Aparna Singh finds inspiration in many places. Writing poetry and playing guitar. A hot cup of homemade Nepali masala tea. Books, specifically “Borderlands” by Gloria Anzaldúa. Cooking Nepalese dishes (she tells me she thinks of herself as somewhat a foodie). Photography and biking. Television, especially HBO’s The Handmaid’s Tale—nolite te bastardes carborundorum, do not let the bastards grind you down, she writes to me in an email.
Aparna, however, finds inspiration in other places, in unusual and remarkable places. She finds inspiration in life’s devastations. She is a survivor of the 2015 Nepal earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured 22,000. The quake registered with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Mercalli Intensity Scale, a disaster considered acutely severe. The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in human history holds a magnitude of a closely comparable 9.5.
Not only did Aparna survive the initial earthquake, but she survived the multiple earthquakes that immediately followed, considered “aftershocks” but reaching striking magnitudes up to 6.6.
As a second year master’s student in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS), Aparna has dedicated her research to the Nepalese women who survived the 2015 earthquake and the telling of their stories. “I look at Nepalese women's experiences of the earthquake and how women experience disasters, in general,” Aparna says. “Then I explore and challenge some of the gendered narratives framed around the disaster where masculinity is emphasized and women are portrayed as helpless victims.”
What Aparna finds is that in times of disaster, women are asked to not only take care of themselves but to take care of everyone else as well. They are expected to uphold traditional gender roles with the addition of new tasks. “In almost all of the interviews,” says Aparna, “women repeatedly talked about the struggles of gathering food… From these narratives, we can understand that the burden of childcare responsibilities fell upon women and that their needs were neglected.”
Anita, a mother of three Aparna interviewed, was rightfully obsessed with providing for her family. “With the newborn baby, I did not have enough clothing or food,” she tells Aparna. “When the aid relief came, they only brought food for the adults, they did not think of newborn children. As such, I did not get nutritious food during that time and faced challenges during breastfeeding.”
Maya, another woman Aparna interviewed, details her struggle of helping herself while attempting to help others at the same time. “We had no water sources nearby so we had to walk for about thirty minutes to an hour to get to the river… The men would draw water for us but we had to wash their clothes, too."
“When natural disasters threaten locally available resources, it exacerbates women’s pre-existing domestic burden,” says Aparna. “As a result, women are disproportionately affected.”
In the days following the earthquake, Aparna found herself writing and writing and writing. She hopes to one day publish this personal narrative, consisting of prose and poetry, as an anthology detailing her survivor experience, her truth. “It was a therapeutic outlet for me to get it all out, and to process the mental and emotional trauma that I was going through at the time.
“I think my lived experiences have fueled my passion towards WGSS,” says Aparna. “I’ve always believed [in being] the change you wish you to see, so whenever I’m not satisfied with something in my community I’ve tried to do whatever I can, no matter how big or small, to change it.”
Beyond her research, Aparna is fiercely passionate about activism, especially in terms of women’s rights. This passion took hold of her in the eighth grade, when she found herself the focus of unwanted harassment and sexual advances. “I was bullied by boys in my class,” says Aparna, “And growing up in Kathmandu, I was subjected to street harassment pretty much every day. Sometimes men would touch me inappropriately in public vehicles. They would cat call us, call us names, and whistle at us when we walked the street… When I biked, male car drivers and even pedestrians would tease me.”
In response, Aparna did what a strong woman does in the face of adversary. She paused, she listened, she organized, and then she took action. She planned and oversaw anti street harassment campaigns as well as led bike rallies and 5K runs on Women’s Day.
“I feel that I’m taking a step forward towards transforming society and promoting social justice. To look at social issues from a feminist lens, to question the norm and established narratives of the third world woman. I’m determined to challenge and rethink these narratives.”
What else does Aparna Singh have planned? To continue her survivor’s journey, honoring the notion of her survival through everything she does. Creating change and fighting for what she believes in. Standing tall despite the roughness of what may surround her. Advocating for women’s rights. Rebelling against typical gender expectations. Biking the streets without enduring harassment. Reading good books and watching the Handmaid’s Tale. Never not writing poetry and playing guitar, and cooking good food as a foodie does. And one day pursuing a doctorate in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, do not let the bastards grind you down.
“I feel blessed and very fortunate to be in the WGSS program. I feel that my values align with my department; the activism component of WGSS is so strong in everything we learn... I get to wake up every day with a persistent goal that says: let's smash the patriarchy!”
Written by Danniah Daher, graduate assistant to the graduate school office.