Friday, July 6, 2012

Poor? Hungry? Let's talk about Equality.

My alarm rings at 6am and, like any self-respecting NGO worker who is always on the clock, I snooze for the next 30 minutes planning in the deep recesses of my mind how the day ahead will pan out. Today was the day. The day to head out into the hinterland and deliver out concepts of Gender (definitions/ stereotypes/clich├ęs). Our team assembled, I was joined by Suresh, CSR's driver/entertainer, someone with a deep understanding of the needs of rural Indians who is always willing and ready to share his views. To round out our team was Vikram, our webmaster/gifted Athenian orator, hailing from Haryana, a state infamous for gender-based violence, and a living example of how one can change mindsets.
We were on our way to Moradabad ( ), a city which retains a proud brass industry heritage as one of the country's largest exporters of brass handicrafts. As reported by the latest census, literacy rates are around 70% in men and 60% in women (rather high compared to the rest of Uttar Pradesh ), the sex ratio is 908 women per 1000 men. Altogether I went into this latest round of gender trainings with a positive and optimistic viewpoint of the city and its people, and assumed that our Gender Trainings would run smoothly. Basic concepts explained to straightforward people.

Upon our arrival in Moradabad we were met by our local partner organization SARD : Society for All Round Development, who piloted us through the city, driving through narrow lanes and what felt like a series of never-ending vegetable markets. We eventually arrived to the point where I had to leave the comforts of our air-conditioned car and face the reality of the blaring summer sun as I meandered through lanes, which just happened to be the exact size of my shoulder span.

The 500 meter walk was surely not intended for anyone with a sensitive olfactory system or with particularly high standards of hygiene. The small distance was dotted with twenty butcher stalls casual about waste disposal to say the least selecting the little drainage canals outside their shops while the heat and humidity ensured the flesh remains were colonized upon arrival. Finally, after ducking and diving my way through the lane I arrived at the training venue. I was relieved and tired. Damping down my sweaty brow, I looked up and realized that I was at the local madrasa. As I shook my head and stepped in, there was a power cut. Ominous you say?
Immediately upon entering the room, I noticed a pile of Qurans stacked high in the corner and a blackboard with sinuous Arabic lettering. The power cut on arrival meant no electricity leaving us in complete darkness in the room with the only source of light and ventilation being the little door through which I entered. Thankfully, the power cut did not seem to dissuade any of our participants and the room slowly filled up with a very diverse group ranging from dewy-eyed ten-year old boys to seventy-year old ‘maulanas' with many years experience as teachers of Islam.  I soon looked up and our little 20 sq meter room was filled to capacity with over seventy people with one door and no electricity.
When preparing to speak in front of large crowds there are only so many variables you can take into consideration. Did I know there was going to be a power cut? No. So I pressed on with my introduction to the group while beads of sweat trickled down my forehead leaving me after 10 minutes of cursory remarks in a pool of my own sweat. Setting the physical difficulties aside, we delved into the topic of 'Gender'.  I must admit that the group was very attentive and participated with great enthusiasm. We conducted a healthy discussion filled with smiles, laughter and agreement that there are different opportunities and expectations which come with being a man or woman and that these parameters are created, established and prolonged by all members of society. However, when the discussion turned to the topic of ‘Equality' the whole group suddenly turned silent craning their necks towards the elders sitting at the back, ‘the community elders', the ones with the final say. I had just been introduced to the judges of Moradabad's very own Kangaroo Court. 

You could have heard a pin drop in those first few minutes. The shock over the concept of gender equality was enough to drive these boys and men stone cold silent. The elders were gracious enough to smile, enquire after my name but then ordered me to continue.  When a trainer loses his authority it’s hard to conduct a training, however I made a light-hearted joke at the elders and did my best to continue. The training atmosphere had surely turned hostile but often one needs to make a point. So I continued on the topic of equality putting a simple question to the group: "What did they think about women having a job". Again a series of hushed conversations, silences and murmurs ensued when finally a young boy aged around sixteen answered, "Sir my Quran says women should always be dressed from head to toe otherwise it is a sin, since most jobs nowadays require them to wear western clothes they can’t do those jobs."  
I was about to involve others in the discussion when one of the elders sitting at the back interjected and warned me that "You should watch what you say, you are in a room where we teach our kids about Islam, a word against the Quran and you won’t leave this training on your own two feet". Shocked and dismayed, I thought to myself "Wow, this hundred-year old bloke half my size, actually threatened me". So I used the finest and only weapon available to me, humor, to break the ice quoting the famous Bollywood saying ‘Gabbar singh yeh keh gaya, Jo darr gaya wo maar gaya'  (no guts no glory). The group broke into fits of indulgent laughter and congratulated my defensive move with a round of applause. Realizing we had all reached our boundaries of tolerance both mentally and physically for the day I concluded the training.
Afterwards, our host organization was kind enough to serve us a generous spread of cold drinks and snacks while we exchanged stories of our experiences from a truly challenging day. I decided to take a stroll back to where I had left my normality. Walking back through the narrow path I was overwhelmed by a sense of hypocrisy. The group of men I had just spoken to had never experienced equality, did not know of rights because they had never exercised their own and live in an India where government provisions are a myth.  Their battles are for survival, their worries for how to feed their families and the only glimmer of hope they have in this battle, which they will eventually lose, is religion.
All the big words used in proposals sent to UN agencies are good and great for those who are fortunate enough to live in the comfort of air conditioned conference halls with purified/ ozonified/ reverse osmosis-treated bottled water. But for the majority of my country these so-called 'necessities' bear no meaning as their struggle is for survival not for class not for justice but the basic instinct to stay alive. As a result they will align themselves with anyone who shares, ensures and prioritizes that same basic ambition.
They did not sit in that crowded, hot room because they cared about Gender. They sat there because they knew they would be provided with a meal at the end. Trainings are a valuable exercise but I sometimes think we forget why some people choose to attend. Vast amounts of money is spent inviting trainers from the big cities and on refreshments for a huge gathered crowd, which is often unaware of the topic but is very aware that they will be served a meal if they stay until the end. It is a common practice I have seen across the NGO sector in India and it is a reality we must come to terms with.
Perhaps we ought to entertain the thought that maybe we need to spend more time and money on what people need and want rather than telling them how to behave. Also, if UN bosses spend more time in the field they would realize that it's not a lack of capacity but lack of opportunity that is the main barrier. They should invest this money in hospitals, schools and nutrition. I realize that 'our bosses' sit in their beautiful offices and are chauffeured from one strategy meeting to another while expecting that a new version of social change will automatically take place every year but the reality on the ground is more complex, nuanced and demanding. This reality is certainly worth looking into.


  1. Absolutely correct Ami....your observation regarding why some choose to attend a training is absolutely right... something, that i believe, every trainer irrespective of the training must have encountered....a meal serves as that one 'motive' for people to drop down everything and hear someone speak of something relevant which they are not even aware of...but thats the social apathy that we need to change...its time those committed to social change, be it the UN or the 'bosses' realize that the basic needs of a society have to be met first coz only once that happens can we speak of equality and have a class of people interested, passionate and willing to speak of equality and equal opportunities for men and women

  2. Liked your post for its brutal honesty. And for putting into words what most of us who are with the development sector and work in the field have felt often enough. Liked that bit about sitting in airconditioned offices, being chauffeured from one strategy meeting to another expecting change to happen on the ground!
    Shree Venkatram

  3. Well I dont get the drift..It never is about the Biryani at the end of the day..They would all be capable of providing themselves the same...much tastier than you n me would ever have. Any man aiming for the pie at the end of a Seminar would not/can not threaten you with dire consequences if you have a contrary view!The question was not even a major one! For heavens sake it was just about whether Moslem women can work!You were stone walled!Its about peoples willingness irrespective of religion to be open minded and willing to change and adapt to the times.No amount of seminars can affect rocked up minds!You were right you lost authority when you backed out!and Humored them. I know it is scary,but bricked up minds don't break easy my friend!There has to be a solid external force and an internal blossom!Better the internal blossom first..Air conditioned offices and Evian waters dont have much of a role here!!

    1. @MAX Dont know what do you mean by internal blossom , plus ' Biryani ' was a far fetched dream for this group of men i was speaking to , they are not even sure where there next loaf of bread is coming from. The question was a major one , as it find its a direct matter of ' freedom '. As for air conditioners and Evian waters , it is just to highlight , that well fed people, living a life of luxury should step out of their comfort zone in the burning sun before they decide upon what to fund.