Women from the Project Potential and its participants with whom I’ve engaged and created relationships with.
What does it mean to empower women? This is a continued debate worldwide, and is on my mind and heart almost every day. Some years ago, I came to internalize that one must listen to a community rather than force opinions, ideas, or development projects onto them. Ethical qualms aside, who else would know what is needed in the community better than the members themselves? I’ve come to internalize this not because of books or academia – although those can help – but instead from my own upbringing in the lovable dumping grounds that is the Bronx, NY.
So on a particular day in Kishanganj, Bihar, as Project Potential was wrapping up Day Four of its entrepreneurship program, Udyam shiksha, I was extremely hesitant to state my ideas. My feminist ideals were crafted from all of the diverse cultures that I grew up with, from my childhood in the South Bronx. To come into rural Bihar in India to talk about them didn’t sit right with me. Was I truly listening and learning, or was I imposing my specific feminist views onto a group of women from a different culture, country, language, and stance than me? As a woman, I believe my feminist ways will exert themselves simply when I occupy leadership positions, and I was occupying a leadership position, whether I liked it or not. I was an American coming to Project Potential as an AIF Clinton Fellow and serving in an HR capacity in the interim, and I was viewed in a leadership position by some of the participants. Is not leadership about power? You can exercise leadership/power in many forms by holding it, distributing it, or even simply giving it away. No matter what, it’s there, and I wanted to check mine.
I sat with my emotions and ideas on a thin plaid mattress that had been laid out on the floor for sleeping. The room was bare with high ceilings, the plain concrete made the floors icy to the touch as you tiptoed barefoot to the mats. The room had nothing in it except for the four thin mattresses on the floor and the one bamboo mat right in the center of the room where all of our belongings laid. The room was cold, bland, and unfriendly except when Bharti was in it. When Bharti crackled with laughter, it would pour out from her mouth as happiness spewed from her eyes, making the room feel more like a home. But the itself room was unhomely, bitter, and hollow, except of course, when Priya was in it. Her silly quirks and wacky comments will instantly make anyone smile. Or if Rahnuma was in the room, her sweetness was like a fragrance that you could bathe in. And if Nishat was in the room, her eyes would see right into your soul, search your problems and warm you. Jaimanti and Anu’s curiosity and strength gushed from their being. These women surrounded me as we sat on the mattresses. These are Bihari women, in all of their beauty and intelligence.
It was pitch dark although it was only 5pm, we had just finished a long day of our entrepreneur program and all six of the ladies sat around for a chat. The conversation was largely in Hindi so I kept my head low, reading my book until Nishat invited me into the conversation with one simple question, “Ma’am, do you want a husband?”
You see, my current work with Project Potential is centered around women. It’s a program specifically geared to increase the representation of rural Indian women in our incubator and entrepreneurship programs. We hope that – beyond creating women entrepreneurs – that these programs create a space and time where Bihari women can empower each other, and create a business network for one another. In theory this concept is amazing, but in practice it is much more difficult. We’ve had to grapple with questions such as “what is women empowerment” and how do you “teach it”? Particularly what is women empowerment within the rural Indian Bihari context and how does an organization largely comprised of Bihari men and an Indian-passing, Latinx American, help foster it?
We enjoyed ourselves a nice cup of chai, such powerful female stances. From left to right: Anu, Nishat, Renuma, and Priya.
Nishat’s question pained me, I had so many ideas on how to empower women but I didn’t want to impose my ideas of feminism onto these young 18-year old ladies. Especially since I’ve heard so many times feminism is pinned to be some sort of “Western Invention” and maybe “rootless”, and “inconsiderate of culture”. I was concerned that I would be seen as that “man-hating, family-breaking, hard-as-nails, promiscuous woman” that feminists are sometimes viewed to be. So I sat with my mouth shut and listened. For who was I? What did I know about rural Bihari marriage? The answer, in short, was: nothing. I didn’t know a single thing, except for what was reported in the news, what was said through the grapevine, and what was assumed: that village women don’t have much of a say in their marriage, and will need to marry early. I wanted to listen to the needs and wants of women in this particular setting. I wanted to hear about their uprising. I was ready to help them in their uprising. How naive, I thought.
Feminism is multicultural, diasporic, and intersectional, and it’s these very differences in cultures, races, economic, and individuality, that will produce different needs. It is then addressing those particular needs that will empower real women in real time. Jasbir Jain, an Indian author of Indigenous Roots of Feminism: Culture, Subjectivity, and Agency, describes feminism as “more than a voice of protest or questioning. It is moral self-reflection, a conquering of inner fears and a realisation of self-worth …” (p. 288). So no, I don’t think women empowerment is one size fits all. We cannot interpret history in monolithic universal terms, ignoring the differences in culture. So, the question posed itself: how could I make sure that I wasn’t invoking Western feminist critique onto the problems that women in India faced?
As women, society often expects some – if not most – our accomplishments to be centered around marriage and children. It always seems to creep into conversations, even more so as you get older. So I wasn’t very surprised when Nishat continued to asked, “Ma’am, do you not want a husband ma’am?”
I struggled (and continue to struggle) to answer this question. I didn’t know how to expose my mind, opinions, and still fight the feminist fight. How can I tell them that they don’t have to marry, that they can fight for their freedom – free of an imposed patriarchal system that sets up false expectations, or begin the conversation of child marriages? But then Nishat asked, “Why are you waiting to find husband ma’am? Don’t you want a husband, MoMo?” [Momo is my nickname] I finally answered “Maybe, if I found a suitable one, at a suitable time for me, then sure.” I was unhappy with my response because I thought we were losing the opportunity to learn on this two way street. “What about you?” I asked.
“I don’t want to get married,” Jaimanti said. Her answer intrigued me. “Why don’t you want to get married?” I asked, wanting to know more. Priya translated for me and answered, “she said she doesn’t want to get married because then she will have to do everything he wants. Like give her money to him, cook what he wants, stay at home, etc.” All the ladies began to move on from the conversation but I didn’t want to. My mind quickly chanted , “yes yes yes, don’t get married if you don’t want to!” I asked the rest of the girls about their thoughts. Did they want to get married?
With their awesome attempts at English, my poor attempts at Hindi, and Priya’s translation, we managed our conversation. Many women then began to explode with answers: “I want a husband but not now. Ma’am, I want more time. I know my family will pick my husband for me. Yes, I want to find a good husband! If I marry the person my family picks out then they are more willing to help if it doesn’t work out.”
I sat there struggling whether or not to reply, so I didn’t. I asked questions. “What does a good husband mean? What does he need to do to be a good husband?” The ladies then began to list off the qualities that would make an amazing husband: “A good listener, open-minded, likes what I am doing, lets me travel…” and the lists went on for over 15 minutes. “Why are you waiting to find a good husband?” I asked in return. I didn’t want them waiting around for a good husband. Heck, I didn’t want them waiting around for a husband at all. They were so much more than that. They were entrepreneurs, intelligent beings, and dreamers, as they fought against the mindset of belonging to one of the most marginalized states of India. They were powerful women and although they already knew about their magnificence, I wanted to let them know that I knew, too.
The conversation then turned into how our current men aren’t like this. “Many men are closed-minded. They don’t want their wives to work.” Heaps of negative attributes of men were shared. Stereotypes that they had witnessed, experienced, and frightfully anticipated. And that’s when the question that hit home for all of us spewed out of my mouth: “Are you searching for a husband or are you creating a husband?” We all stopped and pondered.
All the women stared at me with curiosity, silently asking me what I meant. I was also asking myself the same question. As women sometimes we let things go, due to feeling unsafe, due to financial dependency. Sometimes simply due to how society will perceive a woman yelling “no!” We are constantly faced with microaggressions and disrespect that has been erased and lightened to society’s acceptance. But we must stand up, we must intervene. It isn’t simply how we raise our sons, or how we involve our brothers, or how fathers love their daughters, but how we interact with everyday men and in the most minuscule interactions. It’s a huge task, and one I’m not forcing on every women. But simply that, every day women create their own spaces, and demand respect. We will not wait around for rights and we will not wait around for husbands. We will create these spaces not just for ourselves, but for the next generation by creating new norms of interactions and new expectations of female involvement and needs. We will exert them into spaces because they’ve been oppressed for far too long.
Until this day, the girls will come up to me from time to time and ask me, “Ma’am, are you looking for a husband or are you creating a husband?” And although we take this to mean different things, when they ask me, they empower me because it asks whether I have stood up for my rights today. Have I stood up, even in the face of danger to create a society that I want to live in? Is today the day I am willingly to set aside my biases and comfort, and stand up for my rights because it betters the rights of women all around the world?
How do we empower women then? According to World Bank, empowerment is the process of enhancing “the capacity of an individual or group to make purposive choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes” (p. viii); empowerment is a process. I’m still not entirely sure, but I’ll tell you, my Project Potential team and I are taking the time to co-define, co-create and collaborate so that everyone’s voice is included. As social activist Srilatha Batliwala says, “Recognizing that we bring both negative and positive qualities, and a willingness to examine and address our negative traits, is a vital component in feminist leadership, since by tackling the personal effectively, we are also enabling ourselves to tackle the political goals of quality, human rights, and justice”. Feminist leadership means functioning with great consciousness, not only of others, but of one’s own power, and moving with intentionality within a community.
I went to a young women’s 18th birthday party in the village. Left Picture: The young girls and I dancing. Right Picture: The birthday girl and I share some birthday cake on our faces.