NEW DELHI — They arrived at the protests riding tractors, and made fiery speeches onstage. They huddled together in the audience, and sang songs of solidarity and unity. Over the past three months, female farmers have been at the forefront of the momentous protests in India’s capital, demanding the repeal of controversial agricultural laws.

For so long, women’s role in agriculture and in farmers’ movements across the country has been invisible — but not anymore, they say.

Norinder Kaur, 70, carries a poster that says (in Punjabi), "We will not bow to your repression. That is why our leaders are sitting on the border." (Amruta Byatnal for The Washington Post)
Norinder Kaur, 70, carries a poster that says (in Punjabi), "We will not bow to your repression. That is why our leaders are sitting on the border." (Amruta Byatnal for The Washington Post)

“We plow the fields, and we feed the country. This struggle is for our rights too. That is why I am here — to fight for my sisters,” said Norinder Kaur, 70, as she prepared for a long day ahead at the Singhu border, one of the three protest sites right outside India’s capital city. She’s one of the many women who volunteer at the sites to cook for fellow protesters.

The protests started as an opposition to three laws that were passed by the Parliament in September 2020. These laws seek to do away with a guaranteed minimum price that farmers would get in exchange for their produce in government-run markets. If implemented, farmer groups have said that this policy will benefit large corporations over small farmers, forcing them to sell at low prices and effectively leaving them without any protection. Tens of thousands of farmers have been participating in the ongoing protests.

But for many women at New Delhi’s borders, the significance of these protests has gone beyond the call to repeal the laws — they’ve become a symbol for the deeper, more structural issues in Indian agriculture, including the lack of recognition of women farmers and the denial of some of their rights. The image of Indian agriculture has been stereotypically male. In official records, too, male farmers are overwhelmingly the landowners.

Women, children and a few men gather in large numbers at the farmers' protest site at Singhu border in New Delhi on Feb. 20. (Amruta Byatnal for The Washington Post)
Women, children and a few men gather in large numbers at the farmers' protest site at Singhu border in New Delhi on Feb. 20. (Amruta Byatnal for The Washington Post)

Nimrat Deep Kaur, 45, is fighting to redefine her role. She is an agricultural laborer, but because she doesn’t own land, she is not recognized as a farmer. “We work on the fields too, and we put our sweat and blood into our day. I am here so I can raise my voice as an equal with the men who are protesting,” she said.

Across the country, agriculture employs about 44 percent of the workforce. According to the humanitarian group Oxfam, about 75 percent of rural women in India work full-time as farmers, but only about 13 percent own land.

Kavitha Kuruganti, founder of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), an informal alliance of more than 400 organizations, said the fact that there is visible participation of women now does not mean that they were absent from the farmers’ movements and protests in the past.

“Until now, women were invisible participants, supporting the movement back home — shouldering their double-gendered responsibility of running their homes and keeping the farms alive, while the men participated in protests,” she said.

She added: “What you see today is that women are overburdening themselves beyond their regular roles, and that is their contribution.”

The protest sites are abuzz with stories being passed down from older generations of women to younger ones. As Sarbjit Kaur, who had traveled to the Singhu border with a group of women from her village Budhel in Punjab’s Ludhiana district, put it: “It’s our way of life. I came here with my granddaughter so she can witness the struggle and understand what it means to take on the government. We can only rely on the younger generation now.”

Sarbjit Kaur, 64, and her 14-year-old grand-daughter, Anmol, arrive at the protest site at Singhu border on Feb. 20. (Amruta Byatnal for The Washington Post)
Sarbjit Kaur, 64, and her 14-year-old grand-daughter, Anmol, arrive at the protest site at Singhu border on Feb. 20. (Amruta Byatnal for The Washington Post)

This is the first time her 14-year-old granddaughter, Anmol, has been to any protest site. After more than two months of hearing about the “siege at the border,” she said she wanted to come and witness it herself. “I have seen farmer suicides in our village, and I have seen how women have to constantly fight for rights for their land. By being here, I want to give a voice to the suffering that many farmers are going through,” Anmol said.

Navsharan Singh, an independent researcher from Punjab, said that women have long been written out of the debates on India’s agricultural sector, and their overwhelming participation in these protests signifies the beginning of a reckoning. “Just by being here, women’s questions in agriculture haven’t been resolved, but they have been brought to the forefront from the shadows,” Singh said. “The questions have been thrown open.”

Singh noted that a lot of the women at the protest site are first-time participants: “They are dismantling the idea of the binary of public and private roles, and they’re claiming their space.”

The protests are historic not only because they’re breaking gender barriers, but those of caste, too. In rural areas, caste hierarchies mean that women from the lower caste seldom occupy public spaces with men. But in the farmers’ protest, women from the conservative state of Uttar Pradesh who are used to being covered in ghunghats, or veils, are out on the streets, and those from the patriarchal Jat community in Haryana are taking part in tractor rallies — which may inspire other groups of women, Singh explained.

One of the ways to measure the success of women’s participation in the farmers’ movement is membership in unions, which have been at the forefront of farmers’ struggles — both past and present, experts say.

 A 15-year-old girl from Punjab poses at the farmers protest site on Feb. 20. (Amruta Byatnal for The Washington Post)
A 15-year-old girl from Punjab poses at the farmers protest site on Feb. 20. (Amruta Byatnal for The Washington Post)

“Will this protest bring deep changes? One will have to wait and see — the shift will have to be reflected in the membership base of the unions — including at the leadership level,” Kuruganti, of ASHA, said.

But this is not a widely accepted notion for some in the country. In January, India’s chief justice asked, “Why are old people and women kept at the protests?”

Women are still pouring in from neighboring states. “They asked us why we are here, I am here to answer the question — we will be here, come cold waves or hail or scorching heat. We will not go back until our demands are met,” said Diljeet Kaur, a farmer who has been at the protest site since November.

The government has held multiple rounds of talks agreeing to make amendments to the laws, and has also offered to stall the implementation of the laws for 18 months while negotiations continue. Farmer groups have said that alone is not enough.

Still, no matter what the outcome, there are larger, longer-term consequences, Kuruganti said: “Women farmers had never been brought under the limelight. And now that they’re here, they’re not going back.”

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