Strategies of 'Sisterhood' at a Women's Development Project in NepalSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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An older Brahmin woman sets down her brush and draws you over with a serious look and a commanding flourish of her tattooed arm, jangling with bangles. "Listen," she says:
These comments of Anuragi Jha, one of 50-odd women who work at the Janakpur Women's Development Center in Nepal, were recorded in a 1994 video called "Colors of Change: Janakpur Women Paint the Future," which has been aired on public television in the United States. For a woman from the U.S. like myself, Anuragi Jha's statement is "good feeling" in so far as it resonates with feminist notions of consciousness-raising and third world women's empowerment. The metaphors of "sight" and "unveiling" which Anuragi Jha uses have a long history in Euro-American feminist movements. These tropes are a familiar part of enlightenment discourse and in this case construct the empowered first world woman in juxtaposition to a disempowered third world woman who often has her face covered. Anuragi Jha's reference to potatoes suggests that the appropriate recipient of empowerment is a simple village woman living close to the earth, a woman so backward that binoculars represent leaps of technology for her. Her confidence in the longevity of the development project bespeaks a larger movement, a connection with "sisters" of future times and other places. The particular "sister" Anuragi Jha refers to in her speech is Claire Burkert, the founding coordinator of the Janakpur Women's Development Center (JWDC), an American woman who has dedicated much of the last decade to this project.
JWDC: a Women's Development Project
In her first visit to the Janakpur area in the mid-1980s, Burkert was struck at once by the beauty of the artwork displayed in village homes and by the reticence, gendered oppression, and poverty of its producers: women of the conservative Hindu Maithil ethnic group which dominates the region in terms of population and culture. In 1989, with a small grant from a U.S. foundation, Burkert founded JWDC (then the Janakpur Women's Art Project) in order to help preserve the artistic tradition and empower its producers. Since then, the project has provided a group of Maithil women with the resources and the space to make paintings on paper and other media for sale. In doing so, they draw on the same skills they use to make temporary paintings of Hindu religious subjects on the walls of their homes. International development grants and profits from the sale of these craft items in tourist and export markets have supported the project over the years. Two years ago, JWDC funders built an impressive production center located on the outskirts of Janakpur to house the project. At this new location, it is possible for visitors to see the women painting and to buy what they produce.
The provision of a production center in Janakpur for the project participants poses a challenge to the Maithil gender system - a system characterized by norms and practices which promote the paramount value of the patriline. Participation in JWDC creates mobility, social interaction and economic options for women, all of which directly conflict with local cultural ideals of intra-household seclusion of women. The seclusion of women is practiced and idealized more intensely among Maithils than among other Nepali sub-cultural groups. However, to say that working at JWDC entails going against cultural norms is not quite right, since changing gender practices have become very much a part of the local social and ideological landscape. Maithil villagers live in a space that is already "shot through" with modern narratives.
JWDC follows a women-in-development strategy common in the 1990s, in that it is both economically productivist and oriented toward social empowerment. In the first instance this means mainstreaming women into national economic development plans while recognizing differences between men and women as social subjects; and in the second instance this entails seeking to transform the way women are linked to "productive" activities, so that the equality of their participation is secured. Project planners and managers attempt to effect this second gender intervention by: providing women with income for work; getting women out of the house and village; including women in decision-making; providing a forum for women to share experiences; and providing training in literacy, health, management, leadership, and gender awareness.
Questions of Solidarity
Project planners and management have expected that the women of the center would bond together in solidarity. They hoped that through training workshops and experience the craft producers would learn to put aside their quarrels, to work together and to maintain JWDC together like they would their own home. "After all," say the managers and trainers, "we are all sisters here." Yet, during the time I spent there in 1994 and 1995, complaints by producers over salary levels, child-care quality, and limited opportunities for training escalated, disrupting work in serious ways and affecting morale. Some women started talking about leaving the Center to start their own businesses, where they expected to be able to make more money. A few did leave. Of course, this kind of disruption can itself be seen as a major sign of empowerment for the craftswomen.
One particularly salient complaint voiced by JWDC producers these days has to do with the perceived unfair distribution of opportunities to do commissioned painting, sales-and-supplies-related work, and training outside the Center, particularly in Kathmandu. These activities, which sometimes involve extra money, maintenance, and travel, are viewed as perks or "prizes" by many of the painting and craft producers at the Center. From their point of view, these prizes are limited resources, which might improve an individual's (and her household's) chances for economic and social advancement; thus prizes are a catalyst for competition and jealousy. From the management's point of view, the outside work is rather a means to give women opportunities for greater responsibility and independence, and for enhancing the viability of JWDC. The management staff, therefore, usually sees worker complaints and arguments over these activities as childish and self-centered disruptions to work and peace.
I must admit that I first viewed such complaints in the same light as the managers. After all the Center had done for them, I wondered, how could these women be so self-serving, lacking loyalty to JWDC and solidarity with one another? As an outsider steeped in feminist ideals, the producers' lack of "sisterhood" was at first encounter shocking and disheartening. I wondered what might be the barriers to unity at the Center for these women. More broadly, was there any cultural basis for solidarity among Maithil women, in particular a solidarity based on equality, similarity and warmth implied in the ideal feminist notion of "sisterhood"?
The craftswomen at the Center are all Maithil and married and belong to a variety of castes, mostly Brahmin, Kayastha, and farming castes. When I was there, the salaries for craft producers were approximately half of what mid-level management was making. Management has tried to instill a sense of "membership" as opposed to "employee" status among the craft producers. As members, producers elect representatives from each of the work sections. These representatives sit on a board which, in conjunction with management, makes decisions and disseminates information between craft producers and management. All of the board positions require a degree of literacy for record-keeping, so on that basis alone a good number of the craft producers are not eligible. Competition for these positions is strongly felt and sometimes characterized by flaring tempers and whispered accusations of favoritism.
Management consists of several young post-secondary-educated high caste but non-Maithil women in the roles of storekeeper and assistant storekeeper, accountant, accounting assistant and manager. The first language of the management staff is Nepali, the national language of Nepal which is taught in schools; whereas that of the largely illiterate producers is Maithili, the main dialect of the region. Some of the management staff and some of the Maithil women are bilingual and act as informal interpreters for their monolingual counterparts in everyday communications. All of the management posts have been funded by international aid organizations. Until 1995, Claire Burkert held the position of founding coordinator; her salary was markedly higher than the rest, although quite low by Euro-American standards.
In practice, decision-making at JWDC has sometimes been executive, with demands coming from the coordinator or funders or buyers with whom management meets. These agents do not communicate with and therefore are little understood by most of the craft producers, despite efforts by management to share information in monthly all-center meetings. Differences in status are manifest in the physical arrangements of these meetings; the managers sit up front and higher, facing the craft producers, who sit closely together on the floor. Craftswomen see information and perks, although theoretically divvied out fairly by the board (people of their own class and culture), as scarce commodities doled out from the top: that is, from management (people of a different class and culture). These perceptions are formed in part by a reluctance on the part of board members to take responsibility for decisions - for fear of being blamed for bad ones - and also through rumors. Also, management alone controls center finances. The process of monetary flow in and out of the center is opaque to the craftswomen, who are sometimes suspicious that managers, as the local phraseology goes, "eat" the profit. (In Nepal, middle and upper level officials are often assumed to use their positions for graft and sometimes do.)
Narratives of Kinship
This friction cannot be understood fully by only examining the polarized dynamic within the JWDC; one must consider relations among these women in terms of the broader cultural milieu as well. In the region of Mithila where Janakpur lies, there are a number of well-known stories that highlight the relationship among brothers and sisters, and this relationship is sanctified on ritual occasions practiced throughout Hindu Nepal ( bhai tika and raakhi) and in Mithila alone ( shyama chakeba). By custom, a brother is expected to intervene on behalf of his sister in times of crisis during the course of her married life. In contrast, it seems there are very few stories and no rituals that highlight the relationship among sisters, who as adults have little structural capacity to influence one another's lives. The ties sisters have to one another are primarily the unceremonialized emotional ties of growing up together and the promise of reacquaintance once or twice a year, perhaps at their natal homes.
I was able to elicit only two stories that highlight the relationship among sisters. In one story, an unpious woman, jealous of her sister for the latter's many sons, arranges to have the sons killed. But the power of her sister's spiritual purity brings the sons back to life. Then the unpious sister complains to their father that the other is a witch. By a trick of examining their past lives, however, he is able to declare his unpious daughter guilty. In the second story, one sister marries rich and the other poor. The richer sister, who is greedy, refuses to help out her poor sibling, who has pleaded with her because she has no food for her children. This leads the poorer sister to go on a journey in which she meets a tiger who is about to eat her, but then takes pity on the honest and humble woman and blesses her with riches instead. Upon hearing news of her sister's fortune, the greedy sister also goes to visit the tiger, but the tiger tricks her into exposing her greed, and then eats her.
These stories, about relationships of jealousy and inequality among women, and particularly among sisters, help me to make sense of some of the interpersonal dynamics that have arisen at the Janakpur Women's Development Center. Maithil women, it seems to me, are often jealous of one another in specific, relational ways. In these stories, the limited, desired resources which form the basis for jealousy are male progeny and wealth, about which Maithil women have little control.
Through my description of sister relations, I am trying to make three points. The first is that it is not surprising that they would react with intense jealousy, given local women's expectations about control over limited resources which are procured from outside their sphere of experience, such as training and salaries. The second point is that there is little cultural basis for an expectation of solidarity among women based on an employment of tropes of sisterhood. Thirdly, if little basis for solidarity exists among Maithil women themselves, there is no reason to think, on the basis of cultural resonance alone, that Maithil women would imagine a solidarity with non-local women as women.
But perhaps there is another way to interpret these stories. A more nuanced reading of the tales I told might be that the characters did not act in very sisterly ways toward one another, with the concomitant understanding that good sisterly behavior, in local terms, would entail mutual regard and assistance. What of the actual, very common employment of local fictive kinship terms for elder sister and younger sister - a usage employed in situations where cooperation, favors or pity are desired, or where emotional closeness is felt or desired? The two stories I mentioned may point more to structural impediments to "proper sisterliness" than to everyday linguistic usages and meanings of fictive kinship. Yet just as it is hard to say "mother-in-law" in Euro-American culture without a flood of associations coming to mind, I am proposing that it may be difficult for Maithil women to say "sister" without feeling the limits and hierarchies of that relationship-establishing and -affirming term.
Fictive Kinship and JWDC Relations
Maithil people use real and fictive kinship terms much more often than they use names. In this village-based, patrilineal and patrilocal society, almost everyone a person knows is kin: through birth or marriage, anyway. This is especially true for women, whose movement and social intercourse are generally more curtailed than that of their male kin. At JWDC, very often women are addressed by the fictive kin term didi, which means elder sister. When employing terms of address for sisters in the local language, one must choose between didi and bahini, which means younger sister. This is done primarily on the basis of age, but also, where relative age is not so clear, on the basis of status or desired status relation, especially when one wants something, material or otherwise, from the addressee or other listeners. As most JWDC producers are around the same age, life stage and social status, there is greater employment among them of didi than bahini as a way of showing respect. Relative age, marital status, and style combine to make the choice of bahini over didi for management personnel seem an obvious one. The management personnel, who are generally younger and unmarried (whereas all of the craft producers are married) are indeed often called bahini.
Let me return to the speech of Anuragi Jha with which I started this essay. In her speech, Anuragi Jha calls the founder of the development project "sister," which, as a move of fictive kinship, is the most common way that JWDC women address and refer to one another. What is a bit odd - and not clear from the translation - is that Anuragi Jha uses the English word "sister" as a kinship title in referring to Claire Burkert. In fact, "sister," spoken in English, is the term of address and reference used for not only Burkert, but also for myself, other known non-South Asian women, and the four Nepali management staff, three of whom are from Janakpur, but none of whom, as I have said, are Maithil. One explanation of the selection of this English term is that while the addressees are all relatively young (and thus in local speech would be bahinis), they are of higher status by the standards of office hierarchy and education. Thus, while didi is inappropriate in terms of age-status, bahini feels awkwardly disrespectful in relation to office and educational status. While "sister," in English, calls up the right gender category and has the positive meaning of fictive kinship, it nicely circumvents the seniority and status issue. Using this and other English terms can also be a way for the craft producers to accommodate foreigners while having fun with word play. Finally, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, the use of English terms is a way of identifying with the developed side in the developed vs. under-developed dichotomy of modernity ideology in an attempt to position oneself to gain social and economic status.
In my view, "sister" is a multivalent word. The closeness, affection, and solicitation implied by the customary use of kinship terminology are only part of the story. Likewise, the pursuit of status, enjoyment through word play, and solidarity among women as women do not provide a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon - despite how these utterances might be interpreted by feminists, tourists, and development functionaries. The function of using an English term to address English speakers like Claire and myself is complicated by the recognition that the entire Nepali management staff is also frequently referred to and addressed by the craft producers in such terms: that is, by "sister" in English. I see the use of "sister," then, also as a distancing move, a statement of difference among women as much as an indicator of sameness and closeness. An ambivalence of trust, intimacy, and relatedness is encoded in sisterhood. While I believe Anuragi Jha is quite sincere in her appreciation of Claire and by extension of JWDC, she can also sense that the goals of management will not coincide fully with her own perceived needs and desires and that she is very unlike, and unlikely to be treated like, management or foreigners such as Claire, myself, or tourist visitors.
No essential or inherent solidarity exists among any of the women at JWDC - or for that matter, women anywhere. Unity among women is a matter of shared interest, which itself is always situational and a matter of perception as well as social organization. In the practices of women at JWDC, this fact has been demonstrated again and again, not least in the usages of fictive kinship addressed in this essay. Linguistic practices of sisterhood at JWDC resonate uneasily with local systems of kinship but also with a global political economy which places some nations and some women in positions of power over others. It is these global relations, ultimately, which enable "first world" feminists to claim kinship and solidarity with "third world" women. For the women producers at JWDC, using the term "sister" provides access to a world of status and privileged connection which is part of the very stuff of development, locally articulated. The same signifiers are used by local women to negotiate ambiguous relations of trust, dependency, intimacy, hierarchy, and difference - in such a way that their subtle critique does not put those important social ties at risk.
Coralynn Davis is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology.
For the purposes of this essay, I have used "craft" because it is the term most often used to describe JWDC artifacts. In doing so, I recognize that such labeling takes part in a dominating discourse of aesthetic value. The artifacts might also be called art, primitive art, tourist art, handicrafts - all of which resonate somewhat differently in aesthetic discourse.