India, Feminism and Cultural Context

During the past spring semester I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in Jaipur, India through the School for International Training (SIT) partner program of Dickinson. During the last week of March and the first week of April we visited a feminist organization called JagoriGrameen—Jagori meaning “awaken, women!”—at the foothills of the Himalayas near a famous town called Dharamshala, the home of the Dalai Lama.

Jagori Grameen was founded by Abha Bhaiya, who got her start in the Indian feminist movement in the 1970s. She is also the current national coordinator in India for the One Billion Rising campaign. Our group of 6 students had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet with Abha-ji for an hour and talk about feminism, politics, and gender equality in India. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Here I was in the middle of a room at this amazing rural feminist organization with the view of snow-topped Himalayan mountains out the window, discussing feminism with one of India’s most famous activists. Immediately after meeting with her I looked up all the books she’s written and put them as a reminder on my phone to buy when I got back to the U.S. Abha-ji told us about her education in Germany and how that introduced her to more problems outside the walls of India. She was one of the original co-founders of Jagori, which had its beginning in Delhi, India. For years she had been trying to find ways to help rural women of India and spread feminism to different areas in new and unique ways, and so created Jagori Grameen in 1984 in Dharamshala in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Abha-ji’s ultimate goal is to connect women to the land, as they are both traditionally exploited, and also to examine the family institution in India and how that affects Indian women.

Throughout the week at JagoriGrameen we visited many different groups of women in various collectives and groups working to make their communities better places for everyone. On the second day of our excursion we sat in on the meeting of a group of women discussing everyday issues they were facing. There is a water tank in the village where the women can get water for their families, but sometimes it only works for an hour and a half per week. Sometimes it overflows, sometimes the water is only available for two to three hours in the dead of night. If I learned anything in India, it’s that all issues are connected. You can’t talk about women’s rights or feminism in India without talking about solving basic needs first, such as how can they get more access to water, food, and shelter. The women in this group attended every panchayat (governing body in small rural areas) meeting and expressed their issues. Through working with JagoriGrameen for over a year, they began to feel more and more comfortable doing this, as they told us in their own words.

The next day we sat in on a girls’ education program that lasted for the entire day. The facilitators told us that, in the few days the program had already been going on, the girls learned about sex-selective abortion, gender-based discrimination, nutrition, menstruation, sexuality, disabilities, and having the confidence to speak up. Just from sitting with them in the crowd, I could tell each and every girl was engaged in learning more, and the facilitators informed us that they had asked for the workshop to be extended since they loved it so much. There was a lot of singing and dancing and general goofiness in between all the heavy learning, which we were so lucky to be able to participate in. They discussed what the word freedom meant to them, and each girl had a different answer. They even asked us some intriguing questions about gender equality in the United States–how it differs from India but also how the U.S. isn’t a utopia in terms of gender equality either.

Meeting with the girls’ program learning about gender equality

The last day we had the opportunity to sit down and talk with a group of women called the Barefoot Lawyers—women have no formal education in law but nonetheless work as lawyers in their own communities to help solve problems. They start out as field workers and then complete six days of training to become a Barefoot Lawyer. With participants’ consent, we sat in on cases where all different kinds of issues were brought up: one man took issue with his neighbor placing a sewage pipe directly outside his door and not cooperating when he asked her to move it. Another family came in inquiring about divorce because the woman was texting another man. The Barefoot Lawyers tried to come up with solutions for each case, but particularly spent time on cases of domestic violence and land rights. But all types of people in the community came to trust them and so came to them with different kinds of problems. Their positions are inspiring because they are part of the communities they are trying to face and an example of how formal education is not always the answer to problems.

Hearing such personal and empowering stories from all different kinds of women throughout my experience at JagoriGrameen really made me further question all the education I’ve gotten so far about feminism, women’s rights, and social justice. India taught me that feminism isn’t just about legal and political rights, it’s about who has access to water and who has concrete power to make change happen in communities. It’s about the family, and how women’s role in the family ties to her oppression, in ways both similar and different than it does here in the U.S. It’s about agriculture, and how climate change is affecting crops, which produces less food for everyone in the community. India gave me the most valuable opportunity to expand my view of feminism to incorporate contexts outside of the U.S.

One student in our group asked Abha-ji what her definition of empowerment is. She said “empowerment is about taking your life into your own hands, standing for your own rights and against injustices.” That’s the message she tries to send through all of the programs she created for the organization. She and all of the other women I met during that one week were such an inspiration to me, and changed my outlook on my own life. The lessons I learned in Dharamshala will continue to stay with me and impact who I become as a person.

If you want more information about JagoriGrameen and its mission, visit their website at

Written by Angelica Mishra ’19, WGRC student worker and Vice President of the Dickinson College AAUW chapter

September 21, 2018