Gender and Field…a complicated story!

The choice of a place like Haryana for the field work came with several apprehensions right from the beginning. Without consciously alluding to myself as a ‘woman’, I was made aware of my gender in many more ways in the 4 weeks that we were on the field than I have been in the 26 years of my life.

It is important that I begin this story with a short introduction of myself. Being born in and raised in the city of Allahabad, I wasn’t necessarily raised like a modern metropolitan city girl. Hence, the social contexts of a small town and even a village isn’t really an unfamiliar site to me. But when I took the decision of choosing Haryana as the site of this project, both me and my peers were in slight alarm. The group, composed of six students, it was to be distributed in two teams of three each for Gujarat and Haryana. The fate of the only male member of the group was pretty much final from the point when the sites were finalised, he would go to Haryana. The other two team members were, me and another girl student who is from Kerala. So the first question regarding gender was answered at this point. But the question of gender did not leave us here. The second team member faced a tumultuous amount of questions from her parents in the following months since this project was entirely student designed and there was no “responsible adult supervision” involved which is generally the case with projects that India students participate in. There wasn’t going to be anyone in the field from the university to keep an “eye” on us and we were the primary decision makers for most part.

The beginning of this experience was at the check-in at the Clark’s hotel, Karnal. Even though the Hotel staff was courteous and very cheery we were very aware of the suspicious eyes that followed us from that day onwards. The days that followed we made sure that when the staff were cleaning or came to our rooms for something they always saw all three of us together and never the combination of a boy and a girl behind closed doors. It wasn’t something we talked about and decided amongst ourselves, but it still seemed like the right thing to do. While in Karnal, we went out to the village for conducting the interviews for which we used public transport. The negotiations with reference to fixing the fare for the travel were essentially limited to the male friend. Conversations on the field were also segregated on the basis of the gender of the interviewer. While it was a given that my male colleague would correspond with the men, we conversing with the men was not essentially seen as ‘unthinkable’. However, the possibility of Him conversing with local women was unthinkable. While we needed to interview people from different occupational backgrounds, this meant that going very early in the morning would be considered ideal because that’s when the people still haven’t left for work or during late evening after the men of the house have come back from work. Both going very early morning and late evening came with the risk of not finding adequate transport to get back to the hotel. While our male colleague could travel in an auto, it was almost a given that if we were with him, the people from the village that we were visiting with would drop us back home. While this was an inconvenience that we did not wish to cause, we were compelled to believe that letting them drop us back would be the ‘right thing to do.’ One very important component of the visit was the clothes that we chose to wear. Having being sensitized by several people around with reference to the clothes we carry for the field, we had carried only ethnic wear for the field. It was now that I felt the need to go to a store and invest in a ‘salwar’ or another piece of clothing that did not differentiate me from the natives, nevertheless my “mall-bought-max-salwar” didn’t really help me much to gel-in with the crowd.

Now came the day when we attended the Lokinti survey training in The Horticulture Institute  in Karnal (Haryana). In a room that had a seating arrangement made distinct on the basis of gender, I found myself to be the only individual for whom getting a seat from where I could hear the speaker was more important than if I was sitting next to a girl or a boy. The cosmopolitan experiences of my life have enabled me to identify with a lot of characteristics that go beyond the definition of my gender. While conversing with the speaker (who happened to be a man), I was least concerned about the way my views would be perceived basis my gender. And this was reciprocated by the gentleman who has had similar cosmopolitan life experiences. While my friends from APU (2 more girls and 1 boy) were the people I interacted the most during the time of the training, the eyes that seemed to follow the effortless interactions that we were having amongst us were many. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I was sensitized to the different cultural experiences that the individuals sitting in the room (several local field investigators) have had. My female friends and I were lauded in public for showing the ‘courage’ to come from far away places to Haryana. The fact that we had travelled this distance despite being girls was a very clear undertone to the conversation that we had with others. Having lived away from home for more than 7 years, I have spoken with my family members about once a week. While these conversations would be limited to questions pertaining to my health and general well-being, the time that I was on the field, I received calls twice a day to check if I was ‘safe’ and was reprimanded if I missed a call and didn’t call back. Although I consider my family to be very unorthodox with reference to my interactions with all sorts of people coming from different backgrounds and different social groups (gender even), my female friends and I were reminded everyday that we are ‘women’ and that our cosmopolitan experiences will not fly in the setting that we were in. A female friend of mine is in the habit of smoking. However, a walk to the local paan-shop meant that she could not go there alone without my other male-friend. While there, it was imperative that it looked like He was buying the smokes and not She. Daily experiences such as these made me more appreciative to the liberal life that we live in the cities.

There then came an evening when we were invited to the house of the local co-ordinator. It is necessary that I describe the background of this interaction. The house of the co-ordinator could easily be described as modern. With LCD TV Sets, and 3 cars to zip around the city in, our co-ordinator’s husband was a well-established lawyer in Karnal. After a sumptuous meal, my friend suggested that after the field work, she was keen on going around in the North and visiting Amritsar. This inconsequential suggestion came with an hour long discussion about how it might not be a ‘safe’ choice to make. It puzzled us that thought processes of the people who we perceived as ‘modern’ was so influenced by the context that they were operating in that it made them react in the way that it did.

While leaving Karnal, we were given a somewhat unsettling image of Jind. Apart from being a Jatt-heartland it also has a notorious image of being an extremely difficult district in terms of law and order. However, we were determined and decided to still visit the district. Jind is one of the most backward districts in case of gender disparities. The ADC in Jind was a woman from Lucknow who, while functioning in a context such as this, was seen as a ‘Memsaab.’ This sense that what she was doing was more commendable by the virtue of being a woman was visible in the interactions that she had with people. She was the first female officer that we had come across so far. She and I reminisced about Allahabad guavas and the congested lanes of Aminabad over a cup of chai in her office. Her extremely polished and polite tone took me back to my homeland where talking fast or raising your voice is considered extremely rude. After a while she asked us to sit on the side and observe a meeting she had to head. The meeting was to essentially take a quarterly update from and to allocate tasks to the Swachch Bharat Abhyan village volunteers and authorities. We saw a major shift in her demeanour while interacting with the village authorities, it was a site to withhold. A woman from a backward State in a position like this in a place with the above mentioned social context. This meeting filled all three of us with a new spark and a motivation for working in Jind. On one of the days in Nidana (the village we chose to study in Jind) while we were in one of the government schools, we (the girls) were made to speak with the students. We were made to feel like what we were doing was great by the virtue of being women. The amount of pressure that we felt while talking to the students and urging (on being asked to) the girl children to achieve big things and follow in our footsteps was immense. This was further exacerbated by the fact that we did not think what we were doing was essentially ‘path breaking’. Here again, the choice we had to make was of using the ‘right’ words, ‘motivating’ words. Obviously, we couldn’t have said “YOLO” and “party hard”, not that thats the advice I give to motivate young people but you get it, right? So, we went with the traditional “Identify your interest and work towards them”.

Then there also came this one “doomed” day in Panchkula. By this time all three of us had spent a lot of time in the field together and got very comfortable with each other. It was a cold November morning and the person who got our tea for us walked into the room while my male team member and I were on the bed within the blanket for only one reason, to stay warm. The man stopped in his tracks and stared at us and also we got very conscious and jumped upright. The days that followed were filled with continuous self-blaming for being so careless.

Our experiences in the government offices were varying. While visiting government offices in Panchkula and Karnal was an effortless exercise where we only had to worry about the conversation that would ensue with the officials, visiting offices in the districts such as Jind meant that we first needed to worry about what time we were visiting, were women officials present and whether there would even be enough people around for us to feel ‘safe’.

While it might be difficult for me to point at a particular situation where we were faced with a conflict because of the context that we were in, the aforementioned incidents made us think about the gender question and the context in which this question is operationalized in the larger sense. What kind of an effect do the field experiences of young female development professionals have on their work and eventually on their lives? Masking one’s choices to suit a particular unfamiliar context can disturb some and can seems natural to some, depending on their own backgrounds. This then brings us to the main question of whether it is relevant to speak of unbiased field work in terms of gender. Can and how can we ever control for this factor, gender, while analysing the data collected? I am yet to find answers to these.


‘Fielding’ Challenges: Reflections from fieldwork in Gujarat

‘The field is a travel through varying intensities’. At the Law and Policy Hub Clinic Exhibition last year, I jotted down this line in my diary, my face reddening with an excitement I usually experience after having read a line or two of beautiful poetry. Indeed, Professor Atreyee’s description of what a field really means was nothing short of poetry and I wrote all of it down like an eager connoisseur. When we travel on a flight, we are insulated from the conditions outside but that rarely prevents us from inhabiting different time periods and experiencing changing versions of the Sky through the window. On the field too, the researcher moves through such alternating temporalities, no matter how much one tries insulating oneself.[1] This idea remained etched in the pages of my diary, only to ‘flash upon my inward eye’[2] a year later, as our bus lunged past the frenzied crowds at the Bhuj market making its way to Kutch which was to be the first site of our study. The beginning of our experience of the ‘field’.

In retrospect, fieldwork in Gujarat from Kutch through Anand to Gandhinagar was indeed a travel through varying intensities of geographical environs, cultures and our own emotional energies. While transitions from the parched Kutchi lands to the cement soaked sarkari buildings in Gandhinagar–from scarcity to abundance, from ‘rural-ness’ to ‘urban-ness’, from one dialect of spoken Gujarati to another; were clearly visible and are still remembered like a series of sceneries gliding past, from the window of a moving vehicle. What, until now, got little attention were the varying intensities of our own emotions vis-a-vis changing locales and time periods. In particular, emotions intensified in situations where we had to take certain tough decisions. Different situations arose–at different places at different points of time–each one demanding us to respond in different ways, both individually and as a group.

In hindsight, it is circumstances such as these that make fieldwork both adventurous and memorable: and in some cases, serve the purpose of building team rapport and help create bonds that go beyond just being team members. It adds to the joy of reminiscing about days bygone. ‘Ah! Remember that day when that happened…and we did this. Lord! what a tough day that was!’ These will add to the repository of memories that will make us laugh and connect with each other even years from now. In this way, challenging circumstances faced during fieldwork, have implications even beyond the realm of academics, as they add to individual and shared experiences. Thus they may either strengthen or in other cases, even weaken existing team bonds but they undoubtedly create space for anxiety involving tough deliberations, at the time that such situations unfold.

Outlined below is an account of such challenging circumstances, which according to me, led us to take certain hard decisions during our fieldwork in Gujarat.

It was on our very first day at Bedwa, Anand that we interviewed members of a Darbar household. There were around fifteen people swarming the two rickety houses, all of whom seemed to be busy going about their daily chores. In the midst of this, there was one woman around our age draped in a torn saree, breast-feeding her infant child; who took notice of our presence and beckoned us to come in. As we began explaining to her our project, we managed to gather the attention of the rest but no one except who seemed to be the lady’s husband bothered to give us an ear. Although we spoke in Gujarati, the young woman was finding it hard to understand. But she was wanting to know more and was willing to understand and even seemed willing to talk. So we continued, trying to simplify what we had to say, but in vain. This went on for the next five minutes or so when all of a sudden her husband lost his cool and told us to leave saying that she was after all an illiterate woman who would never understand anything. And so our “interview” ended in five minutes but before we headed to the next household, we were puzzled by whether we should even count this as an interview–as something that would formally add to our study; or would it just count as a failed attempt to elicit a response, or at the least would it just end up as an anecdote that we carried from the field to our classrooms? This had been the question before us. After all, we had gained nothing directly from the woman on what she felt about the ‘State’ or what her idea of it was. But on second thoughts, the whole situation, as it unfolded, had driven us to think about the agency of women in rural areas, their right to speak up in their own homes and how even such a non-response could contribute to building an idea of the State. We discussed whether we were over-theorizing events, that is, interpreting or seeing every small incident through the lens of some concept or the other we learned in class? Whether it was right or not right to do so? Finally, it was agreed upon that though this was not an interview in the conventional sense of the term, though it was not successful in eliciting any direct response, the series of actions that led to this had helped us learn through observations and therefore we could draw inferences from the same.

We were faced with another situation the next day when we visited the house of a Luhar couple. They were the only Luhars in Bedwa and were the most marginalized, living in what seemed like a ‘house’ created out of two decaying walls. They were living in abject poverty and it felt awkward talking to them since every question was answered by the lady, crying with folded hands, pointing at the condition of her ‘house’. It was clear to us that to them the State was both the cause of their deplorable conditions and also the only entity that could lift them out of it. We had been noticing a pattern: the more marginalized communities we interviewed, the more distanced they would think they are from the State and yet the more hope they would have from the State. After the interview we felt a little uncomfortable since one of the risks of interviewing the most marginalized communities was that they would have expectations from us as well. This was not a problem per se but it led us to question a lot of things. How ethical is it for us to be ‘studying’ the poverty of another (even if it is for a ‘long-term’ benefit)? How do we as researchers make the interviewees feel comfortable, without making them feel as though they are mere subjects of a study? What should be our way of approaching those at the margins, those barely making ends meet, to ask them about what they think or feel about the State? Whether it is right for us to expect the socially  and economically marginalized to even have the time and energy to consider thinking about the State? Even with an influx of such doubts, we decided to interview the Luhars and decided to speak to them as honestly as we could.   At that point, it felt right to understand their views as well, just like we interviewed people from other well off castes too without treating them any differently.

One of the toughest decisions for us to make was deciding how many interviews to conduct for our study that is when do we know when to stop? And how do we know that? Should we target quantity in terms of more number of interviews, or, should we focus on quality that is take a few in-depth interviews? More importantly, being on the field can be mentally and physically exhausting especially when one has to travel 100 kilometres back and forth daily. While we were enjoying this travel, it was also important to come up with a way to not let this exhaustion affect our interviews. Asking similar questions, following a similar flow, with ten-fifteen people per day can be monotonous and tiring. Therefore, when we felt satisfied with the responses we were getting and felt we could use them to build an argument, we decided to stop and move on to the next village. I remember telephoning our field supervisor, Siddharth Sir, from Jatawada (Kutch) one day and getting some good advice: “You should be confident enough to be able to justify what you are doing. Judge accordingly. There will always be regret about having missed out on a few interviews, but if you feel you should move on, do so.”

Through pieces of advice such as this and our own learning by trial-and-error, fieldwork in Gujarat has definitely equipped us with ways of facing and ‘fielding’ challenges in the future as well.

[1] Professor Atreyee Majumder at the panel discussion held during the Law and Policy Hub Clinic Exhibitions, 2016-17.

[2] From the poem Daffodils by William Wordsworth.


A Luxurious Ride to a Place Unknown….

Today’s morning had started in Bhuj. Bhuj hadn’t changed much since I had last visited it 15-16 years ago, as a kid. The bus stop was still recognisable and the late night back then and early morning now was pretty much the same. We had come here by travelling in a private ‘luxury’ bus. We had planned to do the first visit to the village (that we intended to study) on the same day. The closest town to that village, Rapar was about 2 hours from Bhuj. Due to change in plans, we had to go to Rapar by bus.

We bought the tickets for a private ‘luxury’ bus to Rapar and waited for the bus. Reaching there, we realised the bus was standing right there but it was nowhere close to a luxury bus. I looked at my ticket and the absence of a seat number made me wonder how I would locate my seat. It was then I realized that people are rushing into the bus and settling in. I was surprised to see people willingly subject themselves to the heat inside a stationary bus. To quench my curiosity I stepped inside and saw handerchiefs and ‘potlis’ spewed all over the empty seats. Unaware of the logic I sat on a seat where someone had left his ‘gamcha’. This is when I heard someone howl at me for occupying their seat. The logic now dawned upon me: The handkerchiefs, ‘potlis’, ‘gamchas’ were to reserve seats. I realised that its not easy to communicate and manage things even if you know the language. Clearly, I was an outsider who didn’t know how the buses work there and that led to discomfort for a few passengers. When the bus got full, the journey started but this bus would stop in every village/town that came on way and people would keep climbing in the bus. The bus that had a capacity of around 20 people had at least 45 passengers travelling. A few ladies understood that we didn’t understand what’s going on and she asked us where we wanted to get down. We told her the place and she said she’d let us know when it is about to come. And suddenly she asked us about our castes and regions. I had a notion that it is very difficult to ask someone about his or her caste but here she asked us very casually. After travelling for almost 4 hours, we reached the place and someone from the organisation (Gram Swaraj Sangh) had come to pick us up. This was the first experience we had about the ‘luxury’ bus there and it had made us question the concept of ‘luxury’. Coming from urban areas, this notion was very different for us before this incident.

Later when we started interviewing people in the village, we were told stories about this luxury bus and state-run bus. Few years back, the state-run buses were more, its frequency was better than what it was now. Now, there were only 2 buses in the day between the village and Rapar (the closest town), one in the morning and one in the evening. If you miss that, then you have to take ‘luxury’ bus, which was more frequent than the state-run bus. These luxury buses were similar to the one we had taken to come to Rapar. Then you have to get off on the main road and take a jeep to reach the village, which was obviously more difficult than to travel by the state-run bus, which would directly drop you at the village. Moreover, the tickets for private luxury bus were much more expensive than the state-run bus. In the recent times, the luxury buses have become more popular among the villagers because they are more frequent than the state-run buses. But people also said that the frequency of state-run buses have decreased because people have started depending on the private luxury buses. Because of the entry of ‘luxury’ buses, the state-run buses have taken a back seat and the services have deteriorated.

Isn’t it weird that people started preferring ‘luxury’ buses over ‘state-run’ buses even though the state-run buses were much more comfortable comparatively? And because of this, the state actually had to cut down on the frequency. What was it that attracted the villagers to ‘luxury’ buses? Generally, cities and towns have more number of private vehicles and dependency on private vehicles/modes of transport is more as compared to the villages. Usually the state-run buses fall under public transport. But is it okay to call state-run buses a public mode of transport when people (public) are heavily relying on private modes of transport? Was it the idea of ‘privatisation’ that made them feel modern or city-like or was it something else? Is the presence of the ‘State’ becoming more and more invisible from our daily lives?