Understanding Women’s Issues as an Outsider in a Multicultural Landscape

“The first thing you all need to realize is that feminism is a privilege.”

When Udita first uttered these words to my student team in our initial meeting at a large table on the patio of our apartment back in January, the words shocked me. At first, I didn’t know how to respond. Of course, Udita knew what she was talking about, this was her entire area of expertise, but I struggled to conceptualize this. Is feminism a privilege?

This conversation became the first of many where I truly began to understand the beautiful & messy complexity of women’s issues in a developing, multicultural country. Over the course of the next few months, I came to realize that feminism, as I knew it coming from a Western-Anglophone country, truly was a privilege. Understanding women’s issues meant understanding women right where they were. This lesson, so deceptively simple, has changed the way I think about so many social problems, including and beyond women’s issues.

Meeting Umeed

I arrived in Hyderabad in January 2020 to spend the semester studying with my university, Minerva Schools at KGI. Through the school’s partnerships, I applied to spend the semester working alongside Umeed. As I learned later, being welcomed to their team changed the course of my whole semester for the better.

Our work with Umeed focused on exploring a local community and developing insights on how Umeed’s programs would best fit the needs of these particular women. In a true representation of India’s beautiful complexity, even this small community in Hyderabad had a mosaic of different subcultures. The women came from different educational backgrounds, held different religious beliefs, and spoke different languages.

In full honesty, the reality of this complexity made me nervous. Would our team be able to understand the needs of these women? Would the women trust us? Would we be able to aid, even slightly, in Umeed’s efforts? Or is our presence as non-locals only intrusive?

Challenges in Meeting the Community

On our first visit to the community, we went with Gauri and Udita to meet our hosts, the local government connections that were introducing us to the community. Piling four of us in the backseat of a small car, we arrived at our first stop, the local elementary school. We shared about Umeed and that we (the team of us four students) would come back to survey and talk with the local women. Piling back in the car and driving to a second stop, a local madrasa, we gave the same introduction but this time translated into Urdu instead of Telugu.

Over the next month or so, we returned to the madrasa a few times. In the process of understanding the women of this community, I encountered quite a few challenges. Linguistic differences posed a formidable problem. I spoke no Urdu, only some of them spoke English. We wanted to create a space where the women felt comfortable sharing about their life with us —the good, bad, and otherwise— yet we were outsiders. As a team, we talked about this constantly. The challenge of making sure to respect while still learning to understand the cultural upbringing, religious dynamics, and individual variations in the women we met.

Coming to Understand the Community

Our response to these challenges? Ask more questions in gentleness, humility, and an honest desire to learn. Listened to the answers, both what is said and what is not said. Write notes to remember. And visit again. Visit as many times as needed, then more.

The more times I visited the madrasa, the more often I saw the lovely faces of the women there. Simply being a repeated presence in the place brought a deeper trust between us all. With time, they felt more comfortable sharing stories with us, talking to us about life, and letting us glimpse a part of their world.

When I went to the madrasa, I went with a survey to collect responses from women. Yes, this pre-formatted survey did help me gather information about the women in the community, but I learned so much more in the moments that I wasn’t recording data.

Understanding came in the small moments. Like when we joked about our different haircuts —my teammate having her hair cut super short while the women all having their hair grown out long. Or when we smiled while washing up before lunch. Or the lunches that I felt so honored to be welcomed at, delicious biryani and dal spread out and graciously shared with us. Or when our translators taught us Urdu phrases, and we began using them (even if we had poor pronunciation).

In these small moments, I learned about the places the women went shopping. How they spent their time outside of madrasa classes; their favorite meals to eat and to cook. The skills their mothers had taught them or were beginning to teach them, like stitching or mehndi. Which women regularly used mobile phones or even social media and which did not. Who had brothers, sisters, or no siblings at all. Where the women thought their lives would be like (or what they did not think their lives could include).

After our last visit to the madrasa, I remember walking out with a few tears in my eyes. I don’t know if they thought much about our surveys and our visits, but I thought —and still think— so much about them. About the infinitely graceful way, each woman carried herself. About the gentle strength in their eyes, their stories, and their action. About the social structures that sought to constrain the power of strong women. About the messy, emotional, difficult, and complex issues that these women faced. 

But mostly, I think about the spark of hope and the push for change, the unignorable traces of self-empowerment that I saw in their eyes.

Learning from the Women

Since my last visit to the community of lovely women in the madrasa, the world has changed. COVID has shut down everything from economies to businesses to countries to individual plans. The effects have shaken so many communities and exacerbated social issues, particularly among formerly vulnerable populations.

Understanding people’s issues —socially, personally, politically, or otherwise— means understanding people right where they are at this moment. This piece of hope from Umeed and from the women who have touched my life will stay with me for a long time to come.

Written by Aspen Pflughoeft

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