AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 189

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Session 189: Bodies, Boundaries, Borders: Gender, Religious, Caste, and Class Politics across South Asian Communities

Organizer: Amy Bhatt, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, USA

Chair: Mona Bhan, DePauw University, USA

Discussant: Mona Bhan, DePauw University, USA

We examine how the regulation of gendered bodies and behavior define borders between nations/communities, citizens/diasporas, and religious practice/radical politics and how such expressions simultaneously include and exclude subjects by revealing the classed, caste, religious, and gendered assumptions that undergird the conceptual coherence of the nation. While popular and scholarly attention is riveted on how globalization dissolves borders, we trace how boundaries are both consolidated and transgressed through gender today and historically. We draw on ethnography, historiography, autoethnography and critical media analysis to focus on India, Pakistan and regional diasporas. We examine how boundaries between castes, classes, and religions were reworked through conceptions of moral, but modern women in post-independence India; how the gendered and religious subjectivities of Indian Muslim women mark the line between “legitimate victim” and “unruly subject” in liberal feminist and media discourse following the 2002 Gujarat pogrom; how women-led transnational Islamic groups have played a significant role in promoting religious discourses that mark the boundary between the Pakistani nation and its diaspora; how an understanding of Romani subjectivity may be crafted through a politics of sincerity that is at once racial and gendered; and how the NRI/returnee household in India creates and blurs boundaries between middle class housewives and their low-caste/class domestic workers through discourses of neoliberalism and self-empowerment. Together, our papers theorize how borders are drawn, re-drawn and reinforced through the modality of gender and simultaneously how gender as a category is constituted through acts of trespass by gendered bodies that test these borders.

Saris and Salwars: Communal Boundaries and Women’s Clothing Practices in South India
Sonja Thomas, Colby College, USA

This paper looks at how women’s dressing practices are integral to maintaining boundaries between peoples in South Asia. Because of its proximity to the body, dress externally manifests one’s internal values while it simultaneously differentiates the wearer from another group’s values. For women, proper feminine and moral behavior is often obtained by adhering to a group’s “traditional clothing” dictates. This makes dress an effective means of non-verbal communication that maintains gender, race, caste, class and religious boundaries in South Asia. I begin this paper with a discussion of how the South Indian state of Kerala, India once strictly maintained racial, caste, class and religious boundaries in and through women’s dress. Yet during and after the formation of the Indian nation-state, women of all communities abandoned their communal wear in favor of the sari and then the salwar kamize. I argue that the boundaries between groups which once manifest itself through women’s clothing practices were made only seemingly invisible in this sartorial change. Racial, caste, class and religious borders were reworked and redeployed through the emerging ideal of the “secular moral woman.” This moral woman, implicitly marked as Aryan, upper-caste, upper-classed and Hindu, became the point of reference from which other groups fixed their social status. Understanding how boundaries between groups continue to function in and through the bodies of women is paramount to our examinations of religious, race, caste class and gender borders and boundaries in South Asia today.

Representing an “impure” icon: Best Bakery’s Zaheera Shaikh as the ‘victim’ of genocidal violence in Gujarat and the ‘unruly subject’ of feminism
Madhavi Murty, Virginia Tech, USA

I examine the representations of the Best Bakery Case that exemplified both the horrific anti-Muslim violence in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 and the subsequent legal struggles to bring the perpetrators of the violence to book to reveal how hegemonic representations of the figure of the Muslim woman – in this case Zaheera Shaikh, then only a teenager who was a witness to the violence that led to the deaths of many of her family members – work to both define liberal politics and mark its limits. Zaheera Shaikh was transformed into an iconic figure, first taken up by feminist and legal groups who protested the Gujarat violence through the judiciary and then lambasted when she gave contradictory testimony in two separate trials and was convicted of perjury. Zaheera Shaikh thus attained notoriety precisely because she was an “impure icon” whose iconicity could not easily be taken by feminist or left agendas. I will reveal the representational categories and the narrative strategies through which these forms of politics define themselves by transforming the Muslim woman into a distinctly defined victim who is required to remain docile. The limits of this politics are revealed by the anxiety and discomfort within media narratives when the actions of such women cannot be contained within the boundaries of the category “legitimate victim.” The gendered body of Zaheera Shaikh represented as “legitimate victim” and “unruly subject” constitutes and marks the borders of liberal politics.

Intimate Employment, Transnational Households: The Returnee Indian Housewife and Changing Notions of Domestic Work
Amy Bhatt, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, USA

There has been a surge in the numbers of Indian IT workers returning to India after living for a decade or more in the U.S. The emergence of new housing developments aimed at returnees who have grown accustomed to American style suburbs and amenities, or schools with international educational curricula, speak to the ways in the socio-spatial constitution of the family and urban spaces in India are conditions for the possibility of return. In this paper, I examine women’s stories living in Bangalore and Hyderabad to show how returnees continue to identify with an American lifestyle after moving back to India. The maintenance of this lifestyle relies on the labor of a domestic workforce that is attuned to the desires, expectations and tastes of returnees. This lifestyle has become linked to the returnee housewife’s identity as a professional, global, yet thoroughly Indian woman who is part of the “new middle class.” She is interested in doing “social work” through her labor practices and by passing on her experiences to her domestic workers, but that pursuit is complicated by intimate encounters of inequality that structure domestic work. I argue that we must problematize the returnee household as a site where discourses of neo-liberalism are rendered normative and essential to maintaining a household that can move across borders and also as a site where boundaries between employers and workers are redefined through returnees’ identification as “former workers,” which they translate into their “management” of their household staff.

Romanies, Subjectivities, Sexualities, Sincerities
Ethel Brooks, Rutgers University, USA

How do we understand Romani subjectivity? Roma are part of the broader South Asian diaspora, yet firmly rooted in Europe after a millennium and continually subject to state and everyday violence in multiple manifestations. How do we understand the workings of gender and sexuality, and their mappings within and outside the Romani community? I work through autobiography as much as through academic norms to come to some reckoning and recognition of myself as a displaced Romani woman in the middle of the gaudje academy, and of the displacement of all Romanies worldwide. I also work to understand how it is that we move to be recognized – not as exotic others, useful objects of derision and desire, as problems to be solved, but as subjects, citizens, or even members of the same humanity as everyone else. Drawing from anthropologist John Jackson, I propose a politics of sincerity that is at once racial and gendered as a way to hold out for the possibility of recognition.

Transnational Islam; Piety & Exclusiveness: Reshaping Boundaries in the Diasporas
Tahmina Rashid, University of Canberra, Australia

Women have played a vital role in the civil society activities in Pakistan, especially in the spheres of social reform and women’s rights. Their contributions towards the national polity have been recognized and their efforts in keeping women issues alive have been appreciated not in local but global debates. However, there has also been a consistent attempt to define women’s role within the existing religious-social discourses, often led by women’s wings of religious political parties such as Jamat-i-Islami and Tableehi Jamat. This has led to a new version of transnational Islam, shaped by women led religious groups in Pakistan, North America, Canada, Europe & Australia. This shift in religious discourse and increased role of women is a significant shift from traditional discourses, consequently creating space for interpreting the sacred text from a women’s perspective. Despite various studies exploring mushrooming of Al-Huda style religious activism, there has not been enough exploration of the contents of these teachings. This paper would argue that the increased role of transnational Islam and its links with Pakistani Diasporas have played a significant role in promoting these religious discourses that serve as boundary markers promoting an exclusivist agenda limiting the possibilities of integration for Diaspora through apolitical, and “pious” agendas. It would also explore the nature of these women led groups, usually portrayed as apolitical and non-violent yet promoting exclusion and a self proclaimed piety and righteousness among the followers. It would also examine the context of these discourses and explore the links between local/global nexus of Islam and the role played by women in nurturing an exclusivist agenda and its potential influence in the Diaspora.