Studying abroad challenges singular narratives

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On my first day of formal classes, I watched Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie points out how we often receive only one view or one image of a place, person, event or culture, and then assume that to be the only narrative. It is an idea I keep revisiting while I am here, and one that I was particularly reminded of during a recent lecture for my social change class.

Dr. Vidhi Jain, the founder of Swaraj University, came to speak to our class about alternatives to education (she has a TED Talk of her own). As often happens in our class of 14 girls, the topic of gender equality arose. Specifically, we questioned how viable her model is for combating women’s oppression in Indian villages. Our class has briefly visited several Indian villages, and assumed that the women’s silence in front of men, the veils covering their face and their specific household duties indicated that they were oppressed.

Jain countered this view with her own experiences. During the years she spent in rural areas, she witnessed women wielding considerable power in their families and playing important roles in society. She suggested that the signals we interpreted as oppressive were actually not so, and that the change we envisioned for these women was unnecessary and possibly negative in this context.

I still question some of her points and do not take everything she said as the absolute truth. But solely considering the alternative perspective she presented us with is so important, especially when studying abroad. The simple fact that I was exposed to her ideas and forced to think about them challenges any single story I may have harbored about village life and women’s place in it.

Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things,” which I began reading this week, opens with a quote attributed to John Berger: “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.” This quote could guide my own and possibly anyone else’s study abroad story. Challenging the singular view that so many of us have is one reasonpossibly the most importantthat a person should study abroad at all.