Who and what defines us and our identity is an interesting question. Do we define ourselves by what we do (student, fellow, teacher, farmer)? Do we define ourselves by our relationships (mother, sister, aunt, friend)? Or do we define ourselves by the intangible personality traits that we hope and try to project to the world (outcoming, kind, thoughtful, occasionally snarky)? These identifiers can shape how we view ourselves and through a tricky combination of societal understandings of certain terms, also define our limits and the accompanying expectations of our actions and behaviors.
As a recent college graduate, I have just undergone a major shedding of one of my key identifiers. After 17 years of calling myself a student, I am no longer a student. While I have been grappling with this shift in identity since I graduated in May, it has only been within the past three weeks, while struggling to string together broken and semi-coherent Hindi sentences, that I’ve realized a universal descriptor is no longer mine to use. An especially unfortunate linguistic whammy when one of my fallback conversations starters while studying in Jaipur was, “Mein Vidyarthi hun”, “I am a student”. So now, when asked, “What do I do?” on field visits, I sometimes draw a blank. I’m no longer a student, the term Fellow seldom translates, and I am still uncomfortable unilaterally declaring myself an NGO worker. As a result, people place their own identifiers on me, “she’s a volunteer” co-workers say, or, “English girl” school kids giggle in Hindi.
Finding, and using, the correct words to define why I’m living in a village, half way up a mountain, in Northwest India, has proved challenging these first few weeks but well paralleled with the focus of my host organization. My placement at Jagori Rural Charitable Trust in Dharmsala, Himachal Pradesh is focused on helping to define and question societal identities. Specifically for my project, on how to better recognize and promote the identity and contribution of women farmers. Himachal Pradesh is a highly agricultural state. Women are an integral part of this agricultural life often carrying a vast majority of the household and farm responsibilities. Despite the brunt of farming falling on women however, the general image associated with farmers continues to be that of a male. Despite not reflecting the current reality of life in Kangra, when school children are asked to draw a farmer, men are the first image drawn. Jagori’s work attempts to challenge the socially accepted male farmer image by assisting women to gain a more active voice in agriculture through leadership trainings, agricultural workshops, and creating supply chains that connect women farmers moving toward organic growing with local markets.
Working at a women’s organization dedicated to equality for all, and observing the general male dominance of the public sphere of life, I find myself asking the question, “What can we do to make the future better for our girls?” After spending time here, part of the answer seems to be allowing girls and women to define their identities using the words and language they are comfortable with. In daily life that translates to calling women farmers “Farmers”, and supporting girls who assert their dreams of becoming a civil engineer, as one young school girl told me during a workshop, until they have the confidence to support themselves.
My own heightened awareness of restructuring my identity has helped me sympathize with the issues that female Indian farmers face. Already I’ve developed the Hindi language skills to explain a bit more about why I’m here and my work at Jagori, and even to make jokes on my role as, “a student of life”. While I have much more to understand about daily life for women famers in Himachal Pradesh, I am eager to learn from my teammates at Jagori. I am eager to learn more about our projects and their impact on the community, but also, as strong women themselves, how they define their identity. For now though, I’ll keep thinking about how we can make the future better for our girls, help them assert their own power, know their own inherent self worth, and give them the space to identify themselves as they please.