Picture me this: an office, full of intelligent women clicking away at computers, analyzing data, authoring reports, planning community education, training a fleet of maternal and child health warriors to sail into communities and make a tangible difference. Women in three different clinics in Mumbai slums spearhead nutritional counseling, pregnancy clubs, cooking courses, breastfeeding instruction, and mother-child bonding classes for local women. For my internship, I’m working with the Foundation for Mother and Child Health and the scene is just this. FMCH women are empowered, wise, strong, dedicated, and passionate. They are tabulating statistical analyses in the office and changing lives in clinic. FMCH is incredibly holistic and their dedication shines through everything they do; in an oral health camp last Friday, my coworker and I brushed our teeth 39 times each, because explaining proper tooth-brushing technique is not enough—you have to show people.
Day-to-day, I analyze community data and write assessment reports that FMCH will distribute internally and externally to their donors. One of the most rewarding things I’ve been able to do is observe the three local community clinics and their partner-organization about an hour and a half northeast of the city. Talking with community organizers all over Mumbai has really impressed on me how culturally diverse the city is and how creative FMCH has been in adapting to meet unique local needs.
I was talking with a coworker earlier this week and she began to tell me about an atypical family. The conversation really shook me. In the vast majority of cases, mothers bring their children to clinic. If mothers are unavailable, the mothers-in-law bring the children. The fathers very, very rarely attend. But, this case was different. My coworker explained that the father had afternoons off work and he would bring the children in during that time. Interested, I asked why. I mentally primed myself for an example of flipped traditional gender roles, expecting her to say that the mother was working a job outside the home, had uncontrollable hours, or was caught up with busy afternoons.
“This mother was different,” my coworker began, “She was not as interested as other mothers about the health of the children, so the father was actively involved in the health of the children. Actually, the problem was, they had multiple children, 4 to 5 … so she was also depressed of the fact that she had all girls. So she wanted a boy child and she had all girls. So then she was not very happy giving proper care to all these girls.” She went on to describe verbal abuse from family and neighbors, shaming the mother for having only daughters.
It felt like lead had been poured down my throat— fiery, boiling, and dense enough to burn everything in its path to a thick, tar-like sap. The sludge hardened into an uncomfortable and twisted rock in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know how to respond. I still don’t know how to respond. I sit in an office full of empowered and successful Indian women every day; how can both of these extremes exist in the same space? I could not – and still struggle to – reconcile the contrast. Granted, this is a unique case. It is not the norm. But, she acknowledged it so casually, moved on so quickly. It is rare, but it isn’t the only case, and it was mentioned almost in passing. I’ve struggled to make sense of this disparity and explain to myself why this conversation continues to be so piercingly difficult for me to digest.
And then it hit me. In in a parallel universe, I am one of those little girls. I’m the third of five daughters. In picturing this family – these real little girls, these real parents, these real, living, breathing people – I can’t help but see my parents, my sisters, myself. I hear my dad chanting “girl power” into our ears before we could speak English and I hear my mom chanting “girl power” across the finish line of her 9th full marathon. I think of my childhood and how the five-year-old version of myself never gave gender a second thought. I think of my sisters today, expected to achieve, independent of gender. And my heart aches. Because the root difference between my experience as one of five daughters and that of these little girls is an attitude, a mantra, a value. “Girl power.” My heart aches because these little girls are barely being given a chance at nutrition.
There’s a concept in anthropology called ethnocentrism. It’s the assessment of another culture based on the standards and moral framework of one’s own culture. In its most basic form, it is thinking your culture is superior to another’s culture. As an anthropology major, I so value the validity and importance of different beliefs and practices and have a genuine appreciation for differing frameworks that construct others’ lives.
But, what is culture and what is injustice? How does culture relate to morality? Is it ethnocentric of me to feel that this blatant gender discrimination is not cultural – that it’s inhumane, completely and utterly wrong? Where is the line between respecting another belief system and recognizing something as immoral? What happens when that line is crossed or blurred? Is there an obligation to take a step back, and if so, who has the power and the duty to initiate that step? What is my place in this hierarchy, as a single and fiercely independent woman by herself on the opposite side of the world from her home, completely immersed in another culture?
At times, it feels like I’m inhabiting a different space, delicately layered with surgical precision atop this other world which I can’t fully comprehend. I share physical space with my coworkers. We share delicious chapatti and genuine belly laughs. Together, we work towards the common and meaningful goal of bettering nutrition and health for Mumbai’s women and children. I am genuinely and deeply touched by the strong and empowered women I’ve met at FMCH, but simultaneously shaken by quotes and moments like these.
These stark contrasts and confusing contradictions leave me wondering – what is my place here? People are shocked that I’m unmarried, that I don’t live with my parents, that I’m here by myself, even that I cook and pack my own lunch. People are shocked when I say I went to the movies by myself, did yoga alone, explored Mumbai or travelled by myself. What does it mean for me to be here, integrated and adjusted, but simultaneously, a complete anomaly?
India, it seems, “is” and “is not” simultaneously. It is itself and it is its opposite. It’s mysterious, it’s elusive, it’s just as much an experience or a feeling as a place. India escapes words and words escape me.