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.

Aparna

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