By Melissa Dinnel
A few months ago I received a unique opportunity from the company I work for; I would travel to India to help aid in a special project using the money the company raised each year for its micro-credit clients. I initially expected to come back with stories of injustice, infanticide, degradation, manipulation, hate, and humiliation. True, but I have other stories to share as well.
The empathy and amazing relationships between women in a country where they live second to all men in their lives, made me understand the deep-seeded bonds that exist for protection, friendship, and support. I also felt how special it is to be allowed into the women’s circle. I was humbled to be invited and proud to be a woman, so that I could also be part of this sisterhood.
My experience would start before I even left America. Flying out of Newark to Delhi, I was seated next to an Indian woman going home to attend a wedding, a very big deal for all Indian families (she was flying across the world to a second niece’s ceremony). She was immediately open and incredibly candid — I knew that she was nervous because she wasn’t planning on dressing traditionally, negating the need to bring her sari.
Her husband had brought her to San Francisco 30 years ago after their arranged marriage when she was 18 years old. They moved his brother and his new wife to San Francisco because the more women in the household the better, in almost any Indian family. She had been a professional celloist in India; in America she worked in a customer service position, and never picked up a cello again.
I was taken aback by how much I learned about this woman, so quickly and with such ease. It turns out that most women in India are like this — funny, concerned, open, and willing to reach out to another person, especially if she is female. In a country where women aren’t allowed to approach men, these brief moments to share pieces of themselves become so important, and it is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
Once I was on Indian soil, the absolute chaos of the situation I was imagining became a reality; a swirling world that I hadn’t known existed. One of the main objectives of our 19 day trip, where I met 13 strangers (12 women, 1 man), was to aid a family in digging a 10’ x 10’ hole in the desert sand, so that the women in the family would not have to spend 8-16 hours a day acquiring water. It would be the foundation for a water tank called a “taanka” that would collect rainwater on the family’s property and give the women a much-needed break (well, sort of…).
Speaking with women who already had their own taankas I learned that most used the extra time to sleep, but many missed walking to the water source with their fellow sisters, and gossiping. Indian women love to gossip — they are catty, funny, and always giggling about a secret.
The family that my group helped was comprised of two daughters-in-law, a mother-in-law and the children; the men were all working in another state to send money home while the women took care of the household, crops, water needs, and the children. Having so many women in the house to help is the method of survival for the desert families of Baap (where I was volunteering), because it is their duty to care for each other. Another sister was staying with them then because she had just given birth, so all family members would help her care for her child until he was older.
This support was astounding to me – both because I am an American and I haven’t been around this kind of “sisterhood” in the states, and because I haven’t lived close to my family for years. Most women in these communities have been married since they were 12-16 years old, have a vague concept of how old they are, and have never traveled more than 10 miles from their home village. The women seemed mostly happy living in their households, and working together. Not all families were like this one, but it was a positive example of the unity created in shared sisterhood.
There is also a façade within this kind of sisterhood, however, one that conceals that other women in their group live in total obedience, and ultimately, solitude. We had a one-on-one meeting with a woman who had received a taanka. We thought this would be a conversation revolving around her new free time, and how the taanka had improved her life. The other women in the household talked over her, to the point that we had to ask them to leave.
She shared with us, and especially connected with me. No one had ever asked her how she was feeling, ever, and we were listening, sitting next to her and helping her make tea. She started to cry, her family had lost the cow, and she was borrowing milk from her sister, making her feel like a failure.
Her brother had also recently died, and she felt pain not only about his death, but also because of her failure to provide her sister-in-law with a husband who was alive. Her deeply felt self-disappointment echoed in the small kitchen as she made chai over a stove of small twigs lit with fire.
Her story of sisterhood was one of abandonment and isolation. She had been having spells of falling, and injuring herself, and her family no longer trusted her to do the basic duties without supervision. She was contemplating suicide to stop being a burden on her relatives. She spoke about stress, and asked me directly how I dealt with anxiety.
I racked my brain for a viable option to relieve her burden, but I was stuck; I read, I journal, I watch a television show that I enjoy, all things that were impossible for her to do. I told her to take a deep breath, find a place to be alone for five minutes, and to think about how wonderful it was to be alive; to not think about the future and the past, but to remain appreciative in the present.
She thanked us for asking her about her feelings, and told us that her own mother-in-law had never asked her. When discarded from the sisterhood, being an outsider is a painful existence. But we had become sisters, in a way, inside of a half an hour.
The micro-credit lending program at my work, in and of itself, supports the efficiency of a village of women working together towards a common goal. In this case, it was building taankas. The lending meetings were confidence building for me, and the women spent most of them laughing, and gossiping, as per usual. Together they will band together to pay off loans, and the connection created when you are paying off a debt as a group is solid.
At the meeting, I asked a question to the group of women, “Does anyone ever get upset with a woman who has not paid off her debt and the group must pay it for her?” They all laughed and immediately said “no,” it rarely happens, and they are happy to help their sisters. Thinking about the American culture I know, that pits women against each other and creates competition in girls at an early age, it was nice to see that those women are not natural enemies or posing “frenemies.” They can hope for each other’s success, and even use their sisterhood to invest in commerce and businesses.
By the end of my trip, I had extended the breadth of my global sisterhood, and learned that I can be an American woman who celebrates our shared sisterhood by always helping and supporting the growth of the women around me. We can accomplish more together than we can by tearing each other down. It was inspirational, but also humbling as I realized I have not actively been a part of the solution before going on this trip.
I realized that I need my extended female community, and count on their support. And now I want to support my ladies more. We are in this together, in this incredible journey as women, no matter where our lives might take us.
Melissa Dinnel has a degree in Women’s Studies and English from the University of Nebraska as well as a MBA. She currently resides in Carbondale, CO, is slowly acclimating to mountain life, and loving her job at Whole Foods Market.