“Are women and men treated equally where you come from?”
“How far do women have to travel to get drinking water?”
“Do they have camels there?”
When we (by that i mean the Rang De team/ volunteers) go out on field visits, more often than not, all of us are running against a clock. The schedule is packed, we have people to meet, questions to ask and observations to record. And despite our best intentions most of the times our interactions with the community end up being one sided. We go there to understand the latent and expressed needs of the community members so we ask probing questions and we listen as they speak, sometimes haltingly but mostly candidly, about their lives, their hopes and dreams.
So when a bunch of women in Dholpur, Rajasthan took my invitation to ask questions to heart and turned the tables on me I was delighted. They weren’t sure where my home state of Uttarakhand was but they wanted to know if both girls and boys got equal opportunities to study there. Since they all reared cattle for a living, they were curious to see if the women there reared cows too and what kind of clothes did they wear: sarees, or ghaghras or salwar kameez — the kind favoured by the younger girls in their village. They asked me how old I was and how much I had studied, and whether I was married? The older ladies in the group clucked their tongues in tacit disapproval at my “still single” status but the younger ones shushed them up- talking about freedom and careers. And then the younger ones spoke wistfully about the freedom to travel, to pursue jobs and earn your own money.
I watched them as they collected savings and loan repayments and wrote out the highlights of the meeting. Some of the older women were illiterate, their thumb impressions signified their attendance, but the younger women were patient and respectful- explaining the maths to the older members again until they understood. Then the question arose about who would visit the federation office to submit the savings and repayments. The older, illiterate women were naturally hesitant but the young women goaded them into sharing responsibility.
The curiosity of that group of women in Dholpur is what set them apart from all the women i met during my short trip. As Albert Einstein once wrote “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” The questioning mind is never idle, is always imagining an alternative to the status quo. Our work often takes us to remote parts of India, parts where patriarchal norms are deeply entrenched, where centuries old caste hierarchies are evident in the homes that borrowers live in, in the professions they pursue. And it is our privilege to not only observe the subtle changes that are happening but also to contribute, in a small way, to that change.