A Visual Throw Back

By Mia Windisch-Graetz

It’s been a week now since our arrival in Paris and apart from that little sun burn on the nose and a bunch of insider jokes, especially one thing remains: memories. Memories from a life-changing experience in India we will be telling our children about one day. No matter if they are in our mind or on the SD card of our reflex camera: we will keep them forever.

The slideshow below features some pictures I took during this amazing journey. Tip: You can also listen to some Bollywood classics to get even more into the Indian mood while watching.

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Same same but different but still same. Or would you rather call it different different but same but still different? Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the visual throw back to a world different but ‘same enough’ to call it our own.

Nandri et bisou

An Afternoon at Auroville’s Fisherman’s Beach

Participant Observer Report


On December 20th my friend Claire Clark and I decided to go to the beach to get some sun and relax in the water. After all, it had been a pretty cold year in Paris. Our experience was fascinating and ever since that day I have been thinking to go back and do my participant observer report on that place. And so, today Sunday January 17th, I find myself at Auroville’s fisherman’s public beach about to begin my observation report.

January 17, 2016 1:40PM – 4:30PM

It is a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon. As soon as I park my moped, I find myself walking through the same beach entrance. I can see a big family coming out of their car heading to the beach just a few steps behind me. The coconut water man I saw only a month ago, is still sitting in the same place probably smoking the same type of cigar telling me exact same thing: Coconut water to refresh! The last time I was there I told him I would get one on my way out, and didn’t. I guess in a way I felt a little guilty so this time I happily accepted the refreshment for only 40 rupees. He smiled back at me with only a few teeth in his mouth. It was in that moment I decided to leave some change for him. He loudly said: Nandri, which means thank you in Tamil.

As I’m walking through the beach with my coconut in my right hand and my sandals on my left hand, I find the beach much less crowded than the last time I was there. I couldn’t help but wonder if Pongal Festival had anything to do with it. I carefully take out my big elephant blue blanket to lay and start observing the interactions in the beach. In less than 5 minutes, I have three teenager boys coming close to me to ask me the most important question of all: Can we take a selfie?

Once again, these teenagers made me feel like a celebrity; but celebrity for what exactly? Two of them ask if they can sit next to me in my blanket and I nod with my head to give them the OK. I now find myself around two boys eagerly wanted to take a picture with me. They start yelling to his friend to take a few, not just one selfie.

After a 5-minute photo-shoot they asked for my name. I replied: My name is Daniela. What about yours? I saw the window of opportunity to ask these boys why a picture with me was so fascinating. It was the second time I found myself to be quite the attraction at the beach and was wondering why. The boys start laughing amongst themselves, until one of them finally tells me that it is to show their friends. Very politely, I smiled and said I would like to lie down. They respectfully left. Here is where my observation truly began:

These three boys were wearing their swimsuits and the smiles in their faces. They must have been around 14 to 16 years old. I couldn’t help but to observe them having probably one of their best afternoons. They enjoyed themselves with just their company and nature, riding the waves and floating in the ocean like time wasn’t passing by. It reminded me of my childhood… and I immediately felt blessed for having a childhood where no technology interrupted my time with nature or distracted me from truly being a kid.

Looking to my left I can see a family approaching towards me. One male, two adult women and four kids; two boys and two little girls. The women were wearing long and colorful saris; one really caught my attention because it was turquoise and blue, two of my favorite colors. The other sari was a beautiful dark pink with yellow embroidery. The adult male asked me if I could take a picture with their children, I quickly replied: absolutely. The little kids are timid and don’t know how to approach me, so I grab the little girl’s right hand and asked her to sit next to me. The three others follow her younger sister. A lot of laughing takes place and more people start getting closer to us to witness who this “celebrity ” is. I must confess these thoughts also came to my mind. As we are sitting smiling to the camera, three older men start getting closer to us and take their phones out to start taking pictures of us. I will not deny that the whole spotlight made me a little uncomfortable after all this attention.

As the family waves goodbye to me, the three teenage boys come back running to my spot to ask me if I’m being disturbed by anyone. I was happily surprised by their concern and replied to them: No, nothing to worry! Nandri.

As they walked away, one adult male I had previously seen while parking my moped started walking towards me. I was a little hesitant I would have to once again take pictures with strangers, however I was happily surprised by our conversation.

– “Hey” he said…

“I hope you don’t take this whole attention in a bad way, all they really want is a picture with a white person. You know, skin color matters here, and you are white and nice. We want to welcome you to our country”.

(I must confess my heart dropped for a second when I heard how skin color is still such an important issue nowadays)

It is not a problem at all, I replied with a smile.

If you would like to get into the water, my family and I would be happy to watch over your things, he said.

Oh thank you Sir, I replied. Not necessary. I’m planning on staying for just a bit longer to observe people’s interaction with their family and friends.

Do you like the beach? He asked.

I do. Thank you sir for offering help to watch over my stuff. Very nice of you. Enjoy your time with your family, I replied.

Not a problem dear, we will be here if you need us, he replied and headed back to his family.

I laid for another hour or so; most of the time pretending to be asleep with my sunglasses on, that way photo-shoots requests would not happen. I was fascinated by the fact that all the teenager boys at that beach didn’t have any cigarettes, alcohol or cellphones with them. They were simply enjoying life. Laughing, running, swimming and playing with each other.

As I started collecting my bags, one couple came to me asking for one last picture. I accepted with a smile. I couldn’t help but wonder what the older man had mentioned to me about skin color and kindness just one hour ago. As a walked out of the beach, I had a lot of thoughts in my mind… I saw the friendly coconut waterman once again smoking his cigar and thought, what a better way to end my day with another refreshing coconut. This time, the coconut was a treat from the toothless old man.


Although the fisherman’s beach is probably not the most beautiful and private beach in Auroville, I strategically chose it for one reason. In this beach there are no tourists. There are no kayaks, no floaties, no paddle boards and no water bicycles. In this beach you get to see the real India. Men are the lords of the beach. They are barely any women present, and the few women that are there, are covered from head to toe and always accompanied by their families.

It is because of this reason I found the interaction to be incredibly interesting with the people I met today. Today I became the beach’s attraction because of my skin color and because of my gender. Today, I was a celebrity for about 2 hours and I absolutely hated it. Don’t get me wrong, it felt incredible to be able to get smiles and even some laughs from the people I met today, but not because of how I look. At the beginning we might find it cute and adorable, but the main issue still remains there… Why should skin color and gender be so important that you go from being nobody to suddenly becoming a big sensation for not apparent reason? At the end we are all the same: Male, Female, Black, White, Indian, or Hispanic.

The words the older man shared with me today will stay with me forever. Always reminding myself to be kind to others but most importantly, to prove him wrong. Skin color does not matter, at least not to me. If it doesn’t matter to me, why should it matter to them? Definitely something to reflect on…

– Daniela Moreno

‘We just can’t’

Two toilet paper rolls, six dresses, twenty-seven cold showers, no laundry load (hand-wash only), and 1.5 Gigabytes of internet. – All in one month. If you had told me that I would be able to ‘survive‘ this way before I left Paris, I never would have believed you.

Right after our arrival at the Chennai airport we went to a restaurant where we did not only have our first ‘real Indian‘ dinner but were also confronted with a ‘real Indian toilet’ for the first time. As soon as you entered the bathroom, the hygiene standards were not the same as we are used to back in Europe because there was no toilet paper instead you could only find a dirty bucket. Some of us went, while others kept saying ‘I just can’t, and waited until they arrived at the hostel. On the bus, some of us were dying to go to the loo because our bladders were about to explode.

Toilet, bed, toilet, bed. – While everyone was out and about visiting NGOs, I was running back and forth from my room to the toilet. Suddenly, I realized that the toilet paper was all gone, which gave me no other choice but to use my hands and a bucket.  And guess what: it was not too bad.


When we found out that the washing machine broke down at our hostel, I asked myself: am I going to wear the same dirty clothes all week? Consequently, we had no other option than to hand wash our towels, dresses and underwear.


During our stay in Auroville, the most problematic issue was that internet was almost non existent. Thus, we had difficulties communicating with our families, friends abroad, students from our group and the NGOS we were working for.


This month was not about sitting in a classroom and learning about sustainable development from the books. We were actually living, breathing and talking sustainably. The problems we were confronted with lead us to find more sustainable solutions.

A question we could all ask ourselves after this month: how much toilet paper, water and energy did we actually save here?

By asking several students and according to the data I gathered from doing some research I found out that our group saved 38 toilet paper rolls composed of 38,000 sheets of toilet paper, which is equivalent to about 2 miles. Moreover, a standard toilet uses about 3.5 gallons of water per flush, a low-flow toilet uses 1.6 gallons whereas for squatting toilets only 0.21 gallons are needed. With the average person flushing about 8 times a day, (not accounting for the people who had diarrhea) we saved approximately 13 502.16 litres of water in total or the equivalent of a swimming pool.

Considering that none of us used a blow dryer or a washing machine, and as we were mostly cycling around with our bikes, we saved a great amount of renewable energy as well.

What will happen when we get back to Paris? Will we ever able to continue the ‘Aurovillian lifestyle?’ – This month, we made it happen, so the answer isDSC_0186: Yes we can.

by Mia Windisch-Graetz

Why come back to Auroville?

By Lory Martinez

As our time here comes to an end, I think a lot of us are asking ourselves questions about how Auroville has changed us, whether we will translate the environmental consciousness we learned here to our lives din Paris and beyond, but I’d like to add another thought to that…

Will we continue to think about our own self development in the same way?

I’m not talking about Spirituality per se, I do not know enough about  The Mother’s teachings to put forth her philosophies, but there is something  that happens in Auroville that happens in few other places: self – development, a questioning about our role as humans and what we can do to better ourselves in a transforming  world. This role can be anything from documenting bird sounds, to teaching greener waste practices to inspiring healthier eating through permaculture farming and so on.

There are many reasons to come to Auroville, but they all have one thing in common: a development of both the world and the self in one.

In this program we are all at a point in our lives where we wanted to make a change- turn left instead of right and continue our studies to learn more about what we can do as citizens of the world. For those of my peers who wish to go into the field of development,  there is a desire to create change on a global scale, but , at the same time achieve a  kind of self realization: to ultimately do a job that fulfills you, in any way. And we all feel that way.

This is a place where people have the opportunity to discover what they can do to contribute to a community. It is a place  where families have the time to be with their children while still trying to achieve their dreams of more sustainable living. It is a place for self-discovery.

The people I’ve met  here come from a number of different backgrounds, but they all do work they love, that they are passionate about, that makes them feel fulfilled.

And yet, many people come and go from Auroville: Guests and Tourists circulate this intentional community regularly. And even Aurovillians leave .

In fact, I’ve spoken to many Aurovillians who have left for many years only to decide, that Auroville is ultimately where they’d like to live.  Many leave for the same reasons people everywhere leave small towns: wanting to see more of the world, to discover who they are in a different space etc .

But the difference is, the ones who return to Auroville come back for the same  reasons- to find themselves, to discover who they are, whether they have changed for the better over time, whether  they have in fact had that moment of self-realization.  The difference is, Aurovillians who return understand the spirit of Auroville is not just an example for a better world within the sphere of sustainability, but also an example of the best self we can put forward to a world that needs our help.

And that’s why coming back here, whether it’s a year from now or ten years from now, isn’t such a bad idea. And even if we don’t come back, I’d like to think that we carry that spirit of changing ourselves for the better with us even as we fly back to our lives in Paris this evening.

Sari’s and Sandals: A “need” for Development

Sunday January 3rd, 2016 was an unforgettable day, like most days throughout this experience, but on this particular Sunday we weren’t students, we had the opportunity to be true tourist. This was our second excursion outside of Auroville and it was not a trip to be missed, plus for lunch we were given the most amazingly flavourful egg salad sandwich which felt like a reward after the climb. This time around we found ourselves at Gingee Fort, collectively the unspoken goal was to make it to the top of the mountain to capture a bunch of photos which could later be used as Facebook profiles, Instagram post, and a host of other social media contributions. Commencing our climb it was immediately apparent to the group the climb would not be as easy as previously discussed. There was minimal shade and the angle of the rocks and steps were positioned at incredibly steep angle that it appeared unnatural for a climb, but as I looked ahead of me in the direction of the group already attempting the climb, I blurted out “if they can make he climb in sari’s and sandals we can do it in sneakers and sweats”, and I was right. The entire group successfully made the climb. Making the climb down the mountain made me more aware that our group was the only group equipped with sneakers or climbing shoes. Everyone else wore sandals and some were even barefoot. This was truly amazing. This awareness triggered a connection to our greater presence here in India, that of development. Taking a glimpse down at my colourful blue and pink Nike’s, you could assume that I was well prepared for the climb. Nike’s are advertised to make you run faster, go further, climb higher, and transform you into a athletic master, but my masterful shoes failed me, I tripped during my descent. The rubber sole that served the purpose of gripping to the surface did not work and I landed on my bum. The Nike’s were not as masterful, as portrayed and widely accepted to be, but the sandals the ladies in front of us wore did not fail them. IMG_4336.JPG

For me this scenario forces us to evaluate the measurements of development. Are we using the Nike Standard, that advertises it’s shiny more equipped and superior characteristics, or by that of the proven capable sandals that are not so shiny but capable and equipped to make the climb. As we near the end of the trip I believe our presence here is to critically critique the phenomena that emerged in the 1960’s as sustainable development. How does development take into account culture, religion, and society? Is our presence problematic or are we successful in our goals? And how do we decide what success is? There are many questions and at times very few answers. Within in this current moment I am not sure how to receive the idea of development. My current state is evaluating those who are initiating the  development and those who are being “developed”, who’s need is it to develop? IMG_4325.JPG

Azalea Capers

I cannot help my self

It has been argued that one can only recognize the self through the “other”. This is because the “other” confirms what the self is not. This argument is one which is salient when people promote “colour blindness” as a solution when it comes to racial prejudice. Those who are in favour of the understanding of the self through the “other” bash the notion of colour blindness because of the perceived inevitability involved in self identity formation of identifying the other and participating in “othering”.

Some collectivist societies openly recognize that the notion of the self is one that cannot exist independently without the other. There are languages that do not have an equivalent word for “the self.” The pronoun “I” is often the closest word to the self. In South Africa where I am from, the philosophy of ubuntu summarizes how the self cannot endure independently from others.  Ubuntu is the belief that you are who you are because of your interactions with those around you who also contribute to your development.

In India this inability to exclude the self from community is apparent.  All of the NGOs within and beyond Auroville all participate in contributing towards developing India in a sustainable way for future citizens of India and of the world. Auroville’s charter is one that candidly echoes the sentiment of ubuntu and selflessness:

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But, to live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the divine consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

Here, the definition of the self is dependent upon the recognition of constant interaction with the other. In order for Auroville to keep evolving, individuals would need to continue to learn and share from each other.

The NGO that I am working with is called Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG). The organization has self-help group sessions for its members who reside in the local villages. This may seem a little contradictory in some ways right? A self-help group in a community that doesn’t fully recognize the self without considering its community and “others”.

Self-help is a process embedded within psychology. The field of mainstream psychology often promotes the self through wholly focusing on the individual and personal development. How then does personal development resonate within a society that prioritizes the need for the development of the self through others? AVAG has managed to integrate this within its organizational practices.

AVAG self help group health seminar which took place yesterday at the AVAG premises

AVAG self-help group health seminar which took place yesterday at the AVAG premises

AVAG’s self-help groups reflect the NGO’s ability to incorporate the concept of the self in a relevant, contextual manner.  This could also be an indicator of perhaps why the self-help groups have been sustainable. Anbu Sironmani is the Director of AVAG. She argues that AVAG combines the self within its collectivist context by putting emphasis on the fact that individual development is a precursor to the sustainable development of the community. Anbu mentioned that since the self-help groups have started, the suicide rates have dropped significantly within the villages.

AVAG’s model for its members recognizes that multiple factors contribute to the self reaching its highest potential. AVAG’s services include: self-help groups, education, microcredit, community service, social enterprise and community development.

The sustainable development of the community is the utopian ideal for AVAG.  It is the reason behind why I, as a self that is not mutually exclusive from my colleagues, have come to learn from this community. I cannot help my self but be inspired by the work of AVAG and its members.

One of the AVAG self help group members

One of the AVAG self-help group members

















Nolwazi Mjwara





Auroville, India: Building a Conscious & Sustainable Land

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I remember it like it was yesterday.
After extensive research, countless hours of writing essays and sorting out my finances, the time had come to make a decision about Grad-School. It pretty much came down to one distinguishable course none of the other universities could offer than The American University of Paris: a one-month Sustainable Development Practicum in India.

I have always believed that the future of our planet relies on people who understand the importance of nature, our environment, and those who have a true sense of compassion towards others.

As an activist, I believe that in order to make a difference, we need to educate people and educate ourselves. I have always known that knowledge is power; so learning the fundamentals of communications and understanding the development, transformations and challenges on today’s globalization is fundamental to me as a professional and as an individual.

It has been over two weeks since I first arrived to India and I have learned so much already from this wonderful country. Visiting over 28 organizations in Auroville the first ten days was not as easy as I had imagined. Between the jet lag, the extensive days and witnessing so much poverty and misery was physically and emotionally draining.


I have always felt very alone on my journey to a conscious and responsible way of living. In India, I don’t feel this way. The city of Auroville is one of the first conscious communities in the world and I get to live here for one month. Auroville is also known for its high spiritual vibration and the creation of eco-friendly, ethical and sustainable projects. People here truly care about making a better and more sustainable world for themselves and future generations. Their passion is fascinating and contagious.

During my time in India I’ve learned about the astounding variety in virtually every aspect of social life. Diversities of ethnic, linguistic, regional, economic, and religious groups make India a mystical and captivating country. Indian society also has an immense urban-rural differences and gender distinctions, and as a result from this, most of the projects that were presented to us were projects that had been developed in the past 30 years as response to social, environmental and structural issues in Pondicherry and Auroville.

I have always been involved with animal rights organizations, but I must acknowledge that becoming familiar with projects in the areas of education, women empowerment, sustainable and ethical fashion, waste management and sustainable economics was fascinating as well as awe-inspiring.

The perception of life after meeting people less fortunate than us can only make us more humble and appreciative for what we have in life. These people despite their economic situation strive to give back, to truly create change and impact people’s lives in a constructive manner. Getting to know them and work with them to communicate their mission is a real privilege.


– Daniela Moreno

While we complain…

People are picking through the trash for something to eat, their houses are periodically flooded, their children run around naked instead of being able to go to school, hygiene and health are unattainable, and yet they still smile. The true question here is not what we middle- class Westerners can teach these people, but what can we learn from them? While we complain about our meal not coming fast enough at a restaurant, a woman is unable to feed her children that night. The waiter should come ask us; would you like a side order of trash? While we complain about having a cold, there is a man outside lying on the hard ground with a fever. While we complain about not having access to a washing machine, a gypsy family will be wearing the same dirty clothes they have been wearing all year.While we complain about cold showers,the gypsy people have nothing but a hose spewing untreated water. While we complain about our hostel,there are people nearby living in a hut with 2 rooms for 10 people. While we complain about the Internet service, children around us are taught only how to beg in the street for a piece of bread. Will we ever complain again so much, now that we have seen the life of true want first-hand? Will I want to buy the next pretty, cheap dress, now that I know that farmers and factory workers are dying to produce it? We have not been greateful enough for what we have–instead we have been complaining for what we don’t. We cannot globally go backwards to a simpler life where we consume only what we need, but we can retrain our technology to help more people. We need to make it a technology goal to stop damaging the earth with all our trash.

Even if it’s a drop in the bucket, Auroville is trying to find solutions. The people of Auroville are creating NGOs for sustainable Fashion by working with farmers who cultivate organic cotton. Auroville is creating washable pads because plastic takes 800 years to disintegrate. Auroville is creating bags and art out of plastic. Auroville is creating alternative medicine and dental health care and alternative educations.
The people of Auroville are trying to create other ways of eating,consuming and living. Global awareness is the next step.


Chelsea Carter

A Day Amongst the Gypsy Village


There are some things in life that no matter how ready you think you are for them, they still manage to instantaneously knock you off centered. A trip to the gypsy village, smack between the Puducherry airport and the Puducherry dump, became an experience that did just that for me. I am warned by the organization I am working with, Samugam, that it is going to be quite an emotionally draining day, but I naively believe that I have become somewhat numbed to the poverty I have been witnessing every day.

After an approximately 30 minute rickshaw ride weaving our way out of Puducherry, we trace the outskirts of the airport to arrive at the gypsy village. A thin paved road separates the gypsy village from a tribal village to its left. As we hop out the rickshaw and make our way into the village, I immediately come to the realization that I am not “numbed” to the poverty I had been seeing in Chennai and Puducherry, but I had simply not yet been immersed in poverty so unimaginable.

Version 2

I witness things here that you wouldn’t believe were true unless you saw them with your own eyes. An aging man sits upon a mat, plucking out his hairs, weaving them into what appears to be a bowl. Another, stricken with fever, sleeps apart from the village, covered in blankets; he is kept company only by a bird whom cries out in its cage. Elderly women plead for us to purchase their handmade crafts. A grandmother begs for acknowledgement of her grandson’s poor skin condition; his flesh is cracked, dry, and filled with dirt. Young children run around us naked, covered only by a string of beads around their waist. Pigs rummage for food amongst trash deemed inedible by the gypsies. A man and two boys rejoice over their catch of the day – a large bat, which they proceed to skin and cut into for that night’s meal. A woman sits along the path, amongst a horde of stray dogs, eating from a plastic bag containing turtle soup. She is unfazed by the 3 mange-stricken chickens that occasionally manage to grab bites of meat from her spoon before it reaches her mouth. A foul smelling bucket sits atop a cart surrounded by rotting onions. Through questioning its discovered to be the results of the day’s pickings from the trash; already spoiled and covered with flies – waiting to become a few of the families’ supper that evening. Multiple litters of newborn puppies are scattered about the village; we are told they will not last through the week. A dead puppy, covered in flies is sprawled out, unnoticed within a dark, dust covered, and uninhabited home the gypsies refer to as the “devil’s home”. At the end of the village sits a home where we learn of a mother’s fear for her one-month-old daughter who is being threatened by a snake that makes its way into their home at night. As we walk back through the village on our way out, we pass a bird in a cage, surrounded by dead rats. Recognizing our glances, a man nonchalantly goes over and picks them up to be put on display for us. We inquire if the villagers are warned of the diseases these rats carry and if they are cautioned to not eat them? The response comes that these rats are a source of protein and a means to the gypsies’ livelihood.


It pains me as I jump into the back of the rickshaw and pull away from the village back to the comforts of my hostel. How is it still possible that people can be living like this in this day and age? The work that Samugam is doing there is impressive and meaningful, yet the poverty in the village has not been eradicated; it doubtfully ever will be. To think this was only one village… 54 families. What about the thousands of others all across India? Families and communities without a helping hand like Samugam, working to pull them from the darkness.

Is there a way to help bring these people out of poverty? A solution that can be recreated across thousands of villages just like the one I had visited? What can we do? How can we make an impact on this generation that will fuel a change in future ones? The questions still linger with me – answers still to be found.

– Claire Clark –

Gender Sensitization Orientation

I will preface this by saying that this is written in the style of a participant observation. Though it’s not the most invigorating writing style, the content has value. I believe in practicing respect and tolerance for all cultures while searching for understanding, meaning and a connection. Leave your thoughts at the end. I am very curious to hear other points of view.
Gender Sensitization Orientation (Participant Observation)
31 December 2015 2:19 PM- 4:50 PM
-Approximately 30 couples comprised of married men and women and unmarried boys and girls * (description given to me by the organizations employees)
-Event held by Adecom, local NGO that works in ‘women’s rights’ ‘gender equality’ and ‘gender sensitization’ predominantly amongst rural Dalit populations in the Tamil Nadu region
-The Dalit are the suppressed “untouchable” communities in India’s ‘former’ caste system that are still systematically discriminated against.
-The interaction took place in the Tamil language with interspersed comments in variant local languages. One of the male employees served as my translator.

Walking into a gathering of formally dressed young couples with the males wearing button down shirts, dress pants and sandals and the women wearing saris I get curious stares as I walk past them and into the office to meet with my boss. She is sitting at the table between two people I have not met before. I am introduced to a man who I am told is a teacher of gender sensitization, he stands and informs me he has been recognized by the president of India for his work, I politely smile and shake his hand. The woman on the other side I am told is an activist like Lalida, my boss, she simply smiles at me and shakes my hand across the table.
As I walk back outside the chairs are being put back in order and everyone is getting settled mostly male and female partners together intermingled. The man that I was introduced to before sits in front of the gathering and speaks to them in Tamil he asks a question and two males respond a couple minutes later a woman responds, a dialogue starts and everyone laughs. All seem to be avidly paying attention.
My translator tells me he is giving them an example of a 17 year old boy with a 13 year old girl who fell in love and had relations and now the girl is pregnant. He is asking the couples what their view is on the incident. I am told here in India majority is at 18 years of age. According to the marriage act in India a male should be 21 and a female at least 18. The couples are asking what the circumstances are surrounding the situation. According to the Marriage Act the male should be sent to a juvenile home. The “important man” asks the couples what should be done about the girl. He suggests she be sent to school. He tells them the boy will be sent to the juvenile home for 2-3 years and then he will be released and he will be fine. The female will be affected more. One male distractedly looks around.
In another case a school going girl child was pregnant, she was taking an exam, she leaves during the exam births her child, throws it out the window and returns to finish the exam.
He asks how the men will take better care of their wives. They respond we will take better care of them, we will help with the dishes. He asks the women what they expect from their husbands? The females choose not to respond. One of them says she will respond later.
…everyone claps, jokes are being told, people laugh.. occasionally someone glances my way both the males and the females seem curious about my presence.
He asks how the couples got married, one couple responds they fell in love and with the consent of their family they got married. Everyone claps…
He asks the males what are you doing in favor of your wives? The women respond. He asks if there are any males willing to come forward and respond. No one is willing…Lalida speaks..one husband responds “I am doing all the household chores.”
One of the girls states she observed her fathers behavior with her mother and she understood she should be very tolerating in her family. Everyone laughs. She continues stating she is wondering if her husband will be like she is, if he will be tolerating. Her future husband responds he will be tolerating and he will help her. She states when she is having a child she will not show discrimination in a boy or girl.
Another woman speaks up and states that when she is not feeling well her husband will do all the household activities and cook for her.
A man speaks up telling the crowd he is a follower of Ambedkar, my translator explains Ambedkar is an Indian philosopher, he says Ambedkar believes there should be no discrimination between a boy or a girl and we should not hurt our ladies. He states he is doing the same.
A female stands next to the “important man,” he explains she is a worker at Adecom and he asks her to explain how her family is going on, how she fairs in her family and how her husband is helping her? She explains that after coming to Adecom she learned that women have rights, her husband had been beating her but after learning he acts better. Everyone claps. Now he is helping her by cooking and washing the clothes. Everyone claps again. She tells everyone her mother-in-law had also hurt her many times. Women interact with her, ask questions, and make comments. There is some laughing. She says many problems arise from her mother-in-law. A male employee films her speech. Everyone claps. When she is done she sits.
Another female employee stands to speak. She tells about the behavior of her mother-in-law, telling them that she will support her own daughter but not her daughter-in-law. She says her husband is so cooperative with her he helps her in all ways. She addresses the couples and tells them that the husbands should help their wives. Most females clap. Some males clap.
Lalida speaks…a female responds…she is telling it is better when her husband is taking decisions he should tell his wife, ask her opinion… theres clapping
Lalida speaks
My translator tells me he also does not understand all the words he speaks Malayalam he is from Kerala in the south of India. He tells me I can look on a map to find it. He notes I also write down our interaction, I respond its part of what is going on.
The ‘important man’ speaks again, he is telling them our aim is the equality of women with men, for that we assemble here, for that we are speaking. He is telling them to join us in that goal. He is telling them if there is no equality ‘normal society’ will not join.
A male speaks, my translator tells me he is speaking in a fully colloquial language and he does not understand. He listens quietly for a while then tells me the man is telling them we should not go for abortion of girl child, in family the male should help the ladies in household chores, there should be no discrimination between boy or girl.
The ‘important man’ gives another example telling them that at the time of marriage it is customary for the girls mother and father to give her husband a car, it is registered in the husbands name. He is telling them the money is from the brides family and the car should be registered also in the girls name. He continues stating that normally when naming the child we give the initial of the fathers name so there also the mother does not have a role, he tells them that when naming the child they can put the father and the mothers name.
Some suggestions for girls/ladies..
Ladies should respect their husbands
They ask for someone to read the women’s suggestions formulated by the group earlier in the day in a workshop that they did.
A woman stands off to the side and reads off a piece of paper
-When a decision is taken in the family, women should be involved also
-Ladies should not kill the girl child at the time of birth or before birth. They should look after girl child properly
-By telling all this I am not against the husband, with the husband I will fight for the empowerment of women and I will work for that..
^My translator asks what I am studying?
-I respond political science and international affairs
^He asks what I will do with that?
-I respond I will work for an international NGO with human rights or maybe emergency humanitarian response.
^He states that if I am doing international human rights every country has its own rules and regulations.
-I tell him that why I am here in India, to observe and learn how and why people are different.
^He asks me where I am from?
-I tell him I am from the United States
^He tells me everything must better in the United States, that we can do everything just with our phones, as he holds up his own.
-I laugh and tell him it is not necessarily better just different and I agree with him that we can do almost anything with our phones
^He asks where I am studying?
^Where my parents are?
^How long my program is?
^Will I go back to the US when I am done?
-I respond that I am studying in France but my parents are back in the United States. My program will last a little over a year in a half and whether or not I go back to the US will depend on if I can get a job somewhere else or not.
^He silently contemplates this…
^He tells me he has family in the US in Florida and New York
Another male worker comes and sits by him and they speak to each other in Tamil.
^He then turns to me asks me what the official language of the US is?
-I tell him there is no official language, people can speak whatever language they want but English is the common language and most people speak English
^He asks me if I like India
-I tell him I do but it is very different from what I am use to
^He tells me that if I stay in India for a year I will get use to it
Feedback from the couples;
After coming here they also start to think about the empowerment of women and how they can favor their wives.
There is a couple that has had a “law marriage,” Lalida is asking them directly to provide their feedback. They choose not to respond.
I ask what “law marriage’ means and my translator explains Law Marriage means the couple chose to marry by law without their parents opinion or approval. They took their own decision he says. He then tells me an Arranged Marriage means the parents chose and approved.
^He asks me if I know of arranged marriages
-I tell him I do but that it is not something that I practice
^He asks me if I am married?
-I respond I am not
^He asks when I will marry?
-I tell him I don’t know, maybe some day in the future but not any time soon and it is not something that I am actively searching for
^He asks me my age?
-I respond I am 27
He reads my notes and laughs
^He tells me that what he asks me is personal and I do not need to write it down
-I tell him its part of my assignment and is not for anyone to read

Lalida is telling the couples she is a follower of Ambedkar, she is motivating them.
I am conscious of how I am sitting and that the bottoms of my feet may be showing, I shift positions. My legs are starting to fall asleep.

My translator is looking over my shoulder reading what I am writing so I get a bit self-conscious and stop writing.

The conversation continues for a moment, the ‘important man’ speaks the couples come to the front individually and gifts are given to all the couples and a female employee thanks them for coming. Everyone stands and starts saying their goodbyes. They wish everyone a Happy New Year and a Happy Pongal (harvest festival in Tamil Nadu) They stand in groups and take pictures slowly they start to leave 2-3 per motorcycle.

After they are all gone the Adecom employees gather around in a circle, my translator joins them. They speak in Tamil with interspersed English words. They seem to be discussing how the day went, giving feedback or maybe what they’ve learned from the session. The ‘important male’ seems to be the lead speaker at one point one of the female employees seems to be talking to him and his phone rings while she is speaking, he answers his phone and she falls silent quietly waiting for him to finish his conversation. He finishes talking on the phone and addresses the male sitting next to the female who had been previously speaking. Another female speaks and the ‘important man’ interrupts her, she continues to speak and one female claps when she is done. Nandi, a female employee, begins to speak. I understand the words ‘gender sensitivity’ and ‘gender equality’ spoken several times along with the word “couples”. The ‘important man” speaks I understand “communication training” “the invitation” “in the reading” “background material” “reading material” “it’s a learning” “communication activity” Lalida’s husband responds and a discussion ensues, it sound like they’re arguing I hear the words “budget constraint” there is finger pointing and speakinf with hands a little aggressively. The ‘important man’ continues to speak with his hand but he smiles as he speaks. I notice he has a wedding ring. He gets up and everyone claps, he grabs bags with the gifts he was given earlier, speaks to Lalida’s husband and then he leaves. A female follows him out, she sits side saddle on the back of his bike. Lalida speaks, 2 other male employees speak (no rings), another male employee speaks, he has a wedding ring, he speaks firmly. Lalida’s husband’s phone rings and he answers. Lalida begins speaking “new place for learning,” a female speaks and Lalida seems to mouth a silent “thank you.” They seem to continue to give their observations the conversation seems to get more serious/intense. Nandi begins to speak very passionately and ends up excusing herself and leaves visibly upset. My translator says a few words and then Lalida begins to speak more quietly. Nandi returns and joins the circle..

I found the interaction to be incredibly interesting. It is clear to see the very delineated gender roles in the society I was observing. From the moment I walked into the gathering and the ‘self-important male’ dominated the introductions and later the conversation I began to question teaching gender equality and gender sensitization in an environment that is more self aware but still very much male dominated. I wondered if the use of a prominent male speaker was intentional and if the organization felt it was easier to get their message across through him because he would be better received and the couples would be more receptive to his words. I found correlations with previous classes and studies, where I learned that in societies with systematic and internalized suppression of women, the older women will perpetuate the cycle of oppression even when the younger males seems more open to equality within the roles. It is also clear that the discrimination against women is deeply rooted and unconscious to the level that unless they are being directly confronted with examples of what should be done, when and why the gender roles are not even questioned. I quickly realized through my translator’s questions that neither he nor any of the males there would know what to do with a female such as myself; opinionated, independent, stubborn and very strong willed, very rarely submissive and not at all interested in marriage or a male protector/caretaker. I question whether I would be that person if I had been born here or in a different environment. I also found interesting the societal relationship to marriage and the fact that through their own description a woman and a man are married while those who are unmarried are described as girls and boys. I caught myself thinking that they just needed time to be educated and to advance into a more evolved society where the concept of gender equality did not need to be preceded with concepts of what a male should do and what a female should do. As if a man doing the dishes suddenly makes everything equal. I began to think of them as children that needed to be taught better so they could do better. This brought about mixed emotions on my belief that different does not necessarily mean one view is better or one view is wrong. While I did not feel I actively passed judgment the difficulty of silencing ones own biases was very apparent. I thought back to my paper on cultural relativity in human rights and began to question the feasibility of applying concepts of universal human rights to societies that cannot even begin to understand the concepts embodied within the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). In their brochure they refer to the ‘Dalit’ as the backward class, I cringed at the term but momentarily saw a parallel in the way their culture functions to suppress women. I reprimand myself for passing judgement. If a 16 year old girl with a child and a loving and caring husband that values her and treats her as his equal is happy and feels she has a purpose and is contributing to not only her family but her community, who am I to say that she must do otherwise? Should her perception of the world change to include mine simply because I perceive that there is something lacking? Should her world be morphed into something that is unrecognizable to her and potentially makes her miserable so that I can have the satisfaction of saying that women are equal to men and that we have succeeded in ensuring every child has a basic education and everyone’s human rights are being respected? I think on the fact that I must filter the information I am receiving through broken English and a translator who does not fully understand and who is influenced by his own biases, his view of me as an outsider that may or may not judge his culture and his obvious discomfort with me writing down everything he said. I reflect on the parts of the conversation that where not translated to me and am aware that my level of understanding through gestures, tone and expressions may have been simply perceived understanding from interjecting my own views and making assumptions from my own expectations. I believe there are things that translate across cultures… feelings… emotions… basic needs. I am not sure if I should look at the world as evolving and as some peoples more evolved than others or as if there is some end game to which we are all evolving. I feel as if that train of thought presupposes there is a “right way” to be, or a single idea of “right” towards which we should all strive which further complicates my feelings towards a universal human rights declaration. I question everything and feel that I find no answers but only more questions…

Lina Reyes