Making Our Bodies Matter

A friend and I started talking about communities, alliances and feminism(s) a few months ago — this conversation is a brief culmination of our identities and ideologies.

Me: Writing about bodies isn’t too difficult for me, that was until I realised “writing about bodies” meant writing of bodies other than mine, or even if I were to write about myself, the language automatically becomes clinical, my gaze objective and the talk goes to whatever is ailing me — it’s never about how I feel about my body, my relationship with my scars or what I see when I look in the mirror. As I am now living in a new city and adjusting to the weather patterns here, I have to take more care of my skin here than in I did in Mumbai, I have to leave myself notes to apply [x] cream before my heels crack and bleed — it’s such a jarring experience to see that my body has carried on without me (in a sense), has already started cracking, started healing in some parts while I have gone on and done something else. It all came to a head when I was thinking of Suheir Hammad‘s words — when she says “What am I saying when I say I sit in this body, dream in this body, expel in this body, inherit in this body” — where she posits the body as a start to all experiences, and here I was forgetting to take care of my body altogether, even in the most routine and seemingly trivial ways. I’ve often complained to friends that I feel ‘bound’ in this city — as public transport systems are irregular and auto rickshaws are a luxury I cannot always afford — so most of my ‘movement’ is between my apartment, the massive Uni campus and its libraries. Now that I re-think what I mean when I say ‘bound’, I mean more than just physical limits to where I can go or am kept from, I find limits in my syllables and expressions — precisely because my body feels those limits more intimately and primarily, as if my body translates these borders in the silences that creep up everywhere, from my thoughts to my academic writing. It’s only when I completely stopped producing words and syllables a week ago, went for a three-hour long walk, felt my words come back to me as I described to my guardian just why were my heels bleeding this time I realised how closely my body felt limited here*

*This isn’t to say there weren’t other barriers in Mumbai, just that navigating these particular changes is an entirely new experience for me.

Renee: It’s equally jarring to see your body stopped in time, unable to keep up with you, and trying to formulate contingencies for when it starts to slide backwards in time. This has been my experience since losing my job just more than a year ago.

My teeth hurt all the time now; one has eroded almost to the gum line, and I touch them constantly with my tongue and my fingers to make sure none are loose. I waited out a UTI two months ago, but an ear infection still lingers (and makes my teeth ache even more). There is no money for a doctor or dentist to attend to current ills, never mind the dreams I once had for my body. Most upsetting, when my current stash of hormone pills runs out, in perhaps a month or so, I may not be able to afford more, and at that point the person I know as me officially begins to disintegrate. I never really knew myself before starting hormones, and the threat of losing that is terrifying beyond what I can describe. Already I find myself glancing in the mirror more often, touching my face, to make sure I still exist.

But it’s not just the physical degradation I feel. For now, I’m staying in a friend’s spare room, sleeping upon a mattress on the floor, with all my worldly possessions piled in boxes around me. My days are lived largely in the space between my bed and the downstairs basement, where the household television is. I have few reasons to go anywhere else, and fewer resources to do so. I wear the same clothes most days, because to do anything else means doing more laundry, which inevitably costs someone money, even if that someone isn’t me. I don’t shower every day, or moisturize, or shave, or wear makeup, because all of those things are an expense too…and so again my body suffers.

It’s apropos that my body gets neglected first and most, as it’s the rejection of my body by others that led me here. Slowly it decays, out of sight and forgotten.

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Privilege, Power, Colonialism, and International Development – Part 2

This is a guest post by Numa. She identifies as Bangladeshi-Austrian for the sake of convenience, and works in the field of International Development for which she sometimes gets paid a living wage. She has the ambition of engaging and encouraging wider dialogue on development from a dusty perspective and hopes that she can contribute to making the world less fail in one way or another. She is trying to blog regularly on awkwardatbest.wordpress.com but mostly has a very short attention span.

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Initially the first post of this series was a standalone one that I had written to provide context for my thoughts on the field of international development and the theories underpinning it. It was only once I submitted the entry as a guest post for Jaded that I figured that there was more I wanted to say on the matters that I had touched on. Namely, I wanted to discuss how the example I gave of my classmates behaviour towards children in Uganda, was not isolated instance of ignorance, but was the result of wider cultural/societal attitudes that are reflected in both development theory and institutions.

To me, the way privilege and power relations manifest themselves within international development is rooted in the colonial past. Despite the trend of embracing a human rights approach, we still operate on colonial assumptions at the most basic level. The main thrust of development interventions is still to progress, to ‘move forward’, to essentially become more like the West.

“The West,” in this instance does not refer to any actual geographic location, but refers to an identity or a set of socio-economic/cultural values born out of centuries of European imaginings of themselves and the “Orient.”  In the 19th century this image of Self took a particular form based around colonialism that is still prevalent today. Whiteness, wealth, and wisdom, became key to the European identity and this identity transcended beyond Europe to the white colonies of North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Eurocentric ideas of economic and social development became regarded as objective ideals that were credited for the self-determined success of European advancement. A linear model of progress towards an ideal civilization based on these ideas was adopted, one that places the countries closest to Western ideals at the most “civilized” end of the scale.

Countries that haven’t reached this ideal state of civilization are considered to be “developing,” and their failure to reach this state is pathologized. While it is perhaps no longer as explicitly stated, “developing” countries are still read as helpless, lazy, or incompetent, and this imagery is repeatedly reinforced through media, literature, and art.

One way that ideas about the West and Third World are perpetuated is through development organisations themselves. At an individual level, the imagery of the Western self as helpful, industrious, and competent is constantly used to attract support and donations for development organisations/charities. Third World plight is commodified. Brown bodies are presented for consumption.

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On Signs And Signifiers

I’ve been pretty busy moving and settling in a new city these past three weeks, I couldn’t keep up with people, let alone the internet — thus thankfully missing debates around whether Mumbai should have slutwalks or not. One of the organisers asked me whether I’d be willing to help organise as we’ve worked on a few things together before. She was quite taken aback when I declined her offer (given that Slutwalk Mumbai ends up taking place) as we usually agree on most things when it comes to activism and organising. She asked, “But don’t you love your freedom? How can you pass up an opportunity such as this to see and know how far we can push boundaries?” and then I didn’t have any answers for her as I was, and am still caught up in thinking how for her, and a lot of people Slutwalk™ has come to symbolise the sum of all feminist rioting considering  Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Mumbai (from time to time) have had walks and pickets by feminists and people involved in gender justice, for causes ranging from more college seats for women to raising awareness about sex-selective abortions — each issue that emerges from our specific caste, gender, class conflicts in each specific city long before Slutwalk™ became an enterprise. Since this exchange, the rhetoric behind supporting slutwalks has become intertwined with “respecting and loving oneself” — where love¹ (of the self, of the ‘community’) is continuously intertwined to the extent that any opposition to slutwalk today is to “hate” freedom — and peculiarly, this ‘freedom’  that SW represents has to move away from anything “recognisably” Indian — whatever that means to people individually and collectively.

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In other parts of the country — especially Delhi — newspapers and news channels are all fixed on Anna Hazare’s impending fast tomorrow, that has been a part of national rhetoric and vocabulary since late April. On the whole, Hazare demands for a new anti-corruption bill, asks people to fully and directly engage with the government and hold them accountable. When it comes to the news coverage of his speeches and his entire fast, the comparisons drawn to Gandhi are more than co-incidental — tomorrow being Independence Day for India, the analogy becomes even thicker, Hazare is viewed as the “one man army” who is going to drive away corruption, going by Gandhi’s views of freedom. While I don’t necessarily agree that this protest is “peaceful” at all, that by specifically re-membering India’s history of independence as one without critically admitting to ourselves and others that it meant freedom for only ‘some’ people, I do find such a ‘nation-wide’ movement fascinating — as from time to time we see women also supporting Hazare’s fast², it’s been a while since women have been featured under the “national gaze” as more than just agency-less subjects. However, coming to the actual protest due on 15th August at Delhi, it seems women may not have a harassment-free space to march and protest. Can’t say I’m particularly shocked if tomorrow there are mostly men broadcasted over the news — as Hazare (like Gandhi) still see women’s roles under traditional patriarchy of wifedom and motherdom. For instance, the Alcohol Prohibition Act reads like one that empowers women, to talk about their abusive alcoholic spouses — it supposes that only men can be alcoholics, that one has to be an alcoholic to abuse people; there are many loopholes to this and quite a few of his other arguments too, one of the most troubling being — does an anti-corruption movement erase/will attempt to smooth over India’s history and geography of communal violence and casteism?

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Fostering Hospitable Silences

[Trigger Warning for mention of sexual abuse]. 

As a person who works with survivors/victims sexual and domestic abuse, I’m quite used to getting calls from people all over the city, most times it’s when I’m at the center — I talk to them and we assess the situation, whether the caller is in immediate danger or not – generally they want someone to listen to them. Very rarely do I get requests to meet up with people — which can be dangerous for both of us — but every time I’ve met someone, it’s only to have them rushing back in a maximum of twenty minutes, for the time-window their abusers leave them, where they have some amount of unaccounted time-slot is often very less. Last week I got a call from a woman living in South Bombay, in one of the most reputed neighbourhoods and she wanted to meet me to discuss long-term solutions (which the group I work with occasionally handles as well). She called me after midnight and I was set to meet her the next day, and she wanted to change the location for she wanted to remove all possible run-ins with anyone who may report back to her family — and every place I came up with her was unacceptable for her. “Barista?” “It’s too public”, “[x] book store?” “that’s hardly the place for polite conversation”, “[x] place?” “We aren’t supposed to talk about these things there” and both of us eventually burst out laughing at how absurd this conversation was — both knew what we were going to discuss and there wasn’t even a single space we could discuss those things — and then we both fell silent. We need silence now. Right? To keep peace? To keep the surface calm?

I want to talk about this silence, this polite hospitable silence — often used as a conscious or otherwise decision to mask, hide, distract or forget altogether about the rough friction, of intersecting differences, that de-stabilise us, that move together to move any ‘safe’ or ‘home’ space. This silence shows up everywhere we construct spaces to be “homelike” — in  classrooms, in actual homes, in well-loved literature texts — and we learn to nurture them. Last month a student came out to me as queer and she waited till our last “official” class was over and then did she decide to tell me — and when I asked her why did she have to wait till it got over considering we’ve talked about just about everything, she explained that she didn’t want to “upset” the rhythm of the class. Alternatively, I should have asked her why was “keeping” the rhythm so important to her, but that time I was quiet, parsing what she’d just told me. In home spaces¹, it seems the general reaction is to secure and perpetuate a sense of a border or a territory, a line we must learn to never cross. Many times, between friends, in classes, whenever the talk goes to any “taboo” topic, immediately and inadvertently my voice softens itself and then I have to remember to revert back to my general tone and loudness — and these are spaces I generally feel comfortable in, a performed home of sorts, and yet this silence is always around.

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Privilege, Power, Colonialism, and International Development – Part 1

Numa identifies as Bangladeshi-Austrian for the sake of convenience, and works in the field of International Development for which she sometimes gets paid a living wage. She has the ambition of engaging and encouraging wider dialogue on development from a dusty perspective and hopes that she can contribute to making the world less fail in one way or another. She is trying to blog regularly on awkwardatbest.wordpress.com but mostly has a very short attention span.

I grew up in a multicultural bubble where the idea of discrimination because of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality was never discussed openly. It wasn’t until 2006-7, at university, where I started reading about privilege and oppression, that I discovered the tools to process my own experiences as a WOC. I realized that it wasn’t so much that my environment growing up had been free of racism or sexism, but that I had just  never been primed to recognize any -isms as such.

My immigrant parents were not equipped to help me deal with my experiences as an ethnic minority. They had grown up in a country where they were not the Other, and so subtle racism, or institutional racism didn’t really register with them. The only type of racism that they had learned to recognize, was the blatant “Get the fuck out of my country, you dirty brown foreigner” type of racism.

So I what I internalized was that discrimination was always blatant and happened out of ignorance, out of a lack of education. “Ignorance” was also code for “poor”, and for the longest time I genuinely believed this incredibly classist explanation. I really thought the only people who could be racist were uneducated, and thus, poor.

I realize now that this was a badly thought out, almost instinctive, coping mechanism where my class privilege was used as a form of protection against the forms of oppression I faced, namely racism. It was a bit like “Ha, I may be brown, but at least I’m not poor!” sort of thing, where oppressions are pitted against each other.

This kind of attitude also helped insulate me against the racism of my peers and immediate environment. As long as racism was only perpetuated by a group I never had to deal with, then the things that felt like racism invoked by my peers, were a different kind of creature. I was able to maintain the illusion of safety and lead a relatively untroubled existence.

Unfortunately for me, this meant that I once realized the actual pervasiveness of racism and other kinds of -isms, I found myself surrounded by people who had never had to think about any of these issues either. If it hadn’t been for the internet, I would have never have found the resources to help me make sense of my experiences with oppression and privilege.

By the time I started my postgraduate studies at the end of 2008, I was already well-versed in issues of discrimination. However, I had not yet thought about how oppression and privilege manifests itself within international development. When I started my degree, I was still naïvely under the impression that since the very concept of international development was about ensuring global economic and social justice, development theory and practice would be critical of all kinds of oppression. Like some kind of -ism free utopia…

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