Stereotypes: It’s all in the mind

gaganspeakBy Gagan Sethi*

Before we would begin working in a village following our “mandatory reconnaissance and trust-building visits”, normally, we would summon village community representatives, about 30 of them, to Ahmedabad for a 10 day training camp. In most cases, only men would turn up for training. The training camp would be held at the St Xavier’s College campus, where the Behavioral Science Centre was located. It was recently renamed as Human Development Research Centre.

In the camp, we would normally get representations from cross section of the community in which we worked. We ensured that if there were elders, there were equal number of youths (“juvarniyas, we called them) as well. And if there were small and marginal farmers, there should also be landless workers. But we were never successful in getting many women to the training camps. If at all, they had to be brought separately, and not with men. Often, we would had to make arrangements for their training camps in our work areas – the so-called caste-based villages.

In 1985, when we started working in the adivasis villages of South Gujarat, surprisingly, men from the community insisted that women should also be brought in for training with them. We were overjoyed – we were about to achieve some gender balance!

We fixed dates for the training camp for adivasis of a village. Soon thereafter, we got into an overdrive. We made separate arrangements for men and women at the St Xavier’s College.

Normally, the participants would be put up in a large makeshift dormitory, and we hold the programme in the same premises.

We learnt that in a group of 30 adivasis, who were to participate in the training programme, 11 were women. We requested the college authorities to allot us three rooms in the boys’ hostel near the rector’s office with especially cordoned off bathrooms. We were sure that this would take care of their privacy and safety.

On the day they arrived, we straight went into our sessions, and by the evening we asked the women to move to their separate rooms prepared for them.

What happened on the next day was a shocker: We began the day asking women on how they felt being in the rooms we had especially set aside for them. We could sense a simmering sense indignation among them. They responded in silence, but their eyes said it all.

Sensing the mood, we thought, maybe, they weren’t treated well. Hence, we asked them: “Kai kasar rahi gayi hati?” (Was everything all right with arrangements?).

One of them blurted out: “Ame shu guno karyo ke amne chutta padi deedha” (What was our crime, why did you separate us from men?).

It dawned on us that, to them, staying together with men was a norm, yet we had assumed, from our cultural standpoint, to actually segregate them from men. We profusely apologized, and said, sure, they could stay together.

Later, during discussions, they became frank. A few of them told us that they didn’t sleep the whole night, wondering if they had made some mistake. Was it a punishment to be put up separately from men?

Adivasi men were equally vocal. They said, they too were suspicious that we might be telling them things they wouldn’t know. They were wondering whether this was the reason why a woman staff member was asked to stay with women. Failure to understand adivasi norms created so much of confusion.

Gender, after all, is a social construct, operating in a set of rules, based on values of that society. Unfortunately, the cultural invasion that we (the “ujadiyats”, as the adivasis would refer to us) perpetrate on others is based on our perceptions of propriety. We try to look at everything from coloured glasses.

We do that with dress, with language, with speech, with touch. Accepting pluralism needs constant examination and re-examination of our biases, and getting out of the RIGHT versus WRONG frame.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social Justice. Email: gaganssethi@gmail.com. First appeared in DNA

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