Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wisdom beyond schooling

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Jan 18, 2015

Veena Devi

Veena Devi is unlettered. I use that word rather than ‘uneducated’. When I met her more than five years ago, she was the mukhiya, or sarpanch, of Loharpura panchayat in Nawada district in south Bihar. She is now in her early forties. At a time when the government had reserved half the seats in panchayats for women, Veena Devi had been elected twice from general seats.

In her first term in the panchayat, she admitted that she felt lost. She did not understand fully what was going on. One could hardly blame her for this. Married at 13 to a man much older than herself, a widower with two children, she became a mother at 15 and a widow at 17. Veena had seen more than her share of life and its sorrows even before she became a major. Going to school was nowhere on the horizon.

Yet, perhaps because she was compelled to learn in the ‘school of life’, she had a wisdom beyond her years and certainly more profound than anything taught in our schools. Without being tutored, she had a sense of what people needed, how to order priorities in terms of the use of developmental funds, and how to listen to the people who came to her with problems.

I thought of Veena Devi when I learned that the Rajasthan Government had passed an ordinance stipulating that only those who have cleared Std. VIII or X can contest panchayat or zilla parishad elections in that state. If such a law had existed in Bihar, a woman like Veena Devi would never have had a chance to contest.

The assumption behind this ordinance, promulgated without any justification of its urgency, is that because panchayats have to handle considerable developmental funds, ‘educated’ people will be more efficient and less corrupt. The assumption defies not just logic but evidence that shows that corruption certainly has no connection with levels of education. Make a list of the most corrupt people in India and the majority would be so-called ‘literate’.

My own experience of meeting women like Veena Devi has been humbling. How easily those of us with privilege and access to education think we are wiser. And yet the clarity of these women shouldering the responsibility of managing developmental funds for a panchayat remind us that reading numbers and letters, going to school or college in itself does not make you a wiser person or a better administrator. It does not automatically imbue you with a concern for other people. It does not necessarily teach you how to listen to people, how to empathise, how to understand what people are trying to tell you.

None of this means that we must not ensure that every child does go to school; that by the time she is ready to contest an election she does possess basic literacy skills. But let us not, while we wait for that to happen, cut off from our systems of governance women like Veena Devi.

The best part of the 73rd amendment that laid the grounds for elections to panchayats and reservation for women is that it has brought into governance systems over 1.5 million women, many of them poor, from the lower castes, and also often with very little schooling. And although one should not generalise, and there are many instances of such women being used by men as proxies, there are an increasing number now who understand the system and who are able to work it so that it serves the interests of the largest number of people.

Let me return to Veena Devi to illustrate what I mean. Despite the handicap of minimal education, she quickly worked out how to overcome it. For instance, when she was handed petitions, she would ask people to give her some time to get back to them. She would then get a trusted person to read and tell her the content of the petition and come to a decision.

She also had the benefit of some sympathetic higher officials, including a woman bureaucrat, and a non-governmental organisation that invested in training her and giving her sound advice. As a result, when she had to decide about the use of funds for one of the villages, she chose a scheme of installing solar lights in the public areas of the village, knowing that this would benefit women in particular. In return, people of that village expressed satisfaction with her leadership.

For every Veena Devi, there are literally thousands of other women who are providing decent governance inputs at the panchayat level. They are largely unseen; they do face problems; they could benefit from more training and from getting literacy skills. But their main qualification is their commitment and their desire to serve their community. These women do not deserve to be left out of the picture because some misguided people in Rajasthan have decided that schooling equals wisdom and honesty.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

I’ve written no fiction since my first visit to Palestine in 2000: Ahdaf Soueif

My interview with Ahdaf Soueif in The Hindu, Literary Review, January 3, 2015

Lit for Life 2015
Ahdaf Souief: novelist and political and social commentator. Photo: R. Ravindran
The Hindu
Ahdaf Souief: novelist and political and social commentator. Photo: R. Ravindran

The events following the “Arab Spring” in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have not unfolded quite the way protestors had imagined. In 2011, Egyptians looked forward to a change. Today, three years later, the object of their protests, former President Hosni Mubarak, has been exonerated by Egyptian courts, the experiment with a non-military democratically government has failed and instead today, another military man, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is at the helm.

One of the strongest voices during the protests in Egypt and since then has been the remarkable writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif. Born in Cairo and a PhD in linguistics, Soueif caught the world’s attention when her book, The Map of Love, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1999. Of late, however, she is known for her documentation of the Egyptian struggle for democracy, evocatively captured in her book, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and her columns in The Guardian. Despite the turn events have taken in Egypt since the heady days of 2011, Soueif continues to write and protest and believes that is what writers like her must do.
Would you say that your involvement in the “Arab Spring” and the events in Tahrir Square in 2011 marked a transition in your writing from fiction to non-fiction?

Well, actually, I’ve written no fiction since my first visit to Palestine in 2000. I got caught up in a kind of cultural activism where it always seemed that the next article, the next event had to have priority over any longer project. So the longer projects never got done. This became even more acute with the Egyptian revolution (and, yes, we still call it a “revolution”) and even got formalised in a weekly column for the Egyptian national daily, Shorouk. So Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (second edition: Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed) is the only sustained text of length that I have managed to write in 15 years.
Since 2011, Egypt has gone through tremendous change and turbulence. How do you see the situation now, particularly against the background of Hosni Mubarak’s exoneration by the court?

The revolution forced the regime (or maybe gave the regime the opportunity?) to dislodge the Mubarak family. But the revolution never took power. What we’re now seeing is Regime Version 4. Version 1 being Mubarak; 2, the year of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to whom Mubarak delegated power; 3, the year of Dr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood; and 4 the period of Judge Mansour and General Sisi — post-July 2013. Every group that has taken power since Mubarak fell has tried to continue in his same mode of government but with its own players, and every one of them has sought accommodations with the establishment to do so. We now have a situation where army, police, judiciary, media, bureaucracy, big business have all identified their interests as anti-revolutionary and are working — lying and perjuring and killing — to protect and enhance them.
Many of the activists involved in the Tahrir square uprising are still in jail. What about the others who escaped arrest? Have they managed to continue organising, albeit in a clandestine manner?

People are still active, but also a lot are downhearted and divided.
In an article in The Guardian on June 29, 2014, you accused the present government lead by President Sisi of “waging a war on the young”. You saw the expedited trial of 24 human rights activists, including your niece, as a sign of this. Do you see any prospect of this changing? Will international pressure make any difference?

At the moment there is no international pressure on Egypt to respect human rights. In fact, the regime is being courted by the West as an ally in the ‘War on Terror’ and rewarded for its rhetoric and its activities in Sinai and who knows where else. Money and promises of money are pouring in from the Gulf countries, loans from the international financial institutions, and contracts, aid packages and arms from Western governments. Having said this, it’s really important to note that there is great concern and solidarity from civil society across the world. The pressure that is coming is coming from citizen groups, human rights groups and professional bodies: Universities, Bar Associations, medical associations and so on. This is the solidarity and the co-operation that we’re seeking now.
In another article in The Guardian you wrote, “The great slogan of the revolution — Bread, Freedom, Social Justice — has been whittled down to grateful for a crumb and a quiet corner.” Is this an expression of despair for the future or do you still believe that once people have been awakened to demand their rights, you cannot push them back?

I don’t feel despair. I just feel very sad at all the lives lost and the lives ruined. And that we will have to go through more sorrow and violence before we can start working to create a better society. There were reasons for the revolution, objective reasons: the difficulty of making a living, of providing a decent life for your children, the obscenely widening gap between rich and poor, the breakdown of education and healthcare plus, of course, the ever-worsening police brutality. All these conditions still exist. They’re getting more acute as the state insists on its economic path and tightens its grip on spaces of opposition, and they will lead to the new uprising. The difference next time will be that each faction has learned a different lesson from the events of the last four years, and that the country is awash with arms.
One of your remarkable initiatives has been the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) where you believe in ‘the power of culture over the culture of power’, quoting Edward Said. What role do you think interventions of this kind make in informing the world about the realities in Palestine? The media only covers this region when there is conflict. Why do you think arts, literature, cinema coming out of that region needs exposure and recognition?

PalFest ( is really a unique literary festival. It travels through the Israeli checkpoints between Palestinian cities, so every day it is with its audience in a different place. The writers do workshops and seminars in universities and literary and cultural events in the evenings. They really get to know the Palestinians as people — not just as a “cause” or a “conflict” or a “problem”. It’s really important that the world understands that in Palestine there is a people who are trying to live, work, write, bank, dance, marry, learn — in other words to live a normal life on what’s left of their land, in the face of tremendous aggression and constant incursions and attempts at take-over by Israel. One of the most immediate ways of conveying the “realness” and the normal humanity of the Palestinians is through their own cultural production and that of their friends and allies.
About Ahdaf Soueif

Ahdaf Soueif is a political and cultural commentator and novelist. Her account of recent Egyptian events, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, was published in 2012, and an updated edition, Cairo: A City Transformed, was published in January 2014. She is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999), as well as the well-loved In the Eye of the Sun and the collection of short stories, I Think of You. A collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. She has translated Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah from Arabic into English and commissioned and edited Reflections on Islamic Art. In 2007, Soueif founded Engaged Events, a U.K.-based charity. Its first project is the Palestine Festival of Literature, which takes place annually in the cities of occupied Palestine and Gaza. She has received the Metropolis Bleu and the Constantin Cavafy Awards (2012). She was the first recipient of the Mahmoud Darwish Award (2010) and was shortlisted for the Liberty Human Rights Award (2013).

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Wealth issues

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 4, 2015

Unbreakable spirit: Parveen. Photo: Kalpana Sharma
Unbreakable spirit: Parveen. Photo: Kalpana Sharma

2014 ended on a grim note. The horror in Peshawar with the gunning down of 132 children by the Taliban left everyone, not just Pakistanis, shaken. So as 2015 dawns, will things change, get better, more peaceful?

On current calculations, there is little to indicate that the trend of violence, seen not just in this subcontinent, or in West Asia but around the world, is anywhere near peaking.

At times such as these, when we are filled with despair at the state of the world, and indeed even our own country, where hate-filled talk against people of other faiths and persuasions is now out in the open, I turn to individuals who face life with a courage.

So let me begin this year with the story of a woman in Mumbai. Parveen Sheikh is in her early forties. She is a member of Mahila Milan and organises women in Mumbai’s slums so that they can tackle together some of the myriad problems all of them face.

Parveen was one of eight women I met recently in an office in Dharavi. We discussed politics, problems and possibilities. Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, Devendra Phadnis, is considering setting up a special committee to deal with Mumbai’s problems to be headed by the Prime Minister. What should be the priority for a city like Mumbai, I asked.

Housing was the consensus. Affordable housing for the poor should be top priority.

Parveen’s personal experience illustrates how politics and policies deal with the daunting problem of the homeless in one of India’s wealthiest cities. While the government introduces schemes to deal with the ‘slum problem’ (as if it involved buildings, not people); for people like Parveen, the solution is often worse than the problem.

Parveen lived for decades on a pavement in Sewri, in the north-eastern part of Mumbai. The threat of eviction was constant. Yet, thousands of families like hers remained where they were, making a living by earning daily wages, using public — usually dysfunctional — toilets, and awaiting with dread for the inevitable flooding followed by disease that descended on them every monsoon.

In 2008, Parveen and her neighbours were told that they were going to be resettled. The road had to be widened. The pavement was to be broken. So they would have to move. “I was dying with happiness,” says Parveen. She had never imagined that in her lifetime, she would live in a pucca house.

With tremendous excitement, the families moved to the distant suburb of Govandi. What they found was certainly pucca; a seven-storey building identical to the hundreds scattered across Mumbai as part of the slum resettlement scheme. But you stepped inside and there was nothing. The rooms that were supposed to be their new homes were just bare walls; no lights, no fans, no windows, no doors, no toilet seats, no taps. Anything that could be stolen had been removed. But they had a roof over their heads. And for that they were supposed to be grateful!

The other side of resettlement is rehabilitation. In their new neighbourhood, far from the old, Parveen and the others could find no work. Parveen’s husband was a head loader. Earlier, he could walk to the place where he got daily work. Now he would have to spend a good part of what he earned to travel before finding work. Women who worked as domestics in a mixed neighbourhood had no work in an area inhabited entirely by people like them. So this was a strange formulate for rehabilitation.

Worse still, the area where most such urban poor have been ‘dumped’, as Parveen says, is right next to Mumbai’s garbage dumping ground. According to a recent journalistic investigation, people living in this area suffer from acute health problems, particularly respiratory, and their life expectancy is a third lower than that of people in other parts of Mumbai.

But the point of telling this story is not just to paint the grim reality of being a poor person in a very rich city, but also to recount the unbreakable spirit of women like Parveen. Instead of throwing up her hands in despair, Parveen set about dealing with the problem. With the help of her women’s group and support from the federation of slum dwellers, they have fixed their building. There are doors and windows and taps. There is water. There is even a lift, something that they did not have for the first four years.

Parveen breathes fire when she speaks of the authorities and their attitude towards poor people. But she will not let that get her down. What stands out is her determination to fight the system by organising other women like her. That surely is a recipe to deal with despair.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Roots of the problem

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 21, 2014

Pooja and Aarti meet the press.
Pooja and Aarti meet the press.

I am writing this a day before an unfortunate second anniversary, December 16, a day etched in our collective memory as signifying the horror and pain so many women experience for no other reason than that they are women.

But before going into the grim reality of how little has changed since that winter evening in Delhi in 2012, there is some good news. After my last column about a woman taxi driver, who incidentally worked for one of the new taxi aggregators that have now been banned in some cities, there is some encouraging news. The Mumbai transport department has issued 200 licenses exclusively for women taxi drivers; Hyderabad is launching a women’s service; in Chennai, a non-government organisation is training women drivers, and a taxi aggregator has announced that they will encourage more women to be hired.

This is good news. But let us not confuse this with women’s safety. While women taxi drivers would be reassuring for women passengers, particularly late at night, let us not forget that in some cities, like Delhi, women drivers are not safe. The mere sight of a woman behind a wheel seems to trigger primitive instincts in men who proceed to harass them by chasing them, trying to push them off the road and generally making life hell for them. Given these attitudes, who will guarantee the safety of the women taxi drivers? How can we be sure that male passengers will not harass them? Or will they have to stick to women passengers, an unsustainable business model. So, even if more women taxi drivers would be welcome, this cannot be viewed as a quick fix to deal with women’s safety. It is important because it gives women a livelihood option, one that carries with it a sense of dignity and self-worth.

The bad news is that despite a renewed focus on women’s safety, triggered by the December 6 rape in a private taxi in Delhi, the underlying issue has once again been overlooked. While no one disputes that the new app-based taxi services need to be regulated and more important, the corruption that allows serial rapists and offenders to buy character certificates from the police must be checked; this alone cannot guarantee women’s safety.

What is the other option? The safety of a prison; one where women are told when and if to step out? Or the example of those two plucky Rohtak sisters, Pooja and Aarti, who chose to thrash their tormenters rather than sit back and tolerate? We already know how that story has played out. From being celebrated, and even promised a special commendation by the Haryana government, suddenly the victims have become the villains and the men are being projected as victims of a game of blackmail.

I happened to be in Delhi recently when Pooja and Aarti spoke to the press. They faced a room full of journalists, the majority sceptical and even slightly hostile. The girls were remarkable in the calm way they answered all questions. To me, they came across as straightforward and gritty. In a state, where the sex ratio is one of the lowest in the country, where girls are simply not wanted, where every girl grows up in a highly sexualised atmosphere particularly when she enters the public space, the spirit of these two girls has to be lauded. They travel each day almost 35 km to their college and have to change two buses to do this. Their mother has backed them fully in their desire to study, as has their father. Coming from such a family, these girls have been encouraged not to take so-called ‘teasing’ by being quiet.

Without going into the minutiae of this controversial case, we should look at the issues it raises. Given the reality of constant harassment by men of women, particularly in north India, should we train our daughters to fight back as did Pooja and Aarti? Even as I applaud their courage, I fear for them because they are greatly outnumbered. More so, because no one supported them on the bus and since then there is a clear strategy to discredit their evidence. Such a battering, both physical and emotional, could break any ordinary girl. If these two sisters survive and win their case, it will be all the more remarkable.

Instead of seeing women’s safety as a technical issue to be fixed by putting in place ‘safer’ transport — both private and public — or training girls to fight back if harassed, we need to realise that ultimately there is no shortcut to dismantling the institution of patriarchy, an institution that gives all men a sense of entitlement to beat, harass, rape, kill, injure those women who dare to question their authority.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Women can drive

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Dec 7, 2014

Sometimes a chance encounter makes you think that perhaps more things are changing than seem evident. Some of that change is depressing; the kind of change that is making cities like the one in which I live, Mumbai, increasingly unlivable. But there are subterranean processes of change, in people’s attitudes, in what they do, in how they overcome even the worst circumstances that are not noticed.

One such chance encounter was with a taxi driver. The majority of taxi drivers in Mumbai are men. This last week, 95 women managed to get the license to drive taxis. Ninety-five out of some 50,000? That’s not even worth a comment, you would think. But it is.
I chanced on Sindhu one morning when I was looking for a taxi. She does not drive the traditional kaali peeli (Mumbai’s iconic black and yellow taxi). She works with one of the city’s proliferating private taxi services.

Sindhu was dressed in light blue jeans and a purple-checked shirt. She wore gold studs in her ears and her nose. Her hair was pulled back in a neat bun. If you did not notice her clothes, she would be your normal Maharashtrian woman anywhere in Mumbai.

Sindhu is that, but I found over the course of a one-hour taxi ride, that she is more than that. For one, she has chosen to drive as a profession. Apart from the taxis that she has been driving for eight years, she has also driven trucks that deliver bottled water to different parts of the city. That brought back memories of Shubha Mudgal’s wonderful song Man Ke Manjeere, and the video with Mita Vashisht as a truck driver (

Why has she chosen to be a taxi driver, I ask her. Driving a taxi, she says, is a good career for a woman. It is flexible. You can decide when you want to drive, for how many hours. You can take a break if you want. No one is forcing you to drive beyond your capacity. And best of all, the money is good.

Like other women drivers in Mumbai, Sindhu first got a chance to drive a taxi, a private, air-conditioned one, when two women entrepreneurs came up with the idea of taxis driven by women. Their selling point was that women passengers would feel more secure, particularly at night, travelling in a taxi driven by a woman. Thus, began Mumbai’s taxi services for women by women.
These services continue. But Sindhu decided that she could do better. So she negotiated a loan to buy a car. And when private taxi services began that were willing to let drivers use their own cars in return for a fixed rate, she calculated that this would work out better. Before this, she had to pay the owner of the cab a fixed rate every day.

What about her family, I ask? Her son, she says, has completed his commerce degree and works in a call centre. He works nights. In the morning, when he returns, Sindhu fixes him breakfast and then takes off. The rest of the day, her husband and son, and the household chores, are looked after by a woman she has hired. In the evening, between seven and nine, Sindhu chooses to be home. The traffic is terrible at that time, she says. But by 10.00 p.m., she is ready to hit the road again. “People like to go out to parties, to dinner. They drink. They don’t want to drive. So I get plenty of work at night,” she told me cheerfully.

Sindhu lives in Cotton Green in central Mumbai, an area that is undergoing a schizophrenic transformation. The old and the new coexist. The new consists of gleaming high-rises, housing offices and luxury apartments. The old are Mumbai’s traditional chawls, homes for the working class who were once employed in the factories that populated this area. Today the factories are gone; the workers remain. Some are still unemployed. Others do any kind of work that’s available. And then there are women like Sindhu who have found ways to negotiate this changing environment.

So confident is Sindhu that she is now planning to take another loan to buy a second car. She will then hire a driver, use it to earn additional money to pay off the loan and still have a surplus.
Does she feel comfortable in trousers, I ask? Oh, yes, she says. I used to wear saris, even cover my hair, she laughs. But ever since I became a driver, and I was given a uniform, I decided this is best for work.

People are changing faster than you realise, she tells me. Could her mother have ever imagined that she would be driving a taxi, I ask. Never, she says. But it is a good career for a woman, she reiterates as we roll into my destination. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

No more births... or deaths

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Nov 23, 2014

Women who underwent sterilisation surgeries receive treatment in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh
PTI Women who underwent sterilisation surgeries receive treatment in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh

Should we forget about the 14 poor women in Chhattisgarh who died earlier this month? Can we write this off as another “unfortunate” incident? Or should we see it as reminder of the fundamental question that Indian policymakers need to ask: are Indian women, especially poor women, entitled to respect and rights due all human beings or will they continue to be viewed as baby-producing machines whose bodies the State can appropriate and control when it deems they have completed their assigned task?

The debate has been sparked by the ghastly tragedy that befell some of the 83 women who were herded into a disused hospital in Takhatpur, Bilaspur district, and subjected to laparoscopic tubectomies within a few hours. The same instrument was used. No time for sterilisation. No time to check if the women were in good enough health to undergo the surgery. And no time to relax and recover before being packed off. And, of course, no one to follow up to see whether they survived the journey home.

Within a day, eight women were dead. In the next days, in other locations where similar sterilisation camps were held, another six died, 14 in all. The doctor who performed the 83 tubectomies – he was rewarded earlier this year for having performed 50,000 tubectomies – was arrested. He says he was not at fault and insists that the women died from consuming contaminated drugs post-operation. It is suspected that the ciprofloxacin tablets given to the women were contaminated with zinc phosphide, a rat poison. And the state government refuses to explain why such a camp was held at a disused, run-down private hospital.

Everyone is blaming someone else. In the midst of all this noise, and the silence that has descended on the homes of the dead women, we must remember that what happened in Chhattisgarh earlier this month is not an exception, a one-off aberration that we can all forget about once the blame is fixed. Between 2003 and 2012, on an average 12 women die due to botched tubectomies. That is 12 too many. No woman should die from this procedure.

Also, whatever government officials might say to the media, the reality is that health workers are expected to fulfil targets by bringing women to these sterilisation camps. If such pressure was not exerted on them, it is possible that fewer women would come. But at least those who agreed to be sterilised would do so after having understood the consequences. And doctors would not rush through with the procedure at the vulgar speed as did the doctor in Chhattisgarh.

Government officials have consistently argued, as they do even today, that sterilisation is the best option for a poor woman with more than two children because she cannot insist her husband uses a condom and she cannot use other spacing methods, such as injectables for instance, because of the absence of health care in the case of complications. But by the same measure, how do governments justify sterilising women and sending them back to their villages without any follow-up? The women who died did so because they could not access emergency health care in time.

Even if poor women opt for sterilisation, surely they are entitled some dignity while undergoing the procedure. We thought the days when women were lined up like cattle, as depicted so starkly in Deepa Dhanraj’s path-breaking 1991 film “Something like a war” (, was something in the past, harking back to the days of the 1975 Emergency when mass sterilisation campaigns were implemented ruthlessly across India. But Chhattisgarh reminds us that this is happening even today, although on a smaller scale.

So respect for poor women is the very minimum that must inform any population programme. India has signed an international convention in 1994 committing itself to guaranteeing women their reproductive choice and rights. Simply put, this means that all women have the right to choose the kind of contraceptive method they want to use. It also means that population programmes must be centered on women’s health and choice.

Clearly, this is so much talk without substance. In 20 years, under one guise or another, central and state governments have continued with the policy of targets and camps. And women are those who are targeted, not men. The skew in the population programmes is more than evident, even if one looks at government data.

Also, despite scores of meeting, conferences, policy documents, including the National Population Policy (2000) that links a decline in fertility to many other aspects such as education, overall health, housing, drinking water and sanitation, the desire to fast-forward population programmes through sterilisation appears irresistible to policy makers of all political hues.

As a result, women continue to pay the price for this persistent myopia – especially poor women. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Crossing over

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 9, 2014

A stretch of the US-Mexico border. Photo: Reuters
A stretch of the US-Mexico border. Photo: Reuters
Sometimes a documentary film speaks louder than a thousand words. And so it was last week when I chanced upon a powerful documentary film, Maria in Nobody’s Land. Made in 2010 by a first-time filmmaker, Marcela Zamora Chamorro, and winner of several awards, the film portrays a picture of illegal immigration into the United States about which I had little knowledge.

If you have lived in the U.S., you would know about the push from people living in the countries south of the border to enter the U.S. in any way they can. This has been happening for decades and continues even today. A stark reminder of that is the U.S.-Mexico border, south of the city of San Diego in California. On the U.S. side of the border is vast open land; some of it declared a protected area to conserve a particular bird species. On the other is the town of Tijuana, visible from the U.S. side, a dense urban settlement with houses almost touching the border. Separating the two countries is a steel fence that extends into the sea, slicing the shared beach into two. The entire area is a militarised zone with helicopters constantly buzzing overhead keeping an eye out for desperate immigrants trying to make their way across. Mexico and the U.S. are not at war. Yet, looking at that border, you would think they are.

But the story of the desperate immigrant begins thousands of miles away from this and other similar border posts all along the south of the U.S. And not just in Mexico but even further south. It is also a gendered story, with many of those taking enormous risks to cross what appears an impenetrable border being women. These are single mothers, sisters, aunts — women who are convinced that by crossing over they will guarantee their families a better life. And, as legal immigration appears impossible, they risk taking the illegal route.

The film follows some of these women from the impoverished country of El Salvador, south of Mexico, to the U.S. border. What they encounter en route is a grim and frightening story. That they survive is a miracle; others like them are raped, robbed, kidnapped and killed by criminal gangs along the way. Their own government couldn’t care less. And neither does Mexico. If there is any solace, it comes from voluntary immigrant support groups who provide shelter and food.

One remarkable episode in the film shows a group of women who prepare packets of water and food every day. As a freight train carrying scores of these migrants passes their village, they stand near the tracks and pass out the packets. The train does not stop. It doesn’t even slow down. And yet, these women have figured out a way of getting all their packets to the people hanging on for dear life on the roofs of these trains.

Apart from bringing out the dangers that these women and men face even as they make their way to the American border, the film also reminds us of the gender dimension of immigration. The immigrant — legal or illegal — is not just a man. Increasingly, she is a woman.

In Asia too, women are migrating to other countries to find work and money to support their families. Over the years, women from Southeast Asia (the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia) and South Asia (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan) have been migrating not just to West Asia but further afield to Europe and the U.S. Unlike the women depicted in the documentary, many of these women are legal migrants. Yet, quite often, the job they think they will do turns out to be something else. Promised jobs as domestic help, for instance, they find themselves in the so-called ‘entertainment’ industry, another name for commercial sex work.

Many of these stories are never recorded. The illegal immigrants constantly fear being found out and deported. And those who have papers fear that if they report ill treatment, they will lose their jobs. Either way, silence is their only option as even the hardships they confront in the countries in which they work are bearable compared to the poverty — and in the case of women, domestic violence — that is the daily burden of their lives at home.

There are many more films waiting to be made, many more books waiting to be written, that will tell these stories. For only then is their hope that countries and their citizens will view the migrant sympathetically and as a person whose only ‘crime’ is to seek a better life. 

(To read the original, click here.)