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Playing with Fire: The Ethics of Transnational Feminism

As a part of the "new generation" of the women's movement, or as someone who came in "recently" (apparently the more years one has spent protesting beauty contests and attending meetings about the future of feminism, the wiser and by extension, sacred and revered one is within certain strands of the movement) I hear all the time about "transnational feminism." For a lot of feminists in the women's movement of the '80s, the biggest foes were NGOs and the IMF, controlling how they should be "conscientizing" women and "working for their empowerment"; sadly enough worrying about the UN and its bodies kept them occupied enough to not question these goals in the first place. Now that globalization is squarely part of our lives, we have different qualms than our predecessors—from "all IMF/corporate-driven projects are inherently antifeminist and they should all die in a fire," today our concerns have (mostly) shifted to "funding is bad since liberal UN-approved safe feminism dictates how we should be forming our goals, but we need it. So how can we use the resources available and still (possibly?) have an impact on people's lives?".  This isn't to say as the "newer members" we haven't made mistakes (cough SlutWalk cough) but the space to dialogue and dissent is relatively more democratic than it used to be. If popular rumors are to be believed, you just need a blog and you've arrived, but I digress.

cover of Playing with Fire, which is blue and has a red patterned scarf on it

"Transnational feminism" is given a lot of weight—negative and otherwise—and most said it couldn't be done, 'til Playing with Fire came in 2006, that is. A quick introduction: Playing with Fire was originally a collective diary that seven NGO workers in Sitapur, tucked away in North India (Uttar Pradesh), kept while they worked as Sangtins (a Sangtin is a term used by a woman to refer to her companion who sees her through life's struggles) with the State-funded project called Mahila Samakhya (MS). The seven writers, along with Richa Nagar, documented their journey through Sitapur, an act that was enough to enrage their superiors at the Mahila Samakhya UP Branch, and eventually that got the Sangtins fired. The Sangtins flaunted their diaries fully aware of the risks they were taking, in publishing a book that critiqued the very organizations that fed them, as well as revealing intimate details of their lives.

We knew all too well, working in a women's organization that it is much easier to interrogate the definitions of honor, morality, and justice by giving instances from the lives of others than by applying critiques to our own clans and families. Even so, we unveiled details about our lives in our diaries and discussions because we believed that we would not be able to advance this struggle if we were to hide things. We suspect that our readers will read with pleasure, and perhaps respect, the details we furnish here about our intimate lives and relationships, our sexuality, our poverty, and the putrid swamps of casteism and communalism that we live in. We wonder, however, whether they will be able to read with equal pleasure or respect our analyses and critiques of women's and development NGOs.

The book breaks down walls between feminist activism and academia, challenging notions of fieldwork, objectivity and the very ethics of feminism itself. I still grapple with the text, not sure of what the Sangtins mean when they're talking about "local feminism"—since my local and theirs are worlds apart—and savor the moment. Playing with Fire doesn't make huge statements about feminist methodology and praxis; it's a specific moment in the history of specific lives (and a death) of these writers, unlike urban feminist movements like SlutWalk and the PinkChaddi campaign that claim to speak for "all women of India." They started with "women's issues," and today they've become Sangtin Kisaan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS). The Sangtins recently went on a US tour and are soon publishing a second book. A feminist from US academia and seven rural women from Uttar Pradesh came together and documented their lives, spanning the last eight years of working and realizing their dreams for what they think is a just future. 

However, one has to question how Richa Nagar could make her research her job, but the Sangtins lost their jobs—and one was murdered in plain sight. The question here isn't about their personal relations, within and across SKMS, rather how "equal" transnational feminism is, even within an experiment to do away with these very ideas of political, economic, and geopolitical domination. Yet, at the same time, had it not been for the academic reach of Richa Nagar, we wouldn't know of the Sangtins in the first place. There are many experiments within transnational feminist praxis, where we see engaged collaborative work. Perhaps the way forward would be, much like the journey from Playing with Fire to the building of SKMS, to root concerns and qualms (funded or without!) in issues of livelihood (rather than lifestyle, like PinkChaddi and SlutWalk) and begin constructing worlds from the ground up.

Previously: Resisting Resistance: On Mahasweta Devi's Draupadi and Fine-Tuning our Feminist Antennae, Kamasutra and the Indian Feminists

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