By Laura McGuire
Since arriving in Pandarmati, both in work and in play, we’ve all been intrigued and inspired by the stories of the women we’ve met. From the tales of previous premarital years and lives in Bhopal to Satna to wishes for their future, the women of Pandarmati have continually been a source of joy for us. However, this female force could be mistakenly overlooked by the casual visitor and we couldn’t help but ask ourselves why were most of our exchanges with these people in the cover of kitchens and wrap of walls? Although there is a continual ‘gaggle’ of young boys and girls throughout the village, the visibility of women noticeably decreases with age. Whilst social hubs for the young and older men of the village were on our radar (may we recommend the Dana-way shop for a sip of Limca and a game of chequers!), we failed to see equivalents welcoming to women too.
So, we made it our task to provide such a space, if only for one night. Logan, our logistical get-stuff-done-r (the technical vocabulary!) of team P, with help of his brick phone and knack for sweet talking managed to secure the primary school as a venue, and with our physical area secured we began to think of how we could develop the safe, fun and welcoming atmosphere in mind. A brainstorm or two later and we decided upon a few key aspects…
Recreational activities, relaxation and beauty were to be coordinated by Tilly, myself, Elfine and Annemarie, with a motivation to emphasise the importance and value of fun, self care and giving oneself ‘time off’. We are all susceptible to forgetting these things on occasion, with a particular prevalence for this amongst these women for various reasons. So, added to the market list was mendhi cones, hand massage oil, cosmetics and craft supplies.
Added too to this list were varying global foods for a cross cultural stall, as well as a world map, string and a reminder to badger Synergy Sansthan for a projector for a slideshow of photographs of lifestyles from around the world. We felt this important as through sharing different aspects of our cultures, we could created a shared understanding – with a cheeky tap into the natural bond laughter creates as the attendees giggled at our pictures from our home! Finishing off this theme was a timeline of inspirational women, from around the world, throughout history – I can safely say I’d get behind almost any event if it could boast having this on the wall!
And finally, a stall for problem sharing and solving, credit to Annemarie, with the option for women to write their issues on the wall, and other to add bindis to the problems in agreement, hopefully reinforcing the bonds between them, and emphasising the fact they are not alone in these problems.
So, this was the theory, the blueprints, the master-plan. In practice? It’s with happiness we can admit this night did not quite go to plan! In a somewhat organised chaos, the incredible turnout of around one hundred took the night into their own hands, and we took our roles as background facilitators contently. Anita, a member of the SMC and drum playing extraordinaire (I promise this flattery is not just due to the fact she brought us a tray of delicious ‘dhokla’ to end the night in reward) took the role of scribe for the women’s problems, a slow burner at first, but with encouragement from Astha, our programme coordinator, confidence and participation grew.
Whilst the craft became appropriated a little by the younger girls – we’ll forgive them on this occasion – the mendhi was a key player in the relaxation and fun with the older women (though I must admit being asked to to mendhi for an Indian women as an English one was not the most relaxing experiences!). As the mendhi cone lost:present ratio grew the number of little groupings sat around, talking, laughing and painting nails did too.
Synergy delivered and the projector too was a focal point of the night, with the slideshow of photographs helping demonstrate the diversity ‘out there’. Recurrently, in conversations with villagers it became apparent the little gaps in knowledge here, with the question ‘who makes the roti’s in your house?’ being frequent, with the answers of ‘my mum’, ‘my brother’, and ‘we don’t eat roti’s in England!’ a playful example. Although in the roti case this isn’t particularly consequential, we felt that the reinforcing that different choices are out there to be made could help project the idea that the women can make varied choices, and take different roles, in their own lives, should they wish.
As the night rolled on, a crowd of men and boys began to grow in and around the primary school, bringing to the forefront a question that may resonate with some readers – in an event for gender equality, why was it that we requested there were no males in attendance? Whilst different volunteers may have different answers here, I think a few key points could be agreed upon. In facilitating a space for women, this gave them access to a privilege the men already had, aiming to make this not a privilege any longer, but a given to all. Secondly, though looking long term this would be otherwise, the often shy women may have been able to fully open up and relax in a mixed gender event. Finally, by being seen to devote time, energy and resources to women, this hopefully had the effect of reinforcing the value of these people, and the value of femininity, indirectly beneficial to all of us, men included, as it gives status to our feminine qualities, likes and desires.
Although confidence, happiness and collaboration are all strong contenders for a one word summary of the event, ‘ownership’ can be crowned for the best success of the night. Although the materials of projectors, speakers and cosmetic goods all played their part in the making of the night, it is the way that the women of Pandarmati made the night their own that made it truly memorable and beneficial to the community, proving the power of the female force, and the potential of people when given opportunities to make good. And so the night had to end, despite a sneaking suspicion that Anita and her friends would’ve played drums and sang songs into the early hours..
P.S. Picture credit goes to ten year old Shushma, temporary camera thief a budding photographer if ever we saw one!