Miss Nikhita Mendis (2018)
As an undergraduate studying International Relations and Middle East Studies at Brown University, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork on the lives of Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. I learned that my interlocutors did not consider themselves marginalized subjects. Instead, they articulated their experiences as empowered women using Buddhist practices to navigate their everyday lives. Growing up in Sri Lanka during the Civil War, I witnessed similar discrepancies between the way local populations viewed themselves and the assumptions human rights organisations made when proposing policy. Through these experiences, I came to value anthropology’s emphasis on localised ways of life as a tool for improving policy initiatives. At Cambridge, I will investigate how human rights organisations with deeply secular roots can work to protect migrant domestic workers whose primary motivations are non-secular. I seek to confront the liberal assumptions of feminist and labor theorists engaging with the lives of migrant domestic workers and to explore the imbrication of religious embodiment in post-colonial subject formation. Ultimately, I hope to amplify the voices of women caught between the difficult experiences of migration and the problems of representation in secular human rights discourse. I am excited to work with the Gates and Cambridge communities to develop a deeper public consciousness about the role of religion as a mode of empowerment.