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.

Safia Sayed- On Authenticity

I’m late in posting this, but here are my thoughts from my last week (!) in India.

As I prepare to head back to the United States, I’m spending a few days in Mumbai playing tourist and catching up with some extended family. I’m having such a great time sightseeing, shopping, eating, and conversing with cousins whom I’ve never before been old enough to have a real conversation with, on previous occasions when we’ve met. More than anything, though, Mumbai is forcing me to evaluate my time in Dehradun in new ways now that I’ve left it.

For starters, Dehradun is nothing like what I’d expected. Everything I had heard about Dehradun emphasized its natural beauty and the fact that it is a hill station. And sure, there’s definitely plenty of greenery around, and the hills in the distance. But Dehradun is still a lot more of a city than I expected it to be, with the bustling Rajpur Road, the traffic clogging up the routes into and out of the main thoroughfare, and the people everywhere. Although minuscule in comparison to the city I now find myself in, Dehradun is very much a city in its own right.

Being in Mumbai makes it easy to reflect on Dehradun’s size, and it’s also led me to consider its culture and character. This too, is different from what I expected. In my last days in Dehradun, I finally got around to checking out some of the famous natural attractions in Dehradun—a river cave formation called Robber’s Cave, sulphur springs known as Sahasradhara—and I was quite struck by how commercialized the areas are. I’ve long known now that people throughout the country like to visit places like Dehradun during the summer for a brief respite from the heat, relatively speaking. But I wasn’t expecting everything to be so touristy, complete with Ferris wheels and cable cars. I’ll admit, I was a bit disappointed. “Desecrated” is the word that came to mind in seeking the pockets of natural beauty obscured by a maze of ticketed attractions.

Again, these observations have truly crystallized in response to my being in Mumbai, a city which to me feels much more authentic. I’ve always been more of a big city kind of girl, and I appreciate places where I can eat, live, and explore like a local. I’m realizing that Mumbai is more my kind of city, but still I’m struck by the negative filter it’s imposed on my memories of Dehradun. Specifically, who am I to say what’s authentic or not, what’s a genuine experience or a mere desecration? Travelers to India, or in fact any destination perceived as exotic, are always in search of “authenticity,” when we are in fact least equipped to make that judgment. We tend to desire a very narrow specification of intercultural experience—balking at things we don’t consider traditionally Indian unless they suit our needs and conveniences, like Western-style toilets.

The truth is, India isn’t stylized to suit these preferences. Sure, it disappointed me that Sahasradhara looked more like a water park than a natural wonder, but I guess that really isn’t the point. And as much as I’m enjoying Mumbai now, I wonder if I could have enjoyed Dehradun more had I realized all this sooner. Still, it’s never too late to learn, and I hope to approach my final days in India with even more of an open mind.

Safia Sayed- Group Work with a Twist

Lately I’ve been a bit frustrated with work at Samadhan. Along with the other interns, I’ve been working on a “documentary” on misogyny that is to be used for advocacy purposes by the NGO. We visited the nearby Gandhi Park and recorded interviews with locals, asking them their views on women, marriage, etc. Because I don’t speak Hindi, I stayed behind the camera. In fact, my main job was to edit the footage.

Even, this, however, wasn’t easily accomplished given that I can’t understand Hindi either. I quickly grew impatient at the process of watching a bit of footage being asked to rewind, being asked to pause, rewind again, pause, cut, repeat. After a while I figured out what precisely made this experience so irritating. It was just classic, dreaded, group work, but with a twist in the form of a huge language barrier.

The most frustrating part was that there wasn’t much to be done to make it better. I didn’t expect my fellow interns to translate every line of the footage as we went along—that would have taken forever. And I couldn’t blame them either for reverting to Hindi in discussing things among themselves; Hindi comes far more naturally to them and is the main language spoken here.

So we made do with the situation. As someone who is used to taking a leading role in group projects, I learned how to step back and play a different part. I figured out how to gauge pauses in conversations and voice my own ideas. And my fellow interns did their best to make sure I was included while continuing to ensure we were working efficiently. They also recognized my contributions to the project and the amount of patience they required, which I really appreciated. Truthfully all the credit goes to iMovie.

In short, I learned a lot from this experience. Not about misogyny. Not about video editing. But about how to fairly and patiently assess my own capacity to contribute to an endeavor, how to consider things from a perspective outside of my own, and how to adapt to new circumstances and situations.

Safia Sayed- Weekend Adventures

Good morning! I’ve just returned from a morning drive and trek through the hills of Dehradun. My host dad loves bird watching, and every morning he wakes up early to capture photographs of the huge variety of birds here. Yesterday I woke up at 5:30 to join him and his kids for a winding drive up the hills to Garhwal, the western region of Dehradun’s Uttarakhand state.

It was incredible to see how just a short drive could bring me to an entirely new culture of the Garhwali people, with their own language, dress, and traditions. Seated in the backseat of the car, I couldn’t make up my mind where to look. In one direction, the sun rose over a mountain in the distance, into the purplish pink sky. Alongside the road, kids in school uniforms made their way to school, some of them making a journey of many miles from their homes at various elevations. In the distance, a woman in a brilliant magenta sari worked in the fields. We drove through a village, and I watched a school bus jam-packed with kids pick up a few more at the gate of their house. My host dad pointed out the bundles of wood that were prepared for fires, the cow dung that would be applied as fertilizer in the fields.

A little while later, peering through binoculars from the edge of the road and a considerable elevation higher, I observed another community. This one was made up of a clump of tent-like structures. My host dad explained that this was a much poorer community. They are also a mining community—squinting through the binoculars I watched trucks drive back and forth from the limestone mountains.

Even higher, we got out of the car to explore on foot. My host dad pointed out and took pictures of all the birds and insects we came across on our journey through the trails. Such was the case this morning too, when we drove in the opposite direction to Jharipani, on the road to Mussoorie. Again, just a short drive provided an entirely new perspective with a stunning new view of the hills and of Mussoorie in the distance. Even the mountain air felt somewhat different. Not to mention the differences I felt between the India I’m used to, of the bustling city centers of Delhi and Mumbai. I’m so grateful this weekend to get a taste of something different—India’s natural beauty.

Safia Sayed- Welcome to Dehradun

Well, it’s been a crazy week! Between the day-long flights here, starting a new internship, and being on the other side of the globe away from home, it’s safe to say that I’ve been feeling more than a little bit overwhelmed. What’s gotten me through the week, however, has been the incredible hospitality I’ve encountered at every juncture of my journey, from family members who hosted me during a brief stopover in Mumbai, to the family who has opened up their home to me for the remainder of the month, to everyone at Samadhan, the NGO I’m working with.

Now that I’ve been working with Samadhan for a week, I have a much better sense of the work they do. While Samadhan offers a range of legal services targeted at women in domestic violence situations, their main function is in running a 24/7 helpline that victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child marriage may call. The building housing the NGO functions as a rape crisis center, and the women who live here have not only been rescued from the most horrific situations, but are also currently helping to run the NGO and studying to be lawyers, so they can someday bring justice to the communities they once escaped.

Working at Samadhan has taught me many aspects of the Indian legal system, particularly pertaining to women’s rights. So far, I’ve conducted research on the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women as it applies to India, and the State Police Complaint Authority. I’ve particularly enjoyed being able to talk to my fellow interns about my findings and compare them to what I know of the American legal system. For example, I had no idea that Indian policing also suffers from over-targeting of minority populations, in this case of Muslims and Dalits.

I’ve also had the chance to learn about what’s really going on in India with regard to women’s rights. I have been able to listen in on calls to the helpline—calls that originate not just from the state of Uttarakhand of which Dehradun is the capital, but from all over the country. I’ve also gotten to hear about the past cases Samadhan has dealt with—of which my boss and the NGO’s founding president is a walking encyclopedia—and to even watch video footage of rescue operations. I’ve always known that India faces a pretty significant sexual violence problem, but I never fully understood the reality of the situation until now. The sheer number of cases my boss has to relate is astounding, and pretty emotionally draining as well.

The biggest learning experience so far at Samadhan, however, was in living at the NGO for a week alongside the residents of the rape crisis center. Most of them don’t speak much English, and yet they’ve done so much to make me feel welcome and cared for, from making sure I’m eating enough at mealtimes to passing along a wordless smile at every opportunity. Given what they’ve been through, it amazes and inspires me that they’re able to constantly radiate so much warmth and kindness, and on top of that to pursue legal studies in becoming fierce advocates for gender equality.

As much as I loved spending time with them and communicating as best I could—picked up a smidge more Hindi!—I’m also excited to continue my work with Samadhan during the daytime while living with a local family in Dehradun. I’m enjoying getting to know them so far, especially the kids who are my age and younger, and who graciously let me win at Ludo earlier in the day. It’s also nice to have local perspectives and guides as I start to explore the sights of the city. Stay tuned as the explorations unfold!