I called you last week upset and in need of more than just consolation. My first week in the NGO had been rough in the most ironic of senses. I had an apartment with Wi-Fi, air-conditioning and cable television; my office was on the eighth floor of a high-rise building that overlooked the city. It had a multiplex cafeteria producing enough food (indian and supposedly ‘western’ cuisine) to sustain the whole of Sydney. And yet all these luxuries did not mean a thing to me. I wanted field. And I wanted it bad.
Now I am sitting on the top floor of a furniture-less apartment in a small town called Gohana. On the ground floor is what appears to be some sort of cement factory. It is about 45 degrees, the electricity has cut off for the millionth time in the day and I am surrounded by seven men, some of whose names all sound the same: Dhirender, Jitender, Ravinder. This is my office; I fondly call it the bachelor-pad. These men work, eat and sleep here. And now, they are my team. Finally I am where I wanted to be. And it feels so good. Riding on motorbikes through rice paddocks, meetings with farmers under the shade of banyan trees and hot home-made aloo parathas fresh from chachi-ji’s kitchen.
A friend warned me about Haryanvi men. Jitender is one of the field officers from Gohana. He is dreamy. In the kind of way that only a city-girl who comes to the villages to ‘empower’ women can find dreamy. He has hazel eyes, dark chocolate skin, a killer smile, the perfect five o’clock shadow and a hairstyle that would make George Clooney envious. He is also married and has two kids. Damn. Despite his dashingly good looks, I begin to realise that he is a typical example of most Haryanvi men: arrogant, dominant and demanding. I value the exact opposite traits in a partner.
Chris, everywhere I look around here, I see men; walking on the streets, manning the vegetable stalls, slurping chai and smoking hookah. I ask my colleague “where are all the women?” and he tells me that “they stay in the house”. Apparently in the villages, it is not appropriate for a woman to have chai with her friends in public or to show her face to a man who is not her relative. She must not be heard or seen. She must just dutifully serve the men in her family. I feel like these women are screaming for ‘empowerment’ behind their dupattas. But then I become all self-critical and question whether I am being imperialistic – assuming that because I come from a culture where women wear what they want, go where they want and do as they please, this should be the case everywhere for all women. Are these women victims of my narrow minded thinking? Am I culturally insensitive for not respecting their ancient traditions? Am I an imbecile to expect that change will happen in months when these practices have existed for centuries?
I want to empower rural women Chris. But I do not know what that means anymore. Tell me what I should do?