Friday, January 16, 2009


From my piece on Performativity and the Third World academic

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.


Lala said...

Yes...after reading your account what I felt that it is not the use of numbers by the faculty that silenced you but the differential power situation you were in and many of us find ourselves in academe and also praxis which is so deeply ensconced in the western hegemony and ideas. But then, haven't we bought it ourselves? We advocate and speak about education in mother tongue but our medium of education and articulation is english. Are we not dependent on the same hegemony for furthering our chosen careers? I am reminded of the same questions raised by the protagonist in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong's book "The river between" where while learning the white man's language at the mission school he questions his actions.It is extremely essential for us to engage in asking questions, constantly articulating and challenging the dominant paradigms and deconstructing. Airhihenbuwa illustrates a parallel when he writes about "community diagnosis" in his book "healing our differences". I found this resonating in your class account and from my own experiences at UNICEF. We used to interact with the village/ tribal communities and implement what we called "village based participatory planning" and predominantly our focus was find the problems!! The basic approach when dealing with the communities was that find out whats wrong with them and their way of living and keeping that in mind plan our intervention. Of course we had to do that as how else do we develop budget lines to help the people and alleviate them from poverty!!! The best was when we were creating an yearly budget for maternal health and the point we started from was predicting the number of mothers that will die in the coming years.

But then as a consenting Indian participating in the hegemony I had my own form of resistance as well. My focus was how do I get the maximum funds to spend in my state so that at least the economy gets that amount of funds. These are not easy explanations or solutions but account of involvement.

Lala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LaShara said...

The narrative you relayed was very compelling. One issue you mentioned, however, stuck out as it always does with issues of culture and the "others". I too had a similar "lump in the throat" response. The issue of agency is always a source of contention for me in that it comes from a Eurocentric perspective. I struggle with the intentions to do good for those who are undersevred and marginalzied but realize that the very marking or naming of a group as such acts to further marginalize them. Campaigns that proclaim the ability to bestow agency reinforce part of the problem; this them/us/other separation. When agency is said to not exist...who determines this absence? Who has the right to decide that other lack agency? Who has the right to emancipate? In our efforts to create equality and lessen power differentials between the haves and the have nots are we not reinforcing the differences that we proclaim to eliminate?

Raihan Jamil said...

I feel a lot of this has to do with how people think spending a summer abroad or doing a research study in another country or culture makes them a cultural insider.

This may not be the case.

The nuances of any culture would be hard to grasp even for an insider to it. I have been in the US for several years and even now I hesitate to share or express many things, local to the overall US culture, for the concern of over stepping my boundaries as a cultural outsider.

Like I said in class, I have learned to suppress my true feelings at times because of avoiding possible conflict scenarios.

Education is the best solution we assume. But at what cost? Or whose concept of education is the proper solution?