Meet Sushila Devi, The Unwavering Voice Behind Raithal's Women

Sarpanch Sushila Devi Rana of Raithal in Uttarakhand wants women of her male-dominated village to fight patriarchy and move forward
Raithal Sarpanch Sushila Devi Rana
Raithal Sarpanch Sushila Devi RanaSushila Devi Rana

My visit to the heritage-rich Raithal village in Uttarkashi turned into an enlightening experience when I met the village women. In traditional attire, yet flaunting smartphones in their hands, they reflected the confluence of tradition and modernity. Coming from an urban milieu, their unique appearance and even more unique concerns, such as how their goru or cows were not keeping well, left me wanting to know more.

Raithal women at the Butter Festival
Raithal women at the Butter FestivalSuresh K. Pandey

Soon, I was introduced to Raithal sarpanch Sushila Devi Rana. Donning a simple sari and a headscarf, Rana was engaged in the festivities of Anduri Utsav, also known as the Butter Festival. "We are preparing for the folk dance. In a few minutes, you will find the village women dressed in their traditional attires to match the festive vibe," she said.

Standing atop Dayara Bugyal, Rana enthusiastically danced in circles and rubbed butter on fellow attendees. Her calm demeanour and active participation won the admiration of locals and tourists.

Having been a sarpanch for four years, Rana sets an ideal example of work-life balance; however, it is not as simple as it seems. "My job does not give me much respite from household tasks. In fact, the work has only doubled," she said.

Becoming a sarpanch has left her with more responsibilities, as now she has to ensure that the transition does not affect her life at home. "Whenever I am travelling or in a meeting, a part of me worries about the kitchen, meals, my cows and our agricultural lands. Our reality as a homemaker does not change," she said.

These mountain women possess an unwavering strength. From carrying grass-filled heavy bamboo baskets to tying their little ones on their back, visuals of their unspoken might will move you. It was evident at the Butter Festival, too.

Sushila Devi Rana, Raithal Sarpanch, in traditional jewellery
Sushila Devi Rana, Raithal Sarpanch, in traditional jewellerySushila Devi Rana

The "Mahila Mandal" of Raithal had begun the festival preparations one month prior to the event. From readying canisters of butter to rehearsing for the folk dance, they put together the festive elements with great zeal. Despite their multi-faceted persona, a lack of faith in their abilities, rooted in patriarchy remains a dominant bone of contention.

During her first year as the village sarpanch, Rana experienced apprehensions from villagers, particularly men. "In my initial days as sarpanch, I was constantly tutored on how to speak and behave, as if I didn't know how to conduct myself," she added. "It is not just men, but a certain section of women were also discouraging."

The starting point of the Dayara Bugyal trek
The starting point of the Dayara Bugyal trekHimakshi Panwar

Despite awareness campaigns, the ground reality of women has not changed much. "So many talented girls don't get the chance to explore a life beyond villages," said Rana.

Rana cites the case of two girls from the village who had qualified for the police force but were not allowed to work because their parents didn't want them to leave for the city and get "corrupted" by urban ways. "Convincing doesn't help either. Here, in villages, there is a mindset that girls should be married off after class 12. Sending them away for a job is still a challenge," added Rana.

As the village head, Rana wants the village working committee to intervene. She has tried implementing several initiatives, including women's enrolment in community welfare programmes. However, administrative callousness has impeded several projects. Even the monthly meetings of the village committee have been reduced to once or twice a year.

The "Mahila Mandal" sometimes holds secret meetings to discuss their action plan for upcoming events. "Due to administrative barriers, no major developments could be introduced during my tenure. I had proposed to install computers at the Panchayati Bhawan but to no avail. Except for installing sewing machines, there have not been any breakthrough initiatives in the village."

A house in Raithal
A house in RaithalHimakshi Panwar

Saying that her various proposals, including one for a street light near the Panchayati Bhawan, were not passed, Rana has requested the Uttarakhand government to look into these matters more diligently and offer them enough budget to meet basic needs.

A mother of three, Rana is supported by her husband, Mahendra Singh Rana, who looks into the significant part of her work. While she attends the meetings, the paperwork is done by Mahendra.

"I feel relieved to have the support of my husband, who helps me in every way possible." While she was married after class 12, she didn't let the same happen to her daughter, who is now pursuing a bachelor's degree in science.

"We need to change our realities. Instead of submitting to the stereotypes, we need to retaliate and lift each other," she said.

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