Living and learning feminism with young girls in Lucknow

This blog has been penned by Gopika Bashi, one of our advisors from the Asia Pacific region. To read more about FRIDA’s advisory committee, click here.

As feminists, our most basic task is  to fight patriarchy. And we do that by weeding it out at its roots. We call out misogyny, chip away at limiting ideologies, practices and deeply embedded traditions. This is, and has been, our task. But what does feminism mean for a group of young women trained in self-defense, in a small suburb of the northern Indian city of Lucknow? How does the practice of self-defense dismantle patriarchal machinery? This is what I had in mind in the days leading up to my visit to Red Brigade Lucknow, one of FRIDA’s grantee partners in Asia. And I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Once I arrived in Madiyaon, a small suburb almost on the outskirts of the main city, I sat on some steps outside the local Ramlila ground (named after the battle between good and evil from the ancient Hindu epic, Ramayana), waiting for one of the girls to come pick me up. Looking around, it was quite obvious that this was not an easy environment to even be in, let alone work from. As the afternoon sun shone down on me, I could pick up the distinctive odour of locally made alcohol from the shops with men lined up outside of them.

I entered the tiny building with bright red walls, and a board that said ‘Red Brigade Lucknow’, tucked away at a corner of an open ground. The walls were adorned with pictures of their founder, Usha Vishwakarma, receiving awards from various celebrities and being honoured by politicians. One of the photos was of the group’s appearance on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, hosted by one of Hindi cinema’s superstars, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan. As I cooled down with some water, the girls scrambled together, not really knowing what to expect either.  

I looked around at the circle of young women around me. I had met some of them some years earlier. I was told later that more than 70% of these girls had survived sexual violence, in most cases by someone from within their household. A young group founded by survivors of sexual violence, they basically train young girls and women in self defense and martial arts to fight sexual violence and harassment in public spaces and homes. Around fifteen of us were together for the next two days as we collectively reflected, discussed and planned ahead. We dreamed together for the kind of world world we wanted to live in. So many of these dreams were similar. We all merely wanted to lead a life free from violence.

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The space created because of Red Brigade meant a great deal to these girls and young women who claimed this space as their own, and who had come here simply in search of a refuge from experiences of everyday violence. During the two days,  we articulated and reminded ourselves that this was a space for girls to come, dance, sing, laugh and to shed all invisible armours that they must put on outside those walls. And while we collectively planned our growth as a young feminist, we acknowledged how needed this safe space was and how much it lacks in many young girls’ lives.

On my last day, as the muezzin called out his evening prayers, the founding group sat with me on the roof discussing some practical questions at a critical time of leadership transition in the group. How should decisions be made collectively? Who should be taking financial decisions?  What is the group’s vision for the next 5 years, as members grow older? As we talked about all this and laid out plans on a white flipchart, I looked out at Madiyaon. The Ramlila ground had been taken over to celebrate a religious festival, under the patronage of the local politicians.

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As I rode back home, the same question I started with sprung back to me. What does feminism mean for a group of young women in this small suburb? I realised that it probably only looks a bit different, but feels exactly the same: speaking truth to power. And a place that allows young women to do that, in a society hell bent to silence them and punish them for expressing any desire, is worth keeping alive in the years to come.

All pictures © Gopika Bashi and Red Brigade Lucknow, India