Can preparing and sharing food lead to women’s individual and collective empowerment? Does food have the power to enhance women’s agency, give them a voice, and enable their decision-making power?
As a student on the current MA Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) programme, and having a strong passion for preparing food and a background of working for women’s rights, these questions have been running through my mind ever since I came to IDS last September. However, I previously always considered preparing and sharing food as an interest, and not something I can conduct research on. The MAP programme, and my experiences with peers and faculty at IDS has enabled me to also think about these questions from a research point of view, and has given me clarity to carry out my current field placement.
I am currently in New Delhi, working at a masala center, a space where women come together to grind spices and pound flour. The masala center is a part of the activities of the Servants of the People Society, a well-established Indian NGO. The NGO employs fourteen women at the center, and is giving them a livelihood, along with promoting a small-scale industry. The entire process is done by hand, from pounding the spices, to sieving them once they are pounded, and then packing them up for sale.
Since the spices are made by hand, their quality is much better than other products in the market, but it is really hard work, and the women work long hours at the center.
My aim through this research is to understand what this space means to these women. Apart from giving them a livelihood, how else is this center contributing to their lives? Does this space give them the chance to reveal what they are really feeling, or do those feelings get hidden because some women may be dominating the space? I am also interested in understanding who has ownership and control over the space, whether it is the women themselves, or other staff members.
Along with visits to the center, I am also developing my knowledge on women’s empowerment, and reflecting on my own practice. Publications at IDS, brought out through the Pathways to Women’s Empowerment programme are proving helpful in this research journey.
As a young woman researcher, I have a lot of battles to fight. One of the women asked me how talking to me will help her in any way, and resisted to having me in her space. Other staff members are also intrigued by my research, not fully understanding the process. One of the ways I am overcoming this is by seeing this research as a co-learning endeavor, where all actors involved learn from each other.
I am also interested in the sensory aspect of food and how spices add to that – the feel, taste and touch of the spices, the aroma they add to food, and the many conversations they nurture. This is also related to communal eating, another concept I am greatly interested in.
For this purpose, along with visits to the center, I also plan to engage in conversation with strong women from my family, and other professionals who are involved with preparing and sharing food. Their experiences, along with my own cooking exploits in these months, will surely make for very interesting research.
Devika Menon is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP). A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of months, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.
 ‘Masala’ is a hindi word for spices