Perfectly FEMALE

Northeastern women in Delhi are normal,  independent and resilient, trying to find the wings of aspiration, knowledge and happiness like all women in a male-dominated society. So why are they under siege?
Sneha Gusain Delhi 

"But, do you sleep on trees!!"
"Hey, and you eat snakes and rats."

The unusual, the different, the foreign. Yet, deeply alluring. The word for it is 'exotic'. For locals here, exotic means a foreigner who dresses differently, is perhaps westernised, speaks a different language, has different food and cultural habits, looks different. In the mind's fraught register, the perception of the exotic often seamlessly blends into the making of 'the other'. Sometimes we end up 'othering' even those who we claim to be our own in terms of territory. Among them are women from the hills of the alienated Northeast when they come to the plains in 'mainland' India. 

The recent gang rape of a Northeast woman professional in Delhi, her resilience and guts in helping the police to catch the criminals, tells a story. More than vulnerability, violence and alienation, which are facts in their daily life, it is their courage, self-identity and quest for freedom that makes them different. And they hate being branded with degrading clichés, or becoming subject to racism.

In the economic life of Northeast India, pahari (hill) women have traditionally played indispensable roles. Mostly, it is they who run the local markets (as the famous Ima (Mothers') Market in Imphal, Manipur) - buying and selling fruits and vegetables, handicrafts, managing grocery shops. Also, leading protracted movements and struggles, like the mothers of Manipur who protested against the rape and murder of Manorama by men of the Assam Rifles, or the indefatigable Irom Sharmila with her decade-long fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and her consequent imprisonment.  

The idea of the 'working woman' is alien here since women have always been expected to go out and work - they are all working women. They are neither secluded nor limited in their movements within and around their living landscape; for instance, social events like community dancing see women participating with as much enthusiasm as men.  

Women's traditional clothing also suggests the liberal beliefs of these communities. For example, in Nagaland, women of the Angami tribe wear a petticoat called neikhro, a sleeveless top called vatchi, and a white skirt called pfemhou. Vibrant colours and dazzling patterns are the distinctive characteristics of Naga women's clothing. Women of Tripura, particularly of the Khakloo tribe, wear rinai - a long and broad piece of cloth draped around the waist that reaches the knees. A comparatively short cloth with beautiful embroidery is called risa and covers the upper body.

Many tribes in the Northeast are matrilineal, like the Garos, Khasis and Jaintias, natives of the hilly state of Meghalaya. Marriage of a girl brings a bride-price to her family rather than costing a dowry. Women here are noticeably more outspoken and self-confident while choosing their life partners. For example, in Manipur "love marriage is as acceptable as arranged marriage," according to Rojesh, a Manipuri students' leader in Delhi. Also, divorce and remarriage of women is not a taboo in many tribes.

No wonder hill women from the Northeast are daring, enterprising, ambitious and independent. And this attitude has given them the courage to look beyond their childhood landscape and venture into unfamiliar territory, braving the odds and adapting to varied cultures, climates and lifestyles.

According to Jagori, woman's group, there are about one lakh Northeastern migrants in Delhi and 60 per cent of them are women. Opportunities for higher education and jobs draw many of these women, given that such opportunities are scarce in their underdeveloped, often impoverished, native states. There are many good schools there, but few good colleges. There is little scope for private entrepreneurship in the region. Although government jobs are available, nepotism and bribery is rampant. Moreover, life literally under the military siege back home, with a daily routine of screening, frisking and humiliation, becomes unbearable. "Cases of rapes and killings are strikingly more in states where 'army rule' is pervasive," says Rojesh. 

There are also resolute and confident women like Chi from Manipur, an MA student of Delhi University, who says that all these factors will not stop her from going back to her homeland. "I am resolved to do something for my natives, friends, family, kinsmen. What use is my education and knowledge if I can't help my own people?" There are women committed to their states' development, often quitting their high-paid jobs in multinational companies and luxurious lives in the city (and abroad), and choosing to go back home. 

But the path of 'success' is not easy as they migrate to the plains; there are both pros and cons attached. "Back home women can at most aspire to land a teaching job in schools which doesn't pay much (perhaps Rs 5,000 per month)," said Prachee Dewri, from Guwahati, Assam, currently a faculty member at Hansraj College, Delhi University. LV Mami, an undergraduate student from Mizoram, complained, "There aren't many girls' hostels run by the government of Delhi. We can't afford to stay in private hostels because of differences in food habits, and huge rent." Her friend Jennifer added, "Often, house-owners easily agree to give us their flats on rent since it is so easy to loot us."

Says Jessica from Shillong, Meghalaya, "The fact that the general crowd in Delhi does not know much about us and the place we come from, and brand us Chinese or Japanese, infuriates us. We are also Indians." She says that this feeling of alienation keeps them away from mingling with the 'mainstream'. 

Talking to many others from Manipur made things clearer. Young Madisun, a chartered accountant, said her sexuality and clothing style is a personal affair. The perverse male cliché that they are 'available' is a repulsive, degrading and racist attitude. "There are many problems, but we do find a way to feel better," said LV. "Often, friends get together in our flats, cook dinner, chit chat, play games. It sometimes feels like back home." Shelmi from Nagaland says that going to discos or clubs is not their cup of tea. "We like to stay back, call in friends, sing songs and dance. We too like to go native."

There is something uncanny in this deceptive sense of alienation when their basic human rights are being denied and challenged on the basis of crass sexual and social stereotypes based on ethnocentric discourse. Lansinglu Rongmei, an advocate in the Supreme Court, says, "Delhi is not a safe city. And the situation is worse for women and girls coming from the Northeast. Difference in language is an easy danger quotient for them." So how can these attacks on women be stopped? "I seriously have no idea," she says. "There are many helpline numbers given by the government for contact in times of emergency, but they are hardly useful as many remain unanswered or the person at the other end does not know English." 

Rongmei added that the government has to be pro-active to create a safe environment for all working women and girls, including girls from the Northeast who are particularly vulnerable to the perverse and criminal male gaze. Tough laws, strict implementation, fast investigations and quick availability of justice will make the job easier. Also, punishment should be harsh for criminals, molesters and rapists. 

Perhaps all that can change if morbid stereotypes about Northeast women too change. If the political and social condition in the Northeast, where human rights violations are rampant, changes as well. If we learn to respect different cultural identities and the female identity. If we accept that Northeastern women are perfectly normal, human, independent and resilient women, trying to find the wings of aspiration, knowledge and happiness like all women in a fragmented, male-dominated society. 

So why are they being pushed to the edge, day after day?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2011