Conference Blog: Panel Session VIII, Sunday 23 June

Feminist Mobilisations (ii): Ethnography

Dr Manjima Bhattacharjya ‘The Union and the Agency: The Case of Fashion Models Organizing in India’

Bhattacharjya’s paper discussed her ethnographic work looking at the modelling industry in India. The paper suggested that modelling increased in the nineties due to globalisation and began to be seen as a possible route to social mobility. However, Bhattacharjya suggested that modelling also involved a social taboo as it involved putting oneself on display and wearing certain kinds of revealing clothes. The paper then discussed Model United, a trade union that was set up for models and discussed her ethnographic research with the founder of the trade union. Bhattacharjya suggested that the union was vocal on issues of exploitation and a desire for professionalism after the leader found out about trade unions in school.  Bhattacharjya stated that the leaders asked lawyers for advice, registered the union and over 100 women joined the initiative. Concerns included minimum standards and a rulebook on how employers should conduct themselves. However, soon repercussions could be seen, as there was a push back from employers. This led to the union collapsing. Bhattachariya compared unions with agencies, specifically the Elite India agency. She first outlined the history of agencies, suggesting that the advance payment system and matriarchal strategy helped boost their popularity. She also pointed to the fact that the 1990s saw an increase in worldwide offices due to globalisation.  The paper looked at the way that the Elite India franchise has grown and how the franchise owner has introduced strategies specific for Indian culture, including protection of young people, and reassurances to parents as well as more general aspects such as protection from bad debts and promotion of access of a corporate culture.

 Anusha Hariharan and Kaushiki Rao ‘Everyday Narratives and Negotiations from Activist Paces: The Cases of New Delhi and Beed, Maharashtra

This paper looked at the everydayness of activists lives, suggesting that we need to focus on the everyday as well as spectacular moments. Hariharan used her fieldwork to illustrate this. Her research focuses on Dalit activists in Beed Maharashtra, working specifically with the Research Development Centre. Beed is an area that is not highly industrialised. The paper discussed issues such as land rights and the work of land rights activists and looked at the everydayness of activism including the relationships that activists build with those with state functions, suggesting the importance of coalition building as well as dissent. The paper also suggested that women are able to carve a niche for themselves as activists in the region, especially around issues of Domestic Violence.

 Dr Stephanie Brauer ‘Chinese Women’s Organisations Combating Domestic Violence

 Brauer’s paper discussed the way in which Chinese Women’s organisations, and the Anti Domestic Violence in particular work with official state organizations and carry out capacity building. Brauer’s work is based especially on network building and the concept of embeddedness. The paper pointed to the way that Chinese advocacy groups need to affiliate themselves with state organisations through having registration status, or to build networks with international organisations or party officials in order to succeed. Brauer suggested that this created a balancing act between organizational success and the realisations of the negative outcomes for staff and organisations. The paper then looked at a case study of the Anti Domestic Violence Network which was established in 2000 and registered under the Chinese Law Society. The network is a cross disciplinary professional alliance initiated by scholars, activists and other social organisations. The network is highly dependent on international funding and has 121 individual members and 78 member organisations. Although state affiliated, it claims itself as an NGO. The paper tracked the development of the network and its focus on political advocacy. It spent three years from 2000-2004 establishing and researching for an anti domestic violence law which was then refused at first draft stage by the Women’s Federation. Between 2000-2011 it changed its advocacy strategy with a stronger focus on networks with semi official organisations outside of Beijing. In 2010 it lost its registration with the Chinese Law Society, and was re- registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2011. The Women’s Federation then accepted the anti-domestic violence legislation draft which was then handed to the National People’s Congress. Brauer suggests that the Anti Domestic Violence Network’s success can be linked to its embeddedness with semi official organisations  which was decisive in influencing legal change but stressed that legal change networks are both crucial and risky.

The Activism of the Arts: Performing politics and protest

Harriet Curtis (Queen Mary, University of London). “’End Rape in Los Angeles’: Restaging Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May for the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival.”

 Three Weeks in May (1977) was an art project recording sexual violence in L.A. with a central “rape map”, a map of L.A. covered with red stamps reading “RAPE”, accompanied with talks and press conferences. In 2012, the project was restaged as Three Weeks in January. Harriet Curtis asks if this repetition runs the risk of diluting the power of the original artwork. In fusing art and activism, and producing socially engaged practice intersecting with art, activism, and education, Suzanne Lacy blurs the lines between art and life and reveals their complicated relationship. For Harriet Curtis, the 2012 re-performance allows for a reinforcement of the feminist engagement with art in addressing its socio-political context. She adds that the obsession with authenticity in re-performance must be countered with an acceptance of historical inaccuracies, or else it may run the risk of losing its affectivity and becoming canonised and stripped of context. The 1977 version made to raise awareness about sexual assault in the “rape capital of the States” was exhibited in downtown L.A. to engage with the public. For Lacy, the purpose of feminist art is to provide an outlet for women’s experiences and to open the discussion and change culture. The 2012 project aimed at ending rape in L.A. and made use of social media to address a national and international audience, but it risked distortions, for example in the way Twitter was used to count the number of rapes every day, as opposed to the static “rape map”. The new project was also a campaign of branding, using recognisable colours and typography recalling the past to relate it to the present. During the 2012 exhibition, visual and video documents from the 1977 original project were shown, and although it is difficult for an artist to measure the social impact of their work, as it is inscribed in history and context, Harriet Curtis argues that documenting live work by making more live work to engage with it could enable the artist’s engagement further.

 Wendy Hubbard (Queen Mary, University of London). “Naked Solidarity on stage: Performing Protest in Nic Green’s Trilogy.”

 Nic Green’s Trilogy is a feminist performance first produced at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe festival with a naked chorus of female volunteers who change every week. Wendy Hubbard describes it as a “powerful” work, and acknowledges that this is a problematic word for a feminist performance because of its connotations and links with masculinity. She adds that the staged togetherness of the dancing chorus functions as a key trigger of affect for the audience as well as an empowering act for the performers. In a bid to explore women’s relationship with their own body, all three parts of Trilogy feature naked performers who form a crowd of volunteer. Because of the way they move, the bodies are unsexualised and carry no secret feminine essence hidden in the veiled body. However, race, class and sexuality are not engaged with and nudity is equated with liberty. Wendy Hubbard mentions Baudelaire’s remarks on the sensuality one derives from being part of a crowd. She also reminds the audience of the long and troubled history of public gatherings and the position of women in the public space, including the “Riot Act” prohibiting more than 12 people to assemble in public as it was judged a threat to the peace and the political status quo. Indeed, since the French Revolution, the crowd has been seen as a dirty multitude providing strength and determination, as well as being often depicted as feminine and irrational, so an intrinsically gendered threat. Wendy Hubbard concludes that Nic Green uses the amateur status of the naked volunteer dancer and the small budget associated with her position outside the mainstream art circuit to the advantage of her performance, not least by turning it into an open community for women to join freely.

 Eilidh Hall (University of East Anglia). “’Tantamount to Treason’: Chicana Protest Murals.”

 This paper looks at the refurbishment of Chicano Park in San Diego (USA) as a place to express and celebrate chicano culture. In 1970, members of the chicano community occupied the park for 12 days to save it from developers, and the city agreed to allow the community to turn it into a communal space dedicated to Mexican-American culture. Painted murals appeared as a form of political expression, derived from an art form flourishing throughout history in pre-Colombian Mexico. These depict themes as various as Aztec iconography, mexican patriotism, religious characterisation, and political figures. Eilidh Hall shows striking differences between murals painted by men (replicating patriarchal ideals) and by women (showing women in strong roles, for instance holding the sky). Tradition in Mexican-American society emphasises Machismo and Marianismo, an ideal of femininity as meek and spiritual akin to benevolent sexism. Eilidh Hall evokes the difficulties faced by women wanting to get involved in the refurbishment of the park. A male member of the Chicano Park steering group even called women who dared to paint murals “tantamount to treason.” The Chicano students movement in the 1970s was also deeply sexist, and women students who asked for an end to gender discrimination and tried to introduce women’s issues on the agenda were shut down and shunned. It is worth noticing that in 2012, when the murals were regenerated, women’s murals were updated and infused with new meanings whereas men’s murals just received a fresh coat of paint. 

Prof. Nicki Saroca (Asian University for Women, Bangladesh). “’For Better or Worse… Till Death Us Do Part’: Buklod Kababaihang Filipina and Filipina feminist protest in Australia.”

 The focus of the talk is the history of Filipino migration to Australia, especially women coming on a partner visa. This has led to a bad image of Filipino women in Australia as opportunistic mail-order bride or sex-slave. But violence exists both in discourse and materiality, and we must look at the unreconcilable rift between the sense of entitlement of perpetrators of domestic violence, who consider women and children as their property, and feminists who treat domestic violence and violence against women in general as human rights issues. Filipino women are very active both in Australia and the Philippines but remain invisible, which is a very real social issue since they are six times more likely to be victims of domestic homicide than white Australian women. Usually, the perpetrator goes to the Philippines looking for a subservient wife and experiences her challenges to his authority as unacceptable, which leads to violence. Buklod Kababaihang Filipina (or United Filipino Women Against Violence) was founded in 1993 to provide culturally sensitive ways to dialogue about violence and provide space for women to speak and share their stories. Till Death Us Do Part is a performance piece which toured Australia and was filmed and screened in the Philippines to inform women about domestic violence. It was inspired by twelve women’s experiences of domestic violence in Australia at the hand of their Australian, Filipino, or other migrant background husbands and partners. Prof. Nicki Saroca argues that we must look at the intersection of the materiality of violence and the discursive constructions of the Filipino woman to understand their situation. She also mentions the work of materialist feminists as corrective to Foucault’s heavily discourse-oriented theory, among which Dorothy Smith who looks at the ways the text shape people’s subjectivity and behaviour, for instance, the way we construct a partner as equal or as property (the text) determines if we will assault them (materiality). In the context of Filipino women in Australia, the media manipulate the text in constructing the victim of domestic violence who leaves her partner as a gold-digger.


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