In my first blog post, I wrote about the many questions I had for my Fellowship year; however, in more ways than one, my time in India has felt like the start of a path than an independent journey.
As I begin to reflect on my time in India or attempt the seemingly impossible task of defining my journey over the last few months, I look to people with more wisdom than me to contextualize my experience over the course of the fellowship. My immediate instinct is to research academic articles about development in Indian urban environments or sift through dozens of webpages about gender empowerment, identity and team work. I eagerly search for inspiration from those who have made great strides in inequities of a society I want to contribute to professionally and academically. It doesn’t take long to realize this approach is unhelpful.
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I cannot honestly use the quotes and frameworks of experts to contextualize my own fellowship reality. Not due to inaccuracy or an inability to relate to the material but simply because every quote on the internet felt wholly inadequate and all journal articles felt too distant.
Simply put, my personal journey through the AIF Clinton fellowship is transcendent. There is no one overarching lesson or reflection I feel comfortable ascribing to or drawing a conclusion from. There were times when my professional interactions conflicted with my own personal discoveries. There were days I felt like I was in alternative universe and moments where I felt more of a sense of belonging than ever before in my life. It has been beautifully confusing and painstakingly overwhelming all at once.
It’s arguably the first experience of my professional and personal life that has been completely mine – not motivated or suggested by a mentor or family. Maybe even the only experience I’ve entered without a clear professional objective. Meaning, I had no idea what role my year as an AIF Clinton Fellow would play in my longterm professional career. I just had a feeling that spending a year working in the development sector would be invaluable. The lack of specific motivations or objectives almost seem irrelevant because it became clear to me early on that this experience would be both transformative and trying to me in ways I had never considered. Nearly every day, a conversation with co-workers, work tasks, or an interaction with community members forced me to challenge and think critically about my perceptions of development work and my own personal presence as a Muslim South Asian American here in India.
My journey has been an all encompassing adventure that has forced me to discover the depth of my own independence unlike like any other experience in my life. Being away from family, friends and mentors for such an extended period of time required me to become more confident in managing all aspects of my life. Ironically this sense of independence was developed by allowing myself to give in to being a part of a community. For the first time in my professional career, I was eager to engage beyond being a good team member. I desperately wanted to understand way more than what was required for my day to day tasks. I was ready to confront my own vulnerabilities and privileges even if it meant uncomfortable conversations about my vegetarianism and consumption of alcohol in a conservative muslim community.
Working alongside the women of Nizamuddin Basti inspired, motivated, and at times drove me absolutely crazy. I’ve learned how to properly cost a catering menu and listened to Zaika-e-Nizamuddin members share the hurtful comments their in-laws members often direct at them for spending too much time at work. I’ve thoroughly researched the process of registering a Handicraft Producer Company under Indian Law and then learned that the hardest part of the process would be ensuring that all Insha-e-Noor members would have proper government ID’s in their own names and their husbands or fathers. For every excel sheet I’ve made and report I’ve written, I’ve gained an even deeper understanding of the importance and frustrations the come with working with a disadvantaged community.
It’s impossible to note any part of my journey without acknowledging the others who helped facilitate my experience. I’m eternally grateful to the AKF staff for their guidance and patience (and tolerating my Americanized Hindi); Clinton Fellowship staff for their effort and support, and of course the AIF Clinton Fellowship Class of 2017-2018 for simply letting me be a part of our journey.
As I decide on how to reflect and contextualize this year, I’m abandoning development frameworks and women’s empowerment quotes. I’m choosing to let it be defined by the women who let me work alongside them as we both strove for our own independence.