The native Indian woman was at the center of my post-graduate academic work. I thought that this, combined with the fact that I myself am an Indian woman, have lived here, and revisited several times throughout my life, gave me some street cred or edge when it came to understanding the complexity of life for an Indian village woman. As usual, I was wrong; assumptions should be questioned. A similar thing had happened while I was working in Zambia, reinforcing that that which is taught to us in a well-lit, easily accessible, Western building is not the reality of the situation.
Arriving in Kaushambi to work with community health workers, called ASHAs, I was truly excited to get back into the field and work on a more grassroots level. This project was even more meaningful to me because it would be with women from my country; women that I would have something in common with. What I quickly realized is that, aside from language and identifying as Indian, I have very little in common with, and much to learn from, these women.
Rita was the first ASHA we interacted with in the village. She was shy to talk to us, but clearly used to being in the role of organizer, informer, community worker. To become an ASHA, one has to be nominated and chosen by a selection committee, and often times the ASHA is one of the most educated women in the area. Adding legitimacy and knowledge to the mix, it would seem the ASHA program offers empowerment, both socially and financially. If we had not seen an interaction between Rita and her father in law, it would have been easy for me to write this off as the whole picture. As part of our project in mobile health tech, we were user testing a new phone to see how the ASHAs would respond if CommCare, a community health mobile platform, was switched from the original phone to a newer model. This process involved asking Rita, who has never used the CommCare, to run through the application on the new phone and give us her feedback.
As she was talking to my co-worker, Derek, her father-in-law approached the porch where we were all seated. Within two seconds, Rita had dropped to the floor in a squat and had completely covered her face with the end of her sari. Depending on the village and the customs of the family, women are not allowed to show their faces to male family members, especially their father-in-laws. This, as well as never sitting down in front of them, is seen as a sign of respect. As she had been with other women and was technically at work, Rita had draped her sari over her hair but not her face. Her father-in-law came up to us, surely curious as to what we were all doing, especially what business two white men had in the village ASHA center. They had a short exchange, during which everyone on the veranda (around ten of us, workers, children, and the inevitable foreigner-curious bystanders) had fallen completely silent. For me, the silence reflected the tension and uneasiness of this power exchange. Were we going to get her in trouble? Was it okay that she was talking to men outside of the family, especially foreigners? Did he see that she had not draped her face while she was talking to these men,and would she have to pay for that later? He eventually walked away, upon which time one of the other health workers stated “It’s okay, he’s left now”, and Rita pulled back her draped sari and sat back down in her chair.
So yes, the ASHA program offers a lot in the way of empowering women and gives many opportunities to village women, but I think it is valuable to note that although the program offers prestige in the larger community, it may not always translate to empowerment in the home. Most of the ASHA’s work has to do with female and child health, so it seems to me that there is almost no interaction and engagement with the patriarchal power structures (familial, communal, hierarchical), and because of this, these structures remained unchallenged. Additionally, from what I witnessed here in Kaushambi, the ASHA program is led and supervised by male leaders in local hospital and most likely the larger state government.
And what was my role in all of this? Was I bringing about any lasting systemic change by simply engaging with Rita and the other ASHAs during my work in Kaushambi? What would my contribution be? These are all questions I’m continuing to ponder as I grapple with the lack of true understanding I have about these women and their lives. Perhaps it is not about an academic lacking understanding of a subject, perhaps it is just that as human beings, it will always be difficult and confusing for us to understand what life truly means for another human being; and perhaps this is the greatest gift—it is what drives us to investigate, explore and attempt to, however feebly, understand each other and ourselves.