states, one thing is clear. There are some low lying fruits – some easy steps that can be taken towards women empowerment, safety and representation – provided there is political will. Start a women’s cooperative revolution; start a parallel women’s police force ; ensure easy credit loans to women entrepreneurs and women heading small and medium scale enterprises; provide major boost to skill training for women; start nationwide self defence training programmes for women; pay attention on the status of foster care homes – to name a few. Some nationwide programmes for women empowerment, which create a win-win situation, are the need of the hour.

For instance, take up something simple as ‘sewing’ – provide that training to women at all levels and create a potential garment industry revolution. Now it’s not as easy as it reads, but we need to think on these lines to economically empower women who don’t have an education or employment opportunities.

Also read: Congress Can’t Jodo Bharat By Supping With the Devil

We have to move away from discussing women’s issues on specific days, or around specific events. We need to move away from patting ourselves at the back for a few heroic achievements of individual women and focus on ushering in systemic change. We need to ask ourselves some tough questions, such as – why do women in India still have to bust their gall bladders by not being able to use clean toilets? Why do our girls still have to walk for kilometres to go to school?

Why are women almost absent from public spaces? Why do men seem to use these spaces – be it parks, roads etc – as if they are the sole users? Why are we still arguing about what women wear or who they choose to marry, without caring enough about their education and healthcare? And why have we failed to put forth a concrete roadmap to make India safe for women?

While there are many people, individuals and organisations working towards women empowerment in different aspects, what makes politics an interesting way of bringing about ‘change’ is that with one right tweak in policy, we can affect the lives of millions of women. As one renowned healthcare expert, who was walking with us in the yatra, told me: “If the government adds at least one lentil and some ghee in the ration system (along with rice), it can significantly decrease the iron deficiency in women. Also it can lead to people cooking khichdi, and that can be one full meal for families.”

Rahul Gandhi has shown an open heart and a path of love during this Yatra. It presents him as a kind leader, something that is a rarity in Indian politics. What that will mean for women in India has yet to be seen.

For now, women will continue to fight and walk on as they have forever. The question is, will they ever arrive or will they forever be part of a yatra to realise their full rights and dignity – something that our Constitution makers promised them on Day 1?

Avani Bansal is an Advocate in the Supreme Court of India and a Member of the Congress Party (Twitter @bansalavani). She is currently walking with Rahul Gandhi from Kanyakumari to Kashmir as part of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.