Voicing the Voiceless?

July 22, 2020
Posted in blog
July 22, 2020 Maria Hayat

“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” -Arundhati Roy

How do we perceive rural women? Let’s do a quick thought experiment. What image or phrases come to mind if you think of a rural woman residing in Vehari? You probably think of a woman getting up at sunrise to rear cattle, then proceeding to tend to her numerous children, her family, the kitchen, indulges in crafts perhaps as a hobby. Go one step further, and you probably believe that at best she has no decision-making power, or at worst, is downtrodden and oppressed.

Now, let’s try a different picture for a minute. Let us suppose this woman resides in Vehari, her name is Farzana, and she has three children. She wakes up in the morning to send her kids to school, fixing their breakfast/lunch. Next, she grabs her chaadarand hurries out to a nearby centre that she has set up, where 5 seamstresses have already gathered to await her instructions. She inspects their threadwork and progress, and suddenly looks at the time and sees its time for her Zoom meeting. She sits down and explains her craft over the call for the next hour and completes some work just in time to get home for a quick break to collect her children.

Which of the above scenarios do you think is a more accurate depiction of reality?

Oftentimes when we step into the field, or work for generally marginalized groups like rural women, we enter with our own baggage and preconceived notions. What we’ve usually seen or read before, particularly in the development sector makes us think our purpose is to educate these women, to help them learn, to work for them, and hence provide a voice to the voiceless. In our minds the dichotomy of Urban vs Rural equates to a sweeping Empowered vs Downtrodden, Aware vs Unaware, Enlightened vs Backward. We often enter and leave with our unchecked bias.

At Kaarvan, I have at the outset, seen a conscious attempt to identify and challenge that bias. To bridge the Urban and Rural divide, to question the positing of rural women as ‘the Other’, and to go beyond a reductive narrative that seeks to describe rural women in Pakistan as voiceless.

This comes with a paradigm shift, where the purpose then becomes to provide a platform to magnifythe voices of rural women, the understanding becomes that learning is often a two-way street, and that the success of any intervention also lies in our ability to unlearn and re-learn.