A protest march can sometimes tell us just how far, or how little, we have travelled. In 1972 a girl called Mathura was raped by two policemen in the compound of their police station in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district. As the case inched its way through the sessions court (she was habituated to sexual intercourse, therefore no rape) to the Supreme Court (no visible injury marks, therefore no rape), women’s groups became angrier, the protests grew louder, the slogans more strident.

“We want justice."

“Phool nahin chingari hain, hum is desh ki naari hain(we are not flowers but burning flames, we are this nation’s women)".

Nearly 40 years later, as students and grandmothers, professors and housewives gathered at India Gate in Delhi in December 2012, the same slogans filled the air. As national angst played out on social media and television studios, it felt like that we were witnessing the birth of a movement. Indeed, the December 2012 protests were a milestone but they were just that: another marker in a long march that had already begun many, many years ago. “The seeds of the December protest had been in the ground for decades," says activist Kamla Bhasin, who has been involved with the women’s movement since the early 1970s.

“We want justice."

“Phool nahin chingari hain, hum is desh ki naari hain."

The same slogans. The same issue. Just another rape, just another name: Mathura to Nirbhaya.

Who knows if the first women’s protest march in India was even documented. Women in their saris, fists clenched, voices raised, fighting for safety, dignity, equality in a society that imposes discrimination on girls before they are born; that denies them access to healthcare, nutrition and education; that marries them off when they are still children; that denies them safety both within the house and outside it.

Behind the cold statistics lies a tale of patriarchy as it is lived and experienced. A girl will spend nearly three-fourths of an hour more than her brother on domestic work. She is fed less than her brother and is less likely to receive medical attention. While female literacy rates have risen to nearly 65%, a girl is more likely to drop out of school to attend to household work or to be married off. In six states in modern India, more than half the girls who get married are below the age of 18, reports Ashwaq Masoodi in Mint.

The fight to control women’s sexuality would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. In 21st century India, khap panchayats, made muscular by local influence and political support, deem that girls should be married off at 16 and must not be allowed to dance in public or even own mobile phones. “Honour" killings and panchayat-sanctioned gang rape are the swift retribution for those who disobey. In workplaces across India, women continue to tolerate sexual harassment from entitled male bosses. Within the assumed safety of their homes, women might face incest or beatings from the head of the family, who is almost invariably male.

A movement that has traversed the terrain of dowry, rape, sex-selective abortion, cruelty, sexual harassment, and even just the basic right to be recognized as a mother continues with unflinching single-mindedness. It has never been easy.

How many women were burned alive before the dowry law was changed?

How many women were raped before the rape laws were toughened?

How many women—wives, live-in partners, mothers, widows and sisters—were brutalized at home before the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2005?

How many female foetuses were aborted, resulting in a skewed sex ratio, before the passing of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act in 2003?

And have any of these crimes stopped?

At a time when dowry deaths were coyly referred to as “bride burning" and assumed to be kitchen accidents, when rape could only be established if there were visible injury marks (and of course, if you were “habituated to sex", well, you couldn’t have been raped), when domestic violence was strictly a “family matter", when sexual harassment at the workplace was not even defined, let alone considered a crime, the early responders took up campaigns with a ferocity that did change the law, even if social mindsets are slower, and harder, to change.

“There have been huge changes, especially in the law," says additional solicitor general Indira Jaising. “But the change has come from a protectionist perspective, not from a willingness to empower women. There is no commitment to equality either from politics or from the courts."

And yet, Jaising concedes that in the over four decades since she’s travelled with the movement, there is a greater willingness to speak up. “Victims are no longer blaming themselves. They are very clear. They say, ‘It’s not our fault’."

Not our fault, said the women who took it upon themselves to fight personal battles. Ordinary women who devoted their lives to a cause, they did not set out to be crusaders—but they just could not bear the injustice of it all.

Mutilated from an acid attack by a jilted suitor, a young girl gets the Supreme Court to order the regulation of acid sale so that no other woman should have to face her trauma. In the course of her trial she meets a young, idealistic social activist and they fall in love.

In a tiny village in Haryana, a teenage girl is gang-raped, the crime is filmed and her father commits suicide when he finds out. But the girl clears her class XII examinations, is currently doing her bachelor’s degree and wants eventually to become a lawyer so that she can fight for other girls like her.

A young woman defies family protocol and marries a man from another caste. Her incensed brothers beat up the husband and his relatives and file a slew of false criminal cases against them. The woman approaches the Supreme Court for protection. She gets it not just for herself but also for all couples who are being harassed for marrying outside their caste or religion. The court warns that it will take action against the police and administration if it fails to follow its orders.

In local-level politics, in panchayats, self-help groups and micro-credit societies, women continue marching, building block upon block. Traditional male bastions are breached: the defence forces, aviation, taxi driving, technology. Every step knocks down an old edifice and constructs a new one.

Somewhere a young girl stands up to her rapist. Somewhere a mother fights for legal status. Somewhere a woman wants justice for her daughter, burned for bringing inadequate dowry. Some names are known throughout the country, others have slipped into anonymity, and still others went unsung.

Yet it is important to summon the past. To remember that we are only a thread in an unbroken cord of humanity. No battle is fought alone. No movement can sustain itself for as long as the women’s movement has without a cumulative effort. History is made up of the collective fingerprints of these women—and men—fighting, battling, marching on.

“We want justice."

“Phool nahin chingari hain, hum is desh ki naari hain."

We profile four women who started revolutions on the ground and enabled changes that affect all women.

Bhanwari Devi

Sexual Harassment

Standing tall: Bhanwari Devi at Bhateri, her village in Rajasthan. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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