Have you ever noticed how women in rural-setups react if you ask how she feels? Or how often does she laugh? Does she feel a sense of contentment? On hearing such questions, at first, she smiles and then, shuns the questions. Next, she looks at us with utter surprise in her eyes, thinking of us as aliens. Finally, she laughs at us saying, “what kind of questions are these?” This is what happened when people from our organisation, Innovators in Health (IIH), stepped out and visited field areas to work on a maternal mental health project. The women’s reactions and expressions to trivialize questions about their feelings, made us believe that this was going to be a tough nut to crack.
The first few encounters
For purpose of the post-partum depression project, we used a screening tool called the Edinburgh Post-Natal Depression Scale (EPDS). The moment we started screening women, we spotted a complete denial of any tension, stress, trouble or even prolonged sadness. On the contrary, their faces and body language narrated different stories. At the beginning itself (after about 20 screenings), we came back with questions like:
- How difficult is it for us to understand these women?
- Do they even recognize what they are feeling?
- What makes it difficult for them to open up?
The analysis and inter-sectionalities
As Foucault once said, “The individual is the product of power” , a trail of questions and narratives that lay at the critical juncture of power, gender and agency were established with the help of these screenings. Indeed, Foucault’s idea of disciplinary narrative of power was being promoted by the institution of patriarchy. The idea of patriarchy was to govern what’s, how’s and why’s of women in a community. So much so, that most women laughed on being asked about how they feel, as if it was a joke.
Before going out there and interacting with them, with a piece of paper, none of us had realized the intensity of the situation, where it was excessively difficult to make women speak, especially at their in-laws place. In one of the instances, the mother-in-law of a woman began to shout at her daughter-in-law in the middle of a screening exercise when the latter was casually approached by our health worker to understand her health. In other cases too, the moment a daughter-in-law started to speak, she was forced to shut up as the entire family (in-laws) would gather around her and make her uncomfortable. Thus, even after being a part of a Maternal and Child Healthcare project for almost three years, the agency to utter even a word seemed grueling.
Blessing in disguise or a barrier to protocol
As mentioned previously, there were times and places where women were unable to talk, though the silence spoke volumes. The blurred lines of intersection between each of these terms: power, gender and agency, resulted in assessing the underlying tension. The problem still remained unsolved since the requirement to score more than 10 on the EPDS for us to look into it further, wasn’t met. We had to push our boundaries to assess the problems which had become impossible to quote. The fact that most of our community health workers were able to connect with them, did make them comfortable enough to sit and talk about their feelings, but the sheer necessity to spell it out became hideously taxing.
Worse than the agency to speak is the agency to take cognizance of their feelings. In most cases, the laughter was actually foretelling the fact that these women have no recognition of their own feelings. Their existence lay on the disciplinary power that was coercing their earlier mentioned what’s, how’s and why’s, and the overpowering patriarchs of the family were real disciplinarians for the same.
The bare minimum outcome that we hope to achieve from this exercise is that the women should at least be able to start feeling the way they want to, and be aware of it, not just because it is about their mental health, but also to head themselves in a way (over power and gender dynamics) where they can exercise will (agency) on their thoughts and feelings. We hope that one day we get to see these women laughing out loud, with shine in their bright eyes!