Gender Bender


Guwahati has grown into a city without really meaning to be a city. From a centre of pilgrimage to a boisterous city, from tin-roofed small houses to tall skyscrapers — the city has grown seamlessly as the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra which flows by the side of the historic city. A recent survey (2006) by a popular Indian magazine – Outlook (Money) ranked Guwahati 16th among all the major and medium sized Indian cities.

But the individuals who lend a warmth and character to the city had never been celebrated. This is an attempt to honour Guwahatians who are either born in the city or have made the city their home and have been responsible for taking the name of the city to the world. The Thumb Print, a contemporary news magazine ( will honour the Giant Guwahatians from different walks of life who have left their imprint on the city.

TERESA REHMAN  tries to delve into the life of pioneering activist Monisha Behal who has institutionalized social work in Northeast India

How many 60-year-old women you know who drive 200 kms at a stretch every weekend or can change a car tyre with ease? Well, long-time women’s rights activist Monisha Behal, popularly known as Ben is like her sturdy vehicle. She lovingly describes the nine-year-old Sumo she drives as, “a man who is reluctant to get up in the morning. After a while, it picks up momentum and becomes a smooth drive. It’s reliable. It can easily be maneuvered.”  

She prefers driving long distances on her own. “I don’t wait for anyone. I know how to drive on bad roads,” she says. She revels in doing the unexpected. Much to everyone’s surprise, she drove down a gypsy vehicle from Delhi to Assam in three days in 1987. She narrates how a tribal woman had once given birth to a child in her vehicle and the child was aptly christened ‘Sumo’. She was in one of her sojourns in a remote village then. That’s Ben – one of the pioneers of the ngo movement in the region. She is the founder of North East Network (NEN), a women’s organisation established in 1995 during the mobilisation process for the Beijing Conference. NEN has been relentlessly raising women’s rights issues, particularly within the developmental and political context of the region.

This spunky lady, hailing from a small pocket-sized town Tezpur, in the North bank of the Brahmaputra  has made Guwahati city her workstation. Every weekend, however, she drives back to her ancestral home at Kumargaon in Tezpur.  Born in 1951, she grew up in this historic house as a scion of the iconic Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla family. However, she has been nurturing the NEN headquarters in Guwahati’s Jorpukhuri area for many years now. NEN responds to specific needs of women in north east India such as gender budgetary allocations, strengthening support services for women affected by violence, and security of women in conflict areas through fact finding processes and advocacy with the government. NEN also has its centres in Shillong (Meghalaya), Chizami (Nagaland) and Delhi.

For activist Behal, 24 hours in a day aren’t enough. She began with rural women in 1980s, researching on their lives and collective work in the north east region of India. She took several initiatives to help strengthen women’s livelihood opportunities, urging them also to question their subordinate position in terms of getting access to basic entitlements of state support services.  At the same time she made all efforts to integrate the northeast issues into the national map and for them to become a part of the larger women’s movement in the country.

Her work in Nagaland started when she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1995 where Monisha covered 2 villages of all seven districts of the state to understand the health status of women. From then her efforts brought in a full-fledged community based programme which currently is run by dedicated women through the NEN Resource Centre at Chizami, Phek district in Nagaland.  

After office, she is back in her cosy apartment, which is her cocoon in the city.  “Since, my stay is erratic in Guwahati, I don’t have a domestic help. I do everything myself,” she says. She wakes up as early as 4.30 am. She does everything from cleaning, dusting, writing a diary and going for a little walk and off to work. She comes back in the evening and meets friends and relatives. She goes to sleep rather late as she talks to her family on skype. Her children, both professional musicians are in Goa and Paris respectively. Her husband teaches in Delhi’s Deshbandhu College.

She describes Guwahati as a city of sorts – multi cultural, multi lingual, which is wonderful, but faces challenges of keeping up with support services such as regular water supply, erratic electricity, clogged drains and uncleared garbage. “The responsibility is both that of Guwahatians as well as the civic authorities which can, perhaps address the multiple problems if residents can form into Residents Welfare Associations. I hear they are most influential in the colonies of New Delhi where they not only see to the regular services of civic authorities but also address issues of street vices, molestation of women and the like. Nearer home is that of the Dorbars, local authorities of Shillong which   conduct weekly cleaning drives with the members of every household,” she points out.

She adds, “I am confused whether to feel proud or disappointed that Guwahati ranks 16th among all the major and medium sized Indian cities today. It is a matter of multiple discussions that people of different localities and colonies can plan among themselves, gear up and find similar solutions to bring the city back to a clean, progressive environment today and the years to come.”

As a women’s rights activist, she strongly feels that women have to be safe and enjoy free mobility within the city because they have every right, as a citizen, to do so. Whether they are home makers, college girls, working women, street vendors or maids, they have a right to free movement, free from sexual harassment and certainly free from any form of discrimination. “The crucial point here is to find out what Guwahatians think about the free mobility I am talking about. Many will say that the city is not safe for women and therefore the hint at being restrictive. Things can improve only with if the public, social groups, corporates and youth clubs could get their heads together to discourage any form of harassment that takes place  in the city . I however have some doubts whether attitudes can change so fast,” she adds. 

For instance Amarjyoti Kalita, who was a central figure in molesting and harassing a young girl, in front of many under the glare of T V cameras late Monday (9th July 2012) evening at Christian Basti, Guwahati got bail from jail a couple of months back.  Many organizations, particularly women’s groups, protested against the nightmarish event and expressed their shame on the way Assam attracted headlines from the international media.  “While every individual has a right to his/her own lawyer, I would like to. remind all those who passed those days of anger and anxiety, which demanded to the State and the law, that the perpetrator must be booked. I am sure everyone will agree that committing acts of violence is a wrong and non action on the part of the State can impact negatively on the society as a whole,” she adds.

Young at heart, she tries to keep up with the times. She recalls in 1992, she was scared to use the computer. She was then working at the Canadian Embassy, Delhi as Gender Equity Advisor.  When she told them that she did not know how to use the computer, they told her, “We don’t have an assistant for you.” That prompted her to learn to use the computer! However, she resorts to music to soothe her senses. Behal is fond of music and plays the piano. In fact, music is on everytime when she is around.

She points out that she and many people of her generation picked up social work out of interest and idealism. However, it’s a good sign that social work is emerging as an academic discipline and there are many advantages to being professional social workers. However, she rues, “Many of the students of social work try to follow the American system as to how many hours have they put in. They are only accountable only in terms of the hours they have put in. For me accountability is something different. There should be an essence of enquiry in your soul. Social commitment should be there. They strictly follow terms of reference. I think it’s all got to do with your personal values, outlook and degree of commitment you like to put in. Now it’s too structured and short-lived.”

The clock is always ticking for her. She says, “Ours is an unending work. Institutionally, people can do more to bring about social change and justice. Every individual has a responsibility, ability to influence more people. I have taught my domestic help that her husband has no right to beat her and she can even complain about it. Crux of all our activity is women.” As of now, she is determined to bring about a more gender-just society and she doesn’t seem ready to slow down yet.

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