Today we were talking about issues of health and gender in South Asia in this one graduate seminar I am attending. The teacher, a recently minted PhD from a midwestern university, a White woman, stood in front of the class and eloquently discussed the primitiveness of South Asian cultures that are steeped in patriarchy and age old values. She talked about how these cultures needed to be changed, and the role of interventions in bringing about such change. She talked about the lack of agency of South Asian women and how they needed empowerment (of course, by the White saviors embodied in the dominant paradigm of development and health communication who only knew too well the so called strategies to develop and uplift). Then she went on to discuss examples of empowerment-based campaigns that have changed the terrain of the Third World, and brought about development. Her triumphant note articulated their (West-centered agents of change) victories in how they did us (Third World recipients of aid) good, how they have done so historically and how they continue to do so through the benevolent efforts of campaigns.
It was the colonial logic all over again that I have heard since I entered into the US-centric academe that mapped out my culture, its values, and its practices as primitive, often painted in terms of its savagery and ancient practices. The images that continued to circulate in Euro-centric discourse were those of snake charmers, shanties, savage rituals, and primitive practices. I was frustrated and angry as this is not the world of my mother, grandmothers, aunts and cousins that I so fondly remembered. This surely was not my experience of growing up; Bengali women operated in contested terrains of power and control, enacting their agency in various ways as they negotiated patriarchal and colonial structures. To think that she was talking about my mother as one she (and her kind) could come in and save was not only frustrating and violating, but also debilitating. What did she know about my mother? Or for that matter of the category “South Asian women” that she could so easily write off with one broad stroke of arrogance? I wanted to speak up. I wanted to challenge her. But where did I have the language? She presented numbers and statistics, so-called data that supported her claims. In the face of her numbers and statistics, I only had experiences to reflect upon. How could I speak back to her? I felt frustrated and silenced. I so wanted to speak up, but felt choked.