There are countless stories of women who have achieved the heights of success in various walks of life – women born into rich business families who have played a key role in taking their family organisation to greater heights, like Anu Aga of Thermax or Sulajja Firodia of Kinetic Honda. Women who struggled in a male dominated world but made it to the top through sheer grit, determination and ambition like Chanda Kochar of ICICI Bank, Naina Lal Kidwai of HSBC Bank and Kiran Majumdar Shaw of Biocon Pharmaceuticals Ltd.
However, today, these are not the shining examples of success and endeavour that I wish to write about. Today, I wish to dedicate my piece to those women who were born disadvantaged or lived in physical and emotional misery, but rose above their horrible circumstances to become beacons of hope and admiration to the world. Again, I will not write about wonderful icons like Helen Keller who became blind and deaf at the age of one yet grew to be a source of inspiration to similarly affected people to live normal lives. My heroines for today are those women of India who have grappled with and won over fates which to most of us would surely have been worse than death. Not all these women are models of sainthood and virtue but they are women who refused to let brute strength and male misogyny reduce them to meekly submit to a life of wretched misery and hopelessness.
One such woman is Sudha Chandran, actress and classical dancer, now 50 years old. Born in Kerala, she met with an accident at the age of 16, when an ankle wound festered into gangrene, resulting in amputation of her foot. She made the “Jaipur foot”, invention of an Indian doctor, famous when she perfected her art of classical dance wearing this prosthetic foot. The life of this renowned artiste has been immortalised on celluloid when she played herself in a film as a young woman coming to grips with a devastating blow to her dreams.
Arunima Sinha is a young woman who lost her leg when robbers pushed her out of a moving train. She lay bleeding beside the railway tracks all night until some villagers found her early next morning. Two years later Arunima became the first Indian amputee to climb Mount Everest. She later went on to scale other peaks and it is her ambition to conquer the highest mountain in every continent.
Born in 1963 to an impoverished low-caste family in rural UP, and married as a child to a much older man, the teenaged Phoolan Devi ran away from her husband and joined a gang of bandits. When her lover was killed she was gang raped by the rival gang. She soon gathered together the remnants of her bandit group and led them to wreak revenge by lining up and shooting dead 22 Rajput men of Behmai, the village where she had been raped. For 2 years she evaded capture, indulging along the way in plunder, arson, murder and kidnapping for ransom. She surrendered in 1983 to the ruling Samajwadi Party who withdrew all cases against her. She joined politics and was elected twice till she was shot dead in 2001 outside her office in Delhi by avengers of the Behmai massacre. Phoolan Devi may not have been the epitome of womanly virtue but she did succeed in busting the perception that a low caste illiterate woman cannot fight against shame, humiliation and exploitation.
In the year 2006, an extraordinary women’s movement was formed by an illiterate village woman Sampat Pal Devi, a child bride who used to be beaten up by an abusive husband. The women activists in this group belonged to Banda, UP, one of the poorest districts in the country, marked by a deeply patriarchal mindset, rigid caste divisions, female illiteracy and domestic violence, child marriage and dowry demands. Members of the Gulabi (pink) Gang wear bright pink saris and wield bamboo sticks to punish oppressive husbands, fathers and brothers. They combat domestic violence, desertion and other ills first with verbal persuasion, then with public humiliation if the men refuse to relent. Sticks are resorted to if men use force. Although Sampat Pal was later removed on grounds including misappropriation of funds the Gulabi Gang has grown into an organised movement with a membership of more than 400,000 women statewide. Crime against women has reduced where these women keep an eye on their menfolk. Other organisations have helped the women set up tiny enterprises like a unit for weaving leaf plates which now employs 500 women each earning Rs150 (Dh8.20) per day.
In 1972, Sunitha Krishnan was just 15 when she was gang- raped by 8 men. Today, she is an internationally acclaimed and much honoured social activist who has rescued some 8,000 trafficked girls and women and has helped them to find shelter. She also helped set up a school for children of sex workers in 1996 by converting a brothel in Hyderabad. Of the heinous crime committed on her, Sunita says that she does not much remember the rape; what she does remember is the rage within herself. It is this rage which has kept the flames burning of her mission to help other girls out of a similar situation.
These are but a few brave women that immediately come to mind when I try to define the will to survive, to succeed and to never, ever let one’s own self lose the will to live a life of purpose because of somebody else’s evil.
Vimala Madon is a freelance journalist based in Secunderabad, India.