Parvati stood out from all the other women in her village. She could read and write. She was confident and charismatic. She looked men in the eyes when she spoke to them. She spoke to them. And when she spoke to women, they listened.
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The first day I met Parvati she explained to me why she had formed a self-help group for women in her village. “The SHG gives us an opportunity to solve community problems as well as our own,” she said with a passion that commanded attention. “It enables women to come forward from the four walls of the home.” When she spoke, I could hear the effects of her nine years of schooling. She was articulate and thoughtful. She deeply understood the need for village women to develop economic independence, an identity distinct from their husbands’, and some sense of unity in order to overcome centuries of oppression.
Listening to Parvati, I forgot that I sat in the stone community center of a 400-family village in the hills of northwestern India; that dozens of flies jumped from my exposed feet to my arms to my face. Occasionally, I managed to forget the village children surrounding me, daring each other to touch my fair skin with the tips of their fingers. Sometimes I even forgot that Parvati and I didn’t speak the same language.
Parvati and her peers worked daily in the fields doing agricultural work. Their annual household incomes were less than 20,000 rupees, or about $500. Most of them had been married since early adolescence and had 2-4 children by age 20. Of those that had daughters, all had felt the disappointment they had been socially conditioned to feel upon the birth of a girl child. Additionally, all of these women, Parvati included, were regulated by the same gender discriminatory laws that prevented them from speaking to their husbands in public, forbade them from sitting in certain public spaces, and mandated they veil their faces in front of village elders.
This is the short list of reasons I sat cross-legged, fly-covered listening to women speak about self-help groups. I wanted to learn about the challenges facing women in the developing world and determine how–if at all–they were related to those I personally faced. The day I met Parvati shaped the next three months of my stay in India, and permanently altered my understanding of equality, empowerment and international development.
Following my discussion with Parvati and SHG leaders from nearby villages, I began helping a local NGO assess how beneficial these groups were to their members. With its staff, I made semi-weekly visits to existing self-help groups, talking with the women about how they began their group, the policies they had in place, and how they benefited from participating in the SHG microloan activities. Proudly, they would tell me how the SHG had built their confidence and a sense of community among the members. Some were more knowledgeable about financial management. Many felt more capable of speaking in public and around men. Almost all felt more independent. “The SHG has given me earning power,” said Harku, a 38 year-old mother of five who had started a buffalo-selling enterprise with a 20,000 rupee loan from the group. “It lets me stand shoulder to shoulder with my husband.” Shanta, an SHG president who had been elected to the village’s local government body, said that starting the SHG made her “feel like a leader and respected by women and men.”
Naturally, I was impressed. Largely uneducated and conditioned to think of themselves as second-class citizens, these women were motivated, self-confident, sometimes even feisty. In a year or less, it appeared they had shed hundreds of years of tradition and socially enforced expectations. However, after just weeks of village visits, I began to seriously question the sincerity of their enthusiasm for empowerment.
In one village, the women explained to me the local policies governing their behavior. Wives, especially new brides, were supposed to walk barefoot in front of their husbands—symbolic of their inferiority. Similarly, women could be fined for not veiling their faces in front of male village elders. But…they did not want to change any of this. These laws, they told me, preserve the respect that should be present between men and women.
More frequently, I began to see the inconsistencies of SHG members. Many times, I witnessed inspired discussions about women’s rights extinguished by the appearance of a man. Upon his entrance, nearly all the women became silent and pulled their scarves over their faces, a tradition known as purdah. Women took loans at their husbands’ bidding. Their argot—”confidence,” “empowerment,” “independence”—buzzed like the flies that swarmed me, and haunted me like they did as well.
I struggled to answer the questions that surfaced. What did these women want? Not equality, at least not as I saw it. Is it right to talk about empowerment with people who may not want it? Was I part of an effort that was creating awareness or causing problems? How do you differentiate? These questions churned my thoughts for months, resurfacing in various forms, continuously begging for answers.
Dejected and disillusioned, I found myself in late December back in Parvati’ village at a meeting of her self-help group. “This group is your identity; it is in your control,” she told the 14 women. “You have the power to influence it.” I watched faces emerge from the rainbow of Rajasthani scarves before me; faces with smiles that spread as Parvati continued to speak. Conversation broke the silence of the crowd at the same time understanding broke the monopoly of culturally-formed expectations on my thoughts. Somewhere along the line, I had equated empowerment with equality. I never considered that these women weren’t after equality, or that they thought of it differently than I did.
After the meeting, I asked Parvati what her peers meant by “empowerment.” She told me that while they struggled to balance traditional norms with their rapidly modernizing surroundings, the women of her SHG generally wanted the ability to make decisions for themselves, their families and their community, and respect for themselves and their opinions.
Respect. Autonomy. Control. Why had that been so hard to understand?
Three months removed from India, it is sometimes hard to remember that Parvati and I are women of the same world. Recalling a place where livestock and human-powered carts join cars on the road and the monotone call of a sabjiwala woke me instead of an alarm clock feels like lapsing into a favorite dream. On the one hand, it seems Parvati’s and my challenges are of two different eras; but on the other, I meet women all the time seeking respect, autonomy and control in their numerous mutations. Sadly, I’ve also encountered many women who can hardly define what they’re after—or even realize that there’s something out there to be after.
Three months and a lifetime later, the questions that plagued me in India remain largely unanswered. But I have unearthed one minor revelation: the most basic obstacle to women’s empowerment anywhere is self-imposed. An inner desire for change is absolutely necessary to effecting external improvements, and ironically, the Parvatis of the world are so often necessary to catalyzing that mental shift. Fortunately, there is no shortage of them, and their passion is infectious.
Sharon met Parvati in 2007 during a three-month volunteer placement in Rajasthan, India organized by the Foundation for Sustainable Development.
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