Curricular Crossings

Feminist Representation, Feminist Practice: Perspectives from South Asian Anthropology

by Ravina Aggarwal

My talk will be in three parts. First, I'll say a bit about issues of representation. The second part will focus on perspectives on South Asian women that have come out of anthropology. Finally, I'll talk about some of the strategies I've used with my students to combat stereotypes of South Asians. I'll start with a personal anecdote:

Three months ago, sitting in the dark confines of the Chelsea Cinemas in New York, watching the Hollywood film Good Will Hunting, I had what you might call an out-of-body experience. Matt Damon, who plays a math genius, was talking to Robin Williams about the extraordinary life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant Indian mathematician. Seeing Williams' perplexed gaze, Damon's character clarified: "Indians as in dots, not feathers." Williams' face immediately beamed with the light of understanding. It was at this moment that two of my selves decided to jump out in front of my eyes and distract me. The first one, clad in a bright sari of red-and-gold brocade, with a bright, perfectly rounded crimson bindi on her forehead, thrust a little gold star at me. "This racist movie is worth no more than one star," she declared. The other me was floating before the screen in a white bridal gown and whispering softly, "It's only entertainment. Just the right blend of anti-academic humor. Three and a half stars." Back and forth they went, vying for my attention. I wanted to wish them away, but they were annoyingly insistent.The red one thrust the single star forward again, recalling the stupid questions that are frequently asked of Indians and the satirical answers that I once read on a South Asian women's internet listserv. Question: Why do Indian women wear those dots on their foreheads? Answer: Those dots are not worn, they are permanent scars from an ancient practice of target shooting by dominant Indian husbands hurling arrows at their passive wives.

Not to be outdone, the white one countered by conjuring another Robin Williams film, The Dead Poet's Society, in which he played a self-sacrificing teacher leading his delinquent students to the realization of enlightenment through poetry. I began visualizing all the complimentary comments I'd received on my student evaluation forms. "Professor Aggarwal has changed my notion of South Asia forever. Never will I think of those people as underdeveloped and weird again." "Ravina encouraged us to express different points of view and speak out in class against stereotypes of all kinds." "Professor Aggarwal grew up in the remote Himalayan mountains where her family worshiped powerful goddesses." Wait a minute. Where did that last image come from?

I share this anecdote with you not because I want to ridicule students. Students have been really, really wonderful to me. I came here as a grad student and have been teaching here since I was 21. Students helped me through a long and difficult process of adjustment and accommodation. But I wanted to mention that the last image emerges out of a comment on my teaching evaluations, "She grew up in the remote Himalayan mountains, where her family worships powerful goddesses." In fact, I was born and raised in Bombay, the film capital of India, which might explain why movie scenes bother me so much. But in this particular class, I hadn't mentioned anything at all about my birthplace. However, I have worked in the Himalayas on issues of women's labor, and I had mentioned that in the class, so this student assumed that this was my background. Of course, when you place yourself at the front of a classroom you're bound to have your subjectivity theorized, and to have to theorize it constantly yourself, so I'm somewhat sympathetic to that situation. But this totalizing image of South Asian culture is limiting .

To give another example, in one of my classes I was using an ethnography, Notes on Love in a Tamil Family,(1) which is a very interesting and provocative Lacanian analysis of the kinship system in South India. I gave a historical overview of the caste system, and I also talked about how some of the assumptions and meanings of caste have changed and been transformed. I said that in that the area where I grew up in Bombay, when people ask you what your caste is, you often say the region your family came from and the language you speak at home. In other ways, of course, caste is still very prominent as a tool of political and social formulations. I talked about both these elements, and I also suggested that it isn't really okay to ask people what their caste is. Parenthetically, I find it very hard to teach South Asian culture. I can teach about the world, but I find it very, very hard to teach about South Asian culture, so I always write things out and try to be eloquent, to compensate. So I made an elaborately eloquent case, because I was really anxious about it. Well, sure enough, at the end of the class one student came up and said, "And what's your caste, then?" I didn't know what to say, it was very hard to respond. I am savvy about that now; I've learned to say, "As I said, it's not good to ask." But it continues to cause me considerable angst.
This is something I constantly have to confront with colleagues as well. I think it's very important not to look at pedagogical strategies only in terms of what we say to our students, but also to recognize that we're part of an academy where many of the same perceptions and misconceptions persist. I've heard colleagues, who have familiarity with South Asian issues, say things like, "All South Asians who speak English are alienated. " These issues are really important to talk about. For instance, this conflation of my identity with my work, assuming that I'm from the Himalayas and identifying me with the women laborers I write about, some of whom are Tibetan refugees, is very problematic. It's a very totalizing image, especially considering that we know well how the politics of travel enable someone like me, who is privileged and from an elite status, to make it here in the academy, but how very, very difficult that would be for somebody who is a refugee, traveling and following tourists, carrying tourist souvenirs for sale on her back. So it is a bit absurd to conflate the two. It's also problematic in the reverse way, because it prevents me, as a middle-class subject, from really having an existence and from being able to speak to the political situation in the academy without always coming back to my subjectivity. Ironically, when I first came to the Five College area, I did not know to classify myself as a woman of color. I was taught anthropology in a fairly conventional way, where one goes out into a field out there to study the other, with little training in issues related to colonialism, subaltern studies, or ethnicity. Anthropology has been resistant to such self investigations in the past maybe that is the reason so few minorities felt comfortable in it.. These are some of the issues that I think need to be opened up and discussed. Not because I'm an "angry young woman" I don't see myself as that. This leads me into trends in anthropology itself. There are many South Asian women who have written about the constraints of the academy. One of the texts I'd like to recommend is Love, Stars, and All That, by the anthropologist Kirin Narayan.(2) It's lighthearted, but it's very interesting. She has done a kind of reverse anthropology, where the academy becomes the field, and you have a girl from Bombay who travels to Berkeley to study South Asian studies. Narayan also has written an article called "How Native is the `Native' Anthropologist?"(3) which critiques the subjugation of natives into one category the notion that if you're not Western, then you have to be Native. These works of Narayan's raise the question, Who is an anthropologist? Who represents?

This brings me to my next category, which feminists have talked a lot about within the field of anthropology, particularly in the field of postmodern anthropology. This is the question of looking not only at issues of self-representation and academic politics, but also at how we represent others, particularly women. Some very important theoretical discourses have emerged from feminist anthropology on women's resistance and women's agency. Kamala Visweswaran, in particular, is a very provocative writer who looks at some of these dilemmas and illuminates some of the theoretical debates between feminism and anthropology. In her book, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography,(4) she says that feminist anthropologists have asked the question, Can there be a feminist anthropology? If anthropology is predicated on the assumption of the difference between the self and the Other and feminism is based on an identification with a sense of marginalization, in which the represented is also the self, can there be a reconciliation between the two? Visweswaran and other critics have argued that we have to be very careful when we collapse feminism with marginalization; we have to be very alert to the presence of differences as well, and avoid this kind of universalizing feminism. I subscribe to anti-essentialism, but at the same time, I'm reluctant to throw out identity politics, although that's the trendy thing to do these days, because my own position arises from a lot of writings of feminists who are very conscious of identity politics. I think it's also important to understand why these essences are important not to accept them categorically, of course, but also not to be overeager to throw them out.

In anthropology, the problem of representation has been reflected in three kinds of ways. One is reflexivity, that is, looking at the position of the observer from the point of view of situated knowledges, seeing how the observer, the representer, the writer, is implicated in conditions of power. That's one way that this has been addressed, by insisting that the experience and the standpoint of the author be clarified. Second, the representation problem has been approached through an immense amount of experimentation and through texts. All texts, of course, are cultural, and will only cover certain aspects of any topic. I have to emphasize that to my students over and over again. But textual experiments have been tremendously exciting and some important, innovative writings are being published. This has often had to happen outside the realm of anthropology, which at certain times has not allowed for the representation of other voices. So you've had people who were trained in anthropology, like Zora Neale Hurston, who chose to write outside its domain, because these kinds of voices were not traditionally possible in our discipline which privileges very realistic genres and masculine forms of writing. But this has been challenged more and more, for example, in Erika Friedl's The Women of Deh Koh: Lives in an Iranian Village.(5) There's also Amitav Ghosh, an anthropologist who is also a novelist and essayist.(6) I teach a course called "Writing Culture Through Fiction," in which I use novels and experimental ethnographies. So identifying the aesthetic element has been one way that anthropology has responded, attempting to create a textual form of activism. A third way has been to reinforce the notion of the political and the practical. Political in the sense that traditional ways of investigating other cultures through the lenses of village and cultural life now take account of larger social movements, national and global movements. As for practical - Elizabeth Enslin's article "Beyond Writing Culture: Feminist Practice and the Limits of Ethnography" is useful in this context.(7) First, she urges us academics to have what she calls "practical accountability." She says that on the one hand, you can have textual activism you can talk about how to write, how to deal with the traumas of the academy but that you can also take this literature and get involved in socio-political movements outside. One of the ways she sees of achieving practical accountability as an educator is through getting involved in literacy movements. She's trying to deconstruct the notion of literature for literature's sake. But she constantly emphasizes that she is not the leader of these movements and points to some of the limitations of assuming activist leadership. I often have students who say, "I'm going to go out there and change everything. I'm going to critique what South Asian governments are doing. The government is subjugating all these women, and I'm going to go out there and carry out this rescue mission." Enslin's article is useful here because it's really critical of this "savior" conception in Western feminism.

Kamala Visweswaran has also critiqued the notion of anthropological "fieldwork," in which we look at other, distant places as fields, and has called for a return to "homework," where we examine ourselves from where we stand. I find this to be an extremely useful project. One of the teaching strategies I use is to ask students to do homework, but not homework in a kind of narcissistic sense "It's all about America anyway, so why bother?" It's hard enough to get them interested in India, and then to get them only doing homework about the U.S. once again is really problematic. So what I try to do is homework that involves the use of historical sources, contemporary literature, and newspaper readings on South Asia.

For example, I teach a class on tourism and critical travel. We engage with media representations and tourist brochures to see how India, or Pakistan, or the Himalayas are constructed, and that works really well. Then we talk about alternative ways to travel, in order to introduce some models that don't leave me in utter despair, and them as well. I find that I have to do that as an teacher. Another technique is the comparative approach. When teaching a subject like arranged marriage, something I'm asked about all the time, the strategy I use is to have students look at Indian personal ads on the Internet and at personals in local papers here, and compare the cultural categories that are considered desirable in marriage or in romantic partners. So that cultural differences seem less strange.

Finally, another strategy I've found that really works is teaching historically. There is finally starting to be a real insistence on putting history back into anthropology. I insist that my students know about the history of the place they're studying. It's amazing to me that if students go on a junior year abroad to France, they have to have two years in French, whereas they can go to Mexico without speaking Spanish or knowing anything about the country. This is another area in which we have to start reformulating the pedagogical practices. The junior year abroad is really touted in anthropology departments. But I am reluctant to write recommendations and sign off on application forms unless I supervise the independent study project very closely. I ask students, "What are you going to study independently?" And they often reply something like , "I'm going to do a project on narratives of sex workers in Nepal." Of course, it's very exotic, it's tantalizing, and in some cases it's very genuine, coming out of a desire to make a difference. I have to be sensitive to that and capitalize on the positive impulses and not lose the student completely. But it's very hard; I'm struggling with all those levels most of the time. For independent study projects, I've started requiring that they be prepared before they go even if the specific program doesn't explicitly require it. For example, with a student who went to Mexico last year who was fluent in Spanish, I encouraged her to study the history of anthropology in Mexico. That's her project she reads Mexican anthropologists' writings about Mexico, and learns the history of the discipline through them, to see that there is not just one kind of anthropology - that of the West. She is having a great time, I hope. She is studying with other Mexican students, she's learning about Mexico, and she's making friends. This is a really important breakthrough. She's learning to be a student and she's learning to make friends and take the study of this other culture seriously.

Ravina Aggarwal is assistant professor of Anthropology and Women's Studies at Smith College. She works on women's labor in colonial and postcolonial India, using historical, ethnographic, literary, and activist perspectives. You can e-mail her at


1. Margaret Trawick, Notes on Love in a Tamil Family (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

2. Kirin Narayan, Love, Stars, and All That (New York: Pocket Books, 1994).

3. Kirin Narayan, "How Native is the `Native' Anthropologist?"American Anthropologist 95:3 (1993):671-86.

4. Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

5. Erika Friedl, The Women of Deh Koh: Lives in an Iranian Village (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).

6. Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (Harmondsworth, Sussex: Penguin Books, 1990) .

7. Elizabeth Enslin, "Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limits of Ethnography" Cultural Anthropology 9:4 (1994):537-568.

© Ravina Aggarwal 



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