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Department of Women’s Studies, University of Minnesota Minneapolis, USA in consultation with: Farah Ali1 and Sangatin women’s collective, Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, India
Discussions about collaborative spaces in postcolonial feminist and geographical analyses have often hinged on questions of positionality, reflexivity and identity, largely in relation to the politics of representation. Such approaches have often led to an impasse, especially in fieldwork-based feminist research, where reflexivity has mainly focused on examining the identities of the individual researcher rather than on the ways in which those identities intersect with institutional, geopolitical and material aspects of their positionality. This kind of identity-based reflexivity does not distinguish systematically between the ethical, ontological and epistemological aspects of fieldwork dilemmas; it also fails to adequately address how our ability to align our theoretical priorities with the concerns of communities whose struggles we want to advance is connected to the opportunities, constraints and values embedded in our academic institutions. This article takes this discussion forward by arguing for a postcolonial and transnational feminist praxis that focuses explicitly and deliberately on (a) conceptualising and implementing collaborative efforts that insist on crossing multiple and difficult borders; (b) the sites, strategies and skills deployed to produce such collaborations; and (c) the specific processes through which such collaborations can find their form, content and meaning. To ground this discussion, I draw upon two collaborative initiatives that I have begun recently in the state of Uttar Pradesh, north India. Keywords: collaboration, border-crossings, positionality, relevance, transnational feminist methodologies
INTERROGATING “RELEVANCE” WITH BORDER-CROSSINGS
In September 2002, Ellen Messer-Davidow (2002a), at a talk about her book Disciplining Feminism, cited an incident where Donna Shalala, the former United States (US) Secretary of Health and Human Services, had maintained that academic research was useless
Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 24(3), 2003, 356-372 © Copyright 2003 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and Blackwell Publishers Ltd
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Jean Dreze (2002:817) echoed similar sentiments after a sustained involvement with two people’s movements ( Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and Akal Sangharsh Samiti) in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Underscoring an urgent need to produce more accessible and relevant social scientific knowledges. such as it is. At the same time. Scholars who have undertaken or theorised border-crossings have long struggled with such tensions and contradictions between the academic and non-academic realms by highlighting the problems of voice. Alatas. Raju. cultural and GLBT [gay. Peake & Trotz. In this article. the Nobel Prize winner for Economics). 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. 1995). 1990. used impenetrable jargon and failed to address questions that concerned policymakers. produced conflicting results. bisexual and transgender] studies use highly politicised rhetorics and espouse social-change objectives but produce knowledge that has little impact on real-world politics other than igniting backlashes. she was simply calling attention to what the academy expects all scholars to do: it expects us to complexify. and (b) that very few Anglophone feminist and/or postcolonial geographers are explicitly engaged with the challenge of co/producing knowledges that “speak” the theoretical and political languages of communities beyond the academy (Frisch. Ortner. Even after 15 years of researching hunger and famines. 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 widely accepted that scholars must produce different kinds of Nagar. but whether we can be accountable to people’s own struggles for representation and self-determination”. From another part of the world. 2001. theorise and debate problems that have been constituted by our disciplines… [S]uch fields as feminist. very few have grappled explicitly with what Visweswaran (1990:32) identifies as a main challenge for postcolonial feminist ethnography: “If we have learned anything about anthropology’s encounter with colonialism. 1988. he had often felt “embarrassingly ignorant” compared to village folk. the question is not really whether anthropologists can represent people better. It is in this 357 foggy environment that common sense ideas have a cutting edge. rather provocatively: social scientists are chiefly engaged in arguing with each other about issues and theories that often bear little relation to the real world. Of course. These general problems seem particularly acute when they involve partnerships between researchers located in Northern academic institutions and their postcolonial subjects in tropical and subtropical locations. Dreze had not always found himself better equipped to understand the practical issues that arose in those groups.Collaboration Across Borders to the Clinton administration when it was reforming welfare policy because it was too slow in coming out. Dreze (2002:817) states. activists and communities continues to widen. who had little formal education but a “sharp understanding of the real world”. 2002). Larner.p65 3 9/26/2003. argued Messer-Davidow (2002b). and “perhaps entitled to feel like an expert of sorts on these matters” (especially after collaborating with Amartya Sen. 2001. In fact. 1995. authority and representation (Spivak. lesbian. 1:56 PM . I engage with this issue by focusing on two heightened concerns: (a) that the gulf between the theories produced in Northern academic institutions and the priorities of Southern intellectuals. Their power. Shalala was not bad-mouthing welfare scholars. and for whom the main insights of his research delivered no more than a “fairly obvious” message.
boundaries and languages of what is regarded as meaningful academic discourse. identity or representation as anything more than what was fairly obvious to them. positionality and identity as a way to address those politics – have reached an impasse (Nagar & Geiger. goals and processes that could give a concrete form and language to our evolving dialogues and collaborative agendas. 2001. there is very little out there to grasp as a tool for charting new possibilities for postcolonial geographies and transnational feminisms (Red Thread. accessed. rather than a disdain. and reflected with them on the conditions. and of the role that successful dialogues and collaborative efforts could play in furthering the personal. 2002). It is only in and through such moments – successful and failed – of dialogue and collaboration that we can hope to move beyond the impasse and find new possibilities for postcolonial and transnational feminist geographical knowledges that can be simultaneously theorised. There is also a partially shared understanding that we can guard against betraying people’s sociopolitical interests by disseminating the views of marginalised actors and by transferring skills and legitimacy from professional to community researchers (AbuLughod. It is. similar to those described by Jean Dreze. political and/or intellectual agendas of all involved parties. nations and social categories. 2000. critiqued and revised across national. however. What I have then done since 1996 is actively identified specific groups and individuals who are interested in building collaborative relationships with me. space. of working with individuals and groups who simply failed to see academic insights into power. At the same time. methods.p65 4 9/26/2003. institutional and socioeconomic borders. to share some evolving thoughts triggered by my repeated encounters. nor to perpetuate an uncomfortable romancing of collaboration across borders. mobility and resources) that “overseas” academics had access to. Despite (or perhaps because of) being acutely aware of the turbulent politics of location and positionality that mould these relationships. Here. And there are the cautionary reminders that we must interrogate a rhetoric that valorises these crossings too readily lest they mimic and supplement the language of the increasingly corporate university establishment (Pratt. 1995. Dreze. products to reach different audiences in the multiple worlds they inhabit and research. Red Thread. relatively little concern has been expressed for the manner in Nagar. 2000).g. mistrust or indifference towards academic knowledge. Peake & Trotz. healthy and desperately needed interrogation of almost every conceivable border – borders of disciplines. rather simply. 1:56 PM .2 But at the same time. My efforts have emanated from the belief that discussions surrounding the politics of representation – and of reflexivity. The enthusiasm for such cutting-edge theories and accounts has undoubtedly encouraged an active. Nagar. 1993. used. 2000. organisational. Ong. or shift the forms. FROM PARTIAL KNOWLEDGES TO COLLABORATIVE BORDERCROSSINGS It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the idea of “border-crossings” has now become a trendy prerequisite – at least in the US academy – for any critical social scientific scholarship to be regarded as “cutting-edge”. 2000). my aim is neither to rehash a critical analysis of previously attempted or problematised border-crossings. I have found these actors to be quite sophisticated when it comes to determining the parameters of their relationships with “western”/diasporic researchers. 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.358 Nagar these actors often had a strong sense of the relative privileges (e. 2002a). or as anything that could usefully contribute to their own struggles around these issues.
2000:641). Geraldine Pratt responds to Rose’s call to explore how the researcher herself is reconstituted through the research 359 process within a fissured space of fragile and fluid networks of connections and gaps. 2002a). Rose. It is contradictory because “the identity to be situated does not exist in isolation but only through mutually constitutive social relations. especially in tropical and subtropical locations. The Nagar. 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. but their primary focus has remained on textual and representational strategies rather than on the theoretical. ridden with gaps and fissures. In feminist geography. I do believe that if “our” acknowledgement of partial and fissured landscapes of knowledge production does not also go beyond textual performances. Peake & Trotz. 2000. and moments that require translation”. Rose (1997:311) argues that there is an inherent contradiction when “a researcher situates both herself and her research subjects in the same landscape of power. Pratt. for academic writing – especially when it crosses politicised borders of any kind – necessarily implies struggle(s) as well as strategic choices around representation. Gillian Rose (1997) suggests that this problematic of representation can only be addressed by moving away from the notion of a “transparent reflexivity”. 2001). In making this observation. which is the context of the research project in question”. Through an interrogation and problematisation of her own “research performances” undertaken at/with the Philippine Women Centre in Vancouver. instead of being firmly located. I do not want to diminish the importance of acknowledging the partialities of the knowledge(s) “we” produce and of the ways in which these are. 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 Northern academics and the priorities of their Southern subjects (see example in Nagar. universalising gaze (Pratt. for instance. 2000. Pratt (2000:642) presents a reflexive account in which the researcher.p65 5 9/26/2003. However. without at the same time (perhaps by the same means) claiming to represent these women politically?”. 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. fallibilities. 1997. and also assumes that both are knowable. 1:56 PM .Collaboration Across Borders which the products of such crossings can/ 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. This imperative of transparent reflexivity is problematic because it depends on certain notions of agency (as conscious) and power (as context). Sarah Radcliffe (1994:26). a gap not very different from the one that Messer-Davidow (2002b) writes about: The problem was a gap I couldn’t seem to bridge when I wrote about academic feminism as a change project. 2002a). Nagar. empirical and political content of the stories that geographers seek to tell (exceptions include Red Thread. These writings have contributed to a rich discussion of the concepts of reflexivity and positionality in geographical research. Nor am I suggesting that the politics and strategies of representation should cease to be our concern. indeed. it runs the danger of reproducing an unbridgeable gap created by our own practice. 312). in which any attempt at self-positioning by the author only serves “the purpose of stabilising interpretation and removing bias in order to uncover the truth” and thereby reproduces the idea of a detached. is marked by “absences. and it is the implications of this relational understanding of position that makes the vision of a transparently knowable self and world impossible” (p.
absences and fallibilities of our critical frameworks whose cuttingedge status we have taken for granted. Such a rethinking and extending of our theoretical Nagar and political frameworks is only possible in/ through spaces of collaborative knowledge production – spaces in which academic agendas and frameworks can get interrogated and recast. To ground this discussion. whereas intellectual practices generated schemas that were debated… How could I bridge the divides between intellectual and tactical practices. and for imagining the processes by which we might begin to re-evaluate and reclaim previously colonised and appropriated knowledges. rather. content and meaning. argues for an urgent need to develop postcolonial and transnational feminist praxes that focus explicitly and deliberately on (a) conceptualising and implementing collaborative efforts that insist on crossing multiple and difficult borders. (b) the sites. it is clearly not going to happen merely through a discussion of how we represent others and ourselves. I draw upon two recent initiatives I have begun. my analysis aims to highlight strategies that are available for producing new collaborative geographies. North India: the first. a collective of rural women activists working through a state-funded women’s organisation (and in the process of establishing a new organisation independent from the state) in Sitapur. for exploring the ways in which these geographies are/can be simultaneously embedded in and speak to multiple sites and landscapes of struggle and survival. Rather. 1:56 PM . they constituted change as two divergent things. then. both in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). refuting and reframing esoteric propositions. The activist me had acquired know-how by planning. What we need is a revamping of the theoretical frameworks so that the stories and struggles we write about do not become completely inaccessible and/or meaningless to the people whose sociopolitical agendas we want to support or advance. and where we can generate new transformative possibilities in the fissures. Eventually I realised that practice created the problem. and the academic me had acquired knowledge by analysing.1 the second. escalating and modifying direct action. gaps. These very different sets of practice didn’t provide two perspectives on the same thing. This article.p65 6 9/26/2003. 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. Nagar. and the struggles around that violence. Although the sociopolitical and spatial processes and interrelationships that are at work in each case are quite different. both collaborations deploy personal narratives revolving around multiple forms of violence in gendered. Instead of seeking to “uncover” the processes that constitute these experiences of violence and struggle. strategies and skills deployed to produce such collaborations. and (c) the specific processes through which such collaborations can find their form. discourses and dollars? If our goal is to transform the power hierarchies embedded in knowledge production. Tactical practices engendered changes that were orchestrated. or whose histories and geographies we want to (re)write. academic and societal arenas. with a woman known as Farah Ali in Kanpur.360 change I had grasped from all those years of doing activism I couldn’t reformulate in scholarly terms. This need to shift 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. classed and communalised lives. and the change I knew from reading scholarship I couldn’t deploy in activism. with Sangatin.
no media person gets to distort my story to sensationalise my life!. The coordinator of the organisation was aware of my reservations about their approach. and we often had long. with Nagar. but also with key members of their extended families who often play a critical role in the creation and escalation of their “marital problems”. Farah Ali powerfully summarises her own struggle as well as the nature of my partnership with her. recast. One counsellor described Farah as “a sophisticated. building a relationship with you so that I can help you by telling you what you want to know. seeking you out. initially. a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that for the last 16 years has served as a legal counselling cell and support centre in Kanpur for women of all classes and religious groups on issues of domestic and dowry-related violence and troubled marital relationships... whereas Sahara believed in politicising domestic violence issues by making them public. or stifled inside/across familial and communal borders? Whenever this question came up in discussions at Sahara. US-returned Muslim woman” who was uncomfortable with the organisation because she wanted her matter to remain private. analyse and collectively reflect on their work and. one name that was repeatedly mentioned was that of Farah Ali.Collaboration Across Borders 361 BORDER-CROSSINGS IN TRANSLATION First border-crossing Speaking “with” Farah. 1:56 PM . Do you know what my fight is about. I was excited about the potential embedded in such a collaboration. 27 March 2002) In these four bold and straightforward sentences. I am speaking to you. Although I had known of and sometimes participated in Sahara activities since my college days. a brief background is necessary to understand and contextualise the story of Farah.p65 7 9/26/2003. Although my relationship and (limited) collaboration with Sahara is not a theme of focus here. sometimes uncomfortable. it was only in 2000-1 that my focus on women’s NGOs and their relationships with globalisation and communalism (religious extremism) brought me to Sahara as a researcher interested in exploring the possibility of a long-term collaboration with the organisation. especially in relation to their strong organisational hierarchy and a problematic underplaying (at times. But I do so with an understanding that you are committed to helping me out when I need you. they work with not only women and their male partners. no organisation. no community. Sahara officers wanted me to help them document. One of the questions that interested me during my work with women’s NGOs in India was the interrelationship between communal violence and domestic violence. I met Farah in 2002 through Sahara 1 . Farah was living just a few blocks from my parents’ house. a 37-year-old Muslim woman who had filed but subsequently withdrawn her case with the NGO because she refused to adopt any of the steps that their counsellors advised her to take. I discovered that there was little openness among their leaders to internal or external criticism. interview. no researcher. however. After working with the NGO over a period of four months. how are the rise of Hindu nationalism and the state-sponsored instances of anti-Muslim violence shaping the manner in which questions surrounding domestic violence are being addressed. These factors affected not only their internal structure but also the manner in which Sahara reached out to and intervened in the lives of the women who sought its help. As it turned out. whether you are here in Kanpur or in the US (Farah Ali. As such. The counsellor gave me Farah’s number but also warned me not expect a positive response from her. Richa? I’m fighting to speak my way so that no family member. however. discussions on the subject. For example. negation) of classand religion-based differences.
but she and Aamir spent ten months getting to know each other during the period of engagement. joys and pains embedded in that reality. followed in India by the re-escalation of the Hindu fanaticism over building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya and the senseless massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. our “unexpected” journeys to the US. It came as no surprise. a well-educated social worker from a liberal. convinced that this would only serve their sociopolitical or careerist agendas while undermining her own objectives. Farah had deep reservations about how his family treated her. would force Aamir to reconsider – or perhaps. By March 1999. Farah found herself abandoned with her five-month-old daughter Juhie in her in-laws’ home in Meerut because Aamir had taken possession of her immigration documents and returned to New Jersey. that one well-intentioned Sahara worker proceeded to leak Farah’s story Nagar. Aamir got an opportunity to work as a scientist at a top US university. Farah. withdraw – the divorce statement. Let me summarise the pieces that contribute to making Farah’s story sensational and exotic in the eyes of “outsiders” – not just the outsiders who can gaze at her from the west. middle-class. In April 2000. and she joined him after spending two months at his parents’ home in Meerut. recording and retelling of Farah’s story. 1:56 PM . 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 US 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 dehumanise Muslims.362 her parents and her brother’s family. city and nation. but then came 11 September 2001. but she chose not to discuss her feelings with Aamir and focused her energies on building a healthy partnership with him once she reached the US. living with our parents and brother’s family – as well as the deep contradictions. In 1995. Farah refused to accept the divorce but the Muslim Personal Law Board (MPLB) of India declared it legal. There is much to be noted and analysed along these lines about the telling. Says Farah (interview. but also the multiple gazes that stifle Farah’s voice in her “own” home. Why no one can give Farah a voice. She is suspicious of anyone who wants to speak on her behalf. Sunni family. Despite her suspicions and discomfort about Aamir’s growing pull towards extremist interpretations of Islam. She had wanted to fight this. then. married Aamir in 1994. Embarrassing his family in public. he divorced Farah from the US – on the grounds that she had failed to fulfil her duties as a Muslim wife and woman. Farah is correct. according to Sahara. As we began to sense and share fragments of our histories and geographies. and our shared status as mothers with a very young daughter. 27 March 2002): To tell you the truth. when the MPLB and her own family are asking her not to talk about her issues in public. when everything turned upside-down on a trip back to India. and very eager to talk to me – not on the phone. From my brothers. Sahara wanted Farah to challenge Aamir by shaming him and his family in the mainstream media. but for the purposes of this article. We met at a street corner a few blocks from our homes and rode there together on a loud tempo (three-wheeler). my voice has been snatched. but at a neighbourhood restaurant. Farah and I recognised some striking similarities in our social locations that neither of us had encountered before: our upbringing in lowermiddle-class families (hers Muslim. The marriage was arranged through their families. I want to summarise the complex strands of Farah’s struggle and return to the question of collaboration. mine Hindu) in the same city. Farah mostly remembers herself as a Nagar happy. content wife and mother in New Jersey – until December 1998. In extremely delicate political times in North India. and both consented happily to the marriage.p65 8 9/26/2003.
And there is me. Her final reason for regarding the US as her best option is familiarity. I could theorise the multiple border zones and border-crossings that are at work in this story. I could problematise existing theorisations of communalism. why they have to ask her to be silent about Aamir in these times of state-sponsored repression of Indian Muslims.and sister-in-law have effectively prevented her from having any direct communication with Aamir since March 2000.Collaboration Across Borders to a producer at Z-TV. In terms of the currently existing postcolonial and poststructuralist frameworks that can be deployed to make a “cutting-edge” theoretical intervention based on this story. There is Sahara – an NGO committed to a particular strategy of politicising violence against women at the local level – which fails to appreciate Farah as a transnational subject. whose parents. There are multiple actors embedded in multiple locations. family and community. But I must accept that none of these approaches will have much worth for Farah. But Farah also fears that 9/11 (and its aftermath) has irrevocably injured her relationship with the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS). There is Farah. a USbased researcher working “back home”. secularism and the postcolonial state.p65 9 9/26/2003. of which I will name just three. 363 Reading/retelling Farah’s story. She considers Sahara’s thinking to be too localised and parochial to understand her “case”. She hates the guts of the Z-TV producer. or for organisations like Sahara that are struggling to find new conceptual frameworks that could enable them to better understand and address the kind of violence and silencing that Farah faces. also wonders if meeting Aamir face-to-face would make him realise the implications of what (she thinks) he has done under his family’s pressure. the Embassy in New Delhi. In these circumstances. I could choose to enact a highly innovative textual performance. but she also feels that she and her daughter are increasingly becoming unwanted burdens in her natal home. Farah believes that the only tool she has left to regain her voice and fight for justice is through gaining entry into the US. with a promise of “tremendous publicity” that would eventually help her win a parliamentary election! Farah does not believe that any of these people can give her “voice”. where she can confront Aamir through the US law – not because it is inherently more just or sensitive than the Indian law. she has lived and worked there before so it seems to be the easiest place for her to start a new life as a single mother and give her daughter the environment that she needs to blossom and to have a bright future. and perhaps even with the very place where she had hoped to find a hope. and I could revisit the famous trope of colonial feminism about brown women being saved from brown men by white men. Farah wants me to help her return to the US by discussing her situation with individuals working with specific South Asian women’s NGOs in New York and San Francisco Nagar. Farah’s story has many rich and complicated strands. Farah is incensed by the stance of the MPLB but appreciates why this is not the time to publicly criticise them. the US and India. who angrily – and rather perceptively – states that her fate is straddling Kanpur (her natal home) and Meerut (her conjugal household). 1:56 PM . who then approached Farah for an interview. for women like her who are battling with similar forms of violence in similar locations. Farah. Here I return to the partnership that Farah described between her and me at the outset of this section. who she sees as no different from those who caricatured Khomeini in the 1980s and are demonising Osama bin Laden today. and the INS and the MPLB. the possibilities are tremendous. She also recognises how her family’s hands are tied. but because the US courts will not recognise the talaqnama (Muslim deed of divorce) and/or would require Aamir to provide adequate maintenance for her and their daughter. and which she dismisses as too parochial and as lacking subtlety in tactics. trying to build a complex alliance with Farah while also remaining committed to certain ethical and political stances.
direction and a sense of fulfilment from this collaboration. Kishan got released and Hari was arrested under the Harijan Act. after placing her confidence and trust in me so generously. Rohini and Gauri draw connections between Manju’s mismatched marriage arranged by her more prosperous (and Nagar. and how she can sue Aamir through the Indian courts. “I dare any man in this village to touch me or humiliate me again for the rest of my life”… Kishan screamed. It hinges.364 who can advice on how she can approach the INS to reclaim her green card status. “This woman is evil. Farah also wants to build bridges with specific Muslim activists who are making feminist interventions Nagar in the politics of communalism and gendered violence in India in the aftermath of the Gujarat massacre. In this process. I have three men. Manju: The Chamar and Yadav3 in my village are at each other’s throats and everyone blames me… It all started on 13 March when Hari [a Yadav] and Kishan [Manju’s brother-in-law] broke into my home and beat me mercilessly… I went to the police station and said. I said. there is nothing wrong in believing or acting upon this idea. Eighteen rural women workers of the Mahila Samakhya programme in Sitapur (MSS) discuss Manju’s intervention and the complicated political situation it has created in her village. Second border-crossing Producing a methodology to “speak with” Sangatin. and the extent to which it can do justice to the enmeshing of local. power relationships and citizenships cannot be based merely on my ability to provide another twist to the existing academic debates on these subjects. the real test of the relevance of this analysis. Hence.3 Now it has become a big caste war. Generally speaking. expects me to be there for her as an ally and friend. 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 and her family.p65 10 9/26/2003. She keeps three men”. and to Sahara ? And what possibilities for extending or revamping those theoretical frameworks emerge when creating relevant knowledge for actors such as Farah and Sahara becomes my main academic goal? The next step of this collaboration between Farah Ali and me seeks to explore the ways in which current feminist work on transnational citizenship and violence can speak to Farah’s experiences and to the organisations in New Jersey. What we need to do instead is engage in a serious and honest examination of why the existing possibilities of framing and analysing Farah’s story contribute little or nothing towards advancing the struggles that concern Farah or Sahara. Rita and Sunita reflect on how caste and family politics enmesh to shape Manju’s current circumstances. global and transnational subjectivities. and from my ability to deploy insights from transnational feminist theories to help reach that goal. hope. However. I will keep two more. instead. “Yes. 1:56 PM . these are the most important parts of our collaboration. Why are my men his responsibility?”… But for some reason. Farah has needed my assistance in tracking down Aamir and. New Delhi and her natal city that cannot at this moment interfere in Farah’s case or advance her cause. on Farah’s ability to draw sustenance. To her. 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”. we lose a critical opportunity to interrogate and extend our theoretical frameworks when we reduce such visions/expectations of partnership articulated by our research subjects to the status of commitments and obligations that are either post-fieldwork or independent of theory/ academic production.
insightful and multilayered discussion among MSS women. This factor. She fears that the caste politics in the village and accusations hurled against her will result in her murder – just as her friend Noor was killed last month. Between March and December. The group decides to hold a public meeting in Manju’s village in a week (notes of MSS mahasangh or general assembly in Sitapur. address and change the processes and structures responsible for their own marginalisation.Collaboration Across Borders therefore more influential) younger sister. There is concern. poverty. especially for their sustained efforts to challenge and modify specific festivals and rituals that sanction violence against girls and women. It is not surprising. strategies and political stances as a collective. the coordinator of the newly launched MSS. then. the eight mobilisers. 2002a. it is necessary for women to engage in an in-depth reflection and analysis of their past achievements and failures through the life-histories of key grassroots Nagar. 1:57 PM . There are tears. Three central decisions were made. morality and sexualised violence in Manju’s life and in their own lives. most of the accomplishments of MSS and Sangatin have 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. and Manju’s intimacy with one of her husband’s cousins. metaphoric and political connections between landlessness. when she and her co-workers had just begun training eight local women as mobilisers. since Sangatin will continue the work of MSS. 365 In the seven years since 1996. Manju agrees with some of these statements and modifies or responds to the others. Second. to determine their future goals. MSS activists have become well known in UP. that Manju’s narration of her conflict with Hari and Kishan developed into a detailed. along with Richa Singh. the physical violence inflicted upon her by that sister and the sister’s husband. Unlike the heavily researched work on some other similar women’s organisations in India. 2002b). these women have also addressed the ways in which violence inflicted on the poorest women’s bodies is intricately connected with their access to land and wages. and with local religious and castebased politics.p65 11 9/26/2003. which would continue the work of MSS when the funding from its current donors stops. untouchability. 25 March 2002. First. On a somewhat smaller scale. Each was responsible for mobilising women in ten villages. Vineeta argues that the humiliation Manju suffers is closely linked to the manner in which agricultural land is divided between her husband and his brothers. The idea was to give birth to a new model of education and literacy in these villages that allowed poorest women from the “scheduled castes” and “other backward classes” to collectively understand. In June 1996. 2000. led Richa Singh to contact me in March 2002 with an explicit request to visit Sitapur and explore with key MSS activists the possibility of undertaking and planning a collaborative research project. I interacted with approximately 60 MSS workers (face-to-face and through detailed letters) to collectively determine the goals and processes that would define such a collaboration. Another goal was to enable the women to build their own grassroots organisation that would replace MSS at the end of the initial period of its activity funded by the governments of India and the Netherlands. I had the rare opportunity to join Richa Singh. and the World Bank. all personal names are pseudonyms). The 18 women sitting in the circle know that Manju’s fear is grounded in something too real and familiar. mostly in the vicinity of her natal and conjugal villages. combined with my previous work with Mahila Samakhya programmes in Uttar Pradesh (see Nagar. where they explored the material. registered as cofounders of a new collective called Sangatin. the collaboration must focus on giving a vision and direction to Sangatin for its future work in Sitapur. In 1999.
authority and representation at each step of this project’s conceptualisation and implementation. women who had worked with MSS in more than 80 villages of Sitapur collectively chose the eight founding members of Sangatin as women whose lifehistories they considered most central for understanding and documenting their history of struggles and accomplishments as a collective. strategise. process and rules to be followed in the production. where some people learned to suppress their voices while others found the voices and words whose presence they had never realised. First. and the analyses emerging from them. Third.366 Nagar understandings of development. Second. In December 2002. written. reflection and analysis of their own work on an ongoing basis without any reliance on the expertise and agendas of outside researchers. we spent ten days and nights jointly laying out the methodology. and the kind of role they want the academic researcher to play in these processes. sharing and dissemination of the eight life-stories. expert/non-expert and academic/communitybased. mobility and access to resources to help the activists meet their own goals. Sangatin wants to reflect carefully on the organisational limitations that frustrate and paralyse them. Together. Finally. both feminist social scientists and NGOs have come to regard life-histories as an exceptionally rich tool for understanding personal experiences. while also gaining new insights into ways that collaborative theories and methodologies on questions of development and empowerment can be produced across borders. violence and empowerment. from a lack of systematic research that explores the reasons behind our Nagar. activists in their own midst. These eight women formally invited me to work on their collective history project as a part of their research team. These divergent positions emanate. in part. While some argue that academics can protect people’s interests by disseminating the views of the marginalised. These ten days were marked by moments in which all of us wrote our autobiographical journals in the same space. At a time when rural activists are experiencing a deep disillusionment with changing structures and agendas of government funded NGOs. This last collaboration extends the methodological discussions in both NGOs and academia by interrogating the dualisms of theory/praxis. and how individual biographies intersect with social processes (although their efforts and agendas have mostly remained separate). laughed and cried together as we shared our accounts. 1:57 PM . that women whose life-histories are collected and analysed for this project must simultaneously acquire training as community researchers so that they can continue the work of documentation. identities and social relations. others remain highly sceptical of the degree to which the agendas of academics and grassroots workers can be harmonised. confronted each other with difficult questions and produced new dynamics. globalisation. Important differences remain.p65 12 9/26/2003.4 This border-crossing-in-progress with Sangatin seeks to make an intervention in the theory and praxis of “North-South” collaborations in four critical ways. and by confronting the questions of voice. it allows me to use my analytical and linguistic skills. however. Third. whose work around gender and caste-based violence they have found to be the most challenging and inspiring. prioritise and act upon their own 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. it focuses on how rural activists theorise. it prioritises activists’ own articulations of how they want their understandings to be recorded. budget. among those who hold this position. disseminated and deployed.
2002. 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. As Spivak (2000) observes. 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 as well as feminist psychological theories reactive to reproductive genital penetration as normality. International platforms such as the United Nations (UN) are dominated by a “global feminist” agenda rooted in problematic assumptions such as a sex-gender system. an unacknowledged biological determination of behaviour and an “object-choice scenario that defines female life” (Spivak. Spivak argues. The border-crossings that I have initiated here with the help of Farah and Sahara.p65 13 9/26/2003. requires and implements infrastructural change rather than practices cultural coercion in the name of feminism (Spivak. Thus: If the dominant is represented by the centreless centre of electronic finance capital. Peake. 1999:28). the expansion since 1989 of a full-scale globalised capitalism regulated by the World Trade Organisation. Politically. and the ways that these connect with broader relations of domination and subordination (Peake & Kobayashi. Spivak (2000:327) emphasises 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”. thus opening a huge untapped market to the international commercial sector. and further. the subaltern woman is the target of credit-baiting without infrastructural involvement. that forbids the ideological appropriation of much older selfemployed women’s undertakings. Here a genuinely feminist politics would be a monitoring one. It is in the context of these broader struggles of domination and subordination under globalisation that these feminist geographies of engagement become explicitly postcolonial and of critical relevance to the theory and praxis of social sciences in the tropics and subtropics.Collaboration Across Borders limited ability to excite the imagination of those whose struggles we study in the “South”. 2001). 1:57 PM . These processes. boundaries and languages of what is regarded as meaningful academic discourse. Reflexive questioning of ourselves and of the techniques we use to develop multivocality. and MSS/Sangatin can be seen as an effort to Nagar. World Bank and International Monetary Fund has been accompanied by a complex politics of state and international civil society. this new understanding of subalternity leads to global social movements supported by a Marxist analysis of exploitation. 2000:322). Peake & Trotz. the interventions made by powerful NGOs often end up serving the interests of global capital. must be accompanied by a continued interrogation of how our supposedly “improved” representational strategies might constitute new silences (Peake & Trotz. then. In this political scenario. they remind us. 2000:321) in terms of choosing between children or public life. demand both a revision of feminist theory and a rethinking of the “subaltern” within the feminist mode. 1999:35). 367 population control or “development”. or to shift the forms. 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 authorised by dialogue with [Third World subjects] and not just First World audiences” (Peake & Trotz. Instead of invoking strategic use of essentialism. despite being feminist in their professed interest in gender. calling for an undoing of the systemic–antisystemic binary opposition and requiring an engagement with global feminism (Spivak 2000:321).
the collaboration is represented narrowly in terms of formal co-authorship. Such collaborative processes provide concrete spaces to “learn from below” and co-determine the specific ways in which we can be accountable to people’s struggles for self-representation and self-determination (Visweswaran. The practice of crediting only the formal author(s) of a text is itself a faulty one that gives undue credit to authorship of a text. because the broader issue of what constitutes a postcolonial geographical methodology is not one that they find particularly relevant to their concerns. Rather. or where two academic researchers from different institutional and sociopolitical locations coproduce an academic text. neither is (re)defining geography central to their struggles. the resources and strategies that women create to resist this violence. 1996).368 Nagar But what about authorship? Why are Farah and members of Sangatin identified as “consultants” and not co-authors of this article? A simple answer is that neither wants to be. In either case. These collaborations have the potential to fruitfully extend existing academic frameworks and yield more “relevant” insights across national and institutional borders on how familial structures. downplaying issues of collaboration in the processes of defining and addressing the research problems themselves. A more complex discussion of this subject. commitments and obligations shared between these women/ organisations and I do not serve a predetermined agenda (theirs or mine). While they are interested in the specific representation of their own struggles and of our collaborative process. At the same time. their non-academic collaborators in the tropics and subtropics are also invested in securing intellectual property rights and/or recognition by academic audiences. 1:57 PM . our exchanges continue to take place in the spirit of listening. In so doing. 2000:322). in what languages and with what purpose. assumes that speaking to academic audiences is a priority for all involved and that like Northern academics. the words. The expectation that our collaborators would always want to be co-authors. furthermore. furthermore. for whom. with the names of the authors appearing below the title of the academic text. 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 Dalit3/women’s struggles (John. collaboration becomes a tool to understand how women themselves conceptualise and represent their subalternity in complex ways that challenge the problematic assumptions made by a UN-style “global feminist” agenda.p65 14 9/26/2003. becomes a vehicle for the collaborators to imagine new ways in which they can resist processes that make the subaltern woman “the target of credit-baiting without infrastuctural involvement” (Spivak. sharing and collaborative decision-making about where these stories should speak. however. It. A more radical and more complex idea of collaboration must problematise these further imagine and enact postcolonial and transnational geographies of engagement through collaboration. Nagar. Thus. as well as the contradictions that remain buried in their efforts to overcome their silences. 1990). nor are they interested in becoming token co-authors. and the names of the non-academic actors she worked with appear as a way to denote shared power and authority. socioeconomic processes. spatial (im)mobility and politicised religion intersect to shape the multiple forms of violence in the lives of North Indian women. these collaborations allow us to exploit the political possibilities created by discursive materialities of global capitalism and international civil society. demands an in-depth interrogation of more traditional forms of collaboration where research agenda – and theoretical and methodological underpinnings – are determined (fully or largely) by the Northern academic researcher and her institutional context.
thin-boned bundle of energy pushed the bottle away each time. This implies that the specific products emerging from collaboration will sometimes be written jointly and sometimes by an individual or sub-group in consultation with others. empty body. stubborn mouth searched those breasts desperately. the painful reality of a collaboration that could not happen. If the intellectual agenda. irrespective of the formal co-authorship of the actual texts that get produced and circulated. as long as they maintain their commitment to the shared intellectual and political agenda. and clung to her mother’s breasts. 1:57 PM . the knowledges produced. another semi-translated bordercrossing – or. Do hi qadam door main chupchap Nagar. Uska bhookha-ziddi moonh pahle unhe Chichodta.p65 15 9/26/2003. with different goals and strategies. remain inherently and deeply collaborative. struggled to Rub itself against her. Lekin wo Nanhi-dubli taaqatwar jaan Botal hata-kar har-baar Maa ki Chhati se chipak jati. in every sense of the term – partnerships in which the questions around how power and authority would be shared cannot be answered beforehand. 369 Chuppi The Collaboration That Did Not Happen Grahwal ke ek nukkad par Hum dono intezaar kar rahe the Ek hi bas ka. they might be required to produce knowledges and theories for different audiences. On a little street corner of Garhwal She and I waited For the same bus. research questions and approaches evolve as part of a collaboration between actors in different institutional. then the collaborators must also understand that. as well as the purposes for which they are deployed. The challenge for postcolonial and feminist geographers. Since the issues I raise here defy conclusion by their very nature.Collaboration Across Borders assumptions. Nonetheless. As if to shield from the eyes of the crowd Her drained. is to conceptualise bordercrossings that are committed to forming collaborative partnerships with academic and non-academic actors in “other” worlds. Aur woh aurat baithi thi Dukan ki seedhion par Apni 8 maheenon ki bitiya ko Chhatiyon se zabran alag kiye — Mano koshish kar rahi ho sari bheed se Apna sookha jism chhipane ki. Her thirsty. but are imagined. She sat On the steps of a shop Holding her eight-month-old daughter Away from her breasts. and Each time she Stuffed in that persistent mouth A rubber nipple attached to a water bottle. then. sociopolitical and geographical locations. The child’s mouth. phir bhookh se beqaboo hokar Betarah cheekhkar rota. Baar-baar bitiya Uske badan se Apna moonh ragadti Aur baar-bar woh thel deti us Ziddi moonh mein Nipple lagi ek pani ki botal Over and over again. I offer as a non-conclusion to these thoughts-inprogress. and then screamed crazily with an uncontrolled hunger. struggled over and resolved through the collaborative process itself. But that tiny.
. I stood just two steps away watching all this like a criminal. the pseudonyms Sahara . but selected because they most resemble the ones where the actual events in her life took place.p65 16 9/26/2003. ek lambi bojhil chuppi ke age badhne hi nahin diya. for the primary actors that appear in her story. Aamir and Juhie. Shashi Vaishya and Surbala. Anupam. our methodology involves an organised schedule of tasks in the collection of each life-history that simultaneously focuses on developing each member’s skills as a community researcher. Sheela. to Abidin Kusno for his inspiring words.. Wohi ghair-barabari jo dheeth si chattan bankar khadi ho gayi mere aur us aurat ke darmiyan… Aur hamare beech guzre is adhoore kathin samvaad ko jisne.370 sab khadi dekhti rahi gunahgar bankar. I am grateful to David Faust for his sustained feedback and support. Shashi Dighia. Richa. Gunahgar is baat ki nahin ki apni 18 maheenon ki aulad ko main “kaam” ki wajah se Amreeka chhod aayi thi.. Vibha. sharing and 4 Nagar. had drenched my shirt with milk… Which despite my intense pain prevented me from holding that child tightly against my chest… That very same inequality which stood between me and that woman like a Nagar stubborn cliff determined to prevent this difficult. and likewise to avoid certain risks. 1:57 PM . burdened silence… ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS This work was supported by a McKnight Land-Grant Professorship. which in stead of wetting that woman. Balki gunahgar us kadwi ghair-barabari ki – jisne us aurat ke bajae meri qameez doodh se bhigo dali… Jisne lakh chahne par bhi rok liya mujhe us bachchi ko apne bheetar Samet lene se.. A criminal – not of the “crime” that had forced me to leave my 18-month-old daughter in the USA (so that I could “study” women’s struggles in India) But the crime of that bitter inequality. The activities include writing. a McKnight Presidential Fellowship and a Grant-in-Aid from the University of Minnesota. ENDNOTES Farah is the pseudonym chosen by the narrator of the first border-crossing. To Farah. 1 Although I have had an opportunity to interact with activists and workers in NGOs from various parts of South Asia. also Harijan/Dalit) and Yadav as Other Backward Castes (OBCs). 3 To summarise briefly. and to Derek Gregory for helping me see more clearly why it was necessary to undergo the discomfort caused by disrupting certain borders. incomplete dialogue between us from becoming anything more than a long. I express my dili shukriya for the countless hours of sharing which made it possible for us to dream and cry together. my most sustained and in-depth encounters have been with women activists in (my “home” state) Uttar Pradesh. The Harijan Act punishes discrimination against the Scheduled Castes. Meerut and New Jersey are real places. Reshma. 2 Chamar are officially classified as among the Scheduled Castes (formerly “untouchables”. Kanpur.
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