India Study Abroad

April 04 2018, Blog by Marjan Atashkhayer Didra, India: Gender, Culture and Human Rights

Pre-departure

I chose this program for two reasons first, it’s relation to my major which is Gender Women and Sexuality Studies. We will be studying women, gender, and human rights in India. Second, my passion to learn about Indian people, culture, and society as a whole. India has always been so close to my heart because we shared so much history. I grew up in Iran so it would be interesting to see the similarities and differences. I am hoping to see India holistically in it’s political, national and cultural affair. Since India is a vast country and is very diverse, I am interested to learn about how they implement certain laws around rights for women and gender.

What specific skills do I hope to develop abroad?

I would like to dive deeper into my communication, tolerance and transparency skills to not only implement them actively also to improve them through this two weeks journey.

How can I make friends in the host culture?

I believe in the power of vulnerability so through sharing my own experiences and by being open I am hoping to form a deep connection and ultimately friendship with my fellow group mates.

Am I concerned about missing friends, family?  How will I stay in touch with them?

Since I have spent most of my adult life traveling and living abroad I believe it wouldn’t be an issue for me to be away, however, this definitely could be a concern for some students. Fortunately, through the use and availability of technology, we can close the gap and stay in touch with our loved ones.

What are some of my anxieties or fears? My study abroad is right after our final exams so my main concerns are making sure all my assignments are done and submitted since our access to the internet may be limited. I am very excited about being in India.

 

While in abroad

 

India is a beautiful country. We have visited Delhi and Jaipur and small cities in between. There are many historical places and buildings. The country is rich in culture, tradition, and symbols. Lots of colors to be seen everywhere throughout the city. Beautiful sights and architecture. Women and Men wear beautiful colors and traditional clothing. It is very common to see women wear jewelry and colorful saris.

We have been meeting different lecturers with a focus on gender and human rights. As students, we all have a specific topic that we are working to develop an understanding around. During the lectures, we can ask questions and talk about what our personal beliefs or experiences are back in the USA. Some of our lectures take place on the field such as visiting the specific communities and colleges in order to interact with people and students personally.

Since our trip is somewhat short we have only been focusing on the lectures and not much of a sightseeing but it will happen towards the end of our trip. We did visit Taj Mahal in Agra and it was mesmerizing. The beauty of this monument is beyond words.

I have always wanted to visit India and now I am so glad to say that this place is not only magical but also historical. People are very kind, respectful and hospitable. I am so grateful to have the privilege to be here. I am also thankful to my professors and the University of Washington for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this amazing journey.

This trip has changed my perspective and impacted the way I see other cultures and the world. Realizing that as people we may embody different feature, color or lifestyle but we are all the same in ways we connect with each other. Being offered tea at every bus stop we have had or a new place we have been invited gave me the understanding of how being hospitable is part of every culture. After this trip, I intend to apply for more study abroad programs as it has helped me to further develop my understanding of race, class, and gender in different settings.

 

 

The Trip

              As I do not plan on taking my laptop with me to India, nor do I know if I will have the time or internet capabilities to type, I have decided to keep a notebook throughout the entire experience. At the end, I will type up thoughts/experiences that I think will be most helpful; please keep in mind we will depart the U.S. on March 9th, landing in India on March 11th and depart India on March 25th, landing in the U.S. on the 25th.

  • (03/11/2018) At approximately 4 a.m. today, we finally made it to our first hotel. The flight here was way more comfortable than I had anticipated as I had never been on a plane for more than 6 hours and had never flown with Emirates. We are currently at a retreat called Zorba the Buddha and I am too excited to sleep before our meeting at 9 a.m. My initial thoughts from the airport to here are as follows: How can the air be of such a different quality here? I had heard about the amount of stray dogs in India and been given the advice not to pet them, but I did not imagine it being this difficult! They are everywhere, malnourished, often limping, and craving attention. While I grew up in the South of the United States and have been exposed, probably, to most Washingtonians to a plethora of firearms, the sheer volume of men I have seen walking around with shotguns and assault rifles is eery. I have had more than the normal amount of urges to drink water now that I am in a place where you have to be cautious of your water source. How do I already have 5 mosquito bites?

  • (03/13/2018) Today we went to Jamia Millia Islamia University, were put into small groups, and given campus tours by current students. While this activity may seem pretty surface level, it created a safe space for me to ask someone my age direct questions about the current political climate and the implications to female students. My guide, while at first a bit reserved, really opened up and provided some honest, insightful commentary to my questions. A few occurrences during our time on campus really opened my eyes to the regression on women’s freedoms and I am looking forward to staying connected to my guide.

  • (03/15/2018) I do not know where to begin in regards to debriefing my experience today. We were taken to a park to meet with a group of domestic workers that belonged to a union. Listening to these women’s’ stories, the violence and oppressors they face within their everyday lives, and how the unionization has helped them was inspiring, to say the least. A common occurrence I have seen throughout my time so far in India is the hospitality. We have met with individuals and groups who have very little, who would be considered extremely poor by U.S. standards, but always ensure that we, as guests, our greeted with tea, cookies, and crackers, or tea, naan, and a side. While these gestures warm my heart and help to make me feel like they really want to talk to us, not that our visits are being forced upon them, it also makes me sad in a way. They are willing to give their extra bits or go without in order to provide these, but I do not think this is a common practice for the majority of Americans. There have really only been a handful of times that I have experienced a similar greeting within the United States, even if those being met with are affluent. Why is this? Meanwhile, these women have so little, are enduring so much, and did not even think twice about sneaking away from work to meet with us, act as great hosts, and start a dance party with smiles, music, and their children before we parted ways today.

  • (03/17/2018) After being here for almost a week, I am coming to the point where I am exhausted. They warn you about this, you know, the fatigue, the change in your body’s normal cycles, being in constant communication and a close knit proximity to the group, the heat, etc., but you are almost too busy to let any of it affect you, until it all hits you at once. I have seen some people completely crash or let it bottle up until they take it out on an innocent victim. This trip is also emotionally training in different ways. We have met with a ton of brave women and young girls; ones with unbelievable stories, journeys, and inspiring dreams. We have seen children who have had to fight for their rights to education, houses made out of hay, and many without shoes or clothing. It is not easy to see so many things, things that you want to help, but are unable to do much about. To help prevent all of these things from piling up and really stopping you from getting the most out of your trip, I recommend the following: communicate clearly with your roommate, make sure you are eating and staying hydrated, carve out alone time, keep a written journal, and remember why you are here.

  • (03/19/2018) I have now seen “wild” or the following animals just waltzing around town without regards to people or vehicles: dogs, cats, goats, pigs, cows, horses, monkeys, camels, elephants, and peacocks. I also passed some snake charmers today; that was something I never thought I would see.

  • (03/22/2018) When you are constantly on the move, it is easy to overlook just how truly awesome some of the things you are seeing are. Regardless of the length of your study abroad, remember, this is truly a once in a lifetime experience. When again will you be able to be where you are, meeting with the people you are, studying your topic? Take everything in for its worth and beauty!

Return from the Trip

 After returning to the United States from this study abroad to India, I have had a few thoughts, that I would like to share…

  • My flight was scheduled to return to Seattle at noon on a Sunday. I made sure to not have anything planned that day and managed to stay up late enough to go to bed around 7 p.m.; this proved very helpful in getting readjusted to the time difference.
  • I work 2 jobs in addition to going to school. I stagnated all of my return dates, so I am not returning to the United States and then restarting the full swing of things the following day. I returned on a Sunday, started classes and one job on Tuesday, and will add in the second job on Monday. I seem to becoming adjusted easier and in a less stressful way than my peers who attempted to begin everything again on Monday.
  • Returning to the U.S. is a big change for your body. Ensure you are assisting your immune systems needs and listening to your body. It is normal to be fatigued, to have different bowel movements than normal, for your skin to break out, for your scalp to peel, etc. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself!
  • Returning to the U.S. is also an adjustment your mind needs to make. When I left Sea-Tac and turned onto 405, I found the highways to be much more…. quiet. I went home and was looking for bottled water to drink, as opposed to thinking about my tap water. It is normal for some things to strike you as odd or to readjust to the societal norms here.
  • Be ready to talk about your experience! Your family and friends are going to want to know all about your trip and don’t forget, this is something you can add to your resume!

 

Prior to your travels…

You get accepted into a Study Abroad program, you are so excited, you do not even know where to begin or who to tell first, and then it hits you…. What do I need to do now? There are so many things to buy, health questions to be answered, financial information to consider, etc.; it may seem super overwhelming, especially as you may still be juggling classes and/or a job onto of this. There are so many helpful resources and individuals in the Study Abroad office at UWB, along with materials available online and from your professors. I highly recommend getting everything started as soon as possible; there are many tasks you will need to complete. These tasks can pile up easily, especially as you’ll still have life happening, and some of these tasks, if not completed within a specific time frame, can prevent you from being able to partake in your trip.

Some key tasks/thoughts I have found in preparation….

  • How are you going to pay for this? If you’re in a position where this is not really any issue for you, great! (maybe skip over this bullet) You want to ensure that you apply through the UWB Study Abroad office to their scholarship AND submit a revision request form for aid to the Financial Aid office. It would be wise, if you have a job, to notify them ASAP about the days you will need to miss. Also, examine what you are currently spending money on and attempt to cut out any frivolous spending to save the difference for your trip.
  • Be aware of what logistical items you need to have completed beforehand. For this trip specifically, as they all vary, we needed 1) a valid passport 2) to apply and pay for an e-visa 3) to purchase university travel insurance 4) to have necessary vaccines… These tasks take time and money; look up the costs for yours specifically and the timeframe as soon as possible, then work on prioritizing the order in which to get these done. I also recommend making copies of your important documents (passport, visa, insurance) and keeping them on your person, in your bags, or on your phone.
  • You may not be able to use your cell phone the entire trip; this is something you should be aware of being a real possibility for you and you making the proper arrangements beforehand. I recommend contacting your cell phone carrier, telling them your travel plans, and seeing if they can make accommodations. I found that my carrier and a few others offer international add-ons, but cannot guarantee that you will have service in the country (similar to how you may not have coverage in a rural area within the U.S. or while hiking remotely). I knew my parents and fiancee would worry if they did not hear from me throughout the trip, so I made sure that, before I left, that had the following: my flight itinerary to and from India, the phone numbers and addresses of the hotels we were staying at, my professors contact information, and the contact information for the University of Washington Study Abroad Emergency line. This will be especially helpful if you are in the situation where you cannot contact your family prior to your return to work out plans for being picked up at the airport.
  • Be flexible on packing! Varying per program, there may be many packing restrictions. For example, with mine, we could only have one personal item (such as a purse or laptop bag) and one carry-on bag. You should seek clarification from the professor or professors on your trip as to if there are any packing restrictions. In addition, check with any airlines you will be flying with and country restrictions. For instance, some countries have restrictions on medications that can be brought into the country.
  • In your free time, before the trip, it is wise to brush up on current events, culture customs, and other information that could be useful for a traveler in your selected destination(s). Don’t think you have time for this? Try conducting the research, looking at websites, etc. instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media pages.

Spring Break in India

March 27, 2018, Blog by Holli Nolan, Educational Studies, “Gender, Culture, and Human Rights in India,” Spring Break 2018

Namaste! Meera nam Holli hei; I am an Educational Studies major and am SO excited to have been selected for my first study abroad experience. In addition to having been selected for the trip, I have been selected to be a Study Abroad Ambassador; I am shocked, honored, and blessed! This study abroad will be taking place in India (Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra) with the focus of studying the intersectionality between Human Rights, Gender, and Culture.

Religion in Varanasi, India

“Religions are different roads converging upon the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads, as long as we reach the same goal?”- Mahatma Gandhi.

One of the main reasons I chose to go on this trip was because of the religious aspect of it. I wanted to discover different religions and learn about the stories/logic behind them. As a practicing Muslim, I have only known Islam in details my whole life and wanted to learn about other religions as well because I was always fond of religions. India is one of the best places for me to learn about religion because there are so many religions being practiced such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. The first week of this trip, I spent time at the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS) where we learned about Buddhism and how its philosophy. This was really interesting to me because technically its not a religion because there is no god and everyone is their own boss, but at the same time it is different than atheism because they have rituals to follow and prayers, nuns, books, etc. It was interesting to learn about the four noble truths in Buddhism and the role of Karma in our lives. One thing that I liked about Buddhism was the emphasis on impermanence. This explains that there are certain processes that no human being has control over certain things in their lives such as the process of growing old, dying, being sick etc. When learning about impermanence I was able to also find similarities within Islam and Christianity because they also believe that nothing in this life is permanent and that there is a hereafter. For example, in Islam when someone dies, its not the end for them, they would go to the hereafter which they are able to reunite with their loved ones again. And in Hinduism and Buddhism impermanence is very essential because they believe in reincarnations. Buddhists and Hindus live their lives well and stay away from evil/negativity in order to reduce their karma in the next life or have a better life in the future. We see the same concept with other religions. For example, Muslims and Christians live their lives well and try to stay away from sins in order to enter heaven. This brings me back to the quote that I mentioned above which talks about how we all want to be good in order to be rewarded in the future which is something common that I observed in many religions and practices here in India. Even though they might be very different from each other they are all working towards the same goal.

Something else that I observed was the different ways people practice the same religion. For example; in India the mosques are only for men and women are not allowed. In authentic Islam there are no distinguishment between men and women from worshiping god. And in many Muslim countries mosques always have a section for women which is why I was so surprised to hear that women in India were not allowed to inter mosques. Since this is being not justified by Islam by any means, I came to the conclusion that it had to do with cultural influences. Mixing culture and religion is something that is very common in many countries and it is not just with Islam but we also see it with Christianity and the American culture as well as in India with Hinduism. I had the option to visit a “secular university” that was public and was suppose to be non-religious but at the university (Banaras Hindu University) there were many Hindu Gods and Goddesses all over and when I asked about why there are religious affiliations at this public secular university I was told that its not by any means religion related and that its just a cultural thing to have Goddesses of learning and such. Here again is where we see another example of religion being mixed with cultural practices. We see this a lot in the world but in India I was able to spot it easily because of its rich culture and many religions.

Written By Rowaida Mohammed

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 Muslim Leader of the Weavers community in Varanasi. Photo By Rowaida Mohammed   
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Photo of a Hindu Pandit By Niko Sepanos 

Environmental Stewardship in Relation to Worldview

Author: Haliehana Stepetin
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Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. A view of the pollution of a small river flowing into the Ganges. 
​My first experience with pollution in India was in the metropolis of Kolkata. Excited to see everything the city had to offer, I went outside with expectations influenced by the only glimpse of India I had ever had: through the media. I imagined a beautiful spiritual place filled with people doing yoga in the streets, spiritual gurus, women decorated in beautiful clothing and make up (which is a reality), and babies on fancy pillows wearing cute little hats like in Aladdin. For the most part, my cultural assumptions were very far off. The scene I walked into was one of drastic contrast to the image I had in my mind. There was pollution everywhere. The streets are polluted with garbage, plastic, feces, alongside shanty homes, naked children playing, elderly people in the streets asking for money, lethargic cows laying around, all while economic transactions occurred and life went on, regardless of the environmental status. I stepped over a pile of garbage and dodged a cow pie to go into a shop to buy an ice cream cone to help me tolerate the miserable heat.
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Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. The view shows the sharp socioeconomic contrast everywhere in India. While I was enjoying the relatively cheap luxuries of my clean resort hotel, families lived just below us in heaps of garbage and shanty homes.
As an Alaska Native, with a worldview that incorporates a stewardship relationship with the environment, natural world, and humans, I found it overwhelming and alarming to see the huge amount of pollution everywhere. I was raised with the understanding that humans need animals and the natural world to survive, so we must treat them with the utmost respect and reverence. The way this relationship was illustrated to me as a child was that if humans were removed from the earth, all the animals and plants would thrive. On the other hand, if the animals and plants were removed from the earth, there is no way humans could survive. With this knowledge, we know the animals and plants sacrifice themselves for our survival. Living in stewardship with the world directly affects our survival. We believe that if we stop respecting the animals and environment, we will be punished. In following Buddhist philosophy, one could say Indigenous philosophy also believes in karma in this way. If we disrespect the environment or plants, it will turn against us in the form of natural disasters, climate change, and animal attacks. Disrespect of the natural world is blatantly inconsiderate to their survival. I wonder how the people in India view the natural world? I wonder why religion prevails, but respect and reverence for the environment does not?

When discovering that vegetarianism is practiced in Buddhism, and specifically after attending Dr. Tsering’s lecture on the Essence of Buddhist Practice, I asked a question regarding the geographic location of the formation of Buddhism. This connection intrigued me because India has an agricultural abundance of produce and different plants, making it easy for people to choose vegetarianism. However, in colder climates where vegetation may be limited most of the year, it is very difficult and inefficient to be vegetarian. In Alaska for example, there is no way I could live in my remote village and be a vegetarian. Regarding the Indigenous relationship, respect, and reverence for the animal world, I asked a question about eating meat for cultural subsistence purposes. Dr. Tsering, on the value of animals in Buddhist philosophy, says: “We consider that human life is more valuable compared to that of animals . . . ” (p. 3), which sparked my questions about vegetarianism and their hierarchical level of respect for animals and the natural world to humans. I wonder if there is a connection between the belief that animals are less valuable than humans and the indifferent treatment of Mother Earth that leads to the extremely visible pollution of her in India. If there is a hierarchy of value of life with humans at the top, it makes a little more sense to me that such disrespect to the environment can occur. However, it still makes me extremely uncomfortable and sad. Of course, I am projecting my animistic worldview and Indigenous perspective of stewardship with the environment upon my experience.

I realize that in the U.S., and all around the world for that matter, pollution is either extremely visible in more impoverished societies, or covertly present in “developed” societies. Pollution in a post-industrial society is seemingly inevitable, unless manageable on small-scale spectrums in cultures that respect and revere nature (my small rural village in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, for example). I wonder then, what leads societies to care more or less about the appearance of pollution? Does the Hindu and Buddhist religious practice lend itself to the indifference towards nature because it is expected that the gods have ultimate control? Or that karma is the ultimate determiner in fate, even if the fate of the environment is at stake? What would it take to make societal changes regarding the maintenance and preservation of the natural world, which ultimately sustains human life? If the masses devoutly follow a religion that informs the way they view nature or animals as hierarchically less valuable than humans, how can we and do we even have a place in developing more sustainable practices with the environment? Is it possible to create a future of environmental cleanliness and stability that learns from the faults our “developed” society has already experienced in relation to our industrial society dependent upon fossil fuels?

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Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. A beautiful path on the Central University of Tibetan Studies campus to show that not everywhere in India is polluted. In small, managed areas, plant life flourishes and is well maintained.

A Look at Infrastructure and Waste Management in Varanasi

As someone going into the field of environmental engineering, it’s impossible to overlook the lack of infrastructure here in Varanasi, India. Nita, one of the founders of NIRMAN schools, where we are staying, generalized the issue as being a result of engineers not trained in designing and building for the uncertainties of India. An example was workers right outside the Southpoint school rebuilding the sidewalk for the ‘umpteenth time,’ still with an uneven slope, bound to fail again in the near future. If they were to take the extra time today to level out the land, the sidewalk would last much longer, as it should. Walking the streets of this city, it appears that many things are done in this patchwork manner. Perhaps Nita is exactly right, that when engineers are educated abroad, their coursework is assuming that they are starting with a cleaner foundation, but the reality here in India is that the city’s surroundings are chaotic and disorganized. Gutters that should carry drainage downstream hold still water, accumulating the dust and garbage from the street above until what lines the road is a swampy, foul smelling moat. Men urinate publicly, against the wall or into these gutters. There is a lack of baseline sanitation standards. Furthermore, trash is littered everywhere. The photo I’ve attached shows the bank of a river that has the potential of being a serene haven from the chaos of the bustling city streets, but instead parallels a landfill. Even I, having been here a week, have a plastic bag in my luggage that I collect trash in, for it is often hard to find garbage cans about. The dumpsters that I have seen are either already overflowing, or ignored and the trash rather scattered next to them as they remain empty. Therefore various wrappers and cans line the streets, gradually becoming covered in dust until they blend into the road itself. I keep thinking that if items were wrapped in compostable materials, these really would disintegrate over time and add to the natural organic matter, but they aren’t and so the plastic and metal will remain. Being Americans, we are unused to this level of litter and at first, it is quite shocking. The worst part that I’ve seen, is citizens piling up the plastic, taking a burning candle, and lighting the pile on fire. This inevitably releases harsh chemicals into the air that not only negatively affect the lungs of others walking the street but also contribute to the larger problem of polluting the air and emitting greenhouse gases. To these people, burning the trash puts it out of sight and out of mind, leaving their homes garbage free, but education must be provided to teach the horrible effects that doing this routinely can impose on both the environment and human health. Those gutters that I mentioned, drain directly into the Ganges river, as does wastewater from homes, including raw sewage. There are two wastewater treatment plants near the river, but these do not process nearly all of the waste and problems arise when monsoons cause the streets to flood and the plants to cease their treatment. I know that this problem in infrastructure stems from something deeper than just a lack of personal respect for the environment. Political corruption leading to shortage in funds for projects, and a 30% illiteracy rate both contribute. Still, management of all of this waste should be prioritized in cities like Varanasi that are vibrant in the arts and culture, so that they are no longer dulled and de-romanticized by the ill sight of piles of garbage, crumbling streets, and improper facilities for processing waste.

Written by Victoria Mount

Comparison of My Old and New Self

This trip has open my eyes and made me re-experienced my days in Nepal. Two days flight without sleep was not part of my “to experience” list for India trip. I was exhausted when we reach the Varanasi airport. My thoughts were why did I even come and I was better at home, sleeping in my big bed. As I stepped out of the airport to the indie atmosphere, I couldn’t breathe.  Although it was raining the air was super hot and the climate was burning hot.  I didn’t think of anything besides I want to go back to Washington. We got in the van that was reserved for us. On our way to Central University of Tibetan Studies, I was looking outside from window. What I saw was not so different from what I have memories of Nepal. The house was similar, land area was similar, small and big shops were similar and even the way they display products on the shops was similar. When we got to the city area the traffic and the way vehicles were running the wait vehicles in Nepal. When I saw those it reminded me of my childhood. I felt like me I am in Nepal walking on the street and seeing this all. It made me feel like I am on my younger age feet. As I saw those kids walking and running near road fearlessly. I was terrified to see kids near vehicles. My hearts were racing see all that. Then I realized that I was like them in Nepali. But I had one question that I just can’t answer: In Nepal, was I fearless like those kids or fearful like I am right now? It’s been 8 days and I still fear walking on the street. In fact, can’t walk with just one friend, I have to have more than one friend walking with me. Rowaida my colleagues ask me if I wanted to go for walk. I told her to bring one more friend to go for walk.She has been to Egypt by herself, so she somehow convinces me to walk with her but eventually, I end up adding Emma. I have been here for a week and I still fear when vehicles go near me, I still get scared when people horn and I still can’t walk on my own on the street. I left half of my life in Nepal and half of my life in the US. Here I am still figuring out who am I?

Written by Dibbya Biswa