If you ask a weaver at Avani what her favorite part of her job is, the answer will almost never be the weaving itself. Money is a common response, as are the various results of having it: making home improvements, paying for a wedding, opening a savings account. More often than not, though, the answer will simply be along the lines of, “I like to spend time with the other weavers.” It’s surprising at first. In a field where organizations trumpet phrases like “economic empowerment” and “reviving traditional arts,” the fact that someone might like their work simply because it allows them to spend time with other people feels strikingly inadequate. Yet in the time I’ve worked with Avani’s women weavers, I have come to believe that this social interaction is perhaps the most important— and most overlooked—aspect of any livelihood generation program.
In development literature, the concept of “safe spaces” has generally been deployed within highly specific contexts: a refugee camp, for example, or a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Within these contexts, the term “safe space” becomes extremely literal: a space where women can safely gather, free from physical harm. In the words of UNFPA, a safe space is defined as, “A formal or informal place where women and girls feel physically and emotionally safe. The term ‘safe’, in the present context, refers to the absence of trauma, excessive stress, violence (or fear of violence), or abuse” (UNFPA 2015).
But this is not the only definition of safe spaces. Seemingly on the opposite end of the spectrum, college campuses across the United States have touted the creation of “safe spaces” in order to protect certain groups from marginalization or emotional/psychological harm. By this definition, a safe space is far less literal, referring more to an abstract “space” in which dialogue and learning are mediated and monitored. Here, “safe” has less to do with physical safety, and instead largely refers to the absence of emotional or psychological trauma. This definition has come under significant criticism recently, with some theorists pointing out that honest dialogue about social justice issues is rarely “safe,” in the abstract sense of the term. In the words of one group of scholars, “We argue that authentic learning about social justice often requires the very qualities of risk, difficulty, and controversy that are defined as incompatible with safety” (Arao and Clemens 2013: 139).
In my experiences at Avani, neither definition of safe spaces has really seemed to fit. On one hand, the women in Avani’s community aren’t in any immediate physical danger (or, at least not a danger that is readily apparent). Although domestic violence does occur, women in this community generally live without their husbands, as most men have migrated to urban centers in search of work. And while there are cases of crime and violence, the region is, compared to many other areas in India, relatively secure. On the other hand, the definition of safe spaces put forth in academia, and its accompanying critiques, is strikingly inadequate in describing the very real physical, social, and emotional threats these women face, just by virtue of speaking their minds and daring to be independent.
How, then, do I describe the spaces Avani’s weavers have created for themselves? Shortcomings of either definition of safe spaces aside, the weaving centers, where Avani’s weavers gather every day, are unquestionably unlike anywhere else in these women’s lives. Each of Avani’s field centers is a social ecosystem unto itself: a vibrant hub of women who come together not just to weave, but also to sing their favorite songs, dance along to Bollywood videos they find on YouTube, trade stories of philandering husbands and misbehaving children, and discuss the news of the day. In a region where it is exceedingly rare to see women simply “hanging out” with each other in public spaces, this simple act of gathering feels radical and undeniably political. Indeed, the positive effects of being part of a supportive community of women seems to be an unintended, albeit wonderful, outcome of creating a women’s cooperative.
In women’s cooperatives, the term “safe space” takes on a new meaning, in between the formalized, rigid structures put forth by the United Nations and the more abstract, conceptual notions discussed on college campuses. The “space” these women have created is both literal and figurative: a secluded, women-only gathering space and a relational, dialogue-driven community. Defining safe spaces in this way illuminates what we already instinctively know to be true: that work can be more than just a way for people to put food on the table— it can be a source of community, support, inspiration, and empowerment. At their best, cooperatives like Avani can serve as a physical space for a community’s most marginalized members to let their guards down, be themselves, and step away from an outside world that forces them to take up less space than they deserve.
My proposition then, is to not simply accept that such communities will emerge on their own— even if they do— but rather, to intentionally pursue this space building as a goal in and of itself, on par in importance with increasing incomes. Generating incomes can be a powerful source of empowerment for women in Kumaon. But in my view, the social and political empowerment that comes with it, in the form of a vibrant, active community, is even more powerful in changing the lives of women in these underserved regions.
UNFPA (2015). “Women & Girls Safe Spaces.” UNFPA Regional Syria Response Hub. Retrieved from: <https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdf/UNFPA%20UNFPA%20Women%20and%20Girls%20Safe%20Spaces%20Guidance%20%5B1%5D.pdf>
Arao and Clemens (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice. Retrieved from: <https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/75c5/6a5dba81efd0954597ea39eb7d55acc7a202.pdf>