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4. Representation, Accountability, and Collaborative Border Crossings

Moving Beyond Positionality

This chapter is a revised version of an article originally written in 2002–3 in consultation with Farah Ali and what we then called the Sangtin Samooh, or the Sangtin women’s collective. The border crossings discussed here must be read in the context of the sociopolitical events unfolding in India and the United States between 2001 and 2003.

Interrogating “Relevance” with Border Crossings

In fall 2002, Ellen Messer-Davidow, professor of English and comparative studies in discourse and society at Minnesota, gave a talk in my department. She cited an incident where Donna Shalala, the former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, maintained that academic research was useless to the Clinton administration when it was reforming welfare policy because it was too slow in coming out, produced conflicting results, used impenetrable jargon, and failed to address questions that concerned policy makers. Shalala was not bad-mouthing welfare scholars, argued Messer-Davidow; she was simply calling attention to what the academy expects all scholars to do: “it expects us to complexify, theorize and debate problems that have been constituted by our disciplines . . . Such fields as feminist, cultural and GLBT studies use highly politicized rhetorics and espouse social-change objectives but produce knowledge that has little impact on real-world politics other than igniting backlashes” (Messer-Davidow 2002b, 17; also Messer-Davidow 2002a).

From another part of the world, Jean Dreze, a renowned development economist echoed similar sentiments after his sustained involvement with two people’s movements in Rajasthan (Dreze 2002).1 He noted that even after fifteen years of research on hunger and famines and feeling “perhaps entitled to feel like an expert’ of sorts on these matters” (especially after collaborating with Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner for economics), he did not always find himself better equipped than others to understand the practical issues that arose in these groups. In fact, he often felt “embarrassingly ignorant” compared with local people who had little formal education but a “sharp understanding of the real world” and for whom the main insights of his research delivered no more than a “fairly obvious” message. Underscoring an urgent need to produce more accessible and relevant social scientific knowledge, Dreze stated rather provocatively that

social scientists are chiefly engaged in arguing with each other about issues and theories that often bear little relation to the real world. It is in this foggy environment, that common sense ideas have a cutting edge. Their power, such as it is, springs not so much from great originality or profundity as from their ability to bring some basic clarity to the confused world of academia. It is no wonder that these common sense ideas often fail to capture the imagination of people who are not exposed to that confusion in the first place. (Dreze 2002, 817)

Scholars who have undertaken or theorized border crossings have long struggled with such tensions and contradictions between the academic and nonacademic realms by highlighting the problems of voice, authority, and representation (Spivak 1988, Ortner 1995). At the same time, very few have grappled explicitly with what Visweswaran identifies as a main challenge for postcolonial feminist ethnography: “If we have learned anything about anthropology’s encounter with colonialism, the question is not really whether anthropologists can represent people better, but whether we can be accountable to people’s own struggles for representation and self-determination” (1994, 32). In this chapter, I engage with this issue by focusing on two heightened concerns: that the gulf between the theories produced in the northern academic institutions and the priorities of southern intellectuals, activists, and communities continues to widen; and that very few Anglophone feminist and/ or postcolonial geographers are explicitly engaged with the challenge of producing knowledges that speak the theoretical and political languages of communities beyond the academy (Alatas 2001, Frisch 1990, Larner 1995, Peake and Trotz 2001, Raju 2002).

Of course, it is widely accepted that scholars must produce different kinds of products to reach different audiences in the multiple worlds they inhabit and research. There is also a partially shared understanding that we can guard against betraying people’s sociopolitical interests by disseminating the views of the marginalized actors and by transferring skills and legitimacy from professional to community researchers (Abu-Lughod 1993, Ong 1995, Red Thread 2000). And there are also cautionary reminders that we must interrogate a rhetoric that valorizes these crossings too readily lest they mimic and supplement the language of the increasingly corporate university establishment (Pratt 2000). But when it comes to addressing the reasons behind our limited ability to excite the imagination of our “subjects”—subaltern or otherwise—located in those Other worlds, or to shift the forms and languages of what is regarded as meaningful academic discourse, there is very little out there to help chart new possibilities for postcolonial geographies and transnational feminisms.

Here, my goal is neither to rehash a critical analysis of previously attempted or problematized border crossings, nor to perpetuate a romancing of collaboration across borders. My aim is, rather simply, to share some evolving thoughts triggered in response to my repeated encounters similar to those described by Jean Dreze—encounters where individuals and groups I worked with simply failed to see academic insights on power, space, identity, or representation as anything more than what was fairly obvious to them, or as anything that could usefully contribute to their own struggles around these issues.2 At the same time, rather than expressing disdain, mistrust, or indifference toward academic knowledge, I found these organizations and individuals to be quite sophisticated when it came to determining the parameters of their relationships with north-based researchers. Despite (or perhaps because of) being acutely aware of the turbulent politics of location and positionality that mold these relationships, these social actors often had a strong sense of the relative privileges (e.g., mobility and resources) that north-based academics had access to, and the role that successful dialogues and collaborative efforts could play in advancing the personal, organizational, political, and/or intellectual agendas of all involved parties.

Since 1996, then, I have actively identified specific groups and individuals who are interested in building collaborative relationships with me, and I have reflected with them on the conditions, goals, and processes that could give a concrete form and language to our evolving dialogues and collaborative agendas. My efforts have emanated from the belief that discussions surrounding the politics of representation—and of reflexivity, positionality, and identity as a way to address those politics—have reached an impasse (see chapter 3). It is only in and through such moments—successful and failed—of dialogue and representation, then, that we can hope to build situated solidarities and explore new possibilities for postcolonial and transnational feminist geographical knowledges that can be simultaneously theorized, accessed, used, critiqued, and revised across geographical, institutional, and socioeconomic borders.

In approaching this question of representation through collaborative border crossings, I am not concerned exclusively with the relevance or utility of research (done by north-based academics) in speaking to the agendas and priorities of activists (located in the south). Ethnographies, travelogues, media, and popular culture continuously produce and circulate a global south through their representations and, in so doing, act as discursive sutures for policies that have deep consequences for our everyday lives. This necessitates a perpetual insertion and immersion of the researcher in the politics of representation regardless of an explicit commitment to activism. One way to enable this insertion is to conceive transnational border crossings as dialogues where the researcher embraces the labor of translating her/his political investments, ethics, and representational strategies to his/her subjects and where the researcher and subject together wrestle with whether, how, and to what extent there is a possibility for the emergence of a shared agenda.

From Partial Knowledges to Collaborative Border Crossings

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the idea of border crossings has now become a trendy prerequisite—at least in the U.S. academy—for any critical social scientific scholarship to be regarded as “cutting edge.” The enthusiasm for such cutting-edge theories and accounts has undoubtedly encouraged an active and desperately needed interrogation of almost every conceivable border—borders of disciplines, methods, nations, and social categories. At the same time, however, relatively little concern has been expressed for the manner in which the products of such crossings can or should become socially or politically relevant—or the means and languages by which they are rendered irrelevant or exclusionary—across the boundaries of the northern academy.

In feminist geography, the discussion that has come closest to addressing this question of relevance across borders has focused on the politics of representation and reflexivity (Radcliffe 1994, Rose 1997, Pratt 2000, Nagar 2002). Sarah Radcliffe, for instance, discusses the connections between authorial representation and political representation and asks how can “Western First World geographers write about Third World women in their teaching/productions, without at the same time (perhaps by the same means) claiming to represent these women politically?” (Radcliffe 1994, 26). Gillian Rose suggests that this problematic of representation can only be addressed by moving away from the notion of a “transparent reflexivity” in which any attempt at self-positioning by the author only serves “the purpose of stabilizing interpretation and removing bias in order to uncover the truth” and thereby reproduces the idea of a detached, universalizing gaze (Rose, cited in Pratt 2000, 641; see also chapter 3). Geraldine Pratt responds to Rose’s call to explore how the researcher herself is reconstituted through the research process within a fissured space of fragile and fluid networks of connections and gaps. Through an interrogation and problematization of her own “research performances” undertaken at and with the Philippine Women Centre in Vancouver, Pratt presents a reflexive account in which the researcher, instead of being firmly located, is marked by “absences, fallibilities, and moments that require translation” (Pratt 2000, 642).

These writings have contributed to a rich discussion of the concepts of reflexivity and positionality in geographical research, but their primary focus has remained on textual and representational strategies rather than on the theoretical, empirical, and political content of the stories that geographers seek to tell. This kind of focus on dismantling or interrogating power hierarchies through representational and textual strategies has often resulted in an unintended widening of the gulf between the theories produced by north-based academics and the priorities of their south-based subjects. In making this observation, I do not want to diminish the importance of acknowledging the partialities of the knowledges “we” produce and of the ways in which these are indeed ridden with gaps and fissures. Nor am I suggesting that the politics and strategies of representation should cease to be our concern, for, academic writing—especially when it crosses politicized borders of any kind—necessarily implies struggles as well as strategic choices around representation. However, I do believe that if academics’ acknowledgment of partial and fissured landscape of knowledge production does not go beyond textual performances, it runs the danger of reproducing an unbridgeable gap created by our own practice, a gap not very different from the one that Messer-Davidow writes about:

The problem was a gap I couldn’t seem to bridge when I wrote about academic feminism as a change project. The change I had grasped from all those years of doing activism I couldn’t reformulate in scholarly terms, and the change I knew from reading scholarship I couldn’t deploy in activism. Eventually I realized that practice created the problem. The activist me had acquired know-how by planning, escalating and modifying direct action, and the academic me had acquired knowledge by analyzing, refuting, and reframing esoteric propositions. These very different sets of practice didn’t provide two perspectives on the same thing; rather, they constituted change as two divergent things. Tactical practices engendered changes that were orchestrated, whereas intellectual practices generated schemas that were debated. . . . How could I bridge the divides between intellectual and tactical practices, academic and societal arenas, discourses and dollars? (Messer-Davidow 2002b, 2–3)

If our goal is to transform the power hierarchies embedded in knowledge production, it cannot happen merely through a discussion of how we represent others and ourselves. What we need is an opening up of the theoretical horizons so that the stories and struggles we write about do not always become completely inaccessible and/ or meaningless in the contexts from where those knowledges emerge. This need to expand our theoretical frameworks is not embedded in a romantic or presumptuous idea that our work could always be relevant to the subjects of our research. Rather, I am suggesting that the analyses we produce remain theoretically and politically impoverished in the absence of close scrutinies and critiques by those postcolonial subjects whose interests we want to advance, or whose histories and geographies we want to (re)write. Such a reimagining of our theoretical and political frameworks is only possible in and through spaces of collaborative knowledge production—spaces in which academic agendas and frameworks can be interrogated and recast, and where we can generate new transformative possibilities in the fissures, gaps, absences, and fallibilities of our critical frameworks whose cutting-edge status we may have taken for granted.

This chapter, then, argues for a need to develop postcolonial and transnational feminist praxes that focus explicitly on conceptualizing and implementing collaborative efforts that insist on crossing multiple and difficult borders. It points to a need to reflect on the sites and strategies deployed to produce such efforts, and on the specific processes, ethics, and imagination through which such dialogues and collaborations can find their form, content, and meaning. To ground this discussion, I draw upon two recent dialogues that I began in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The first was with a woman who chose to be called “Farah Ali” and whose relationship with me was defined by her wish to be represented in and through my research in ways that I could serve as an advocate for her. Far from being dismissed as “instrumental,” Farah’s injunction to represent her—and my willingness to respond to that injunction to effect that representation—point to the dialogic formation of a text that cannot be understood through a simple definition of collaboration. Instead, this border crossing is better described as my attempt to carry out what I regarded as a responsibility arising in the context of an unplanned encounter, one that carried critical learning moments for me.

The second border crossing describes my initial meeting in 2002 with the Sangtin Collective, which gave birth to what became my long-term entanglement with SKMS described throughout the pages of this book. Painfully, the opening section of this border crossing also foretells, in the words of a woman called Maya, her own murder five years later. While the socio-spatial processes and interrelationships at work in each case are quite different, both dialogues deploy personal narratives revolving around multiple forms of violence in lives marked by gender, caste, class, and communal politics, and deeply intimate struggles around that violence. Instead of seeking to “uncover” the processes that constitute these experiences of violence and struggle, my aim is to highlight strategies that are available for producing new collaborative geographies; for exploring the ways in which these geographies are simultaneously embedded in and speak to multiple sites and landscapes of struggle and survival; and for imagining the processes by which we might begin to reevaluate and reclaim previously colonized and appropriated knowledges.

Border Crossings in Translation

First Border Crossing with Farah Ali

Speaking with Farah

Do you know what my fight is about, Richa? I’m fighting to speak my way so that no family member, no community, no organization, no researcher, no media person gets to distort my story to sensationalize my life! . . . I am speaking to you, seeking you out, building a relationship with you so that I can help you by telling you what you want to know. But I do so with an understanding that you are committed to helping me out when I need you, whether you are here . . . or in America.3

In these four bold sentences, Farah Ali powerfully summarizes her own struggle as well as the nature of my partnership with her. I met Farah in 2002 through an NGO I will call Sahara, which serves as a legal counseling cell and support center in Lucknow for women of all classes and religious groups on issues of domestic and dowry-related violence and troubled marital relationships. As such, Sahara works with not only women and their partners, but also with key members of their families who often play an important role in the creation and escalation of their “marital problems.” Although I have known and sometimes participated in Sahara’s activities since my college days, it was only in 2001–2 that my focus on women’s NGOs and their relationships with globalization and communalism brought me to Sahara as a researcher interested in exploring the possibility of a long-term collaboration with the organization.

Sahara officials wanted me to help them document, analyze, and collectively reflect on their work, and initially I was excited about the potential embedded in such a collaboration. After working with Sahara over a period of four months, however, I recognized that there was little openness among the organization’s leaders to internal or external criticism, especially in relation to their strong organizational hierarchy and a problematic underplaying (at times, negation) of class- and religion-based differences. These factors affected not only the internal structure of Sahara but also the manner in which it reached out to and intervened in the lives of the women who sought its help. The coordinator of Sahara was aware of my reservations, and we often had long, sometimes uncomfortable, discussions on the subject. Although my relationship and limited collaboration with Sahara is not a theme of focus here, this brief background is necessary to contextualize the story of Farah.

One of the questions that interested me during my work with Sahara and other similar organizations in India was the interrelationship between communal violence and domestic violence: for example, how were the rise of Hindu nationalism and the state-sponsored instances of anti-Muslim violence shaping the manner in which questions surrounding domestic violence were being addressed, recast, or stifled inside and across familial and communal borders? Whenever this question came up in our discussions at Sahara, one name that was repeatedly mentioned was Farah Ali, a thirty-seven-year-old woman who had filed a case with Sahara but subsequently withdrew from the organization because she refused to adopt any of the steps that Sahara counselors advised her to take. One counselor described Farah as “a sophisticated, U.S.-returned Muslim woman” who was uncomfortable with the organization because she wanted her matter to remain private, whereas Sahara believed in politicizing domestic violence issues by making them public. The counselor gave me Farah’s number but also warned me that I should not expect a positive response from her.

As it turned out, however, Farah was living not too far from my parents’ house, with her own parents and brother’s family, and was eager to talk to me—not on the phone, but at a neighborhood restaurant. We each walked a few blocks from our homes, met at a street corner, and rode together on a loud tempo to the restaurant. As we began to sense and share fragments of our histories and geographies, Farah and I recognized some striking similarities in our social locations that neither of us had encountered before: our upbringing in lower-middle-class families (hers Muslim, mine Hindu) in the same city; our unexpected journeys to the United States; our shared status at the time as mothers with very young daughters living with our parents, married brothers, and their families—and the contradictions, joys, and pains associated with that reality. There is much to be noted and analyzed along these lines about the telling, recording, and retelling of Farah’s story, but for the present purposes, I summarize the complex strands of Farah’s struggle and return to the question of collaboration.

Why No One Can Give Farah a Voice

Let me summarize the pieces that contribute to making Farah’s story sensational and exotic in eyes of the “outsiders”—not just those outsiders who can gaze at her from the West, but also the multiple gazes that stifled Farah’s voice in her own home, city, and country. Farah, a well-educated social worker from a liberal middle-class Sunni family, married Aamir in 1994. The marriage was arranged through their families, but Farah and Aamir spent ten months getting to know each other during the period of engagement, and both consented happily to the marriage. In 1995, Aamir had an opportunity to work as a scientist at a top U.S. university, and Farah joined him after spending two months at his parents’ home in Meerut. Farah had serious reservations about how Aamir’s family treated her, but she chose to not discuss her feelings with Aamir, and instead focused her energies on building a healthy partnership with him once she reached the United States. Despite her suspicion and discomfort with Aamir’s growing pull toward extremist interpretations of Islam, Farah mostly remembered herself as a happy, content wife and mother in New Jersey until December 1998, when everything turned upside down on a trip back to India.

By March 1999, Farah found herself abandoned with her five-month-old daughter, Juhie, in her in-laws’ home in Meerut. Aamir took possession of her immigration documents and returned to New Jersey, which prevented Farah and Juhie from returning to the United States. He subsequently divorced Farah from the United States in April 2000 on the grounds that she had failed to fulfill her duties as a Muslim wife and woman. Farah and Juhie moved from Meerut to Farah’s parents’ and brother’s home in Lucknow. Farah refused to accept the divorce, but the All India Muslim Personal Law Board declared it legal. She wanted to fight the board’s decision, but then came 11 September 2001, followed by the reescalation of the Hindu fanaticism over building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya and the massacre of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat. Said Farah, “To tell you the truth, my voice has been snatched. From my brothers, their wives, and my parents to the rest of my community . . . and from the folks at Sahara and the Muslim Law Board to the white guys in the U.S. Embassy [in New Delhi] . . . I feel like everyone’s hands are pressing against my mouth to silence me. . . . All I have to do is just let out one word, . . . and the media and the people will just find one more reason to dehumanize Muslims.”4 Farah was correct. She was suspicious of everyone who wanted to speak on her behalf. She was convinced that their speaking for her would only serve their sociopolitical or careerist agendas, while undermining her own objectives. In extremely delicate political times in North India, when the Muslim Personal Law Board and Farah’s parents and brother were asking her to not talk about her issues in public, Sahara wanted Farah to challenge Aamir by shaming him and his family in the mainstream media. Embarrassing his family in public, according to Sahara, could have forced Aamir to reconsider—or perhaps, withdraw—the divorce statement. It should come as no surprise, then, that one well-intentioned Sahara worker proceeded to leak Farah’s story to a producer at Z-TV, who approached Farah for an interview with a promise that he would give her tremendous publicity that would eventually help her win a parliamentary election!

Farah refused to believe that any of these people could give her voice. She considered Sahara’s thinking to be too parochial to understand her case. She hated the guts of the Z-TV producer and saw him as no different from those who caricatured Khomeini in the 1980s and who demonized Osama bin Laden in the 2000s. Farah was incensed by the stance of the Muslim Personal Law Board but also appreciated why it was dangerous to publicly criticize the board. She also recognized how her parents’ and brother’s hands were tied; they had to ask her to be silent about Aamir in these times of state-sponsored repression of Indian Muslims, but she also felt that she and her daughter were increasingly becoming unwanted burdens in her natal home.

In these circumstances, Farah believed that the only tool she had left to regain her voice and fight for justice was through an entry into the United States of America—where she could confront Aamir through U.S. law, not because that law was inherently more just or sensitive than the Indian law, but because U.S. courts would not recognize the talaaq nama and/or would require Aamir to provide adequate maintenance for Farah and Juhie. Farah, whose parents-in-law and sister-in-law effectively prevented her from having any direct communication with Aamir after March 2000, also wondered if meeting Aamir face-to-face would make him realize the implications of what (Farah thought) he did under his family’s pressure. Her final reason for regarding the United States as her best option was familiarity; since Farah had lived and worked in the States before, it seemed to be the easiest place for her to start a new life as a single mother and to give Juhie the environment that she needed to blossom. But Farah also feared that 11 September and its aftermath had irrevocably injured her relationships with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), with the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, and perhaps with the very place where she hoped to find hope.5

Reading/Retelling Farah’s Story

Farah’s story had several complicated strands. There were multiple actors embedded in multiple locations, though I name just three here. There was Farah, who angrily—and rather perceptively—stated that her fate was straddling between Lucknow and Meerut, between family and community, between the United States and India, and between the INS and the Muslim Personal Law Board. There was Sahara—an NGO committed to a particular strategy of politicizing violence against women at the local level—which failed to appreciate Farah as a transnational subject, while Farah dismissed Sahara as too localized and as lacking subtlety in its tactics. And there was me, a U.S.-based researcher working “back home,” trying to build a complex alliance with Farah while also remaining committed to certain ethical and political stances.

In terms of the available academic frameworks that could be deployed to make a “cutting-edge” theoretical intervention on the basis of this story, the possibilities were tremendous. I could choose to enact a highly innovative textual performance; I could theorize the multiple border zones that were at work in this story; I could problematize existing theorizations of communalism, secularism, and the postcolonial state; and I could revisit the famous trope of colonial feminism about brown women being saved from brown men by white men. But I had to accept that none of these approaches had much worth for Farah, for women like her who battle with similar forms of violence in similar locations, or for organizations such as Sahara, which often struggle to find new conceptual frameworks that can enable them to better understand and address the kind of violence and silencing that Farah faced.

And here I return to the partnership that Farah described between her and me at the outset of this section. Farah wanted me to help her return to the United States by discussing her situation with individuals working with specific South Asian women’s NGOs in New Jersey, New York, and San Francisco who could advise her about how to reclaim her green card, and how to sue Aamir through the Indian courts of justice. She needed my assistance in tracking down Aamir, and after placing her confidence and trust in me generously, Farah also expected me to be there for her as an ally and friend. To her, these were the most important parts of our collaboration.

For me—as for many other feminist scholars—the kinds of commitments and obligations described above come with any research that involves close relationships between a researcher and her subjects. Generally speaking, there is nothing wrong in believing or acting on this idea. However, we lose a critical opportunity to interrogate and extend our theoretical frameworks when we reduce such visions or expectations of partnership articulated by our research subjects to the status of commitments that are either post-fieldwork or independent of theory or academic production. What we need to do instead is engage in a serious examination of why the existing possibilities of framing and analyzing Farah’s story contribute little or nothing toward advancing the struggles that concern Farah or Sahara. Why is it that the most sophisticated and complex theories—when translated into an accessible language—fail to deliver anything beyond a fairly obvious message to Farah, her family, and to Sahara? And what possibilities for expanding those theoretical frameworks emerge when creating relevant knowledge for actors such as Farah and Sahara becomes one of my main academic goals? The real test of the relevance of this analysis and the extent to which it can do justice to the enmeshing of local and transnational subjectivities, power relationships, and citizenships cannot be based merely on my ability to provide another twist to the existing academic debates on these themes. It hinges, instead, on my ability to responsibly represent Farah’s story in ways that can allow her to draw some sustenance and hope, and that can enable new conversations on the possibilities and limitations of collaborative border crossings.

Second Border Crossing

Producing a Methodology to Speak with the Sangtin Collective

Maya: The chamars and yadavs in my village are at each other’s throats and everyone blames me6 . . . It all started on March 13th when Hari and Kishan broke into my home and beat me mercilessly . . . I went to the police station and said, “I dare any man in this village to touch me or humiliate me again for the rest of my life. . . .” Kishan screamed, “This woman is evil. She keeps three men.” I said, “Yes, I have three men. I will keep two more. Why are my men his responsibility?” . . . But for some reason, Kishan got released and Hari was arrested under the Harijan Act [for discriminating against a member of a scheduled caste]. Now it has become a big caste war.

Eighteen rural women workers of Mahila Samakhya-Sitapur discuss Maya’s intervention and the complicated political situation it has created in her village. Reena and Anupamlata reflect on how caste and family politics enmesh to shape Maya’s current circumstances. Others draw connections among Maya’s mismatched marriage arranged by her younger sister (who is more prosperous and, therefore, more influential), the physical violence inflicted upon her by that sister and the sister’s husband, and Maya’s intimacy with one of her husband’s cousins. Vibha argues that the humiliation Maya suffers is closely linked to the manner in which agricultural land is divided between her husband and his brothers. Maya agrees with some of these statements and modifies or responds to the others. She fears that the caste politics in the village and accusations hurled against her will result in her murder—in the same way as her friend Jinnati was killed last month. There are tears. There is concern. The women sitting in the circle know that Maya’s fear is grounded in something too real and familiar. The group decides to hold a public meeting in Maya’s village in a week.7

In June 1996, I had the opportunity to join Richa Singh, the coordinator of the newly launched Mahila Samakhya program in Sitapur (MSS), where she and her coworkers had begun training eight local women as Sahyoginis, or mobilizers. Each Sahyogini was responsible for mobilizing women in ten villages, mostly in the vicinity of her own natal and conjugal villages. The idea was to give birth to a new model of education and literacy in these villages that allowed poor women from the “scheduled castes” and “other backward classes” to collectively understand, address, and change the processes and structures responsible for their marginalization. Another goal was to enable the women to build their own grassroots organization that would replace MSS at the end of the initial period of activity funded by the government of India and the World Bank. In 1999, eight Sahyoginis, along with Richa Singh, registered as cofounders of a new organization, called Sangtin, that would continue the work of MSS after the latter stopped getting funds from the current donors.

By the time Maya and her friends came together to discuss the caste war in Maya’s village and the murder of her friend, Jinnati, MSS activists had become well-known in Uttar Pradesh, especially for their sustained efforts to challenge and modify specific festivals and rituals that sanction violence against girls and women. On a somewhat smaller scale, these women also addressed the ways in which violence inflicted on poor women’s bodies is intricately connected with their access to land and wages, and with local religious and caste-based politics. It is not surprising, then, that Maya’s narration of her conflict with Hari and Kishan developed into an insightful and multilayered discussion among MSS women, where they explored the connections among landlessness, untouchability, poverty, morality, and sexualized violence in Maya’s life and in their own lives.

However, unlike the heavily researched work of some other similar women’s organizations in India, most of the accomplishments of MSS and Sangtin remained undocumented partly because of the desire of the rural women to be centrally involved as researchers in any documentation and analysis of their work. This factor, combined with my previous work with MS programs in Uttar Pradesh, led Richa Singh to contact me in March 2002 with a request to visit Sitapur and explore with key MSS activists the possibility of planning and undertaking a collaborative project. Between March and December 2002, I interacted with approximately sixty MSS workers (face-to-face and through detailed letters) to collectively determine the goals and processes that would define such a collaboration. Three central decisions were made:

• First, since Sangtin was to continue the work of MSS, the collaboration must focus on giving a vision and direction to Sangtin for its future work in Sitapur.

• Second, to determine their future goals, strategies, and political stances as a collective, it was necessary for women to engage in an in-depth reflection and analysis of their past achievements and failures through the life stories of key grassroots activists in their own midst, whose work around gender and caste-based violence they found to be the most inspiring. At a time when rural activists were increasingly disillusioned with changing structures and agendas of government-funded NGOs, Sangtin resolved to reflect carefully on the organizational limitations that frustrated and paralyzed the NGO workers.

• Third, women whose life stories were to be collected and analyzed for this project were to simultaneously acquire training as community researchers so that they could continue to document, analyze, and reflect on their own work on an ongoing basis without relying on the expertise or agendas of outside researchers.

In December 2002, women who had worked with MSS in more than eighty villages of Sitapur collectively chose eight founding members of Sangtin as women whose life stories they considered most central for understanding and documenting their history of struggles and accomplishments as a collective.8 These women invited me to work on this collective project as a part of their team. Together, we spent nine days and nights jointly laying out the methodology, process, rules, and budget for the production, sharing, and dissemination of the life stories and the analyses emerging from them. This process was marked by moments in which all of us wrote our autobiographical journals in the same space, laughed and cried together as we shared our accounts, confronted each other with difficult questions, and produced new dynamics where some people learned to listen more carefully while others found the voices and words whose presence they had never realized.9

This proposed border crossing with the Sangtin Collective sought to make an intervention in the theory and praxis of north-south collaborations in several ways: First, it chose to focus on how rural activists theorize, strategize, prioritize, and act on their own understandings of development, globalization, violence, and empowerment. Second, it allowed me to use my analytical and linguistic skills, mobility, and location to help meet the goals of the activists, while also gaining new insights into ways that collaborative theories and methodologies on questions of development and empowerment can be produced across borders. Third, it prioritized activists’ own articulations of how they wanted their understandings to be recorded, written, disseminated, and deployed, and the kind of role they wanted the academic researcher to play in these processes. Finally, feminist social scientists and NGOs have come to regard life stories as a rich tool for understanding personal experiences, identities, and social relations, and how individual biographies intersect with social processes. Their efforts and agendas, however, have mostly remained separate. This second collaboration made a commitment to advancing methodological discussions in both NGOs and academia by interrogating the dualisms of theory and praxis; expert and nonexpert; and academic and community-based; and by confronting questions of voice, authority, and representation at each step of this project’s conceptualization and implementation.

Imagining Collaborative Feminist Postcolonial Geographies

The idea that postcolonial researchers should produce diverse knowledges to reach different audiences in the multiple worlds they straddle has gained increased currency across disciplines. Important differences remain, however, among those who hold this position. While some argue that academics can protect people’s interests by disseminating the views of the marginalized, others remain highly skeptical of the degree to which the agendas of academics and grassroots workers can be harmonized. These divergent positions emanate, in part, from a lack of intellectual and creative labor that is committed to exploring the reasons behind academic researchers’ limited ability to excite the imagination of the people whose struggles we study in the south or to shift the forms and languages of what is regarded as meaningful academic discourse.

Peake, Trotz, and Kobayashi are among the few who have explicitly grappled with the question of how third-world and first-world women can work together “in ways that are authorized by dialogue with [Third World subjects] and not just First World audiences” (Peake and Trotz 1999, 28). Reflexive questioning of ourselves and of the techniques we use to develop multivocality, they remind us, must be accompanied by a continued interrogation of how our supposedly “improved” representational strategies might be constituting new silences (Peake and Trotz 1999, 35). Such an interrogation requires that we challenge the divide between politics “on the ground” and research as an academic practice through a geography of engagement that taps into the tremendous potential of activism, and produces critical analyses based on local feminist praxis, and the ways that these connect with broader relations of domination and subordination (Peake and Kobayashi 2002, Peake and Trotz 2001).

It is in the context of these broader struggles of domination and subordination under globalization that these feminist geographies of engagement become explicitly postcolonial, and of critical relevance to the theory and praxis of social sciences. As Spivak observes, the expansion since 1989 of a full-scale globalized capitalism regulated by the WTO, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been accompanied by a complex politics of the state and the international civil society. International platforms such as the United Nations are dominated by a “global feminist” agenda rooted in problematic assumptions such as a sex-gender system, an unacknowledged biological determination of behavior, and an “object-choice scenario that defines female life” in terms of choosing between children or public life, population control or “development” (Spivak 2000a, 321; see also Sharpe and Spivak 2003). In this political scenario, the interventions made by powerful NGOs often end up serving the interests of global capital, despite being feminist in their professed interest in gender.

These processes, Spivak argues, demand both a revision of feminist theory and a rethinking of the “subaltern” within the feminist mode. The genetically reproductive body as a site of production questions feminist theories based only on the ownership of the phenomenal body as means of reproduction, and feminist psychological theories reactive to reproductive genital penetration as normality. Politically, this new understanding of subalternity leads to global social movements supported by a Marxist analysis of exploitation, calling for an undoing of the systemic-anti-systemic binary opposition, and requiring an engagement with global feminism (Spivak 2000a, 321). Thus, “If the dominant is represented by the centreless centre of electronic finance capital, the subaltern woman is the target of credit-baiting without infrastructural involvement, thus opening a huge untapped market to the international commercial sector. Here a genuinely feminist politics would be a monitoring one, that forbids the ideological appropriation of much older self-employed women’s undertakings, and further, requires and implements infrastructural change rather than practices cultural coercion in the name of feminism” (Spivak 2000a, 322). Instead of invoking strategic use of essentialism, then, Spivak emphasizes a need to underscore how oppositions are being generated in dominant discursive formations of global feminisms, and a process of “learning to learn from below” (2000a, 327).

The border crossings that I initiated with the help of Farah, Sahara, and MSS/ Sangtin can be seen as efforts to further imagine and enact postcolonial and transnational geographies of engagement through collaboration. Such collaborative processes provide concrete spaces to envision ways in which feminist scholars working on questions of subalternity might conceptualize accountability to people’s struggles for self-representation and self-determination. Thus, collaboration becomes a tool to understand how women themselves define and represent their “subalternity” in complex ways that challenge the problematic assumptions made by a UN-style “global feminist” agenda. It, furthermore, becomes a vehicle for the collaborators to conceive new ways in which they can resist processes that make the subaltern woman “the target of credit-baiting without infrastructural involvement” (Spivak 2000a, 322).

At the same time, the words, commitments, and obligations shared between these women, organizations, and me do not serve a predetermined agenda (theirs or mine). Rather, our exchanges continue to take place in the spirit of listening, sharing, and collaborative decision making about where these stories should speak, for whom, in what languages, and with what purpose. These collaborations have the potential to fruitfully extend existing academic conversations and to yield generative insights across national and institutional borders on how familial and caste structures, socioeconomic processes, spatial (im)mobility, and politicized religion intersect to shape the multiple forms of violence in the lives of North Indian women, the resources and strategies that women create to resist this violence, as well as the contradictions that remain buried in their efforts to overcome their silences. In so doing, these collaborations allow us to exploit the political possibilities created by discursive materialities of global capitalism and international civil society. They permit us to complicate assumptions of elite theory about modernity in postcolonial societies, and allow us to appreciate the dilemmas as well as the possibilities of dalit and women’s struggles (John 1996).

But what about authorship? Why are Farah and members of Sangtin identified as “consultants” and not coauthors of this chapter? A simple answer is that none of them wanted to be a coauthor because the broader issue of what constitutes a postcolonial geographical methodology is not one they found particularly relevant to their concerns. While they were interested in the specific representation of their own struggles and of our collaborative process, (re) defining geography was not central to their struggles, nor were they interested in becoming token coauthors.

A more complex discussion of this subject, however, demands an in-depth interrogation of standard forms of collaboration where a research agenda—and its theoretical and methodological underpinnings—is either determined (fully or largely) by the northern academic researcher and her institutional context and the names of the nonacademic actors she worked with appear as a way to denote shared power and authority; or, where two or more academic researchers from different institutional and sociopolitical locations coproduce an academic text. In either case, the collaboration is represented narrowly in terms of formal coauthorship, with the names of the authors appearing below the title of the academic text. The practice of crediting only the formal authors of a text is itself a faulty one that gives undue credit to authorship of a text, downplaying issues of collaboration in the processes of defining and addressing the research questions themselves. The expectation that our collaborators would always want to be coauthors, furthermore, assumes that speaking to academic audiences is a priority for all involved and that, like northern academics, their nonacademic collaborators in the south are also invested in securing intellectual property rights and/ or recognition by academic audiences.

A more radical and more complex idea of collaboration must problematize these assumptions. If the intellectual agenda, research questions, and approaches evolve as part of a collaboration between actors in different institutional, socio-political, and geographical locations, then the collaborators must also understand that as long as they maintain their commitment to a shared intellectual and political agenda, they might be required to produce knowledges and theories for different audiences, with different goals and strategies. This implies that the specific products emerging from collaboration will sometimes be written jointly, and sometimes by an individual or subgroup in consultation with others. Nonetheless, the knowledges produced, as well as the purposes for which they are deployed, remain inherently and deeply collaborative, irrespective of the formal coauthorship of the actual texts that are produced and circulated.

The challenge for postcolonial and feminist geographers, then, is to conceptualize border crossings that are committed to forming collaborative partnerships with academic and nonacademic actors in “other” worlds in every sense of the term—partnerships in which the questions around how power and authority would be shared cannot be answered beforehand, but are imagined, struggled over, and resolved through the collaborative process itself. Since the issues I raise here defy conclusion by their very nature, I offer as a non-conclusion to these thoughts-in-progress, another semi-translated border crossing, or the painful reality of a collaboration that could not happen.


On a street corner in Garhwal

There we stood, she and I

waiting for the same bus

And she sat

on the steps of a shop close by

holding her eight month old daughter

firmly away from her breasts

as if to hide from the eyes of the crowd

her drained, dried up body.

Over and over again, the baby rubbed her mouth against the woman’s breast

and her mother stuffed the rubber nipple of a water bottle

into that stubborn mouth

And over and over again, the little baby girl

skinny and resolute

would push the bottle away, clinging only to her mother’s breasts. Her thirsty, determined mouth first searched those breasts

and then cried out uncontrollably, screaming in desperate hunger.

And there I stood, just two steps away

quietly watching this like a sinner

a sinner, whose sin was not that I had had to leave my own eighteen month old daughter

in the US, to “research” women’s struggles in India

but the sin of that cruel disparity

which, instead of wetting that woman had drenched my shirt with milk

which, despite my intense pain

prevented me from holding that child against my own chest. That very same disparity that stood between me and that woman

like a rock, dead set on squashing out this difficult, partial dialogue between us

before it could become anything more than

a long, burdened muteness.





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