As I mentioned in my last post, I spent the past year researching and writing my double-honors senior thesis in Global Health and Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies about the chulha/cookstove issue. While it may seem that this issue is far removed from issues in the United States, I think it is incredibly important, especially since almost half the world still uses biomass cookstoves. Additionally, the gendered aspect of cookstoves has a personal connection to my life. I’ve included the abstract and introduction of my thesis, in which I lay out my argument and my personal connection to the cookstove issue. The rest of the body of my thesis is more based in research, and I would be happy to send you the final draft upon request.
Reflections on Indian Women’s Use of the Chulha in Rajasthan: Reproductive Labor, Women’s Health, and Transnational Feminist Environmental Advocacy
An estimated 2.7 to three billion people in the world use biofuel cookstoves to cook meals and warm their homes, presenting various environmental and health issues. Using the Indian chulha, or ‘traditional’ cookstove, as the locus of my project, I present existing research, integrating a brief history of British colonialism in India, reproductive labor, health impacts on women, and development efforts to show how complex, multifaceted problems require complex, multifaceted solutions. I supplement the existing research by drawing from my personal experiences and relationship to chulhas. My honors senior thesis is heavily informed by my personal experiences as an Honors TA for the multidisciplinary “Big Ideas: People and the Environment” course, and my field experiences in rural Rajasthan, India. I adopt an interdisciplinary, transnational feminist approach, arguing that current research on the health issues caused by cookstoves would benefit from a deeper consideration of the relationship between the feminist concept of reproductive labor, postcolonial history, and the political economy of capitalist development. I also argue that while rural women’s personal priorities and development needs should be met, development sectors should focus on how to reduce environmentally destructive consumerism and how to make environmentally-friendly products more aspirational to the socioeconomic classes that have access to these products, thus promoting transnational feminist environmental advocacy.
Getting There: Critical Assertions and Personal Reflections
I’ve always admired strong women. Indeed I owe my life to strong women. My mother, a widowed woman, and at the end of an abusive relationship, knew she wanted to have children, and took it upon herself to realize her dreams of a family. At the age of 49, she adopted me from China as a single mom. Two years later, she adopted my younger sister from Vietnam. Adoption is challenging enough for a heterosexual couple earning two incomes, but my mom is persistent, strong-willed, and resourceful. She managed to jump through the hoops of the international adoption system as a single woman, travelling to Asia with only my grandma, hope for the process, and determination in herself.
My mom also owns her own business. For the past 20+ years, she has owned and operated House Beautiful Maid Service, her home-cleaning business that employs one other person. She and her co-worker clean up to 25 homes a week in Iowa City and surrounding areas, dealing with varying levels of grime and customer complaint. My mom’s occupation used to embarrass me–that she didn’t have a “real,” salaried job in an office with co-workers like my friends’ parents. Looking back now, though, I’m ashamed that I was ashamed. I’m ashamed that I was embarrassed. My mom’s job as a house cleaner is important. The keeping and maintenance of the home is an important form of reproductive labor that allows her clients to live more comfortably, with a few less tasks on their to-do lists. But I’ve also come to realize the privilege that come into play with my mother’s job, particularly the obvious power imbalance between a lower-middle class, high school-educated woman performing feminized labor and the people she works for, with enough disposable income to afford a housekeeper to come into their home, unnoticed, on a bi-weekly basis.
Whatever others think of her work, it amazes me that my mother overcame the tragic death of her first husband, the abuse of her long-term partner, adopted two girls from Asia, and raised them on a single income of a housekeeper. She has inspired me to be curious, determined, persistent, and passionate about what I do. Her interest in the world has influenced my own, which leads me to the next part of my story. It is how I came to write this thesis.
It wasn’t obvious I would write a feminist, interdisciplinary thesis when I started college. After I graduated high school, I started at the University of Iowa as a Human Physiology major on the pre-medicine track, as a lot of recent high school graduates seem to do. As a first-generation college student, I had never heard of public health, global health, or gender studies. I thought the path I chose would be the best way to help people. Because I never had to study much in high school, the change from not having to try to having to compete for grades in the science classes I was taking during my Freshman year was drastic. It made me apathetic about my schoolwork, and my interest in it quickly deteriorated as did my motivation for staying with it.
This changed when I decided to take Gender, Race, and Class in the U.S. (now called Diversity and Power) to fulfill a general education requirement in the Spring semester of my Freshman year. The themes of social justice, race relations, inequality, gender roles, and marginalized communities captured my attention. I became excited about going to class, completed the readings, and asked questions. Thinking back on it the class inspired me to change majors after two more unhappy semesters as a science major. In the Spring semester of my sophomore year, I decided to combine my interest in health and Spanish with Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality (GWSS) studies. I thought the degrees complemented each other well, and I was excited about my potential again. The first GWSS course I excitedly signed up for was Sexual Ethics with Professor Diana Cates in the Spring semester of my Sophomore year, one year after taking Gender, Race, and Class in the U.S. Again, I was refreshed to be learning about how sexuality, religion, and ethics interact to influence people’s health decisions. While I thought the entire class was interesting, what I remember most was an analogy she made relating women to trees: “I like to think women are like trees,” she said. “They grow strong roots deep in the ground that interact with their environments and each other, and their branches move in the wind, flexible yet steady, returning to their original position.”
Somehow Professor Cates’ metaphor made me want to stretch my branches in new directions. Because I had not participated in many university activities during my first year of college, I wanted to prove to myself that high school was not the peak of my young life. I wanted to prove that I was still motivated, intelligent, and talented. I wanted to prove that I could still be successful. Because of this decision to branch out, I decided around that time to try out for Iowa Andhi, the University of Iowa’s South Asian fusion dance team. It seemed like a fun way to get back in touch with the dancing I had done throughout childhood and high school, as well as a way to make more friends and learn about South Asian culture. Since joining, Iowa Andhi has been instrumental in connecting me with strong, intelligent, talented women that empower me, as well as connecting me with new friends who also are a part of the multicultural sector of the university. It has also grown my branches by increasing my awareness, understanding, and appreciation for the diversity of South Asian cultures.
Then I met Professor Meena Khandelwal. She had guest-lectured in some of my other global health and GWSS classes about microfinance and the cookstove conundrum in Rajasthan, India, and this increased even further my interest in South Asia. In the Spring of 2016, I applied to be a participant of a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Award (GPA), led by Professor Khandelwal, that sought to explore how women living in rural Rajasthan negotiate with and resist development efforts centered around their ‘traditional’ cookstove, known as a chulha, in an interdisciplinary way. Other University of Iowa professors from the fields of engineering, geography, anthropology, GWSS, history, and urban planning were interested in the cookstove issue, and each approached the conundrum from the perspective of their own expertise. The GPA was organized as a seminar that included Hindi lessons, meetings with local Rajasthani non-governmental organizations (NGOs), visits to rural Rajasthani villages with homes that used the chulha, and a conference that featured experts on chulhas, tangentially related issues, and development.
After my acceptance, and receiving more information about the seminar, I started to do my own preliminary research about the cookstove issue. After reading that 2.7 billion people in the world still use fuel-burning cookstoves, and that the smoke that the stoves emit is a great cause of health concern (especially for women), I decided that this research would be a perfect fit for combining my global health and GWSS senior research projects. I asked Professor Khandelwal if she would be my advisor, to which she agreed.
As part of the senior research process, I had to enroll in an independent study, but rather than doing a traditional one, Professor Khandelwal fortunately came up with the clever idea of including me as the Honors Teaching Assistant for her interdisciplinary, team-taught course entitled Big Ideas: People and the Environment that was informed by inquiry-guided learning. This course connected issues of cookstoves, environmentalism, reproductive labor, health, development efforts, and the role of the neoliberal state and its economies in rural Rajasthan to similar ones in Iowa. The pedagogy of the course was (and still is) interesting to me, not only because five professors of different fields took turns in teaching the course from their areas of expertise, but also because the students worked in groups, and were actively encouraged to consider problems in interdisciplinary ways that can lead to deeper, more profound understandings and future questions.
As the Honors Teaching Assistant, I did what most would expect: attended each class, completed each reading, helped facilitate discussion in small groups, and held office hours. However, my learning went much deeper than that. Hearing and reading about Rajasthan, cookstoves, environmental degradation / environmental science and engineering, and reproductive labor in a formal setting was all new to me. I was learning with the students enrolled in the course, while also trying to facilitate discussion about gender roles, reproductive labor, and neoliberalism–topics that I felt reasonably comfortable discussing due to the GWSS and global health courses I had previously taken.
I struggled at times, however, with my role in the course. Many times I did not feel acknowledged by the students, who saw me as their equal rather than as an Honors TA, and being soft-spoken and mildly awkward at my best didn’t help. I sometimes questioned my ability to engage with the texts deeply enough so that I could discuss them with the students in a confident and intelligent way. I usually felt awkward around the graduate teaching assistants and other professors of the course for the same reasons. This, in turn, made me feel more self-conscious and awkward, and sometimes I questioned my conversational abilities and intelligence. Since I was going to India with all of these professors, I tried, nevertheless, to internalize as much of the information from the class as possible to be culturally and intellectually prepared in attempts to seem competent.
When I left for Rajasthan, India the Saturday after finals week of the Fall 2016 semester, I was nervous about my role but also excited and proud that, like my mom, I had used my tenacity and intelligence to be accepted among a sea of applicants interested in travelling and learning abroad. For a young, independent woman and developing feminist scholar it was a wonderful opportunity for growth. Other participants included five professors–the same ones from the People and the Environment course–three graduate students, and four other undergraduate students, all from very different fields of study ranging from anthropology, to GWSS, to social studies education, to biology, to geography, to international studies, to social work. Entitled the “Promises and Pitfalls of Development Efforts in Rajasthan, India” the seminar sought to
explore the story of cook-stoves in southern Rajasthan, as a window into the complex and inevitably unfinished project of ‘development’ in India and elsewhere […] by familiarizing ourselves with the local language and culture and with the aid and collaboration of India researchers who have long been immersed in the cook-stove conundrum. The goal is to understand people’s personal experiences with ‘improved chulhas’, including those of researchers who design them, manufacturers who produce them, NGO workers who implement them, and village women who are expected to use them. This kind of conversation can help to demonstrate the value of [humanities-based] area studies expertise for a broad range of disciplines and for engagement with vexing problems of serious public concern.
Increasing my knowledge of South Asian area studies was an obvious aspect that peaked my interest. I was slightly familiar with Indian culture through my contact with the diasporic student organizations of the Indian Student Alliance and South Asian Student Alliance, but was eager to learn about Rajasthani culture specifically. Learning Hindi has always been a goal of mine, especially listening to my friends in Andhi speak it between run-throughs of our routines set to Bollywood music. I also liked the challenge of learning a non-Romance language with its beautiful Devanagari script (even though we mainly focused on conversational Hindi).
The seminar’s description made me excited about the opportunity to personally witness and experience what I had learned about in the People and the Environment course. I was interested to see the tension and harmony of several disciplines and pedagogies coming together to understand a problem. Much of my undergraduate studies are interdisciplinary, so it was intriguing to see various scholars–many in my own fields of global health, GWSS, and development–engaging and collaborating academically and ‘on the ground’ to better understand a pervasive problem. My primary interest after reading the seminar’s description, however, was to learn how the women of Rajasthan exercise agency amidst historical, social, cultural, symbolic, and technical complexities by continuing to use chulhas. I wanted to learn how women, the ‘target’ of many development schemes, use their agency to resist and negotiate with designers, manufacturers, and NGO staff–all fields that are historically and currently dominated by men. The critical, multidisciplinary, feminist approach of the Fulbright-Hays seminar was crucial in my development as a feminist scholar and understanding of the cookstove conundrum.
Beyond the intellectual excitement of the course was the travel I got to do in India. We visited Delhi, India’s national capital; Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital; the Taj Mahal and a Mughal fort during a day trip in Agra; but spent most of our time in Udaipur, Rajasthan. My time in India was almost entirely positive. I did have days where I felt ‘off’ due to the normal ups and downs of life and feeling tired from the full days we had and complexities we saw every day. The guilt I felt for being a Westerner, with limited knowledge of the language and culture, and a larger carbon footprint than any of the chulha users have, also contributed to my ‘off’ days. Continued discussions with faculty, fellow students, and local Rajasthani NGO workers about privilege helped ease this sense of guilt and hypocrisy, so I never had a day that I considered ‘bad’. Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed learning with this group of people, local Rajasthani NGO workers and organizations, and other cookstove and development experts.
There were five distinct aspects of the experience that have made a lasting impression on the ways I think about cookstoves specifically and development more broadly, all of which have gone into the making of my honors thesis. The first was in the interdisciplinary format of the research seminar. It was similar to the People and the Environment course not only in content but also in the different perspectives and pedagogical methods that informed–and contested–each other. For me, the biggest and most useful aspect of this experience was that we gained an embodied understanding of fieldwork during our visits to villages and of Rajasthani culture. While the course and the seminar explored the same topic, my experience in the seminar allowed me to see the value of reproductive labor, feel the warmth of the chulha, and listen to families explain the complexities and reasons for not adopting the chulha. Compared to learning in a conventional classroom environment with two-dimensional photographs, talking to people who actually use chulhas allowed me to more easily gain a sense of empathy and develop a greater sense of understanding.
It was also rare to see this number of professors interacting with each other, especially from different fields, and it was tremendously interesting to watch and experience how interdisciplinary collaboration works. During the People and the Environment course, the professors rarely disagreed with one another, and when they did, it was noted in the PowerPoint slides–almost scripted. In India, this was not the case. There were several times throughout the seminar when Professor Udaykumar, the engineer, and Professor Khandelwal, the anthropologist and GWSS expert, debated about the symbolic, technical, and material meanings of chulhas, wood, and wood collection during group discussions. Other faculty members would interject, adding perspectives from their field, thereby altering the course of the conversation. After fifteen minutes of debate, a faculty member would say, “Let’s hear what the students have to say,” leaving us (or maybe just me) caught off guard after trying to keep up with the conversation. Being caught off guard paralleled my impressions of not feeling competent during my time as a TA–trying to internalize information, feeling awkward and nervous in expressing myself, but still trying to make meaningful and thoughtful contributions. Nevertheless, these discussions honed my ability to think critically in the moment. They were intellectually stimulating and rigorous, keeping me on my toes and ready to contribute my perspectives that were better informed by what I was seeing and experiencing in Rajasthan.
Being able to witness, and, at times, participate in, conversations among academic experts in this way reinforced the idea that there is no one way to approach a problem. The disagreements I witnessed often led to a more complex, nuanced understanding of the problem, and to different, yet connected paths of thinking about other problems. I also appreciated being able to talk more candidly with professors. In the average classroom setting, I am normally quite shy, contributing only when I know my answer is correct, when I think I have a comment that is especially important, or when no one is contributing and the professor appears desperate for class participation. I am usually too nervous to ask questions in class, and save them for the professor at the end of lecture. This experience, however, was different. Because of the application process, I knew that all the students were just as intellectually curious and interested in the cookstove issue as I was. It was encouraging and motivating to be thinking, asking questions, and working with the same people, all day every day for a month. The increased, almost familial contact with students and professors allowed for more exposure to different perspectives, pedagogies, and their interactions, more holistically informing my subsequent research. After a week, the pressure to impress everyone went away as we continued to engage with the complexities of the cookstove problem at hand. The ratio of professors to students also made the experience seem more personalized–I felt it fostered more discussion and less lecture, while highlighting the genuine care that the professors had to ensure I and the rest of the group were growing as scholars and as people.
The second experience took place at Swaraj University, and shaped my understanding of the research process. Swaraj University does not offer a formal degree due to its fundamental disagreements with the institutionalization of learning, but it does encourage its students, whom they call khojis (meaning ‘seekers’ in Hindi), to develop a personalized, environmentally- and self-sustaining, multidisciplinary curriculum to create change that is meaningful to them. Swaraj University believes that everyone, regardless of gender, class, caste, age, language, etc., can be both a teacher and a learner. During our visit at Swaraj, University of Iowa members were broken into groups to be ‘teachers’ about topics that we had interest / experience in. I was supposed to be a ‘teacher’ of Bollywood dance due to my experience with Iowa Andhi. While I felt like a ridiculous phony (as Holden Caulfield would say) trying to teach Indian students my age how to do Bollywood dance, the khojis were graciously willing to learn, and they taught me several moves from their own states. I really appreciated the concept of simultaneously being a teacher and learner–it reminded me that everyone is able to make a contribution, regardless of positionality. It made me hopeful about my participation in conversations to be had in the seminar, as well as my future honors research on cookstoves.
The third experience was one that caused a bit of discomfort in the group. During our first visit to a rural village that used chulhas, I got into a bit of a heated discussion with one of the graduate students. We were in a villager’s home that was dimly lit due to lack of electricity. I already felt uncomfortable as NGO workers and the fluent Hindi speakers of our group spoke with a woman and her husband about how she used her chulha. Meanwhile, the graduate student was taking several photographs of the home and surroundings with flash and the shutter sound. From my perspective,this was distracting and almost rude–the woman seemed uncomfortable enough without us taking photos without asking her permission first. I also found the sound to be distracting as I was trying to hear the woman and translator share their stories. I quietly asked the other graduate and undergraduate student with us if they agreed with me, which they said they did. During a break in the conversation with the woman and her husband, I quietly said to the graduate student, “Hey, I think it’s a little unfair that we asked them not to take photos of us while we take pictures of their homes and possessions.” She replied, “I’m just doing what I’m told,” to which I responded, “Yeah, but you still have agency.”
The situation was complex and raised questions related to the kind of transnational feminism I wanted to practice. When I spoke up, my intention was to advocate for a poor, Rajasthani woman whose home was being observed by Westerners she didn’t know and probably would never see again. During a group discussion, I talked about my concerns about the romanticization of poverty, something I felt strongly about because of my own class background. Some of the professors counted with how inconsequential the issue of photographs were compared to other issues facing the family. Others talked about how homes are not thought of as private entities as much as in the U.S., leading me to reconsider my own Western assumptions. Looking back on it, I’m not sorry I caused some tension for a few days. I’m still glad I spoke my truth about class and gender that I so deeply felt at the time, and the discussion that followed reminded me of the importance of reflecting on my own positionality. These concerns informed my research process and the writing of this essay.
The fourth experience came out of our visit to Barefoot College, a learning organization that seeks to demystify and decentralize knowledge, making it more accessible to poor rural populations so they can improve their lives in sustainable ways. Our tour guide, Ramnavasji, works at Barefoot College as a puppeteer, using the traditional and highly popular storytelling medium of puppetry to perform puppet shows at local villages in order to tell stories and create awareness around issues such as legal literacy and public health initiatives. Before becoming a puppeteer, Ramnavas told us of his life as a low-caste street sweeper who couldn’t even enter temples because he was a Dalit, also known as ‘Untouchable.’ As he was talking about his experiences as a person of a low caste, I was struck when he said, “I see my puppets as better than statues to God. I’m not able to go into temples for being Dalit, but these puppets are for everyone.” This reminded me of the importance of storytelling and how local forms of art and knowledge can be used to more effectively communicate messages–for everybody. Ramnavas’ story deeply stirred my passion to tell the story of cookstoves and the importance of work, especially women’s reproductive labor, in my honors thesis. It also made me consider how I am making both myself and the knowledge I am trying to produce as a young scholar accessible.
The fifth experience occurred on the last day of the development conference when Professor Khandelwal was making some final remarks. She had reminded us to consider material relationships and processes, and not to become complicit in these processes when thinking about representational discourse. Her words especially resonated with me because I was trying pretty hard not to represent India in a negative way, both in my blogs and my photos that I was sharing. Outside of Iowa Andhi, many people in my networks have vague or negative understandings of India. I thought that if I tried to represent India positively, with brief mentions of the trash, animals, sewage issues, etc., more people would be likely to explore for themselves. Of course, this comes with its own problems. It made me consider material relationships and processes more as my research continued, and how to balance them with the kind of politics of representation I wanted to practice .
Here I am, two years later, writing my senior thesis about strong women, reproductive labor, the political economy of capitalist development, and trees (broadly) as they impact the environment. The strength and reproductive labor performed by my mom; the intelligence and quirky metaphors of Professor Cates; the varied, nuanced, yet entirely rich experiences of my research thus far; and the attentive, thoughtful suggestions by my thesis advisor Professor Khandelwal and my GWSS Senior Research Seminar teacher Professor Rasmussen have informed my research and writing. They have reminded me of the importance of my voice, positionality, cultural awareness, and the reasons why I decided to research and write about the importance of understanding how chulhas are a locus of gender, environmentalism, engineering, and development efforts. They serve as a focal point of how reproductive labor impacts health and is influenced by outside pressures such as the neoliberal state and consumerism.
In this essay I will use the story of Indian women’s use of the chulha, the one I went to India to understand, to explore the relationship between postcolonial history, reproductive labor, women’s health, development efforts, and neoliberalism. In so many ways this is not simply a story about women in a small village in India wanting to use their traditional cookstoves. Through my honors teaching and research I learned that an estimated 2.7 billion people in the world collect and use wood as a source of fuel and warmth (Khandelwal et al., 2017). In the state of Rajasthan, India, where I visited, the majority of rural villagers living near/in the Aravalli Hills are dependent on fuelwood. The villagers, primarily women, perform various forms of reproductive labor, much of it centered around the chulha. While professors stressed concerns about environmental degradation, deforestation of the Aravallis, and desertification of the Thar Desert on the Pakistani border, they also focused on the cardiovascular and pulmonary-related health issues faced by the women who used these stoves and their families. Yet they also complicated this already complex story for us. While research shows that women’s cardiovascular and respiratory health is negatively affected by the reproductive labor they perform, this labor can also be understood as a source of women’s empowerment and self-importance. Although many aspects of Western narratives of women’s empowerment are valid, they often lack an intersectional framework, and prioritize liberation through formal education, participation in paid labor, and engaging in electoral politics. These narratives are not necessarily relevant in the Rajasthani case, for one must ask what kinds of work, education, and politics are being prioritized–by whom and for whom. It is important to not adopt and apply a White, Western, hegemonic form of feminism that does not consider Rajasthani women’s sense of empowerment and self-importance from their own cultural context.
Deeply influenced by the feminist interdisciplinary way of understanding chulhas in rural Rajasthan, I argue that current research on the health issues caused by cookstoves would benefit from a deeper consideration of the relationship between gender, especially the power and agency in reproductive labor, postcolonial history and the political economy of capitalist development. Through my personal, academic, and field experiences I came to see that rural Rajasthani women’s personal priorities and development needs should be met. At the same time, development sectors should focus on how to reduce environmentally destructive consumerism while making environmentally-friendly products more aspirational to the socioeconomic classes that have access to these products.
I have tried to create in this essay a space for transnational feminist environmental advocacy, as Western preconceived ideas of ‘women’s empowerment’ have failed to consider local women’s perspectives of the value of their reproductive labor within their communities and to consider the complexities of what a life without reproductive labor (e.g., wood collection, cooking, etc.) would look like in actuality. Additionally, I have argued that neoliberal capitalism and consumerism have contributed substantially more to climate change than the subsistence strategies of rural, ‘tribal’ women living in Rajasthan. Because of my range of learning experiences, I have better able to research how postcolonial histories, reproductive labor, health, and neoliberalism interact to create this complex story of women and the environment.
 Chulha is the Hindi word (with the English plural form of chulhas) that refers to a ‘traditional’ stove that burns firewood and other forms of biomass fuel. There are several models of the chulha, ranging from a more simple three-stone hearth upon which a single pot can rest, to clay structures that can hold and heat several pots. I will be discussing the various problems related to chulhas later in my essay.
 From Professor Khandelwal’s abstract of the Fulbright-Hays Group Project Award, “Promises and Pitfalls of Development Efforts in Rural Rajasthan.”