By Rebecca Chowdhury
Attending a small liberal arts college in Ohio that has a predominantly white and upper class student body, I often hear students talking about their experiences doing community service in a country in Africa or a developing nation in another region. While their intentions may be admirable, for some, this has colonial overtones of “saving people of the non-Western world.” Viewed from a position of privilege, we all have to be mindful to not characterize people of color from developing nations as helpless victims of circumstance who have to rely on outsiders to create change.
Arriving at Sakhi for South Asian Women as an intern, I see how the organization shatters such colonialist discourses and it has been an amazing experience. Every Sakhi (that is our term for members of the organization) has some connection to the South Asian community or to the issue of domestic violence. This fact renders the change in attitudes around violence against women which Sakhi promotes, as coming from within the community itself. Whether or not we are South Asian, Sakhis seek to empower women. The dynamic of the relationship between members of Sakhi is one of equals.
I became interested in Sakhi because of my Bengali heritage, but when I was asked to interpret for Bangla speaking survivors during my first week at Sakhi, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. I only speak Bangla with family members and even then I litter my sentences with English words. My alternating accent serves as proof that I was born and raised in the US. My few trips to Bangladesh had made the split between my American life and Bengali heritage even clearer.
Now, in the U.S., as I interpret at Sakhi, I make a conscious effort to avoid using English words that the women may not understand. The barriers of language, access, and transportation, to name a few, which women overcome in order to seek help from Sakhi demonstrate that a woman does not need an outside savior to come in and save her; she has that power and agency within herself already. She simply needs some help in creating the change she desires in her own life and Sakhi provides women with that help. It has become apparent that the women we serve are not helpless victims of circumstance.
When chatting with one woman after interpreting, she told me about her daughter and how well she was doing in school. I shared with her my own knowledge about the educational program her daughter is enrolled in and the doubt lingering in her expression about the merits of the program changed into relief and pride for her daughter’s accomplishment. She reminded me of my parents, unsure at first of the obscure liberal arts college I had decided to attend but relieved when others had been impressed at the name. Instead of categorizing her (and my parents) as true Bengalis and myself as American, I realized that my knowledge about the educational system in New York City and ability to relay that information in Bengali is a valuable resource to our community.
Within the South Asian community there should be no black and white dichotomy of South Asian versus American because we all possess aspects of both cultures. Whatever information shortfalls any one of us has, we can learn from each other. I have come to realize that my experiences of growing up in the US do not alienate me from the community, but rather render me a valuable resource to it and it to me. It is through organizations like Sakhi that such exchanges can take place with multiple generations drawing on each other’s experiences. Together, we can eliminate violence against women in the community and strengthen that community in the process.
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