Women’s Solidarity Festival, 2016 – Udhayam Women’s Federation, AVAG

India is a land of many festivals, each celebrating our rich cultural tradition, each representing a certain important date in the history of one or the other religion. These timings often correspond to events in the natural cycles of land and water, such as the coming of rain or harvest season. The Women’s Solidarity Festival at AVAG stands out in some ways from these traditional festivals.

For one, the date of the festivities is flexible and this year was stretched to hold four pre-events leading up to the Finale. The theme of the festival is simply the Spirit of Woman. It overcomes every cultural, caste, class, race, colour and even gender divide since men too are welcome to celebrate the Spirit of Woman. There is no religion-based tradition or fear of upsetting a God that drives the festivities. The women come voluntarily, in large numbers and each one of them contributes financially to the festival. It is this participation that makes the event extremely special.

And so the question arises, why do the women of the Bio-region, coming from a rural background; that puts them not just at an economic disadvantage but also subject to a severely prevalent gender bias at every level of society, contribute a portion of their savings to host a Women’s Festival for themselves?

To find the answer to this question we must dig a little deeper to know the lives of the women in the Bio-region.

Understand the value of the Udhayam Women’s Federation, Auroville Village Action Group and most importantly, the value of the network these bodies represent in their lives. The Federation is a sisterhood of which every member is proud to be a part. Auroville Village Action Group gives a safe space for them to express, learn, share and grow as a strong community. Together, we are a family, and the Women’s Solidarity Festival is our family function.

This is a sentiment echoed by several women on the morning of the festival as they stood at the entrance of the campus, clad in their brightest, happiest sarees to welcome the women’s groups.

They were full of excitement and pure joy even though many had stayed awake through most of the previous night at the AVAG office to complete the preparations for the event. If their bodies were tired, their soaring spirits were hiding it well. The women feel at home and celebrate the Women’s Festival like they would a family function.

It had been a long night. All the AVAG staff including the directors Anbu and Moris had stayed till the wee hours of the morning, personally supervising the cooking and food packaging. Several Federation members too had volunteered for this work. They were assisted by some Men’s Clubs and Paalam members (an AVAG initiative to bridge the gap between the youth in the Bio region and the resources available in Auroville).

And then there were the cooking teams who had been diligently working over four days to prepare snacks for all 5000 expected women and on the last night were cooking tamarind rice for lunch. The cooking was done in vessels large enough for some of the smaller women to curl up in. It was fascinating to watch them as they maintained proportions of ingredients on this large scale. The food packaging and distribution system too had been designed in detail. Each development worker was in charge of distributing to the groups from villages under his/her care.

In addition to this the entrance to the campus had been decorated with a kollam and stalls arranged for the social enterprises of AVAG. And then there was the ground. 5000 women was just a number to us volunteers until we saw the size of the ground with temporary shading erected called “shamiana”. A large area had been covered and the blue, red and white fabric roofing was decorated with frills arranged as wide chandeliers. At the head of the ground was a raised stage for the performances and the rest of the floor was carpeted.

Through the week we had thunderstorms every night and the water from the flooded ground had to be pumped out and then the swamps filled with dry sand for the event. Fortunately, the day of the festival was clear and sunny. When Anbu Akka apologised to them for how uncomfortably warm the weather is, the women said that the heat does not bother them because they had in fact been praying for it to not rain on this day lest their festival be cancelled.

We stood with Anbu at the entrance to greet the women as they arrived in groups. The first groups entered dancing to the sound of drum beats and were accompanied by the AVAG staff to the ground.

One after the other followed the rest, the front row of each carrying a placard with the name of their group and a mention of the Udhayam Federation and AVAG. They made different drawings and designs on the placards. Many groups came in uniform sarees adding to the visual of unity and solidarity.

1st Women’s Festival pre-event on AVAG campus

Activities conducted during pre-events included games for the women and cultural programs

These activities give women an opportunity to express freely in an otherwise conservative society

Debate competition – Women’s Festival at AVAG, 2016

Playing with bindis – Women’s Festival at AVAG

The Federation members organise volunteers to help with food packaging

Large scale cooking preparations done for the festival

When all the women had been seated, and this happened in an incredibly smooth manner in spite of the large crowd, the program was inaugurated by the Federation members and the Resolution was made. The resolution is an oath taken collectively by the women at the start of a meeting or program. They pledge to be loyal to the Federation, to work for not just their own development but for other women too. They declare that they are an instrument for change and will not discriminate on the basis of caste, class or creed. They also vow to not deliberately end their lives, no matter how distressed their situation may be. The resolution is a powerful message to and from the women that signifies the bond they share.

Making the Resolution, Women’s Solidarity Festival, AVAG 2016

We were then addressed by some senior Aurovillians including Mr. Chunkath, the Secretary of the Auroville Foundation. Rakhal, a thinker and film maker who has dedicated several years of his life to contemplating the Mother’s dream. Inge, an Aurovillian by birth, with a deep interest and empathy for the work of AVAG in the Bioregion. Elisa from the Working Committee, who was touched and overwhelmed at the sight of the large gathering. Alain, a trustee of Auroville Village Action Trust (AVAT), who has seen the organisation grow for ten years. Bridget, an executive of AVAG, with a keen understanding and bond with the Bioregion.
All the speakers shared their dream of an inclusive future that would be peaceful and beneficial for all. They marvelled at the energy of the women, radiating from their very presence and congratulated them on the social oppression they had overcome to be here.
And so began the cultural performances. The women had been preparing for these for over a month with regular practices and training. AVAG organised dance, theatre and debating professionals to train women in ancient traditional folk dance forms of Tamil Nadu which are on the brink of being lost. The skits were made engaging with the inclusion of songs with themes of social change, shedding light on issues of gender bias, treatment of the elderly, eve-teasing and deforestation. The songs called for a shift in social mentality and emphasised the role women can play in this shift.

Federation members inaugurating the event – Women’s Festival at AVAG

The ground set up to host 5000 women under one roof – Women’s Festival at AVAG, 2016

Group folk dance – Women’s Festival at AVAG 2016

AVAG used this opportunity to also introduce to the women the work of other social welfare organisations in the Bioregion. We heard from Dr. Vidya Ramkumar who works in the field of Child Welfare about sensitive issues like child sexual abuse, especially within homes and from extended family, how to identify it themselves, teach their children to recognise it and how to approach help.
Ms. Sheethal Nayak presented the case of the transgender community and boldly spoke of the discrimination people face in society. She urged the crowd to consider the Gods they worship who have been depicted themselves as transgender and appealed to their sense of empathy, calling for social justice and equality. Even though this topic is commonly considered taboo and there prevail several biases against transgenders, the women were not only receptive to Ms. Nayak but also sent her good wishes as she exited the stage.
The day continued to bring more such heart melting moments as the ladies celebrated the event with open hearts.
Several audience members spontaneously stood up and joined in dance, unafraid and unashamed of their spirited expression.
They held each other’s hands and spun in circles, their bodies moving to an ancient beat of folk, their collective spirit connecting in a wave of Female strength.

Ms. Sheethal Nayak speaks on issues of transgender, Women’s Solidarity Festival, AVAG 2016

An elderly lady dances in the crowd, Women’s Solidarity Festival, AVAG 2016

Dancing Backstage – Women’s Solidarity Festival, AVAG 2016

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