My respect my right
Dr. Lulabi Pattanayak
In 2000 one of my classmates came to see me in my then office (National Commission for Women, New Delhi), I was excited to meet my friend after twenty years. What he told surprised me! He said all these years he has been wanting to tell me about the dialogue I had with him in the first day of graduation class. I was excited, eagerly wanting to know that. He said, “Do you remember in the first interaction you told me I can be your friend only if you treat me like a human being not just as female friend.” He added, “It took me years to absorb it. Even after twenty years that incident is still fresh in my mind. I got married, have daughter, female colleagues, friends but never met anyone like you. That’s why today leaving all my work aside, I have come to tell you that, I respect you as a human being.” It took me some time to absorb when he left after that brief meeting.
I still remember in Reader’s Digest, the picture of an insurance company below caption written was “Man is born free but women have chains everywhere…” I was very young and could not understand why women are chained everywhere. I grew up with that question in my mind. I used to ask my mother “How can anybody decide anyone’s life? Who has given them that right?” Smilingly she would answer, “Take charge of your life and chart your own path.” I could not understand what she told me. I now understand. I live every bit of it.
Unaware of the rules and norms of the society, I treaded my path. I always believe that everybody is unique, and every individual has the right to hold a different view and no one has the right to disrespect anyone irrespective of any relationship. My pre- conceived views about life taught me some of the toughest lessons in life. Even at home if I used to encounter any unpleasant incident, or argument between parents it would affect me internally. Violation of human dignity always disturbs me from within. My mother was a firm, quiet, dignified person, never believed in shouting or arguing with her parents, brothers, husband or daughters. This was often misinterpreted as a weakness. That’s why I used to be protective about my mother. Today, I stand like a sister with all those people whom society thinks are “weak”, “backward” or “marginalised”.
It reminded me of a National Literacy Mission Workshop in 2001, where the issue was “Reaching the literacy to the Unreached- Weaker section, backward and marginalized”. After probing I learnt that ‘women’ represents the weaker section. I asked in the discussions that followed, “who decides that women fall in the weaker section”. How and Why? No one had an answer. I raised the same question on many platforms later on and yet to get an answer.
I did not accept terms like ‘women are weak’, ‘man is powerful’, ‘being disrespectful to women’ is the norm of the society. I have been called as an unfit for the society. Oblivious of the situation, I held on to my belief and softly treaded my path.
One of my classmates who I admired me for twelve years wanted to marry me for what I am. After marriage he was the first to revolt when he understood what I believed in! Things deteriorated to that extent that he tried my patience by torturing me every now and then. Seeing that I am not yielding to the situation he threatened to kill me. Every time coincidentally I escaped it. Today I do not know why it did not create fear in me! In the moments of crisis only thing I told myself 'it cannot be my destiny, I need to get out of that'. I tried to hold on to that inner calling, still I continue to do the same when I do not know what to do! Over the years when I reflect, I feel that every incident has contributed to great extent in making me stronger. Even now, life throws new challenges, most times I was not prepared for that. I do not have magic wand with me, but holding on to my inner calling I managed to overcome it. That brings smile end of the day.
When everything was going awry and my dignity, my respect was at stake, with only eight thousand rupees savings, I decided to leave home and come to Bhubaneswar(Odisha, India) to do my PhD. I did not know how! Holding on to my faith that no matter what come my way I will overcome this phase, I moved on. To my utter surprise I got an opportunity to work for “Multilingualism Project” and I qualified for ICSSR partial scholarship. Somehow I managed to finish my PhD work. However, the divorce procedure drained me emotionally and financially. The journey was never smooth. During my studies and work, I was exploited, harassed, and humiliated for being single and holding on to my conviction, starting from family members to friends to neighbors to teachers to colleagues, to lawyer and to people in public places. Nobody left any chance to violate the dignity and integrity of a woman. I had to forgo many opportunities. In this journey I suffered financially and emotionally, but could not compromise with my respect- my right. I realized, if I cannot respect myself no one will respect me. I did all kinds of odd jobs for sustenance, till I got a job in National Commission for Women (NCW) as Project Coordinator Research. NCW was no exception! There I experienced how men and women both put women in difficult situations. Evaluating and coordinating research studies at National Commission for Women I learnt about dimensions and depth of the plights women. I learnt about the laws, regulations, provisions meant for women. Research experiences were enriching, I tried to learn more and about the women rights. Interest on women and girl child and education became my passion. I started doing more in depth work to touch the lives of people at grass root level. I opted to Work in “Educate Girls” in remote part of Rajasthan(Western part of India) with a hope that it would bring difference in the lives of young girls and women who are continuously discriminated. But life had something else for me. I quit the job for work place harassment. CEO being a female, declined to accept complaint. Similar situations continued, but I started working as a Social Development Consultant focusing on Gender, Women and Education. I promised to myself not to bow before anything unjust. Today, I have learnt to deal with unwarranted human behavior from men, women, and society. I train government officials how to put gender on the agenda, how to incentivise girl education, how inclusive education leads sustainable development in the society. Without my knowledge my profession became my passion, where my work primarily revolves around tribal, women, education and sustainable development. Being a sensitive area of work ,this too have lots of unknown challenges. But it can no more deter me from taking active part in the lives of people I work with. These days I interact with many women who want to take charge of their life, find their space and dignity. I help them like a sister. When we talk I too share my stories, they tell me I was courageous that’s why I could make it, they do not have courage to do. I softly tell them, solution lies in them, on their choices not in me. Making choices alone would not resolve issues, we need to hold on to it like breath with a faith that we will overcome it. When I tell them, I tell myself thousand times. Simply believing in that brings smile in my face, and I feel liberated being. I have now chartered my own path, with a single focus on understanding on women and their basic rights; with a hope in my heart that someday these women would pass on message to other women, where we all will stand together for our dignity not beg for our rights.