Q&A: Nikky Singh


Nikky-Guninder K. Singh, professor of religious studies and East Asian studies, on the Among Women program, revisiting India, and why women are playing an essential role as we seek global stability

By Alexandra Desaulniers '11
Photography by Jason McKibben

Nikki Singh
Nikky Singh, Colby’s Crawford Family Professor of Religion and a Wellesley alumna, with students following her return from a tour of India on which she led other alumnae from the Seven Sister colleges. The international program encourages empowerment of women and solutions to global problems.
Nikky-Guninder K. Singh, Colby’s Crawford Family Professor of Religion, was academic leader for a recent scholars’ tour, “Bangladesh and India: Beyond Caste and Poverty,” part of the Among Women tour series. She spoke with Colby about the Among Women tours and her group’s experiences in South Asia.

What is Among Women, and how did you become involved?
Among Women is an international dialogue that developed out of the Seven Sister colleges: Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. Betsy Byrd at Smith College had this vision that if women from different parts of the world got together, just sat around a table, you could think together and bring a change in the world. The Among Women program started two or three years ago, and this latest tour to India and Bangladesh was the third; the first was to Jordan and the second to South Africa. I became involved because I graduated from Wellesley, the host of the program this year. I acted as the academic leader for the tour, organizing the combination of visiting the country with discussions with women in leadership positions in politics, economics, education, the arts. We were a group of thirty-four women—graduates from these Seven Sister colleges, from twenty-five to eighty years old—getting together to see another part of the world and learn how we might help make a difference there.

You grew up in India? How has the country changed since you left to pursue your education in the U.S.?
I did grow up in India, in a tiny area there. We were so disconnected from everything. Coming to the United States for college was like bringing in a whole new world. Now every place has the Internet and e-mail and cell phones. It changed so fast and has really brought the world so close. Globalism is a reality and it’s changing that part of the world so quickly.

How is the Among Women program working to make the world a more globalized society?
These were women meeting women and thinking together how we can learn from one another, creating conversations across the world. One of our first meetings was with a Smith alum who had returned to India after another Among Women tour and is now starting a university [the Asian University for Women], the first of its kind for women, just women. It’s bringing women from all different parts of the world—Israel, Palestine, Cambodia, Pakistan—... together so they can be educated and learn to live with one another. It’s really wonderful. They’re learning science, too. We are becoming a global society, and that part of the world is changing drastically, so to make sure these women know about computers and science as well as giving them ethical, moral values is important so that they can become good leaders in the future.

What other type of work does the Among Women program promote?

We are making interactions and relationships to make a difference. We all returned to our own homes and universities with our memories and stories from the tour, and we’re taking what we’ve seen there and incorporating it here. Our group learned about the situations women face every day over there, and now we’re learning how we can help from here. We visited a sort of home for acid-burn victims, still a traditional punishment, and our group is now working to bring a victim of acid violence to the United States and help them go to college here.

Why is the program so important?
It inspires us. We sometimes think it’s only big things that one could or should do, but even the small things help, especially when you come back and continue to converse with one another. The memories, the experiences we made through the tour are very important. I think it was one of the feminist scholars who coined “the future of memory.” It’s all about women making memories and experiences together and building our own stronger future.

Why women?
If you want global stability, you need women. I witnessed on the tour that idea becoming a reality. Women getting involved, becoming a part of the globalizing world. Talking, sharing, learning, and making the world stable, better. You see history; you see the results of promoting and including women. Women from all over the world are coming together, exchanging ideas, and inspiring one another. It’s really dynamic.

Will you stay connected with the Among Women program and particularly with this group of 34 women?
Absolutely! We’re constantly e-mailing. We’re all really together. There’s a whole pool of photographs, thousands, and we relive every moment we had there. We are all sharing how we’re working now, too. If anyone reads a good book or sees a good movie or has thoughts about the project, we e-mail. It’s been really wonderful.

How have you incorporated your experience in your work at Colby this spring?
The tour changed me so much. It really opened my eyes. I teach a course on South Asian women writers, and I talk about authors and film directors who’ve made films about the slums in Mumbai or the red light district there. Going to see that had a profound impression on me. To hear the women there tell their stories, firsthand. It was so sad to hear how they’ve lost their womanhood; they’ve lost their lives. But there’s hope, too. They are fighting for a better life, and there are groups like the Among Women tours going and learning from and about these women, learning how to help. That’s what I’m bringing back to my classrooms. The hope. You can read about women in these slums, in the red light district, about how they’ve lost their identity, but to go and see how people are changing and the hope and the smiles that exist, it’s really reassuring. You see the worst, but also the best.

Would you suggest your students travel in order to have these firsthand experiences?

Yes, I would definitely suggest that my students go to India and really meet women there. Go experience that. No matter what you hear or read or learn, you’ll see something different, you’ll experience it differently. In our own world, everything is so familiar, and we really take what we know for granted. Unless we encounter the unfamiliar we really don’t even think about our own lives. I mean, I grew up there, but it’s only through going elsewhere, coming here to study and then returning with the tour, that we learn, make memories, and keep those alive in order to learn more.
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  • On July 25, 2010, Laila Plamondon wrote:
    The women in Dhaka really enjoyed having the ladies visit too... From what I heard, you inspired THEM!