When I told my coworkers, family, and friends that I was going to live in rural India for ten months, the reaction quickly became predictable: raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and an expression of deep concern. “All by yourself?” they’d say incredulously, scanning me up and down, “Is that safe?”
The implications were clear. It wasn’t just that I was going alone to India, but that I was a woman, going alone to a country that Americans often stereotype as relentlessly sexist and dangerous for women. To be fair, I often found myself thinking along the same lines. What little news from India was covered in American news outlets often had to do with issues of gender: women being gang-raped on public transportation, or the practice of widows burning themselves alive alongside their husbands’ corpses. These were extreme examples, I knew; oversimplifications of a country that was far more complex and nuanced. And yet the image of the oppressed, vulnerable, and voiceless Indian woman was difficult to shake.
Like most preconceptions I had of India before I arrived, I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I arrived on the campus of Avani, my host organization, I was greeted with the sound of raucous laughter. Women aged 19-50 were gathered around a communal table in the dining hall relaxing, teasing each other, and gossiping. The next morning, as I was taken on a tour of the campus, I heard the same joyful laughter echoing through the weaving room, where rows of women were working on intricately handwoven goods, to the dyeing rooms, where women were preparing natural dyes made from plants, to the office, where women were typing up accounts and reports. These were not the meek, vulnerable Indian women so prevalent in Western imagination. These women were confident, vibrant, and charismatic. They wore neon kurtas and flashy jewelry and sang along to Bollywood tunes as they went about their work. They walked slowly and confidently, heads held high, handling their vast array of daily tasks with enviable ease.
Of course, as I have gotten to know these women better, I have heard their stories, each more heart-wrenching than the last. Some were physically abused by their husbands, while others were simply abandoned. Some dealt with their husbands’ alcoholism or gambling addictions, while others had lost their husbands to suicide, and were stigmatized by their communities afterwards. Taken alone without context, these stories would only add to the image of the victimized woman. But these women are anything but victims. They have suffered, yes, and much of their suffering arguably stems from pervasive sexism, and a belief that women should be voiceless, second-class citizens. Yet as I have gotten to work and live with these women, I’ve realized that reducing them to their victimhood would be an enormous disservice to their vitality, strength, and humanity.
There is still much work to be done in the field of women’s empowerment, and I am proud to be working with an organization that is doing such critical work in granting rural women access to a source of independent, sustainable income. What I’ve realized, however, is that the way we view and talk about these women matters. They are not victims, and they are not voiceless. Nobody should be in the business of reducing a human being to a two-dimensional version of themselves, particularly when that means reducing a person to the single most traumatic aspect of their lives. Through Avani, these women have been able to secure an independent source of income and provide for themselves and their families. That is a good thing, to be sure, and an accomplishment that Avani should rightfully be proud of. But we should be wary of falling into the trap of thinking that these women have been “saved” or “empowered” by some outside force. Walking around campus, watching them lead rich, joyful lives in spite of the hardship they have endured, I see that they can do that just fine themselves.