inspiring women: from Indian villages to English towns

On the 9th of June I was invited by the Director of International Office of Durham University to team up with her to deliver a talk in a workshop titled ‘Inspiring Women’. Sharne Proctor, the Director of the International Office was the inspirational woman for this session. However, she decided to ask a few international students to share their own and their PhD stories in the workshop because she thought this might be a different and possibly inspirational experience for the women present. Ultimately then, we were a team of 4 (including Sharne). Sharne started with here fantastic and highly inspirational story. This was followed by Elham Amini who shared her research about women’s sexuality in Iran. Elham herself comes from Iran. Another presentation was by Manizha Hadi on Women’s health in Afghanistan. Manizha is a doctor from Afghanistan. So, there were three women with truly inspiring professional and personal stories. Sandwiched between these was your’s truly – not a woman, no inspirational story. So, what was I doing there? Well, I was supposed to share stories of inspirational women that I had come across during my PhD research and I assure you there are many of those. Here’s a narrative of my talk from the workshop.

I had a field trip today and was meant to visit a nuclear power plant in Torness. But I decided to ditch that and come here instead. This was more exciting for me, even more than nuclear fission. Also, I figured I would probably never in my life have as many women intently listing to what I have to say.
I would start the presentation with a confession that the woman on the title slide is not a research participant. She is my mother doing prayers during the festival of Diwali. She is also the woman who inspires me the most. But I won’t be talking about her anymore today. I’ll talk about the women that I came across during my fieldwork and how they have become sources of inspiration for me.

So, let me first tell you a bit about myself (Slide 2). My research is on energy access in rural India and I specifically look at the politics of energy access. Meaning I try to understand who gets or doesn’t get access to what kind of energy and due to which reasons. I look at this politics at various levels (local, national) but focus on trying to understand how this plays out in people’s everyday life and within the households. For example (Slide 3), we can see in this photograph that this household has access to electric light which children can use for studying. But who is benefiting? The male child in the front is studying whereas the female child is cooking dinner on a wood fired hearth. What does electricity mean for her then?
But even with this kind of explicit discrimination and bias, I came across several women who had found or were working hard to find opportunities to make a place in their society. Certainly, they neither had the educational qualifications nor the opportunities that women in this room (all working at Durham University) have had. In fact many of these women did not even expect to get the same opportunities that most women here get. So, I’ll talk about four out of the several women I came across to give to an idea of the different arenas that women are fighting and trying to make a space for themselves in these villages.

So, the first woman to inspire me is the girl who wanted to study (Slide 4). We all know Malala and her dedication towards education. She is certainly inspiring but it’s not her that I refer to. I want to talk about Bindu (Slide 5). Bindu is from a very socio-economically weak family. Her house has no electricity. However, her brother Mahesh and other male children from the society every evening go to a solar street light in their colony and study. Bindu being a female can’t go out after dark and can’t share the space under the solar street light as it is dominated by boys. But all she wants to do is study. So, while her brother studies under the modern solar light, Bindu every evening fills kerosene in her oil lamp and studies under it. This has very low light and generates black smoke - harmful for both eyes and lungs. But all Bindu wants to do is study. So, she carries on. (Slide 6) When I visited her home, every one gathered around to talk and listen to me and get their photographs clicked. Bindu didn’t care. All she wanted to do was study. She went by her daily routine of filling oil and getting down to studying. She didn’t care who came and who went. I don’t think I would have studied in the conditions that Bindu was studying in but she inspired me by her persistence and focus. After all, all she wanted to do was study.

(Slide 7) I found a woman who was known as power. Not Maggy. We all know that she was the iron lady and was inspirational for many (if not all). But I want to talk about Seema (Slide 8). Seema was known as power in her village. They called her ‘Seema Power’. She lived in her little house with her children. Her husband was a migrant labourer and lived in Bangalore, a city thousands of kilometers from the village, for the most part of the year. In these villages matters outside the household are generally dealt with by men. But Seema’s situation, like many other women in her village put her in charge of everything from inside the household to the outside. She recruited help of other people from the village to carry out jobs that she couldn’t do, managed the household finances and looked after children’s education. The family was building a new brick house next to its current mud house and Seema was managing the construction activities. In my visits to the village I saw her standing firm in front of other men. Probably that is why she was known as power. Men generally don’t take kindly to women who stand firm. Power was a name given to make fun of her but for me this name actually epitomised the power that she had. She had spent her childhood in a city and had experienced electricity. Her village had no electricity but she aspired to have electricity for her children, like she had during her childhood. She asked her husband to get a solar panel for the household so they could have electricity. Her face had immense confidence. Truly inspiring, the woman who was rightly called Power.

A woman that I interacted with over several days of my fieldwork was the one who shared power. (Slide 9) No, no, not Hillary Clinton. She did share power with President Obama but she was not in the village that I went to. It was Rani (Slide 10). Rani’s husband ran a business of renting solar lanterns in the village. This needed substantial work of collecting the lanterns, charging them through the day and distributing them to the registered people in the evening. Over the two weeks period that I visited Rani’s house I found that often her husband was busy with the fields or cattle and Rani managed the business. One of the most critical parts of this business was collating rentals from people using the lanterns. Rani’s husband accepted that he was not good at this and had lost money several times. But Rani was firm. Although she couldn’t go to other people’s homes to collect rentals (being a daughter-in-law of the village), she pulled them up when they came to collect their solar lanterns. Her husband gave her a lot of credit for the smooth running of the business. In my view the fact that Rani shared power with her husband and her husband prominently and publicly acknowledged it was a step in the right direction, one that inspired me a lot.

The last woman that I want to talk about is the woman who has power (Slide 11). The German chancellor Angela Markel does hold the power and has been holding it for a while now. She is truly inspiring but again I did not get an opportunity to meet her during my fieldwork. I met Sudha (Slide 12). About 7 years ago the government of Bihar, the Indian state that I was carrying out my research in passed a ruling which reserved 50% seats for women in the village council elections. This means that now at least half of the villages in Bihar would have a female village heads. Sudha took this opportunity and jumped onto the election bandwagon. Sudha and many women like her won the elections and became village heads, a position that had been socially, culturally and traditionally dominated by men. Sudha’s face reminds me to Seema - the women known as power. They have the same confidence and self-belief. With the help of her husband Sudha was now managing the development activities of the village and interacting with the higher level state officials. She was participating in the council meeting at the district level and arguing for her village’s development. She was now the woman who had the power in this village.

The stories of four women that I have shared with you today are just a drop in the ocean. Several women like them are struggling and succeeding every day. I hope you have found the stories of Bindu, Seema, Rani and Sudha interesting, if not inspiring.


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