The Banyan’s Protected Community in Kovalam on the ECR houses dozens of abandoned women with mental health issues. In a beautiful facility that does not share anything in common with the dismal, depressing and jail-like conditions of mental care facilities across the country, the women roam freely across the space laughing, playing, fighting, screaming, and spending their days relatively free from the pressures of a mainstream patriarchal life. Relatively because they are still on medication administered mainly by a male (psychiatric) view of women and their faces and bodies show the scars of violent histories.
The Protected Community is one of the sites by run The Banyan. Others include a psychiatric hospital in Adaikalam, Moggapair, a health care centre in Kovalam and a men’s home run jointly with the Tamil Nadu state in Santhome. It is also the best representation of the ecosystem that The Banyan seeks to build for the women and men they engage with.
What do the women residents think of International Women’s Day? These are women, who have been victimised by patriarchy, and many perhaps have no knowledge of this commodified day in their name. This is what some of them said:
Jothi, a long-term resident who now works as a receptionist at BALM, says Women’s Day makes her “feel powerful. Women are everywhere today, in all kinds of jobs. Two women started The Banyan. In the family too, women do all the work and are first. I wish all women on Women’s Day.”
So what does she think about the men? “Not all men are bad. It is important for men to support Women’s Day,” she says but adds sharply, “In married life, there is no freedom. I am totally against marriage.”
Another resident who likes the ‘idea’ of Women’s Day is Shirley, a distinguished East Indian Christian woman from Calcutta. “Women need to get to know each other more, be friendly, co-operate and unite. Women’s Day helps women unite,” she says in her clipped, convent-educated English.
Sonia, a sprightly young woman, says, “Women and men should be equal Women should not fight with each other or scold each other. They should work together and be strong.” Concurs Saroja, an older woman who has had a long career working. She runs a store of her own supported by The Banyan. “Women should work for women,” she says, in her colourfully-accented Hindi. “When women get well at The Banyan and go home, it makes me happy. The Banyan helped me start this store and supply women with things at reduced prices. My mother gave me an education and Banyan helped me along the way,” she says proudly.
Women’s Day for Srividya is “about working hard for your family and winning the respect of your husband and your mother-in-law.” But isn’t also about winning your own respect for yourself? “Yes, it is,” she adds with a wry smile. “You are putting it better than me.”
Thw writer runs into two feisty, independent residents, Salma and Shakila. They both don’t care about Women’s Day. “It means nothing to us,” they say, smiling at me. Perhaps that is the achievement of The Banyan. That at the end of the day, we live in the hope that soon we may not need a Women’s Day anymore!
(Ashley Tellis is an academic, a gay rights activist, a mental health rights activist and a general trouble-maker.)