Her name is Yumleima. She has the exquisite cheekbones and eyes typical of the North East. There is a baby at her breast, happily, noisily suckling. She is an unlikely warrior of hope.
On the Washington Post’s short list of the world’s most under-reported war zones, India’s North East has been torn by violence for decades, with more than 600,000 killed. The NE is unusual, both ethnically and religiously distinct from the largely Caucasian Indian subcontinent; the people consider themselves Mongolian and Christian. It has most of the qualities of protracted conflict impervious to intervention and change – from geography and terrain, identity and politically-manufactured inequities to cultural norms that marginalise women. Hopeless. Right? Well, no.
My mind assembles a collage of images: as village housing smoulders around them, women gather children and salvage pots and implements from the ruin, stirring the meagre remnants of their pantries into soups and dahls, preparing the glue that will reassemble shattered lives until the next time. And then I see these women leaving their pots and kitchens to the family to sort out, 85 of them, rolling up their sleeves, hiking up their kurta, elbows out, taking all manner of transport from Nagaland and Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura, to Guwahati in Assam, to get themselves trained, equipped to step out of their place, to take their place; to rise up.
And Yumleima was there. Women from each of the seven regions of the North East brought show-&-tell slides and statistics that told their respective and overlapping stories of violence, reminding themselves and one another why they were there. They learned about women’s human rights, what they are and what happens when women’s rights and cultural rights appear to conflict: that women’s rights supersede social, cultural and religious norms that circumscribe their freedom of movement and their rights to full political participation, that violate their rights to the integrity of their person. Yumleima has been active in the struggle to implement Reservation #33 (a law mandating one-third of municipal councils reserved for women), picketing and marching in the streets of Dimapur, facing down men who’ve burned buildings and cars to make their point: ‘Reservation #33 is an intolerable assault on our autonomy and our culture!’
From last year’s training, she knows that’s not true; her rights as a human being trump cultural rights that marginalise women. They are all weary of endless violence, fed up with lives shaped by exclusionary identity norms and rules and expectations, weary of the domestic violence within that escalates in tandem with identify-fuelled violence without; weary of losing their mother’s grip on sons training for violence. They are ready to challenge the warriors whose peace tables yield nothing but more of the same. They are responding to a great and growing yearning to take their places at tables of decision-making, tables from which they have been traditionally excluded. With hardly the space to negotiate their personal status at the hearth or the bedstead, they dream of bringing their peculiarly feminine gifts to the long overdue task of peace.
These women are on a mission, rising up for peace. They are also proud Nagas, Garos and Aos, Karbis, Rengma and Arunachalese, Lota, Angami and Konyak and they’ve had enough. Their menfolk trace the jots and tittles of identity captured in law, border, blood and lineage, wary of violations, nurturing long memories of promises reneged and tinderbox sensibilities. Yumleima married across tribal lines – and the bride’s brothers rallied the extended family and neighbours to exact appropriate punishment. They surrounded the couple’s house, broke in and beat the man brutally. Interrupted by a police officer, the mob shot him and killed the groom. Eight months later, the widow bore a son, the one at her breast.
The sympathies of these women for the insurgents have long since waned through decades as bearers of collateral damage. They want skills and credentials impressive enough to warrant their elbows on tables – tables of decision-making of all sorts and, in particular, the ones that hold the potential for peacemaking. They want to get in the way of daily conflicts before they become violent, the kind that deplete their communities’ capacities to imagine another way.
Returning home to their respective communities, the 85 women proudly posted their diplomas on the wall of their modest homes. This woman, those diplomas now announce, is an agent of peace! She is ready! No more will we raise our sons to be warriors. You make war; we pick up the pieces. No more.
They understand that the peace journey is both simple and complicated – beginning with their families, as the meaning-makers women are, teaching their tribal identity as ancient and rich and one of many, one brilliant thread in a tapestry of colours; that validation and appreciation of the other’s identity does not come at a cost to their own. The journey, which will include more intensive, play-based, experiential training, will take them into political spaces where their voices are not recognised. And they will create their own places, building the culture of peace for which they have dreamt for so long. Like butterflies emerging from their chrysalis, they are rising up.
OUR APPEAL: This project holds within it and its participants the prospect of peace in the North East. It’s a large dream. Please help to make it happen. As I pack my bags for India, it’s become clear that our programme costs (Partera’s contribution to making it possible to gather together, transport, feed and accommodate these women for eight days) are a good bit greater than we had budgeted. We need approximately $4,000 right about now. If you can help, please give generously. Go here to donate or send an e-transfer to lee (at) partera.ca. Many thanks, peacemakers. You are helping to make happen what you want to see in the world.