Thirty-two years ago, on the darkest night of my life, I set foot on the land of Tamil Nadu for the first time. I was nineteen then and the age I am today; My mother was a few years younger than him. As soon as the airplane door opened, we plunged into the darkness of the night. But I wasn’t scared. Because the worst that could have happened had happened.
My father was murdered a few hours ago. That night I went to my mother. I knew that the words I was going to say to her would break my mother’s heart forever. I said those words and saw the light of joy extinguished in his eyes forever.
Now, when I was in Tamil Nadu to collect parts of my father’s mutilated body, I had no fear left. Descending the stairs of the airplane, we stood on the ground of the Meenambakkam airport – destitute and alone.
Suddenly, a bunch of women wearing blue sarees surrounded us. It was perhaps the gods who could not stop our defeat in the battle of life that sent them to comfort us. They were women working at the airport. They held my mother in their arms and wept in their mourning, as if they were all my mothers, as if they too had lost their spouse. Those tears of pain sharing bound my heart with the women of Tamil Nadu. I can never erase this relationship; I can never even explain it.
You are all my mothers. They are my sisters. I am deeply honoured to be here and to have the opportunity to say two things about myself and the women of India among all of you.
I have come to remind you that we women are the strength of this self-respecting and beautiful nation – which we call our motherland.
Whether we are rich or poor, whether we are citizens of metros or live in small towns or villages, we are well educated or we have faced a lack of opportunities, we are actually the foundation of the building, the strength of which the buildings of families and societies stand brick-by-brick. Our shoulders carry the burden of society. With full dignity and courage we carry this burden.
With the immense capacity to endure deprivation and suffering, we have done everything with our tenacity and willpower. We are proud of these strengths – which have been ingrained in our bones from generation to generation in the face of injustice and oppression.
But my sisters! I’m here to tell you that we are much more than that. We are much more than capable of bearing suffering.
We are the ones who nurture, hold on, and who always create and nurture the children and everything around us. We teach courage. We teach us to love.
We know the true meaning of forgiveness, we know how to stand fearlessly in the face of adversity.
We are the workforce that takes our continent on the path of development. We are also the millions of young women who cherish the dream of a better future in our eyes and hearts.
We know how to grow from within a dark night, like dawn, claiming to be in the morning. Each of us has a light shining brighter than the sun, of course, that light has never had the freedom and happiness to shine on its own.
A century ago, Periyar asked: Why is a woman subservient?
And then he found the answer to this question in a series of his revolutionary essays talking about the economic and social slavery of women. It was he who laid the foundation of women empowerment in Tamil Nadu, which was carried forward by leaders like Annadurai ji and Karunanidhi ji.
Sisters! This power of the women of Tamil Nadu has shown the path of liberation and development to women across the country.
But even today, we are fighting the horrific reality of the systematic oppression of women by patriarchy beneath the surface of development.
In fact, today – even a hundred years after the publication of Periyar’s essays – that question grows bigger and stands before us.Why are women slaves?I don’t have Periyar’s experience, his wisdom and stature, but his question has its own answer.
I am a woman.
Generation after generation, we were taught to hand over our power to others. Speak politely, stand in the corner away from the middle, be ashamed of your individuality.
Pay attention to others before showing compassion towards yourself. Unfortunately, we read these lessons very carefully and read them so well that we went beyond them.
We have always evaluated ourselves from the point of view that the dominant power had planted in our veins. By doing so, we recognised our own oppression and oppression.
We forgot that the right to equality and the dignity of privacy – these things are not gifts or pleasures, they are natural acceptance of life – are the roots of all forms of oppression and oppression in the weakness of not accepting this truth – that discrimination, whether it is of color, creed, caste or gender.
Today, there is a lot of discussion about ’empowerment’, as every political party is beginning to realise that women can become an unbeatable collective force that will shape the future of our country.
But he, even today, looks at us with greed. The greed for votes, the greed to capture and use our power to keep us down.
My sisters, I am asking for more from you today. I want that we be the masters of our own power.
I demand immediate implementation of the Women’s Reservation Bill. We, the women of India, no longer have time to waste. It is our right to participate in the political process.
I demand that the importance of our “selfhood” be understood and our importance as a political force for our empowerment be respected.
I demand that we stop glorifying our tolerance towards the injustice being done against us day by day.
I demand the rejection of every social, religious or political system that thrives on our oppression and forces us to compromise with it.
Every woman has the right to express and embody her power and she should have the freedom to exercise it.
You are the essence of humanity. No matter where each one of you are, you have the power to change your life, but only if you deeply understand the immense power of your sisterhood and togetherness. Only when you see the great value of coming together, helping each other, holding each other and moving forward with everyone.
My sisters, when we stand together, no one will be able to stop the power of women.
We are half the population of this country – not less than half – not less.It is our duty to remove the barriers of caste, religion, state, language and society. It is the first and foremost thing for us to recognize our own sisterhood as one that binds us together in a thread of change.
Today we stand here in the memory of a leader – Karunanidhi ji, who understood the power of women.
Let’s wake up to a new dawn. Let us build our own destiny.
(Priyanka Gandhi’s statement at Women’s Rights Conference, Chennai)