May 07, 2014

Feminist Interventions on Gender and South Asia: Conference Highlights

South Asia by the Bay: Graduate Conference 2014, UC Santa Cruz, May 2-3, 2014

Image by Sheba Chhachhi.
A full program awaited attendees of this year’s graduate conference, organized annually by South Asia by the Bay, a consortium of California
Universities (UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and Stanford.  The two days of stimulating panels featured graduate students from many
locations in Canada and the US as well as one from the UK and two from India. Panels had been expertly grouped by organizer Anjali Arondekar, and memorable keynote addresses were given by UC Santa Barbara Professor Bishnupriya Ghosh (“Witnessing Health”)
and UC Berkeley Professor 
Raka Ray (“The Precarious Middle-Class: Gender and Mobility in the New Economy”).

The first day treated the audience to subjects as diverse as the art of Zarina Hasmi (particularly her woodcut Divided Line),
paternal familial sovereignty in 19th century India, and a deconstructive history of the colonial Indian jails that housed women.
The second day showcased many essays including ones on the female renunciant in exile, the search for the disappeared in Kashmir, and
the militarization of the India-Bangladesh border. This last essay, presented by Sahana Ghosh of Yale University described the
case of Felani and traced how an extreme case comes to stand in for a whole phenomenon, and thus obscures other related events
or aspects of relations on the India-Bangladesh boundary.

Though I appreciated all the papers as well as the stimulating Q & A that followed,I want to highlight four
of particular interest to Ultraviolet-ers.

“Critiques of Home and Aesthetics of Complaint at a Womens’s Shelter in Kolkata” by student Amrapali Maitra
(Stanford) dovetailed very nicely with “Protection/Detention/Reform: shelters, sex workers and the law in India” by
Vibhuti Ramachandran (NYU). Both essays discussed confined women: women who were in a home for the mentally ill, and women
who were taken into a shelter in Delhi in an effort to extricate them from their jobs as sex workers. Each of them described a haunting
picture of isolated and depressed women, many of whom have been shut up without their consent after having first experienced
a similar sort of imprisonment in an abusive domestic situation or in a brothel.  Some of the mentally ill women were not ill at all; some
of the sex workers had not been trafficked. Both groups repeated a frequent question to the scholar-observer, “When do I get to leave?”
Gender justice was certainly not being served at either facility, though positive aspects and intentions were acknowledged, and one
of the matters left to ponder was how domestic workers, though in dead end jobs and sometimes very badly treated,
are not targeted for rescue and detention. Pawan Singh’s essay “Privacy and Other Absences: the Human Rights Subject of Sexuality
in India” invited the audience to consider the production and reception of the film My Brother Nikhil alongside agitation for the repeal of Section 377.

Finally, Amrita Kumar-Ratta (University of Toronto) delivered a memorable paper on “Sex Selection Among Indo-Canadian Women:
Discursively Constructing Reproductive Choice.” It covered many subtopics, but one was how the pro-life movement has used Indo-
Canadian women in their agenda to make abortion illegal, arguing that sex-selective abortion is common in this community. It turns
out that a recent pro-life march focused mainly on the slogan “It’s a Girl Should not be  a Death Sentence.” The speaker noted how
the unfolding rhetoric places a problematic double burden of patriarchy and practices labeled barbaric on one immigrant group.

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