Showing posts with label Feminism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Feminism. Show all posts

9.11.2017

From 9/11 to the Trump Presidency: the Clarifying Power of Difficult Times


Since the election last November I've said a few times that living in the U.S. under Trump is a lot like living through the reaction to 9/11 all over again. On the one hand, both events give one the sense of being surprised by a darkness running deep in the bloodstream of American culture that we might not have been aware of. We had to contend, then as now, with the thought that our ostensible friends and neighbors might be harboring a hostility that we didn't realize was there.

On the one hand, that fall I remember arguing in a public forum with a colleague who essentially bought into the Bush administration's line that the war in Afghanistan was actually about freeing Afghan women who were oppressed by the Taliban. (Faculty on college campuses were by no means immune to government propaganda!)  I stumbled a bit to respond -- I was new in my job and untenured. At a relatively conservative campus and at a time when there was a strong social imperative to be critical of terrorists and supportive of those who oppose them, I was unsure whether I could publicly say what I actually thought: that the Bush administration did not care at all about women in Afghanistan. And that we need to be extremely skeptical of any and all American rationalizations for military action. That particular day, I don't think I quite pulled it off.

That said, so many people were also inspired by the cascade of military and political missteps in 2001-2003 -- from the various excesses of the Patriot Act, to the use of torture at Guantanamo and CIA black sites, to the build-up to the invasion of Iraq -- to become engaged with global current events in a way they hadn't been before.

In contrast to that other colleague I mentioned, another colleague, a (now-retired) Jane Austen specialist whose office was adjacent to mine, was inspired by her commitment to feminism to develop a deep knowledge of groups like RAWA -- and was only too sensitive to the classic Gayatri Spivak conundrum of "white men saving brown women from brown men." She and I had many good conversations in those years about this conundrum, about the complexities of understanding how patriarchy functions in South Asia from a western vantage point, and about the possible roles and limits of western feminism in light of everything else that was going on. I remember marching with this colleague in New York City at the massive anti-war protest in February 2003. Though we did not agree on everything, I was proud to stand with her that day.

So just as it was a terrible and deeply disheartening moment, both in itself and in the social and political reaction it provoked, 9/11 (and now, the Trump Presidency) led many of us to wake up again and assert our commitment to justice -- with all of its complications. Then, we were talking about protecting civil liberties and privacy in light of the Patriot Act, the human rights of prisoners in detention, and the danger of rushing thoughtlessly to war.

Today we have to talk about: the plight of undocumented immigrants and refugees, the rise of a new kind of white nationalism, the many ways in which American society seems to deny the humanity of black people, the fundamental dignity and rights of LGBTQ people, the importance of addressing climate change... and the danger of rushing thoughtlessly to war.

2.17.2017

Historical Footnote: Militant Suffragettes, Forced Feeding, and Class Identity

A brief historical footnote completely unrelated to President Agent Orange.

I've been working with an honors student on her senior thesis this spring. She's interested in the militant suffrage movement in England (1909-1914 roughly); we've been reading memoirs by the Pankhursts, novels like Gertrude Colmore's Suffragette Sally (published in 1910 -- interestingly, there's no digital version of it online anywhere!), the anti-suffrage novel Delia Blanchflower (archive.org), and combing through old collections of the London Times and Votes for Women (the weekly newspaper closely affiliated with the WSPU).  We're finding lots of interesting stuff, but since I am not an expert in this area I wanted to put this footnote out there in case readers have suggestions or tips relating to this topic they could share.

We got interested in the depiction of the imprisoned activists who engaged in hunger strikes as a mode of resistance inside prison during the peak of the militant suffrage movement.

One curious discovery my student made was that at first this was seen as linked to class identity. In the early 1900s, the women's prison system in England was structured along strict class lines. First class women prisoners ("political prisoners") could wear their own clothes, order food for delivery in prison, have access to books and writing materials, and even receive visitors. Second class prisoners had more limited rights, and third class prisoners (often prostitutes: women suspected of "moral turpitude") lived in pretty abysmal conditions.

Most of the militant suffragettes, starting with the Pankhursts themselves, were middle class (some of the prominent leaders were also upper-class -- titled women like Lady Constance Lytton). But when imprisoned for various acts, from simply being disruptive in public to actually committing acts of vandalism (breaking windows), and rioting, they were thrown into the third class prison. Initially at least (in 1909-1910) many of the hunger strikes that ensued were oriented towards calling attention to this fact -- the suffragettes thought they deserved to be put in the first class facility as political prisoners, rather than be thrown in with the "common" prisoners.

It's also worth mentioning that Edwardian medical technology was pretty primitive; the nasal tubes used in force feeding were pretty crude, and often left scarring. Lytton, in her memoir of the experience of being repeated force-fed, suggests her digestive tract was permanently damaged by this. (See more here)

Later the hunger strikes morphed into something else -- a much more powerful rhetorical tool for calling attention in general to the Suffragists' claims and cause (as Lytton would later describe it: the hunger strike was a "woman's weapon" against the state). In 1910  Lytton went to prison under a pseudonym, disguising her class background. She went on hunger strike and then was subjected to force-feeding. When she came out, her account of how she'd been treated helped raise mainstream awareness of what was happening to the imprisoned suffragettes. She also asserted her commitment to an egalitarian -- middle and working class -- suffrage movement.

It's probably important to mention also that Edwardian medical technology was pretty primitive; the nasal tubes used in force feeding were quite crude, and often left scarring. Lytton, in her memoir of the experience of being repeated force-fed, suggests her digestive tract was permanently damaged by this. (See a bit more here)

Soon, the government would start putting imprisoned suffragettes in first class women's prisons. They also stopped force-feeding suffragettes on hunger strikes (some continued to do so), but shortly after the beginning of World War I the movement largely went into hibernation, reemerging after the war.

So -- as I mentioned, I'm not an expert in this area, and much of what I describe above is new to me. Do any readers have suggestions about either feminist historians or literary critics they think are particularly insightful on these topics? Favorite suffrage (or anti-suffrage! we're interested in both) novels? Suggestions on digital archives or collections we should look at? 


10.16.2013

"The First Four" -- Women Faculty in the Lehigh English Department

One of my students was involved with the making of a documentary about the first women faculty in the English department. I had a chance to see the film a few weeks ago at a public screening, and it's terrific -- probably of interest to anyone interested in gender issues in academia. Happily, permissions have been ensured to allow the film to be posted online (on Vimeo). An embedded link to the film is below.

A bit of background. At its inception in 1865, Lehigh University was an all-male college mainly focused on engineering. The university was founded by Asa Packer, a railroad tycoon, and over the years the university had connections to the steel and auto industries as well (major buildings on campus are the "Iacocca Building" and "Packard Lab" -- named after James Packard, who founded the eponymous car company). Colleges of Business, Arts and Sciences, and Education were later added; today they are highly ranked and well-funded.

The university moved to include women as students in 1971 (see "40 Years of Women at Lehigh"). As part of that change, the university also began to attempt to diversify its faculty (which was, not unlike other American academic institutions of that era, universally white and male). A large number of the first women faculty hired by Lehigh in those first years (1972-3) were in the English department.

Three of the first four women faculty were still part of the department when I joined the faculty in 2001. Rosemary Mundhenk, Elizabeth Fifer, and Barbara Traister are friends and have been mentor-figures to me. (Another faculty member hired in this period who also played a mentoring role for me, Jan Fergus, joined the department a bit later.) I consider myself lucky to have started my career as a professor in a department with a strong cohort of senior colleagues who were women. That said, as you'll see from the documentary, things were not easy for these women in the early years.

Finally, I'm quite proud of my student, Laura Casale (@lauralehigh on Twitter), who is one of the four students involved in putting this documentary together. Well done!

The English department's intro to the film is here:
https://english.cas2.lehigh.edu/

And the film itself:


THE FIRST FOUR from Lehigh IMRC on Vimeo.

10.24.2007

Displaced People, Especially Women (Guha Chapter 5)

(Part four in an ongoing series dedicated to Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's post can be found here. Next week we will look at chapter six, on the Constituent Assembly and the writing of India's constitution. )

There are lots of interesting bits in Guha's fifth chapter, on the resettlement of refugees scattered across India after Partition. The part I will focus on in particular is the status of women who were abducted, forcibly married, and then forcibly returned to their families. But to begin with, here are some general facts on the displaced people who ended up in India:

  • Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of refugees in Punjab were temporarily housed in camps. The largest of these was at Kurukshetra, where there were some 300,000 refugees. Over time, a major land redistribution effort was initiated, so that farmers who had been displaced from land in Pakistan were granted land in India. More than 500,000 claims were processed through this effort. (According to Guha, the effort worked, by and large; withing a few years, many displaced Punjabis from farming villages were back at work on new lands.)

  • Nearly 500,000 refugees ended up in Delhi, fundamentally changing the character of the city. Some settled in outer districts like Faridabad, while others were given land immediately to the south and west of New Delhi. Many of Delhi's new residents thrived in trade, and came to hold a "commanding influence" over the economic life of the city.

  • About 500,000 refugees also ended up in Bombay, including a large number of Sindhis. Here resettlement did not go as well, and Guha states that 1 million people were sleeping in the streets (even in the early 1950s).

  • 400,000 refugees came into West Bengal during and immediately after the Partition, but another 1.7 million Hindus left East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) following communal riots there in 1949-50. At least 200,000 ended up in desperate straits in "squatter colonies" in Calcutta, where the refugees effectively overwhelmed the city. Conditions here were much worse than they were in Delhi or in the resettlement camps in the Punjab. The government may have been slow to respond because it presumed that many of the refugees would be returning -- and that communal feelings in Bengal were not quite as bad as they were in Punjab. (A mistaken presumption, Guha suggests.)


Those are some of the general facts Guha gives us. What stands out to me is how effective the new Indian government was, on the whole, in responding to the mass influx of people. There were failures -- and again, Guha singles out West Bengal as the worst -- but if you think about the numbers involved, it's astonishing that the process was as orderly as it was. Hundreds of thousands of displaced families were allotted land through a rationalized, transparent process oriented to ensuring their survival. And food relief and temporary shelter was provided to thousands more (not without international help).

However, one area where the state really did fail -- astoundingly -- is with women who had been abducted, converted, and forcibly married in the Partition. Guha's account here is quite thin, so I'm supplementing what he says with material from Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin's book, Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition.

The abductions happened on both sides, and both India and Pakistan agreed to cooperate in the effort to restore abducted women to their families. Here are some of the numbers, from Menon and Bhasin's book:

The official estimate of the number of abducted women was placed at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan. Although Gopalaswami Ayyangar (minister of Transport in charge of Recovery) called this figures 'rather wild,' Mridula Sarabhai believed that the number of abducted women in Pakistan was ten times the 1948 official figure of 12,500. Till December 1949, the number of recoveries in both countries was 12,552 for India and 6,272 for Pakistan. The maximum number of recoveries wre made from Punjab, followed by Jammu and Kashmir and Patiala. (from Menon and Bhasin)


In 1949, Indian Parliament passed a rather bizarre law called the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Bill, which gave the government virtually unlimited power to remove abducted women in India from their new homes, and transport them to Pakistan. The government could use force against abducting families, and it could also hold abducted women in camps if needed.

The problem with this process is that nothing in the law, or the major humanitarian effort that followed, was oriented to ascertaining the will of the women themselves. While some were in fact eager to rejoin their families, quite a number (no one knows exactly how many) were not at all eager to return. The biggest reason is of course the sense of anxiety and shame about being marked as "fallen women" -- they weren't at all convinced that they would be accepted by their families. Other times, the women had had children by their new husbands, and were at least resigned (if not happy) with their new lives. (Nothing in the law passed by Parliament dealt with the situation of women who had had children, nor was the final status of children born of these marriages determined by the Bill.)

But there were other reasons not to return as well. Menon and Bhasin have a fascinating account from Kamlaben Patel, a social worker working with abducted women for the Indian government. She was stationed in Lahore between 1947 and 1952, and worked on a number of cases. She became personally involved with one particular young woman, and Menon and Bhasin give us the story in her own words:

I have written about a case where the parents thought it was alright to sacrifice the life of a young girl in order to save a whole family. And when we were arguing about her recovery then the father said, this is our girl, and the girl denied it because she was terribly hurt by their behaviour. She said, 'I don't want to go back. I have married of my own free will, I don't want anything from my parents.' When she refused to return, it became very awkward. She was in the home of a police inspector. We felt that if we have found an abducted woman in the house of a police inspector, then how can we expect the police to do any recovering? That is why we had to bring her back.


After interviewing the woman, Kamlaben found out why she was so adamant:

That girl kept saying that she didn't want to go to her parents, she wouldn't budge an inch. After two or three days she broke down, she told us that her parents had been told by the police inspector, 'If you leave your daughter, gold and land with me, I will escort you all to the cantonment in India.' That man was already married, had children. He had told her father, you give me this girl in exchange for escorting you all to an Indian cantonment. Then her father gave him his daughter, 30 tolas of gold and his house. One night I called the girl to my bedside and said, if you want to go back (to the inspector) then I will send you. If you don't want to go back to your parents, don't go, but please tell me why.'


What happened in the end: the young woman said she didn't want to go back to the police inspector (in Pakistan), but she also refused to go back to her parents. Acting beyond the call of duty (and beyond the mandate given her by Mridula Sarabhai), Kamlaben was able to arrange a marriage for the woman to a displaced young man living in Amritsar. She later had a child, and came to thank Kamlaben personally for her efforts. (At the same time, Kamlaben was castigated by Mridula Sarabhai for getting too personally involved.)

For me this story illustrates some of the basic problems in the government's "recovery" effort, though it also suggests how individuals can sometimes intervene to try and respond to the particularities of individual cases, and more importantly, the will of individual women affected by the Partition.

Menon and Bhasin don't suggest that the recovery effort that was undertaken shouldn't have happened. Rather, they point out that the way it was done was flawed -- it was, in effect, an arrangement between the men ruling the two new countries, carried out to protect national (and familial) "honor," rather than to ensure the best possible result for the affected women. Though the goal was to rectify a wrong, one could argue that it in some ways continued the patriarchal mentality that led to the atrocities against women in the Partition in the first place.

I should point out that most of the stories about women abducted in the Partition do not end as happily as the one above. Many "recovered" women committed suicide, while others ended up as prostitutes. But there are many, many stories, which you'll find recounted in books like Borders and Boundaries as well as Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence. Amrita Pritam also wrote about this in her novella Pinjar, which was made into what I thought was a decent Hindi film a few years ago.

What comes up again and again in these stories is the failure of the government's blanket policy to address the particular experiences of women who had been abducted. On the other hand, it might not be the government's problem entirely: in the late 1940s neither Indian nor Pakistani society was really set up to accommodate women who had been so brutally alienated from their families and communities. What these women really needed, perhaps more than anything, was the ability to determine their own fates, to be enabled to become independent, both socially and financially. But it appears that that, which is to say, freedom, simply wasn't an imaginable conclusion in the vast majority of the cases.

4.30.2007

"Matrubhoomi" -- Brilliant, Flawed

It took us a long time to get around to seeing the film Matrubhoomi -- it didn't screen in many theaters in the U.S. when it first came out in the U.S. in 2005, and it just generally looked a bit depressing. For those who haven't heard of it, Matrubhoomi takes the severe gender imbalance in certain Indian states (including Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP, and MP), caused by sex-selective abortions and female infanticide, and takes it to an extreme level. The result is a dystopian future village environment -- where there are no women at all.

Jai has a smart review of the film at Jabberwock, where he admires the brilliant concept and accurately notes the film's flaws. Jai finds that the film's actual plot ends up failing despite a provocative concept, because it's dominated by "cardboard cutout stereotypes" of rapacious men. One woman, played by Tulip Joshi, is "bought" by a wealthy Seth with five unmarried sons. She ends up being handed off from one son to the other each night, with the father sleeping with her on the other two nights of the week.

I did want to register a minor defense of an admittedly flawed film, precisely over the way in which Tulip Joshi's character is treated in the family after her marriage. Instead of treating her as a valued member of the family, the men in the household only intensify her suffering and subjugation, which is consistent with the misogynist logic that has produced the gender imbalance to begin with. The fact that she is purchased by her husbands (bride-price) rather than subsidized by her family (dowry) doesn't improve her status, since the patriarchal structure in which the "traffic in women" is conducted is controlled by men purely out of a twisted concept of self-interest. It isn't important whether a woman in this system is understood as an "asset" (bride price) or "liability" (dowry); as long as they are traded (like farm animals, the film repeatedly suggests), there can be little respite.

In real life, one has to wonder whether the current cultural norms preferring sons to daughters present in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana will start to shift as the gender imbalance becomes an entrenched fact of life -- and the number of men living lives without women continues to grow.

2.06.2007

Aishwarya Marries Tree(s)--A Setback for Feminism?

Aishwarya Rai, who has been in the news lately because of her engagement to Abhishek Bachchan, has apparently been ritually married to not one but two trees before her real marriage (thanks, Antahkarana). The aim is to counter the astrological effects of being born a Manglik:

But Ash is reportedly blighted with what in astrological terms is described as “manglik dosh,” which means that the planet Mars (mangla) and possibly even the planet Saturn are in the seventh house. People with manglik dosh are prone to multiple marriages, according to San Francisco Bay Area Vedic astrologer Pandit Parashar. That means Ash’s marriage to Abhishek could either end in divorce or his death.

In Hindu tradition, in order to offset the evil influence of manglik dosh, a woman should marry a peepal or banana tree before she ties the knot with her fiancé. Or she could even marry a clay urn, which should be broken soon after the nuptial ceremonies, signifying that the bride has become a widow, and the manglik dosh problem has been solved.

It’s not known if Ash has married, or plans to marry, an urn, but she reportedly has married a peepal tree in the holy city of Varanasi, and a banana tree in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. (link)

The Indian media is reporting that a case has been filed against the Bachchan family by lawyer Shruti Singh to the effect that these types of practices promote untouchability. She has also suggested that it's offensive to women.

There has been some discussion of this event on the blog Feministing, and one commenter there points out that the practice of marrying a tree can also be recommended for men, though I haven't been able to confirm that. (If true, that would definitely weaken the case that this is a misogynistic ritual.) Other commenters have suggested that this is probably pretty harmless in the big scheme of things -- especially since honor killings, dowry killings, child marriages, and forced marriages are still problems in Indian society.

What do you think? Is this "backward" practice part of a slippery slope (only one step away from things that are much more problematic), or something basically harmless? What do you think of Shruti Singh's claim that this practice promotes untouchability? I must admit I don't know very much about Hindu astrology, and so can't say what role caste plays in these practices in general.