Would it surprise you if we tell you that not a celebrity but a poor woman from a village in Rajasthan is being called the mother of #MeToo movement?
What makes the whole story so amazing is the fact that neither she has a cell phone, nor she knows how to use hashtags nor she has heard of #MeToo movement.
Over the last month, the #MeToo movement In India picked up the steam. Many women across India spoke about workplace sexual assault and harassment. Some of the prominent figures across entertainment and news industry were accused.
And, many women say they’ve drawn the strength from the 25 years long struggle of Bhanwari Devi.
Bhanwari Devi is a lower caste farmer and social activist who was attacked and allegedly gang-raped in 1992, in retaliation for her work.
The reason why she is being called the mother of India’s #MeToo movement is that any lawsuit that would be filed to prosecute the attackers would likely rely on the workplace sexual harassment guidelines that Devi helped to create.
In 1992, Devi was working as a saathin at the Rajasthani state government’s Department of Women and Child Development. She used to go door to door in her home village of Bhateri to educate local women about hygiene and family planning. She had also started campaigning against child marriage.
In September 1992, she was encouraging her neighbours to postpone the wedding of a 9-month-old infant.
Because of which, the baby’s father, along with 4 powerful and higher-caste men in the village, got angry. They beat up her husband. Three of the men held her down, while two took turns raping her, she says while talking to NPR.
When Devi filed a police complaint, the men admitted attacking her, but they denied the charges of rape.
Sadly, the 9-month-old baby was married the next day.
But her case was taken all the way to India’s Supreme Court, which led to the adoption of India’s first workplace sexual harassment guidelines in 1997. They were revised in 2013, and the Indian government is reportedly considering further revisions, in the wake of the current #MeToo movement.
As shared by Kavita Srivastava, national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, with NPR:
“I think her role has been path-breaking. Bhanwari broke the silence on rape in 1992. [Abusers in her village] looked upon it as, ‘how dare one lowly woman challenge them.”
In 1993, her assailants were denied bail. A judge called Devi’s attack a gang-rape and ruled that rapists acted “in revenge” for her campaign against child marriage. It was a clear workplace assault case, he ruled.
Sadly in Rajasthan state courts, the judges in her case kept getting switched. The attackers ended up being acquitted of rape and convicted only on lesser charges of assault and conspiracy.
The most shocking was the statement made by the state’s high court Judge that the higher-caste men would never rape a lower-caste woman, because of purity norms.
While speaking with NPR, Nikhil Dey, a human right activist, called out the misleading notion about #MeToo:
“What is misleading is that people say #MeToo is an urban elite thing that must reach the poor. It’s actually the other way around. Bhanwari bravely spoke out, 26 years ago, in public — regardless of what everyone said. Urban elites have their hashtags. Obviously, Bhanwari does not use #MeToo. But she’s always been fighting.”
Devi says to NPR that she doubts she’ll get justice in her lifetime. But she’s hopeful for the next generation of her Indian sisters.
There are many women like Devi who might not be familiar with the terms like #MeToo Movement or Feminism, but have left no stone unturned in fighting against abuse and fighting for equality.
Hope celebrities will not dilute the movement for the personal gains and maintain its sanity so that it can empower women in the best way possible.