Safia Sayed- One Month Later…

So much of what I’ve experienced in India is so mind-blowing to me, not least the fact that it’s already been one month. Given all the challenges associated with being so far from home, I expected May to plod by, but in reality I can’t believe that I lived in India for an entire month. Especially now that I’m back home, it’s hard to properly reflect on the reality of my time in India. It’s incredible to me how quickly I’ve settled into various routines both in India and back home. Some aspects of these routines changed only slightly across continents—I swapped chai for coffee in the morning and the American New York Times daily briefing with the Asia and Australia version. Other things changed much more.

I came to India to learn about gender. My internship at Samadhan, a rape crisis center, was one learning opportunity in this regard, if not precisely the type of learning opportunity I was expecting. I’ve learnt that internships are structured somewhat differently in India compared to what I’m used to. My fellow interns were primarily law students at universities across India, and their internships were a required component of their curricula. In a sense, internship duties were simply an extension of schoolwork. Thus I didn’t feel as if I had much of a chance to help in the functioning of the NGO, but I did have plenty of opportunities to learn about Indian law and gender—from commissions on gender to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act to the role of women in panchayat (village councils).

I found myself constantly reflecting on how my discoveries compared with what I know of the American system. Sometimes I could produce substantive analysis of how legal and political systems were alike or dissimilar. But mostly, I was forced to contend with my own ignorance and privilege—I’ve been lucky to never have to worry about the procedure of filing a “first incident report,” and unlike the other interns, I had no idea how citizens of my country really dealt with such matters. In talking with other interns, I was also able to compare my own impressions of sexism in the United States with theirs of India. Here, too, I felt privileged—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the streets of Ann Arbor who looked down upon women for wearing jeans, and it was only too easy to find such an individual in Dehradun. But at the same time, I realized it’s not such a black and white issue of one country having it better than the other. My experiences with misogyny in India were not new, but a different manifestation of a very familiar phenomenon.

I should also add that as much as I learned about gender at Samadhan, I learned much more simply from living in India and paying attention to the people around me. From the very start, I was struck with a diminished sense of personal independence. As a very independent person, I struggled with this. And I struggled with making sense of the situation, especially as it related to gender. Were my experiences a product of culture, or simply the particular people I found myself in company with? Were they overprotective of me as a woman, or as a foreigner in an unfamiliar place? And amidst all of this, how should I best balance my needs for independence with regard for culture and the preferences of those graciously lending me a home for a month? I’m still not sure if I handled things as I should have, but I certainly did my best to keep an open mind, to respectfully talk to as many women as I could and hear their stories, and to listen without judgment. Now that I’m home, I look forward to recalling these anecdotes and observations, and any further lessons I can glean from them.

Like it was yesterday, I remember being told at SiSA orientation that no matter how long I spent in India, it wouldn’t feel like enough. I didn’t believe it. Sure, my month-long stay was shorter than the rest of the fellows’. But still, I’d been to India before, and I already knew how hard it’d be—to be constantly careful about remembering to take malaria pills and carrying toilet paper in my purse and NEVER drinking tap water and a million other things besides. Now I’m back and I know how wrong I was. I know that there’s not enough time in a lifetime to learn all that I’d like to from India. But at least now, one month later, I’ve made a start. And I know where to pick up again for next time.