When the going gets tough, the tough get going: Islawati

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service - CNS
Photo credit: Rahul D/ CNS
[CNS image library] 42 years old Islawati is the mother of five children. She lives in village Chachikpur with her husband, her parents-in-law and her 3 daughters—the eldest one is married and her son who is studying in Class 10 lives with her sister in Ahmedabad. Islawati comes from a well-off family. Daughter of a printing press owner of Gosaiganj, she spent a happy childhood in the company of her parents and her two brothers and one sister.

Apart from being good in studies, she was well versed in farming also and would help her brother on the fields as her father would be busy with his job involving the printing of one of the two newspapers that Gosaiganj boasted of in those days. Her elder brother ran a brick kiln.

Life after marriage

When Islawati got married at the age of 20, she had passed her class 12 examinations and was studying in BA but she failed the exam, as her in-laws were not interested in her completing her education. The marriage proved to be a big letdown for her. It was like a new birth for her-- and not a good one at that. There was no importance of education in her new home. Her farmer-husband has 4 brothers and the eldest one was the head of the household. Her husband was not educated, and perhaps this was the reason that she was not allowed to continue with her studies. Except for her, nobody in her in-laws place had had any education. Islawati knew English and Hindi typing and even applied for the post of a clerk, but was not allowed to appear for the test. After the birth of her eldest daughter, there was a division of her husband’s family property and he had to leave the house with 12 bighas of land as his share, but no roof over his head. Now the responsibility of looking after the family fell upon Islawati.

Her work and achievements

Photo credit: Rahul D/ CNS
Islawati was not new to working in the fields. But now she had to hone her farming skills. She started growing vegetables like chillies, tomatoes, cauliflower, brinjal and potatoes. She would do the entire work single handedly—ploughing the field, planting and watering the plants, weeding, plucking the crops and selling the produce in the mandi (market) in Gosaiganj 6 km away.

She has also been growing peppermint and managing a peppermint oil plant for the last 10 years. Over a period of time she has bought 4 buffaloes too. By saving small amounts of money she was able to educate her children and bring up her family.

Islawati is a member of the Aaroh Mahila Kisaan Manch ('Aaroh' is a campaign for rights and recognition of women farmers in Uttar Pradesh supported by Oxfam India) since last 5 years. “Being a part of this group has increased my self-confidence. It has also helped me become self-sufficient and as far as possible I do all the farming work myself. I do not consider any work below my dignity. My husband also helps me. I want to keep on learning new things and achieving more and more in my life. This urge to do more keeps me going. I have always thought of improving my lot by hard work.”

In the earlier days Islawati would have a yearly income of around INR 50,000 (after taking out cost of inputs). But now her profit margins have increased. Improved quality of seeds, better farming techniques (like use of machines), use of pesticides and fertilizers-- all have led to higher productivity and increased the yield per acre. Market prices of vegetables have also risen over a period of time.

Growing chillies is the biggest money-spinner and profitable venture for her.

Another source of income is the milk of her buffaloes, which she sells to a sweetmeat shop owner of the village.

Women farmers

Photo credit: Rahul D/ CNS
“Farming is hard work and not every woman’s cup of tea. I do not mind working in the blazing heat. But all women cannot do that. It is all in our minds. Women farmers face a lot of problems. They have to look after the family, do household work and also work in the fields. In my village, women who work in the fields are recognized as women farmers. But in most places this is not so. Women are the ones who labour the most but their work as farmers largely goes unrecognized. This has to change. Women in our society are a repressed lot. Each has to contend with different problems-- be it of the in-laws, or of the husband, or their poor economic condition. Very often the men do not want the womenfolk to work outside the four walls of their homes.”

Land ownership

“The 12 bigha land which we own is in the name of my father-in-law. But this does not bother me. I have never felt the need of having legal rights over the land I plough. The family acknowledges my contribution and I am happy with that. In my case it does not matter in whose name the land is. But this does become an issue for many women where the husband does not see eye to eye with the wife. Women are only recognized as someone’s wife. They are not given an independent entity. So perhaps it would be good if they have some legal entity over the land they plough.”

Women’s education, marriage and family planning

“Education is very important as it opens our mind to new horizons. I have ensured a proper education for my daughters. They are not only very good in their studies but adept in farming too and help me in the fields.” 

“Girls should not be married before the age of 22 years. I committed a grave mistake by marrying off my eldest daughter after she passed class 12 when she was just 18. She is the mother of two kids now. But now I have realized that early marriage stunts the mental and economic growth of girls”. 

“I have a large family but have learned from my mistakes. There is no wisdom in having a large family. One should not have more than two children. But I am very proud of my daughters and they are my biggest asset. I think daughters are far better than sons and more helpful.” 

Then and now
Photo credit: Rahul D/ CNS

“Today I am a free bird and in a position to take my own decisions, but there were problems’ galore in the initial years of my married life. Then I was under the control of others.”

“There has been a major improvement in the economic status of my family over the last 18-20 years. When my husband had separated from his brothers we did not even have a roof over our heads. Today, by dint of my hard work, I am able to earn enough. Farming (and to some extent animal husbandry) is my source of income and has given me enough money to build a house, marry my daughter, and send my in-laws on a pilgrimage.

I shudder to think of the past. There would never be enough money in the house. Once when I fell sick there were not even 10 rupees in the house to buy medicines. But now the darkness has gone. Today I am a successful woman because of my determination and hard work. I constructed this house all by myself—did not keep any labour. At times I myself wonder how I managed all this single handedly—looking after my children, doing all household chores, managing the fields, constructing my house, looking after the buffaloes. I have no regrets in life as today I am reaping the fruits of my labour. Farming has given me a good life. I have a tractor and two pump sets. Our yearly income is now INR 2 lakh. Then I had nothing and now I have everything.”

On women empowerment
Photo credit: Rahul D/ CNS

“There has definitely been a change in the mindset of women. I strongly feel that women should become economically independent. This empowerment brings happiness. But one should have the guts to go about it. Sometimes societal pressures deter women from realizing their dreams. We need to have the courage to not succumb to our circumstances. My sisters-in-law make fun of my go-getting attitude. They take life easily, and never aspire for a better living. But I think there is much more to life than just having two square meals a day. Education has got a lot to do with having an open mindset.”

“Moreover it is also about social and caste constructs. I have seen upper caste rural women more concerned with maintaining a social image. They would rather starve than go out and work, as they think that doing physical work outside their homes is insulting and degrading. Perhaps women from low castes-- like me-- do not pay heed to what ‘others would say or think.’ But we should believe in the dignity of labour. There should be no shame in doing honest physical work. So caste does affect our mental attitude. I try to deconstruct these caste images and have been successful in influencing at least some women to follow my example.” 

“Women should be industrious and hard working. We should do our work with dedication. Each moment of life is too precious to be wasted or frittered away in useless pursuit. Laziness is the bane of progress. We must understand that time is very valuable and must teach our children also to be hard working. Confidence in one’s ability is very important. Women must nurture that inner fire in them to succeed. There is no limit to what one can achieve.” 

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service - CNS 
28 March 2015
(This article is part of a soon-to-be-released Oxfam India publication: "The Leader Lies In You - Success stories of women farmers in UP") 

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