Empowered women

Dawn Newspaper

IT was past 1am in a village in upper Sindh and an entire neighbourhood in a darkened alley was booming with the thumping sound of music on loudspeakers, enthusiastic clapping and cheering. Once you made your way through a narrow street, past a whirring generator, colourful laser lights were dancing on a brick wall and muddy ground — someone’s courtyard had been cleared for the night’s festivities.

At the front, three charpoys had been covered and converted into a stage above which hung a string of lightsaver bulbs. On one side, two men hired to run the music for the night sat before a sound system. The entire courtyard was crowded with women young and old and scores of children; there was an open invitation to all the women in the village to attend. The occasion: a naming ceremony for a baby boy born to a woman in the village who had lost three children before bearing this one.

Women wore their best dresses – embroidered, flowing clothes, glittering jewellery and their hair loose, decorated with flowers and colourful accessories. In pairs, they clambered on stage, without a trace of self-consciousness, ordered a song of their choice and began to dance. They appeared no less than professionals; focused, practised and brimming with self-assurance.

Even when it comes to income generation and savings, women in upper Sindh are in control.

Many cast off sandals and tossed dupattas to girls waiting by the stage. Others crowded around the stage, awaiting their turn or touching up their make-up. Men were not visible anywhere. A few teenage boys from the family joined in the dancing. Other men in the family kept away; they either lay sleeping, sat minding small children or sought refuge at the village tea shop, waiting for the event to end. It didn’t end till after 5am. When the hired music men began to wind down, women were still high with excitement, chattering, giggling and singing.

While village women are known to occasionally gather at weddings and sit in a circle playing the dhol and singing traditional songs, a full-on dance party is unexpected. It raises the question of whether rural women are really locked up at home and denied both the ability to take decisions and enjoy any form of fun.

Women across villages in upper Sindh share the same stories. Weddings and birth ceremonies are most enjoyable events and they ensure they don’t miss a single one even if it means preparing the evening meal early. It is understood that then they’ll dress up and go out after 9pm, and won’t be home before dawn. Women also visit the shrines of Sufi saints, heading out in a group and enjoying the outing and spiritual experience. They’re also the ones who decide on what level of relations to maintain in the extended family and schedule visits and invitations at their own convenience.

Then, women plan and relish shopping trips in the city, carefully selecting which trunk or bedding they want to buy. While out in the city, they relish a glass of sugarcane juice or a favourite snack. For occasions like Eid, they enjoy choosing new clothes and shoes for everyone at home. Women also control the television, scheduling cooking and feeding around the timing of their favourite drama serials. And they all have mobile phones, keeping in touch with relatives elsewhere and sharing ideas and experiences.

Even when it comes to income generation and savings, women are the controlling authority. They decide whether embroidering traditional caps or making bedcovers and pillows is more profitable; from their own earnings and those handed to them by the men in the family, they participate in savings committees and choose how to use the proceeds. When a child falls sick, women take the decision of where to take them for treatment. Even when it comes to children’s education, women often save up or stand in line to ensure their child gets into school.

Men, many of these women say, are just facilitators. They are financial providers. They take decisions when it comes to house repairs or construction. They do the running around when tasks are pending at government offices. They conduct deals such as the sale of livestock, even though women will usually decide which animal to sell. Of course they still hold authority over women’s more extended movements such as those outside the village and decisions relating to whether young women will receive an education, work outside the home or marry out of choice. Plus they arrange the festivals women enjoy.

Times have changed. No longer is the village woman in upper Sindh restricted entirely to the home and relegated to the tasks of running the household. While she also does that, she clearly has plenty of power over vital decisions affecting the family and has found several avenues to have a lot of fun too.

The writer is a journalist, media trainer and founder of Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust. She can be reached at mt@alihasanmangitrust.org

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