A Stream is Filled with Drops of Water: Reflections on Envisioning Social Justice from the Margins

February 18, 2021

Jelena Golubović
Banting Fellow

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University, SFU Public Square or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

On February 9, Dr. Parin Dossa delivered a virtual lecture as part of SFU's 2021 President's Faculty Lectures on the theme of resilience and recovery. A respected anthropologist with extensive field experience, she took the audience on a transnational journey that linked her multiple field sites, including Afghanistan, India, Kenya, and Canada. She shared the storied lives of her research participants in each field site: Muslim women, some of whom are differently-abled and some of whom are immigrants from places such as Iran, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

In this weaving together of places and people, Dossa put forward a poignant message about social justice realized through interconnectivity and solidarity. Envisioning a radical inclusivity beyond normative discourse and practices, she called on listeners to draw upon their own traditions and repertoires of knowledge to effect social justice through small acts, the significance of which must not be dismissed lightly.

Recognizing the resonant power of small acts, Dossa offered a proverb in her mother tongue of Gujarati: Tipeh tipeh sarovar bharay (A stream is filled with drops of water). This proverb guided her approach as she spoke about the lives of her research participants, illustrating their acts of resistance and resilience. 

The story of a woman with two differently-abled children who takes unpaid leave from her work on days when she needs to provide care for them. Her dignified refusal to take paid “sick leave” on those days, because doing so would mean “hiding her children.”

The story of a woman who had to wait for two weeks for repair of her broken wheelchair while her service worker was on vacation. Prevented from performing her daily work (cooking, cleaning, attending ESL classes, taking care of her three children), her confinement to sitting on her couch and simply waiting reveals her agency in subversion of the script that disability equals dependence. 

Locating the political in everyday acts is part of an anthropological and feminist perspective on lived realties. It belongs to a tradition that seeks out, as Dossa put it, “lives that are rendered socially invisible,” and “stories that are not easily heard.” The modes and methods that Dossa employs in her research – storytelling, memory work, the language of the body, the language of silence, and analytics of everyday life – are the same modes and methods through which her own participants invite us to witness their lives and engage in dialogue with them. 

In the chat screen, while Dossa was speaking, one audience member commented on her composure of compassion and humility. In listening to her speak, it seems clear that she does not think of her interlocutors’ stories as data, but as a kind of gift, one that she accepts with care, and passes on with even greater care. Situating her research participants as storytellers and witnesses to their own lives, she asked the audience, “What is our responsibility as researchers and readers? We need to witness and remember with them, not for them, a position that can lead to appropriation of their stories of suffering.” She frequently quotes her participants at length, making space for their words instead of her own.

Dossa’s transnational “journey” offered listeners a glimpse of “what it means to exist in the midst of forces that compromise our humanity.” Treading slowly, listening deeply, her ethnographic approach unlocks a world where marginalized women’s struggles for social justice are enacted, even when those struggles are rendered socially invisible or confined to the inner spaces of everyday life. 

This could sound discouraging; it isn’t. 

Dossa’s work compels us to recognize how pathways towards social justice are generated from the margins, and how no action against injustice is too small to take. Tipeh tipeh sarovar bharay. A stream is filled with drops of water.

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