As part of my compulsory internship during my Masters in Gender Studies at Ambedkar University in 2012, we had the freedom to choose the area of research as well as the organization. Since I was pursuing my masters after a year of being employed, I didn't want this opportunity to be another way of merely photocopying documents and barely learning anything. Hence, I decided to connect with my ex-boss, Ravi Rebbapragada. Ravi is the director of an organization called Samata with whom I had worked previously. Samata has a demonstrated history of working with tribals, the historic Samata Judgment of Andhra Pradesh being testimony to that, I knew I would learn a lot from this experience.
Truth be told, more than being interested in this internship, I just wanted to live in the middle of a forest in Visakhapatnam, where Samata’s office is located. I had visited there once and the curiosity to explore further had lingered. So, to fulfill my wish, I packed my bags and travelled for 35 hours in the general compartment of a train to reach my destination. I arrived at Srikakulum on the premise of researching gender dynamics amongst the Savara tribes of Andhra; all of which was facilitated by Samata. Like an obedient student, I had prepared my notes and my questionnaire, as guided by our professors. You may call it my ignorance, lack of exposure or just mere naivety, I really was looking at this project from a preconceived notion of what a tribal life was like. Even though I was born in a village myself and came from a Dalit background, my mind was deeply colonized, something which I realized during the course of this research.
I had my first experience of interacting with the tribal community when I attended the weekly tribal market put up every Monday. The market was hustling and bustling with people of all age groups. There were many women buying and selling goods that ranged from jewelry to cattle, bamboo products, tailored clothes, and fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, I observed that these weekly markets were also places for prospective marriage alliances. When I asked one person about how it exactly worked, he explained to me in a nonchalant manner that marriages are arranged either through mediators or through personal efforts. Girls and boys go up to one another and directly ask if they are interested in an alliance. If the answer is yes, then they approach the potential partner's family by gifting them some local liquor. If the family consumes the local liquor, then the alliance is considered to be fixed.
I was extremely impressed by the immense visibility and mobility of women, in fact the whole market was populated by women more than men. That was the first time my mental image of what a tribal life or tribal woman looks like was challenged. I was shocked to see women walking around with so much agency, displaying an air of confidence.
My most embarrassing episode occurred the next day. I was to meet the sarpanch of a village nearby. We had to cross fields where elephants were running loose. I took a deep breath and remembered I volunteered for this. We went to the village late at night at around 10 pm. I saw many women roaming the village streets, chit chatting with each other, and going about their evening. I had just landed from New Delhi and witnessing this level of freedom and safety in a remote village in Andhra late at night gave me a feeling of empowerment. My guide introduced me to a woman and I was surprised to find out that she was the sarpanch of the village. I folded my hands in respect while she forwarded her hand for a hand shake. I still remember how firm her handshake was.
But mostly, I remember the trip for the realization that as researchers we do not dictate the subject. Our classrooms do not equip us to think beyond the Savarna mould. When I started my research, I had prepared a questionnaire in which I incorporated queries such as, “Do women have the freedom to choose partners?”, “Is divorce a taboo?” When I presented these questions to the women, they looked at me with puzzlement. I realized at that moment how bizarre and out of context my questionnaire was to Savara women. It created a distance between us and there was a sense of othering from both sides. The gender dynamics in the Savara community were far better than what we had between two urban educated, civil adults.
I went back to my room and felt extremely ashamed of my actions. I felt ignorant. I had a lot more to learn from them than they did from me. My sense of privilege was so futile and superficial. I threw my questionnaire away and decided to adopt a different methodology, one that was more empathetic, inclusive, and intuitive. As one of the guest speakers in our dissertation class had mentioned, never pre assume your subject of study. The subject of inquiry must grow through the process of research and that is exactly what I realized.
Can the subaltern speak? This question kept going on in my mind throughout my research. Yes, they can very much speak but we need to speak their language and not the other way round.
I realized that what we have been calling 'backward' is much more progressive than the hegemonic ideology that prevails. I came back a different person from this exercise, something changed in me forever. Savara women were so empowered, extremely comfortable with their bodies and sexuality. They were so open about exercising their choices and speaking up that I seemed more backward in contrast to them. I was more than happy to have de-colonized my mind, it was probably one of the biggest lessons I learnt in my life and I will always be grateful to Samata for organizing this for me.
About the author: Priyanca Singh is a Dalit feminist film theorist and practitioner, working across the spectrum of content, communications, and films.
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