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Student Story
19 July 2019

The Challenges of Researching as a Woman Anthropologist

Meenakshi Nair Ambujam is a third-year PhD Candidate with the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. Her doctoral thesis titled, ‘“Landless with my Title-Deed”: Rethinking Restitution in Adivasi Life, Telangana (India)’, explores how and why adivasis, or tribal populations, continue to experience conditions of landlessness despite having participated in policies and programmes of restitution. While conducting research, she was confronted with curious questions about her private life. 

“I do not remember seeing someone as old as you and unmarried”, said Jaithu as she took me inside her home. Remarks about my marital status and age have been part of my fieldwork chronicles. It exposed to me how gendered and layered ethnography could be. As I sat down next to Jaithu, waiting for the wedding procession to begin, I was asked more questions about my research and my personal life— aspects that I realised were not separate in my field site.  

Though my research explores how and why conditions of landlessness persist among adivasi or tribal communities in the state of Telangana (India), there were instances when I was caught off guard when the conversation slowly turned towards my marital status. In my field site—where it is uncommon for a woman of my age to be unmarried—my presence sparked curiosity. Women would come and ask me if it was common in my hometown to be single for so long. They would ask me questions about my PhD. However, the moment we would steer the conversation towards landlessness and land-holdings, the women would slowly slip away into the background, and the men would lead the discussions. Even when I would specifically ask the women about their opinions and insights on land, it was the men who spoke. 

While gender is an important category of analysis when it comes to understanding landlessness, it was not something I had looked at explicitly. Increasingly, it became clear to me that during focus group discussions, interviews and informal conversations, it was rare that women spoke to me about land in public settings. They only did so in private spaces, away from men— often even suggesting that the men may not have revealed the ‘complete truth’ in their narratives. Women were not passive. Jaithu, for one, has been fighting to retrieve the possession of the land for which she has a title-deed. She also told me that she was being made the ‘face’ of this fight— once the land came back, she would only have user rights. The men in her family, she said, would control the money and the title, while she would have to do “all the work”. Jaithu and I bonded over the many conversations we shared over allam decoction (ginger tea). In fact, she asked me to attend the wedding of her cousin so that I could experience how the Pradhans (an adivasi community) conducted weddings. 

As we got ready to join the wedding procession, Jaithu held my hand, smiled and said, “…maybe, it is good that you are not married. Learn and write about us. Tell them, the people in your Institute, what you saw”.