Labor & Empowerment as Community

During a conversation at the Gurgaon market with an older grandmother from Ladakh, the grandmother shared how her son had just started the sweater business three years ago. She credited her son for handling all the business-related work and in a self-deprecating manner that undermined and devalued her own labor and contributions to this workspace, she repeated multiple times in different ways how she herself had no rigpa for this business. She commented on how she and her husband wouldn’t be able to do this business on their own because they only really had experience in agricultural and nomadic work. Although unknowingly, in mentioning how she helps out at the market by holding on to the money and cooking meals to bring to work- she brought to attention her labor, her value in this space. Not only that, but she also took care of her son’s child. She was often seen walking the baby around the market in a stroller, feeding the baby- in other words giving it care. In the eyes of the grandmother, her work wasn’t valuable- in fact, she made light of these contributions. Yet, it arguably was- it was very important.

This example of the Ladakhi grandmother isn’t unique and singular. In fact, there are many others like her who chip in every which way they can- and who are testaments to the familial and communal nature of this economic work.

It is no surprise then that in their database of all 178 markets in India, the Tibetan Refugee Traders Association (TRTA), the umbrella organization that oversees all the markets in India, categorizes ownership, not in terms of individuals, but in terms of families recording in their catalog the number of families in each market. Not insignificant, this information underscores how entrepreneurship in this particular space is not an individually sought out enterprise, but one rooted in the family, in the community. A visitor can immediately sense this spirit of camaraderie and community as soon as one steps foot into the market. This spirit can be observed in the husbands and wives who work together while chatting and socializing, in families who sit together to eat the lunches they’ve packed from home in their tiffin boxes, in the grandparents that travel far from their settlements, who like the Ladakhi momola come to help out their children by looking after their children’s children. It’s a landscape that is certainly shaped by a collective effort. These markets are especially teeming with energy when school-aged children come to the markets to either help or burden their already-burdened parents. In essence, without the family as the centerpiece of this landscape, there is no community and no business. In bringing families together in this seasonal community, it is as though these migrational communities have recreated their settlement life- bringing their home lives to the marketspace. Work and home bleed into one another- they merge and submerge into each other to the point that they’re indistinguishable.

A mother brushing her daughter’s hair

This notion that the market is family work and an extension of the domestic sphere was echoed by one of the market leaders. When challenged on how he would square his assertion that women were more rang-che-zin with the fact that women carry out these economic responsibilities outside of their homes in these marketplaces, the leader responded, “Well the market is family work.” To this market leader, the fact that women worked in the markets didn’t contradict his argument that women were more rang-che-zin- it simply reinforced how the economic space and the domestic are so intermingled with one another that they are essentially one and the same. One could even hypothesize that the reason women are so heavily represented in this economy is because the market is family work and that because Tibetan society is by nature such a communal one, it is therefore not unlikely that women become important participants in this economic landscape.

The notion of kin and who counts as kin in these markets seemed to go beyond traditional notions of the family as a bloodline. This was particularly resonant in Gurgaon where a large majority of the same families have been there since the market’s inception in (2003). And because market rules dictate that no outsiders are allowed to rent market stalls, market members are all well familiar with each other. When I related this thought that there seems to be a real sense of community in Gurgaon to one of the association leaders, he responded by sharing how here in the market, if anyone is in need of blood, “you don’t have to ask, they will help.” This familial, communal spirit shared amongst the market communities was also apparent in a market like Lal Quila which had collectively experienced the tragic 2016 fire incident. In conversations with leaders there, they commented on how this misfortune brought their members who have already shared a long history even closer together.

Some men eating in the canteen at Gurgaon

So in discussing the confounding and sometimes-maligned term that is empowerment, a more appropriate approach might be to refocus the question of empowerment away from an isolated individual approach and towards a more family, collective-centered approach. To advocate otherwise for a version of empowerment that elevates the individual over the family in the name of women’s empowerment is in some ways to ignore and sever the deep-rooted cultural habits and values of these communities. This isn’t to argue that culture itself excuses gender inequity in any way, but is simply taking into account the fact that while these values and all values, in general, are in fact culturally and socially constructed across time and generations, they nonetheless still carry significant meaning to the identities of these women. The responsibility of advocates and leaders then becomes: how do we prescribe and use a language of empowerment of women that is rooted in the family and community such that responsibilities and rights are distributed equally and made accessible to everyone. 

A girl showing us her rented room in the Lal Quila region

Tenzin is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is conducting gender sensitivity training in schools and settlements to further women’s empowerment within the Tibetan refugee community. Tenzin was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but raised most of her life in Brooklyn, New York. Tenzin’s Tibetan heritage has largely informed her interest in themes of exile, displacement, statelessness, how these elements converge both on the socio-political and the personal, existential level. She is interested in questions of how place constructs our identities, sometimes both grounding us and alienating us, especially in the context of diaspora and exile. In addition to having studied in India for two years during elementary school, this will be Tenzin’s third visit to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Her first visit to Dharamsala was in summer of 2013 when she interned for Tibetan Women’s Association and then after graduating from Bowdoin College in 2016, she enrolled in Sarah College for Tibetan Higher Studies for two years where she studied Tibetan language and Buddhist Philosophy. She is eager to make a third return to Dharamsala as an AIF Clinton Fellow and assist the CTA in addressing gender equity and gender violence in the Tibetan community.

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