“I would not be dealing with this if I were a man or of a different caste.”
I nodded my head adamantly. My time in Jharkhand has taught me a lot about how women are treated, especially when they are from castes that are known for being “backwards” or primitive. Regardless of skill set, age, and even education, Adivasi or tribal women constantly have to fight for their humanity in ways that women from higher castes or their male counterparts will never have to. Even though they aren’t highly regarded, I’ve realized that women are the backbone of tribal communities. I’ve seen how they are often doing the hardest labor, tending to the housework, and making sure all of the affairs are in order financially and for their children’s education.
It was women that first embraced me in my host village; it is women who smile by at me on the street, and it’s women that constantly try to communicate with me despite my poor language skills.
I have an older female neighbor who always stops to speak to me. At first, I was nervous and anxious; I knew I could not speak back in Hindi or Sadri, the local language. Even though she is bilingual, in my mind, my lack of language skills ruined any chance for a meaningful connection. Sometimes I would try to avoid her, feeling inadequate because I thought I had somehow failed her because I couldn’t speak her language. Many times I wished she would give up trying to communicate with me. But she never did. Every time I saw her, she would stop to speak to me. It didn’t matter if she was giving counsel to other women in the village – as she often did as a respected elder – or herding her large cattle to graze somewhere else, she would stop and attempt to engage me in a conversation.
After I stopped letting my doubts and fears control me, I simply let myself open up to her warmth. Even though I did not understand exactly what she said, and she didn’t know my exact replies, we seemed to build some sort of understanding between the two of us. Pretty soon our conversations became the highlights of my day. I once had a neighbor see our interaction and comment on how connected we must be, because we both blushed the whole time. It was obvious to all around us that we enjoyed these little breaks from our busy days.
She taught me to make time. That people are important. It didn’t matter if I was rushing to a meeting or was late to something, nothing was more important than acknowledging each other. This was especially important, because if we didn’t hold space for each other, no one else would. I started to realize she was teaching me to not only create space for her and other women around me, but to leave room for myself. She valued me beyond my skills (or lack thereof), so why shouldn’t I value myself just as much?
Those conversations reminded me of walking through my neighborhood as a child, with my maternal grandmother. She knew everyone and everyone knew her. Not because she had money or an important job, but because she made the time and took the space to find out who they were and what they needed. She would have conversations with people I thought were strangers in the street. She took time to visit the houses of those who were not even in her inner circle. Mama Mary, as we called her, was the first to go to the hospital if someone was sick, the first to call someone if she heard they had a problem, and always the first to console a family for their loss, with much compassion and love. Even though the world forced her to be strict and strong as a black woman living in the U.S. during the civil rights era, she was the first to give and the last to take. The mixture of strength, selflessness, and love made her a true matriarch.
Thinking back on my grandmother made me realize what my neighbor had been doing. She was using her power as a matriarch to help welcome me into her village. She made space for me, not because I could do something for her, but because that is what strong women do for others. They lead with love, which is the hardest way to do it. No matter how much I fought it, she wanted to show me that I was loved. And she did.
Over these last few years since my grandmother passed away, I have learned a lot about camaraderie and empathy through Intersectional Black Feminism and Dalit Feminism (with special care to the struggles of women with dark skin). I am learning that everything she did was for a reason. In a world that tear us down, we must lift each other up in ways that make sense to us. Women have their own ways of knowing and relating to the world – and despite what those in power tell us, they are strengths. Knowing how to love and be loved is an asset, regardless of whatever community you go to. Knowing how to open your heart and let others fill you up with their warmth is a skill that I work on honing everyday.
Now when I walk through my village, I make sure to say hello to every woman I see, while paying special attention to the elders. They don’t always say “hello” back, but there is always an acknowledgement. And with their smiles and brief head nods, I know I am making my grandmother proud.