Fitting into my own shoes: Reflections from the Field

Reflexivity is customary in social anthropology and resultant epistemology. George Herbert Mead defines reflexivity as “turning back of the experience of individual upon (her – or himself)”. Reflexivity is always retrospective and hence this blog post is about what I was looking for in the field, what I found and how I perceived it then and how I am looking at it now.

On account of my travels to Bihar for the GrOW project, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with several women involved with the Mahila Samakhya (MS) Programme. Out of all my interactions, there is one observation that sticks out in my memory. We were interviewing this young woman, who was around 25 years old at a village in Kaimur. We were seated at her one room house, surrounded by all the things that were a part of her life. Her modest existence which seemed to consist of a few pots and pans and one chowki (bed) was out there for us to observe, write notes about and analyse. The house was rather dark, ostensibly maintained so, to protect the dwellers from the scorching sun outside. She had two children, one was a three-year old jovial girl who would smile at me every time I looked at her and the other was an infant, no more than a couple of months old, safely placed on his mother’s lap. In the middle of the interview, the baby started to fuss and the woman, uninhibited by the presence of two strangers in the house (the field investigator and myself) started to breast feed her baby. At first, it made me extremely self-conscious. I quickly looked at the male field investigator who was taking her interview. He looked a little flushed, but he kept his eyes down and continued asking questions. This made me wonder whether her maternal instincts took precedence over the concept of shame; where her breasts rather than being a sexualised organ turned into a very functional body part for her and the needs of her baby. Several questions came to my mind.

In being able to breast feed without any inhibitions, or being able to expose an otherwise highly sexualised body part, was the woman really empowered? What this brought to my mind is the difficulty in defining empowerment in these contexts and in others. When we examine nudity in the urban context, for example, it’s difficult to figure out whether there is defiance of gender norms in embracing nudity/ being scantily clad, or is it subversion by embracing notions of sexuality denied to women, or is it simply a capitulation of this defiance and subversion into a subject-position that feeds into the patriarchal male gaze? In the context of the village, I was (presumably) lost in the ways that I could interpret the behaviour. Was the woman acting according to her habitus, the norms of a village society where anything maternal would not be sexualised and therefore, expected us, outsiders to adhere to similar norms Or was it this one woman who didn’t care about the fact that her breasts lay bare in front of us (outsiders).

These questions are not merely about empowerment, but it made me think about the inception of these questions. I had a set definition of empowerment in my head, the definition looked at empowerment in a linear manner and not as a spectrum. It was only after reflection into my observation in the field that I could see the various ways in which empowerment manifests and the difficulties in defining it.

During my field visits, I was, to say the least, deeply influenced by my conversations with Sister Sujita, who was the first state project director for MS Bihar and Urmila Ji who was a senior resource person in MS Bihar. Both of them were pioneers in making MS the movement that it was in Bihar, especially during its foundational years. They spoke passionately about the MS ideology, so much so that the conversations painted a vivid picture of a women’s revolution in my head. The narratives of women striving for equality, finding and raising their voice, I started romanticizing these ideas. Once I entered the field, it was the idea of a revolution or a movement that I sought. I was looking to find women who would be independent in terms of decision making, who were in control, who wouldn’t be scared to voice their opinion, who would understand agency and fight for it, women who had a critical eye towards the institutions of marriage, family, who understood the politics of patriarchy and so on and so forth. Every time I would visit a village and not find what I was seeking, there was a void. But, I started questioning this void and started thinking of the origins of it: The expectations, the romance, the vacuum.

I realised that this vacuum was really the result of a complex mix of my own internal thinking, processes and identity as an urban feminist. A lot of it was borrowed from the white feminists that shaped so much of my sociological imagination, the likes of Jaggar, Beauvoir, Boserup. Upon examination, I quickly realised that the lens that I had was one that has been critiqued for so long in the discourse of feminism, including these idols of feminism – the one that sees women as singular, as a unified category. What empowerment meant for me, given my scholarship and socialisation as a whole to simplistically put in one word was ‘agency’. Someone who holds their agency to be the most important of their existence, one who is aware of the struggles that come to attain this agency and strives to maintain it was empowered for me. Citizenship within one’s own existence. What I realised was that the lens I adorned in the field was restrictive.

I met women who were not shy to talk, who spoke of how the programme had made an impact in their lives, their aspirations especially about their daughters, how they enjoyed going to Jagjagi centres (centres for adult literacy, run by Mahila Samakhya women at the village level). One woman that I met sat next to her husband, timidly. But she was extremely articulate in expressing her views on the programme. She told me that the highlight of her involvement with the programme was the time when she went to Patna to deliver a speech. She had never seen a mic before in her life and was very shy at first. But being able to talk from the stage, in front of an audience gave her confidence that she would keep for life. Her husband also expressed as to how much he saw his wife change after joining the programme. She meekly smiled when he was talking about her. There was a visible comradery and partnership between the couple.

Another example of the ‘empowerment’ that I was looking for was also visible in my conversations with the district officials of MS. They spoke a lot about the support that they had from their family. Since they stayed away from home, it was their husbands who took up a lot of the domestic responsibilities like care giving to children, older parents amongst things. There were some visible aspects of empowerment that I could sense form their speech. The fact that they saw their work as important, something that they did not treat as secondary in the scheme of life of a woman. I realised that this was not possible without the kind of support that they got from the male members of the family.

Yes, the process of empowerment was a negotiation which came with struggle. But the struggle was not a zero sum equation. Neither was it absolute. The process of empowerment, or empowerment itself was fluid and resulted in constantly changing dynamics between the woman and the man, the woman and the institutions, the woman and the social environment. Empowerment as I observed in the field was dynamic, continuous and multiple. It was not a binary. And now when I am in the process of thinking through this process of empowerment, the shoes that I once fitted into, don’t fit so well anymore.

Neha Ghatak
Research Associate, CBPS