Anar Patel: Empowering Women With Love
Posted by Bela Shah on Oct 25, 2012
These are the three values that have defined Anarben Patel’s life and woven her journey in service, thread by thread.
On last Saturday’s Forest Call, joyous celebrations from the Gujarati festival "Navratri" danced through our phone wires as Anarben’s stories and experiences painted unforgettable images depicting these values.
When her beautiful daughter Sanskruti was only two months old, Anardidi (as she is more affectionately known-"didi" means “sister”) carried her baby with her everywhere she went, even if she was working in the slums in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Not worried about the potential for unsanitary conditions, Anardidi trusted in the love of the women she was working with. Sanskruti grew up in the arms of many of these women, sharing their meals and playing with their children.
When Anardidi herself was a young girl, she spent her vacation hours tutoring illiterate children from the slums near her home. (She admits that her own mother threatened to stop paying her tuition if she didn’t volunteer instead of enjoying her time off!) But soon after beginning, there was no turning back and her class grew from two students to twenty students.
“What I love the most about my experiences in service in various communities is the love, faith, and trust that I have constantly received. It has completely transformed me. The way people just openly trusted us and put their faith in us, even if we were just performing small acts of service. I wanted to pay it forward in some way and I’ve found that its values like these that go a long way in any form of development work, and not so much material wealth.”
The daughter of a politician and the daughter-in-law of Ishwar Patel, a famous Gandhian, Anardidi’s own views and perspectives have been shaped tremendously by this interesting mix. While she is the co-founder of Manav Sadhna, an NGO grounded in value-based education and service, she is also the visionary behind both Gramshree and Craftroots, NGOs that tie value-based development with economic empowerment.
Years ago, it was Anardidi’s insightful take-away from another woman’s suffering that planted the seeds for Gramshree. At a gathering where Anardidi was speaking with the mothers of Manav Sadhna children, one woman shared her personal trauma from her life at night, when her husband sexually abused her. The sharing poured forth from the depths of her heart, bringing everyone to tears.
“At that point, I immediately started thinking of possible solutions, solutions that involved taking this woman away from a husband that was causing her so much suffering. Very often, in social empowerment, people often think of solutions like these, solutions that try to “fix" the problem. The next day, that same woman shared with me that she was just happy that she could express herself and share her story with someone. In that moment, I realized that love and a safe space for expression were all that women needed to be happy.”
Today, Gramshree is an incredible space that serves as both a sanctuary for 2,000 women from the slums, as well as a means to become economically self-sufficient. It’s an approach that is not so concerned with fixing the problem or breaking up a woman’s family, but is deeply rooted in sharing and creating a larger family for the woman through simple values of love, appreciation, and listening. And simultaneously, the women learn how to spin gorgeous quilts, tops, shawls, jewelry, and other accessories and home furnishings.:).
What is special about Anardidi is her ability to understand the suffering of others and offer herself as a mentor and friend. Although she wears multiple hats throughout the day, including wife, mother, daughter-in-law, business partner, and volunteer, she prioritizes her mentoring relationships over many other responsibilities. Whether she is holding a circle of sharing with women in the slums, or meeting with artisans and their families in rural villages, Anardidi is able to motivate women (and men) to believe in what they are doing, to have faith, and to work towards creating a better life.
“When working with women and communities, it’s important to touch every emotion within them through love and compassion. And what’s even more important is to have the right set of values within us; only then can we be capable of mentoring and motivating anyone.”
If there is a value that she hasn’t mastered, then Anardidi doesn’t believe in trying to teach it to someone else; for this would not only be untruthful, but also empty in love.
What values has she mastered:)? Many. But one that stands out, and resonates deeply with Anardidi is fearlessness. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, a man that lived his life in the fearless pursuit of truth, she has seen its impact in her own relationships and service. When mentoring is rooted in love, there is no fear, and as a result, she has been able to delve deeper into relationships along her service journey. Practicing fearlessness has strengthened her understanding and ability to practice other Gandhian values, particularly truth and nonviolence.
If you met Anardidi, you would probably be immediately touched by her kindness and humility…but as you spend more time with her, you might come to realize the strength of her spirit. Taking Ishwarkaka’s advice, she fearlessly walked into the streets and struck up a conversation with just about anyone, regardless of their views or demeanor. She found this to be good practice in strengthening her own character.
“When you meet people that are very different than you, it’s very challenging. It feels like you’re always swimming upstream instead of moving with the current. This challenge has helped me to evolve and I have found that no matter what field I’m working in, it’s composed of human beings that are innately compassionate. Exposing myself to such a diversity of people has helped me to connect with just about anyone, tap into their compassion, and bring them along in my service journey.”
After working for twenty years in development, Anardidi shares that it’s this inability to connect with and trust in others that is India’s greatest development challenge. She takes the term “untouchability” out of its traditional context to describe the way we judge and classify each other and explains that wisdom comes in many forms. People that meditate believe that people that do not meditate aren’t spiritual, for example. Anardidi emphasized that each person has their own path and their own way of expressing their wisdom and it’s up to us to trust one another instead of judging.
Trust has been the cornerstone of Manav Sadhna and Gramshree. If you’ve had the good fortune to experience these spaces and be a part of their community, you might never want to leave. But it’s important to realize that these organizations and communities didn’t just pop up over night. Anardidi explained that the process of building any sustainable community is extremely slow and that you have to constantly think about helping, supporting, and loving those around you.
“If you just go out and say, “Here I am. I want to help you,” people may not trust you right away because they might believe you have selfish intentions. This is just the way that the world is often conditioned. You must constantly think about how you can build rapport with people by serving them selflessly. You have to be sure that there is not even one selfish action during this initial process.”
After hearing Guri describe Anardidi’s tremendous work and accomplishments, her only response was, “I do small, small things…that’s all I do.” This might seem unbelievable when you truly grasp the multiple and diverse roles that Anardidi plays in a single day. But when you think about the love with which she does everything, it’s possible to understand how she makes it happen.
“Nothing I do is a sacrifice. It’s all coming from love. When you are doing anything with love, whether it’s work or service, nothing is a sacrifice.”
Photos taken by Rahul Pardasani and Guri Mehta