It’s all about Freedom

By Ovee Thorat

As a woman, my engagement with communities during the fieldwork has hugely shaped the research I do. While each gender has its advantages and disadvantages during data collection from the field, what I wasn’t ready for, was a huge advantage my gender gave me while working with a very conservative community in the Banni grasslands of Kachchh. I travel extensively in these landscapes to collect data for my Ph.D. research.

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I have had my set of gloomy experiences too -- as a woman working in India one can’t get away from those. But being a woman researcher in Banni meant freedom, which I enjoyed to no bounds! You see, if you are a man, you are not allowed to even enter most villages without prior permission. Even if you are allowed, you can only access the meeting rooms that are created for the specific purpose of meeting men who do not belong to that community. So, leave alone interviewing the women or even looking at them, a male researcher would find it extremely difficult to even access a Banni village or a home! In contrast, as a woman, I could freely cross the cultural boundaries and was allowed to step deeper into the world of Banni. I could chat with the girls, ask questions and get answers from the women. I could attend their weddings and festivals as part of the community; I could see them in their day-to-day lives. This incredible access shaped my research questions and the way I did research.

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I felt bad for the male researchers in Banni as they were restricted in these landscapes. One time I had a male friend with me who was extremely curious to know about Banni villages. We organised a meeting with the heads of a village. Pastoralists of Banni are the warmest hosts one can ever find. Soon we were sitting in the meeting hall that was full of men, gulping down the aromatic lamb biryani and the sweet sooji ka halwa. As we relaxed, munching on grapes after the heavy lunch, the son of the head of the village asked me, “would you like to see the village?” I got up excited, but when my friend stood up to follow me, he was stopped. Unfortunately, outside men are not allowed inside the village boundaries.
I saw beautiful mud houses adorned with mirrors. I met a group of women who spoke about their lives, likes, and dislikes. I played with the kids. All the time I wondered how I would face my friend back in the meeting hall later. I couldn’t find anything to say other than “you should have seen it all!”.

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Being a woman, I was accepted in their kitchens too, and that gave me access to some excellent food and their very special recipes like the Naan Khatai (cookies made with ghee and wheat flour) that are baked on coals, the Sindhi curry made with smoked meat, and the flavourful Khari Bhath (a kind of spiced rice). This freedom meant that I could fearlessly enter some areas that male researchers had difficulty accessing. I could conduct vegetation transects that went across villages and private lands.

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Now, if you, like me, are an adventurous woman, who likes to ride horses, drive a jeep off-road or ride a motorbike, you will experience the best of both worlds in this landscape! Men in Banni have tremendous respect for women who do "manly" things, and they quickly accept you as one of them. This means getting invited to the horse races in the evenings, listening to their hunting tricks, being part of discussions about the best pastures and wildlife-rich areas, getting invited to join summer migration journeys, or getting asked for a ride to the nearest hospital. I was lucky enough to be a part of these the community and experience the life in Banni with all its highs and lows. Women definitely have the upper hand in Banni. Never had I felt so utterly privileged to be one!
But sadly, this is not true for the womenfolk of Banni and as I left the boundaries of these villages, I only wished that they could have a fraction of freedom which I enjoyed as an outsider.