Tehmina Sabuwala, an ex-fellow, currently mentors a group of six women who are part of this year’s Youth Fellowship Program. She completed her fellowship last year where her group studied SMART Cities through the lens of marginalised women. In this post, Tehmina reflects on the experiences that have shaped her understanding of gender, exposing her to traditional gender role definitions and expectations that have usurped women’s personal time and space, and how this group of six women is trying to change that.
At my previous job, as a documentarian, I developed the habit of clicking pictures capturing some of my observations as moments. I was also simultaneously pursuing my journey as Youth Fellow at PUKAR then. Sunil Gangavane, my facilitator, saw some of my pictures and said they appeared to have the same underlying theme. “What is the theme?”, I asked him. But he asked me to figure it out for myself. Back then, I couldn’t.
While doing the fellowship, Sunil recited a poem that moved me since I hadn’t come across women’s struggles in that form before. At the time, our group was researching SMART Cities from the perspective of marginalised women because we wanted to hear their voices in a discussion largely dominated by men. I felt deeply connected to their stories but was still unaware of what this really meant.
It was only recently, when I attended a month-long course at Visthar (a civil society organisation in Bangalore) called Gender Diversity and Social Transformation (GDST) that the dots seemed to connect: gender had played an important role in my life throughout – the photographs, my resonance to women’s stories of hardships and the need to know their opinions were testament to my keen interest in gender issues.
At Visthar, my fellow participants came from different countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria,
Nepal, Bangladesh, and Indonesia among others. One day, we were asked to compare the routines of a husband and a wife. What emerged from the exercise was an interesting picture: women across countries worked much harder than their male counterparts – taking care of the house and their children even while keeping a paid job.
As a child, I remember seeing a similar pattern at home and thinking it was unfair. When I was around 8, we went to Panchgani for a family holiday. A family member asked if I was liking it there, and I innocently replied, “Yes, I am. Because my mom doesn’t have to cook.” While everyone laughed, my mom was moist-eyed because even a child like me could see how hard she worked with little or no returns in sight.
This year, I’m co-facilitating a group of six working women at PUKAR – one is a community health volunteer, one is an Anganwadi worker, three of them are voluntary social workers and one is a computer teacher. They are the first all-women group in PUKAR between the ages of 28 and 45, part of a fellowship where most participants are under 21. Their families encouraged them to join PUKAR and their children said, “Go and live for yourself now”. Their research explores the problems, challenges and injustices faced by community health volunteers, all female, by the way.
In one of our meetings, I shared with these women a translation of Betty Friedan’s “The Problem That Has No Name”, an excerpt from her book, The Feminine Mystique, which was first published in 1963. It changed the lives of many American women by bringing their restlessness, lack of identity and unhappiness to public attention. Before reading to them the excerpt, I asked them to observe the differences between their routines versus their husbands’.
When we met after 2 weeks, they wrote down their observations. When they began sharing, the results seemed strikingly similar to those that came out of the Visthar exercise. As they engaged in a discussion on the importance of distributing work equally between their daughters and sons, it became clear that it wasn’t a woman’s job alone to cook, clean or take care of the children.
When I reflected on the activity I conducted with these six women, I thought to myself – even though one needs to be extremely sensitive while having a discussion about discrimination with women, getting them to participate is not difficult. The real challenge lies in engaging men from the same age group. There is still a long way to go, and I really wish that gender sensitisation becomes a part of school curriculums some day. If we want to cut down discrimination, it is important to teach children from a very young age. Right now, I feel lucky to be part of a space like PUKAR where the quest for knowledge becomes the currency with which these women negotiate unconventional gender roles for themselves and set an example for their children and husbands as they do so.