By : Averil Spencer , Graduate of Dartmouth College
I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for the emotional and sensory onslaught of India. Life here provides me with everything I wanted coming out of university: challenges, influx of new information, and fluidity.
But, what I hadn’t expected was exactly how much I would learn, and how much the people here would challenge the feminist framework I have brought with me. In college, it was easy for things to be binary: black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. Real life isn’t like that and when I first arrived, I suddenly found myself interacting with 15-year-old girls who were engaged and would not graduate high school.
Even today their parents believe they are doing what is best for their daughters socially and economically, and while most of the girls want to go on to higher education, there are some that just want to get married.
Who am I to tell them they have to go to intermediate (11th and 12th grade) or get a job after school?
After 6 months of working closely with these girls in slum communities, I realized that my western education and expectations did not fully transfer to the lives and goals of girls in India. Go figure. I had to be patient and learn from them about the cultural and religious contexts that make up their lives.
While there are some practices here that I believe are blatantly wrong such as child marriage and domestic abuse, there are also practices that I thought were horrible but when immersed in the community I began to understand why women face these restrictions. The burka is seen as a symbol of oppression in the US but here, there are days when I wish I had a burka because it gives you anonymity to move freely about a city overflowing with people. It carves out some personal space in a country with 1.3 billion people and keeps the lecherous eyes of “roadside Romeos” off you.
Being in India changed the context within which I understand issues of gender and equality.
As a westerner, I wanted to apply absolutes to what I was learning and experiencing, but I couldn’t. I had to adjust how I looked at religion, especially Islam. I had to push myself to understand why communities imposed harsh restrictions on girls (generally related to issues of safety), but also not become complacent about the glaring inequalities facing girls.
Living and working in India transformed how I look at issues of equality and highlighted the fact that empowerment, the overused buzzword of development, cannot be externally manufactured.
Living within the gray space of feminism and women’s rights in India has illuminated my western biases, expectations, and beliefs, and showed me that as an outsider, all I can do is provide a forum, a safe space, where Indian girls can explore and develop this skill set. Giving girls information about subjects and their rights is important but not as important as the processes of conflict management, negotiation, and leadership.
Imbuing girls with these skills will help her negotiate the gray space she lives in, and allow her to being to shape her own future within any constraints and/or desires she might have. Once I understood this, my purpose in India as well as mission for VOICE became clearer.
There are still many aspects of culture and religion that I disagree with but living and working in India has allowed me to be more open to issues and try to understand multiple sides. My role now is to provide the next generation of Indian women with the tools to shape their own futures and decide their own course of action.