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Volunteer Spotlight: Manzar Samii

Manzar Samii joined Seva Mandir in the fall of 2013 after finishing an MSc in Gender, Media and Cultural Studies. After finishing her volunteer work at Seva Mandir she moved back to Tehran, where she thought about and contributed to social change through arts and culture. She has since moved to New York where she continues to dedicate her time to social justice issues and culture change.

When I started working in the Women’s Empowerment Unit at Seva Mandir I had many preconceived notions about myself, rural development, and women’s issues (among other things). Upon my first meeting with Laxmi Ji, who continues to be a source of inspiration, I learned about the history and need for the Women’s Resource Centers (WRCs) and was asked to complete a comprehensive review of the nine WRCs. I undertook the task (with all my preconceived notions) and I even thought it would be quite straightforward, and in a sense it was. Perhaps that is the magic of Seva Mandir, to take an often complicated world and come up with straightforward and transformative solutions that not only meet immediate needs, but also create long lasting culture change.

Even before I started I suspected that my time and experience at Seva Mandir would be enriching, but what I did not know is that it would change my entire outlook, that it would change me into someone who appreciated the complexities, the gray areas and the contradictions of life.

Much of this transformation took place with my research partner, Navjyoti. She and I spent over three months doing fieldwork to understand the role of the WRCs in each of their respective communities and certainly we had many wonderful adventures: we worked with some amazing women leaders, we learned many valuable lessons about women’s issues, we discovered the intricacies of the communities, we began to understand the loopholes in the state’s legal system, and we valued the structure and process of the WRCs. But beyond that we learned the meaning of time, the true meaning of patience, and what it means to have your thirst quenched after a long day.

Looking back on it now, our review had all the numbers, all the facts, and many answers to our questions, but more than anything it solidified the fact that the WRCs are fundamentally transformative in their very existence because they embody the framework for a more just world in every possible way. The women leaders step up to create the world they want to exist in and they make it possible for other women. And seeing them do this work has changed me into someone who thinks carefully about how to be in the world and to work on having the courage to commit to a more just world.

Of course all of this came with lots of laughter, a great deal of frustration, being crunched into shared cars with strangers for hours at a time, too many cups of chai, at least a few headaches for Preeti ji (who managed the volunteers), the formation of lifelong friendships, learning to love cold bucket showers, many missed meetings due to internet outages, countless hours of being lost in the field, eating way too much loki, being chased by a water buffalo, and so much respect for Laxmi ji’s patience throughout it all. Certainly all of it is equally unforgettable.

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