Conference Blog: Panel Session II, Friday 21 June

What lies at the interstices of Private Lives And Public Protests? Ethnographic Reflections on Contemporary South Asian Women Activists

This panel, convened by Dr Radhika Govinda, broadly addressed the themes of public/private, ethics, agency and coercion in relation to research on contemporary South Asian Women Activists. The format for the discussion differed from other panels: here the panellists had pre-circulated their papers to the chair, Prof. Patricia Jeffery. Prof. Jeffery summarised each paper in her own words, then followed this with specific questions for the author. Therefore the summary below reflects a combination of Prof. Jeffery’s summary, slides from the authors, as well as the author’s responses to Dr Jeffery’s questions rather than a direct summary of the author’s paper.

 Dr Sumi Madhok (LSE Gender Institute), ‘Producing Activist Subjects: Ethics, Ethnography and Responsibility’

 Dr Madhok’s paper reflects on ethical issues raised through her ethnographic work with a state sponsored developmentalist programme in Rajasthan which trains rural women to become activists in their communities. In particular, the paper attempts to unpick tensions which arise in relation to intersections of gender, agency and coercion. Recent scholarship on women’s activists has tended to present an idealised agency of women’s activists, which can be seen partly as a response to earlier representations of women as simply victims. However such triumphalism of course masks more complicated realities. In reflecting on the position of the rural women, Dr Madhok highlights the need to consider that agency and coercion are seldom an “either/or”, but rather a shifting and complex “and”. The women who were part of this project had agency as activists at the same time as they were vulnerable to coercion, both from the agency who in many ways controlled their ‘production’ as activists (and required this activism to take specific forms), and from conflicting demands from within their communities. The paper also reflects on the question of how to do ethical research on women’s activism, and on the positionality and power of the researcher. For example, the paper highlights the case of a woman being gang-raped during Dr Madhok’s period of fieldwork, and reflects on the fact that Dr Madhok’s had previously refrained from writing about this traumatic incident, for fear of inhabiting the voyeuristic gaze as a researcher.  

 Dr Radhika Govinda (The University of Edinburgh), ‘Personal and Professional Struggles of Grassroots Women’s NGO Activists in Rural North India’

 Dr Govinda’s paper addresses the personal and professional struggles of NGO activists working to tackle violence against women in Utter Pradesh. The paper is comprised of five case studies of the activists (developed through “examining activist narratives embedded in organisational narratives and as individual tales”), which tread the boundaries between private and professional in highlighting how the women learnt to recognise and deal with the violence in their own lives, and how this intersected with their positions as activists against violence. Personal stories within these cases studies included a woman who had left her marriage, another who was standing for election, and another who had stood up to a violent husband. One case study focused on the experiences of a male activist, reflecting on how his behaviour had changed as a result of being involved with an NGO working on male violence. The case studies highlight how working professionally against violence converges with personal experiences in differing and contradictory ways. Sometimes the intersections of the personal and the professional is positive and empowering, while at other times the outcome is more ambivalent, and result in experiences of dissonance between the public/private divide. Dr Govinda’s work raises questions around how gender norms are and can be challenged, and to what extent women activists against violence are able to end violence and coercion in their own private lives. The case studies also raised complex issues related to religion, case, class and the ways in which these intersect.

 Dr Martin Webb (Birkbeck College), ‘Policy and the Grassroots: Transparency and Accountability Activists working through Class, Gender and Space in Delhi, North India’

 Dr Webb’s paper was based on his fieldwork in Delhi with a Sangathan, a grassroots non-governmental organisation which aims to help the urban poor and protect their civil liberties.  The organisation was set up by middle class women, but relies also on the work of “community mobilisers” from the slums which the project works with. 3 out of 4 of the community mobilisers during Dr Webb’s fieldwork were women (although being an organisation primarily run by women, it did not have an explicit gender focus). The paper reflects on the relationship between these women and their involvement with the organisation, noting how there was a lot of mistrust on both sides. It also reflects on the public/private divide in terms of how the women negotiate their roles as activists, but also how opportunities which arise from their involvement with the organisation can be used to gain cultural capital and personal advantage. Prof Jeffery emphasised the role of self-interest in community mobilisers’ involvement with the organisation, although Dr Webb argued that his intention was not to suggest that their involvement was cynical and self-serving. Class was a key issue in these relationships, and also in terms of the functioning of the organisation. The only way the organisation could function was working through particular individuals positioned in particular ways in the city. So the middle class women’s involvement was essential in order for the organisation to appear as legitimate within civil society, and equally, the community mobilisers’ position within the slum was crucial in order for the organisation to be able to carry out its work.

 Dr Nida Kirmani (Lahore University of Management Science, Pakistan), ‘Challenging Conceptions of ‘Feminist’ Activism: Struggling for Autonomy and Respect in Lyari, Pakistan’

 Dr Kirmani’s paper presents a detailed case study of the experiences of a young woman, Saniya Naz, a community activist in Lyari, Pakistan, who has recently been elected as a member of the provincial assembly in the local constituency. Dr Kirmani’s research, based on interviews with Saniya herself and other people around her, explores the conflicts of agency, coercion and gender in producing Saniya’s position. In particular, the paper focuses on Saniya’s relationship with a male member of a local gang, who has been instrumental in backing her rise to local political power (it should be noted that the roles of gangs within Lyari are multilayered and ambiguous, acting in the service and protection of local people, doing ‘social work’, as well as engaging in gang warfare). Dr Kimani’s paper focuses on Saniya because she is an atypical case, and raises complex questions around agency, feminism and gender: Is Saniya breaking gender boundaries or legitimizing oppressive power structures? What does her case tell us about women’s activism in Lyari and in Pakistan in general? Is her rapid rise to power in the local political sphere a feminist success story? The question of research ethics also arises – what are the implications of writing about Saniya? Her public profile means it is not possible to anonymise her. Dr Kirmani emphasises that she is in the early days of her research. As Saniya has only very recently been elected, the question remains whether she will be able to engage in politics without being fully absorbed within coercive power structures or co-opted by her powerful male backer. Dr Kirmani expressed hope that Saniya will be able to negotiate further independence and power through this role.

 Dr Hugo Gorringe (The University of Edinburgh), ‘Questions of Honour: Dalit Women Activists and political discourse in Tamil Nadu, South India’

 Dr Gorringe’s paper raises questions around how caste and patriarchy intersect, through examining the experiences of Dalit women political activists in Tamil Nadu. His research is based on interviews with Dalit women in the Viduthalai Chiruthaigai Katchi (Liberation Panther Party), and emphasises the importance of looking at everyday processes in the negotiation of gendered and caste identities. Recent caste violence in Tamil Nadu have centred around discourses of caste honour and pride, and therefore have had some detrimental consequences for Dalit women. Where previously Dalit movements have focused on anti-caste activism and advocating for women’s liberation, increasingly there has been a focus on policing the borders of caste, and an emerging Dalit caste pride, in which women’s sexuality has become more tightly controlled. So contradictorily, the autonomy of Dalit women involved in the party has suffered as a result of its increased success. The party’s success has also resulted in a more public performance of masculinity. Dr Gorringe also highlighted how the women activists’ autonomy and ability to speak out about issues like domestic abuse changed and fluctuated as their position within the party changed, where women in lower level positions within the party may have more autonomy to speak out than women higher up. Through this renegotiation of gender roles in relation to a discourse of Dalit pride, Dalit women risk becoming positioned as symbols instead of political agents.

Cultural Representations of Women and Gender

Dr Sumana Ray, ‘ ‘Behtzi’: Bhatti, a Lady Protesting Too Much’

Addressing diaspora as a means of protest via its cultural production, Ray discusses the work of multi-ethnic playwrights and in particular Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti to ask how her work impacts on the community from which she writes. Whilst navigating the complexities of contemporary life, artists like Bhatti engage with diverse, problematic and contentious issues that originate within their communities. In turn, Ray argues, a cross-generational dialogue emerges around this work. By considering both the production and content of Bhatti’s play, alongside the critical reception of it, the paper offers a well-rounded consideration of how this text contributes to notions of protest. With violent protests by the Sikh community at the representations of sexual abuse, forcing the play to close, the politics of protest are mapped in literary and physical forms. A key point Ray makes about this particular artistic production is that it is not limited to just this culture and community (this is merely one specific example), but can be seen as symptomatic of cultures more broadly.

 Nahid Bashatah, ‘The Representation of Saudi Women in British Press’

Examining the representations of Saudi women in four British major newspapers (The Sun, Daily Mail, The Independent and The Guardian) in the ten years between 2002-2012, Bashatah argues that the images produced negatively affect British society because stereotypes have the potential to create hatred, violence and misunderstanding. In order to change this there needs to be a greater diversity in the newsroom itself so that standpoints are not always being articulated by (in general but not wholly) white, middle-class men and women. The veil, women driving, educational inequality and political rights are often regarded as the key points of (mis)representation of Saudi women’s lives (Mendes 2011). Bashatah suggests that representations of Saudi women are changing in comparison to recent decades but there is still a significant degree of misrepresentation as the result of racist and patriarchal misconceptions and discourses. The paper stimulated so many interesting questions and lines of enquiry that the chair had to postpone further questioning until the very end of the session!

 Ambrose Uchenunu, ‘Redefinition of Sexuality in Nollywood Sexploitation Genres’

Through costume (or dress) the genre of Nollywood cinema is undergoing a transformation in the way it (re)presents women and their bodies. Uchenunu suggests that this means of dressing is dictating a new culture for young women in Nigeria. As the content becomes correlative with soft-porn due to the overly-sexualised and revealed bodies, Uchenunu argues that a sexploitation of women’s bodies and the sensitivities of the receiving audience takes place.

 Nivedita Pathak, ‘From Tulsi to Afsar Bitia: Changing Portrayal of Women in Indian Television Serials’

This analysis has grown out of a personal journey growing up with India Televanision Serials and having witnessed a shift in the role and depiction of women in these Serials in recent years. There is clear relationship between society and these shows and a dialogue between them. With over 825 private TV channels in 2012 and 233 million TV-viewing citizens these soap operas are a significant part of Indian culture. However, despite the numerous protests against women’s subjugation and activism for gender equality in the country, Pathak argues that Television Serials in India do not necessarily mean that this translates to women being empowered. As the majority of these TV serials are aimed at housewives there are important repercussions following their depictions of women for these women. Despite many of these Serials missing key opportunities to challenge traditional representations of these women and write new scripts for them, Pathak’s paper has a tone of optimism that this is a pontential medium for feminist mobilisation. 

Attitudes to Feminism, Feminist Attitudes: Power, Privilege, Politics

Dr. Jonathan Dean (University of Leeds). “Still a ‘Bourgeois Distraction?’ Conceptualising Attitudes to Feminism within the Activist Left in Britain.”

This paper looks into the status of feminism and gender dynamics in contemporary left-wing movements in Britain. Since 2008, there has been a resurgence of activism in Britain, and although there is existing research on feminist activisms and post-2009 movements, little scholarship examines feminism as a key site of debate within contemporary movement. Dr. Jonathan Dean’s current research focuses on gender issues and the place of gender within these movements. His first example is taken from the Leeds Student Occupation of late 2010 and the early involvement of feminists, who then became marginalised as the movements progressed, and suffered the aggressiveness of male occupiers attempting to shut down all points raised about the gendered impact of cuts. His second example looks at the Socialist Workers Party’s rape crisis, when a female member accused a senior male member of sexual assault, but the latter was exonerated, thus furthering proof of the gendered hierarchy of the party. Dr. Jonathan Dean concludes that although some left-wing organisations denigrate women’s issues, feminism is still supported by the wider left. This shows tensions between left purism and intersectional left on the issue of gender, possibly highlighting opposition between feminism and traditional left-wing masculinity.

Dr. Alison Winch (Middlesex University). “The Girlfriend Gaze and the Homosocial Market.”

This talk focuses on the way the female body is consumed by other females, especially in a neo-liberalist economy that penetrates relationships between women by entering their private spaces for profit. Dr. Alison Winch takes the example of the Thinspiration blog featuring images of skinny (young) female bodies. Erin, the blog creator, denies any links with the pro-ana movement and appears to use a friendly, feminine language, peppered with the liberal rhetoric of individual empowerment and entrepreneurship. As the girlfriend culture is making women more visible to each other and enforcing mutual control through their own gaze, are men and patriarchal norms really absent? Dr. Alison Winch evokes the Deleuzian idea of the “perpetual training” of the neo-liberal subject, enacted through idealised femininity and peer pressure to fit in. The use of misogynistic vocabulary and rhetoric in girlfriends’ conversations as portrayed in the media exemplifies this trend, including the exploitation of intimacy. She concludes that we live in a neo-liberal post-feminist culture where women control each other, and where the desire for belonging means that women often willingly submit themselves to this policing of body and sexuality.

Dr. Jessica Baily (Sheffield Hallam University). “Gender, Power and Privilege in Feminist Activist Groups.”

The focus of this paper is the growing number of mixed-gender feminist groups, such as UK Feminista for instance. It examines the debate around men’s involvement in feminist movements and their impact on group dynamics. Dr. Jessica Baily mentions four case studies of groups, committees and collectives. She raises the key issues of male privilege, that is a sometimes unconscious entitlement to speak or lead that disrupts feminist dynamics, and practicing gender, that is acting according to one’s gender identification. The place of people who are viewed by others as men but do not self-identify as such is also of interest in a gendered environment. Dr. Jessica Baily mentions the example of a man who founds a feminist discussion group and acknowledges self-reflexive concerns to try not to speak too much, then forgets his resolution as time passes and ends practicing gender. Taking both physical and speaking space are also ways of practicing gender. Despite women’s different feelings regarding the impact of men in feminism,  there is no denying that their very presence has an effect on activism and discussion, sometimes fostering women’s self-censorship in a Foucauldian internalisation of discipline.

Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg (University of Manchester). “Spraying Feminist Slogans until the Police Comes: A Case Study of Whiteness, Inaction and Intersectional Agency.”

This talk asks the question of how power structures operate in activism. Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg recounts an anecdote involving feminists spraying slogans on the walls of Sao Paulo in Brazil. She looks at a particular group composed of several white middle-class women and one black woman. One night, the police comes and the black woman is arrested and the white women managed to escape. When they come back and meet the black police officers, the men’s attitude changes and become more respectful. This illustrate the urgent need for awareness on the subject of white race privilege, as degrees of power and control over one’s body and resources has an important influence on relations between people. Dieuwertje Dyi Huijg highlights the different experiences of a black girl coming from the favela, living under constant threat from state violence, racism, sexism, classism and homophobia in a complex intersecting network. In this anecdote, the white feminists mobilise their agency and structural advantage to get the black police officers to free their black friend, who is denied similar agency and described by the white activists as “slow” and “dreamy.” The white woman who was on the lookout that night and failed to make sure everyone ran away from the police was coming is exempt from criticism, and this preserves her from self-reflexion and fails to take into account whiteness as privilege.

DIFFIcult Feminisms? Rethinking Categories and Analysis

Rose Holyoak-’ Integration, Repudiation and Appropriation: Finding Feminism in Non-Feminist Social Movements’

Holyoak’s paper focused on the ways in which feminism is negotiated within anarchist and environmentalist movements, looking at the interesections between feminism and other ideologies. The paper discussed the interviews that Holyoak has undertook, suggesting that for some women involved in anarchist and environmentalist movements  who identify as feminists, feminism is a primary concern, whilst for others it is a more secondary concern, and may show itself through considering women’s needs when it comes to issues such as childcare when attending meetings and also being seen as a role model. The paper then went on to look at the ways in which sexism still permeates within anarchist movements. The paper discussed the concept of the manarchist- shorthand for the way that supposedly progressive men reinforce gender oppressions. Holyoak suggested  that this is perpetuated in  a number of ways. Firstly, through repudiation, which undermines feminism by suggesting that class is a bigger issue than gender. Holyoak argued that ultimately this invalidates women’s opinions and silences self identified feminists. The paper then went on to look at gender blindness, a post feminist viewpoint that acknowledges feminism’s importance but suggests that it is no longer needed, therefore de politicizing it. Women who object to sexism are therefore seen as being over-sensitive, allowing men to absolve themselves of responsibility. Finally, the paper looked at the concept of appropriation ,whereby feminism is claimed by the manarchist as a way to either attract women, but also as a way for the manarchist to not have to examine their own privilege. To conclude the paper, Holyoak discussed the way that this can be combated, suggesting the idea of women only organising but also stressing the importance of visibility with these issues.

 Despoina Mantziari- The Anti-Feminist Crusade: I Spit on your Grave (2010) and Post Millenium Rape Culture

Mantziari’s paper discussed the film remake I Spit on your Grave, comparing the original 1978 film with the recent 2010 remake. The paper suggested that the film shows that attitudes towards rape have not progressed since the release of the first film. The paper situated I Spit on your Grave in relation to anti feminism and rape culture. Mantziari began by locating I Spit on your Grave as a film within the genre of rape revenge stories, using Clover’s book Men, Women and Chainsaws to provide critical analysis, suggesting that rape revenge stories make rape the woman’s problem and therefore absolve men of responsibility. Mantziari noted that whilst the first film showed a brutal rape scene as well as following the protagonist through the emotional aftermath of the rape, the remake does not do this. Furthermore, she suggested that the violence in the film is stylised so that it becomes a spectacle. There is also an emphasis on the uselessness of the law. The paper uses Pojanksy’s work on rape culture and postfeminism and suggested that the way that rape is represented in I Spit on your Grave reinforces rape culture

Rosalind Greig-’ Protesting with Our Adversaries? The Dilemma of Campaign Popularity’

Greig’s paper discussed the internal power dynamics in transnational advocacy networks (TANS), using the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, which began in 1991 as an example.  The paper discussed the way that grounded theory can be used as a way to explore internal power. Greig discussed that way that research participants emphasised the idea of decentralized leadership, so that anyone who participates becomes a leader, with the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership as coordinators and enablers. The paper emphasised that  participants felt that it was important that all participants felt that they had ownership of the campaign and empowerment, stating that domestic violence is an issue that belongs to all women. The second part of the paper looked at tensions involved within transnational advocacy networks. Greig suggested that there was a tension between whether ownership was spontaneous or facilitated, suggesting that when ownership is facilitated a parent- child like relationship can develop where the facilitator doesn’t explicitly state what their objectives are, but that is implied. The paper noted that there are also tension when a previous target of advocacy becomes a participant, as when the UN became part of the 16 Days of Activism, as people come to believe that the UN are the originators of the project. The paper concluded with a suggestion that grounded theory would be a useful way to further discuss these issues.

Imogen Michel- ‘ Would you Describe Yourself as a Feminist? Discussing Women and Feminism Within Scottish Peace and Environmental Activist’s Oral Histories’ 

Michel’s paper looked at the attitude that peace and environmental activists have with feminism. Michel’s research is based on compiling an oral history of Scottish peace and environmental activists. As well as incorporating feminist principles into the methodology (by, for example, allowing people and especially women to feel like they are the subjects rather than the objects of history and encouraging trust amongst participants. Another important aspect in ensuring that the methodology is feminist is that there is gender parity between men and women. Michel suggested that the women who are interviewed tend to downplay their roles within a movement even if they are experienced and committed activists. Having equal amounts of men and women ensuring that women are afforded a voice. The paper suggested that the vast majority considered themselves feminists, but that there is divergence amongst activists about what feminists means even if they do self identify as feminists. Michel suggested that those within the peace movement were more likely to identify as a feminist, hypothesizing that this is probably to do with Greenham Common and other similar peace camps that had a large number of women attending. Michel also suggested that even for those participants who do not self identify as feminisfts gender equality is still an important aspect of their activism


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