Mobilising patriarchy for comfort: confessions of a white male anthropologist of India

This post is written as part of our March series on ‘Experiences in Diversity’ by Rich Thornton, a PhD candidate in Anthropology. Rich is currently conducting fieldwork on the subjectivity and subjectification of teachers and social entrepreneurs of education in Delhi, India.

My girlfriend Jasmine loves to tell a story about how we met. It was the first day of fieldwork for my Master’s in Cultural Anthropology: Delhi, India, February 2016. Eager to meet the school team, I perched on a plastic primary school chair and said to the teachers, ‘Hi! I’m Rich’. Which for them was absolutely hilarious: because I was a white British man sitting amongst a group of younger Indian women and telling them I am ‘rich’.

Rich and his ‘girlfriend’, Jasmine.

Jasmine loves to tell this story probably because people here do find it funny; and perhaps as a way of reminding us both that despite how much we try to hide from it, cultural difference will always be present in our relationship. But some things actually aren’t about cultural difference (says the anthropologist nervously), and this piece explores how, in response to being socially produced as different, and by using my role as ‘anthropologist’ as protection, I have been discovering how I mobilise patriarchy as a way of producing myself as a valuable and valued subject.

Before I go on, two things must be said. First: I use the term ‘relationship’ and ‘girlfriend’ here because those are the terms I feel describe how Jasmine and I interact. Jasmine avoids those labels, and doesn’t want to define the relationship we share. Second, in my experience of contemporary Delhi, white privilege looms big and large. And there seems to be a distinction between how me as a white foreigner is imagined and how any darker-skinned foreigner is thought of and treated. Despite this blog’s theme of ‘diversity’, we must be clear that racialism and patriarchy remain violent socially-produced realities, and that difference is always hierarchical. And it is indeed through my mobilisation of patriarchy that I have unconsciously committed violence during the first few months of my PhD fieldwork. Here’s two examples of how.

Good little anthropologist that I am, I have sought to immerse myself in Hindi communities in order to learn the language and ‘get the culture’. In Hindi, there’s a very common swearword that translates as ‘sister-f*cker’. Some say it’s no longer a swearword as it’s used so commonly, but of course, the word carries heavy patriarchal overtones. I began to notice that if I used this word, especially with groups of men, it would get a laugh and I would receive appreciation. Subconsciously, I began to use it to gain trust and momentary respect. But at what cost? When Jasmine questioned my use of it, I admitted that it was patriarchal and that I wasn’t proud of myself for using it, but I also used some flippant casuistry to intellectualise my way out of guilt. I said that I felt lonely and that also as an anthropologist I needed to ‘fit in’, I needed to build bonds with people.

The point, that Jasmine was clear in expressing, was that my attempt to intellectualise my use of the word, and to produce my own victimhood by saying I felt lonely, was of course also deeply patriarchal. This intellectualisation allowed me to stand back from the event and see it as ‘part of research’, the part when I ‘adopted patriarchy’ as a route to being accepted and learning a language. Jasmine had none of this, and I tasted a bitter truth: how many times, much before I had the context of fieldwork and language-learning to shroud it, had I mobilised patriarchy (e.g. laughed at sexist jokes), to help myself ‘fit in’ during anxious social situations?

Rich with local school teachers in Delhi, India.

And I was about to do it again. In short, Jasmine and I are both part of the same very close network of arts-based educational practitioners in Delhi, and indeed, Jasmine is and has been the conduit through which almost all of my now snowballing research connections have come. As Jasmine works freelance, I recently suggested that she could take on the paid-role of ‘Research Assistant’ in my fieldwork. In this way she would be recognised as an important contributor to my research and also get remunerated for that work. She was understandingly appalled. ‘Research Assistant? How about Research Mentor! Or at least Research Collaborator?!’ She couldn’t believe I would cast her in the role of ‘assistant’ after she has and continues to be such an essential partner to ‘my’ work. And she was right, in my hasty attempt to ‘help’ her, I’d adopted a classic patriarchal label from the history of patriarchal social science and unthinkingly tossed it to her as a weak attempt at forging equality. After sitting with her feelings for a day or two, she responded to my offer with a question: Would I ever have asked Zishan (a male friend and colleague) to be a research ‘assistant’? And indeed, I quickly remembered how, only days before, I’d asked Zishan whether he would like to ‘collaborate’ on some research together. Patriarchy in action once again!

I am slowly realising how, despite the glaring patriarchal structures and practices of contemporary India, I bring my own subtle, insidious, but no less powerful patriarchal ideologies into my relationship with Jasmine. Through the colour of my skin and culturally-nuanced way of being, I feel produced as an object of difference by the gaze of the Delhi locals. True, I am often invested with unwarranted respect, but as a human who fears isolation, this investment is something I want to shed in favour of social invisibility, and for the possibility of being ‘one of the team’. And what I notice, as I try to produce myself as both ‘part of it’ and ‘valuable’, is that I mobilise patriarchy. I use patriarchal swearwords to be one of the boys, and attempt to widen my professional capital by trying to hire my girlfriend as a research assistant. The awkward cultural isolation of fieldwork has magnified my latent propensity to use patriarchal structure to make myself feel more comfortable in the world. I am grateful to have a ‘girlfriend’, or as she would see it, ‘friend’, who is sensitive enough to locate, and will put in the emotional labour to explain, the violence of my actions.

Drama in Education jam in Delhi, India.
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AESTHETIC INITIALISMS: Learning to appreciate the multiplicity of beauty in a heteronormative world

This post is written as part of our March ‘Experiences in Diversity’ series by Charlotte Graham-Spouge MA student in Photography and Cristina Guerrero, MA student in Conflict, Security and Development.

About a month ago, a friend texted me to say how badly she regretted having cut her hair short. I was shocked as I knew how much of a challenge it had been for her not only cutting her hair short, but also ending years of her hair as a burden that defines her sexuality. Only now she had another problem. ‘Men don’t find me attractive anymore and women now expect me to make the first move’- she said. Somehow, by trying to be her true self, she was still trapped in the net of ‘masculine men protect feminine energy’. I remember that I didn’t hesitate to tell her how beautiful she looked and how she shouldn’t let others’ standards and expectations define her. However, my advice was nothing but a cheap quote you could find on the internet.

Let’s be honest here. I have also struggled with self-esteem, but nothing related to identity and sexuality (or that is what I thought). I was born as a woman, I identify as a woman, and I feel attracted to men.  For me, cutting my hair short has no other meaning than changing my look. In her case, however, it has been a long-time struggle with sexual orientation and identity. For her, cutting her hair short meant leaving behind years of bullying – too masculine for some, too weird for others. She was certainly willing to leave all that behind, but society’s standards were still tying her up. Why wasn’t she able to feel good with herself despite being the most honest version of herself?

I remember my advice: ‘do not let society decide for you how you feel or how you have to feel’, but I also remember her answer: ‘it is not that easy’. That answer got stuck in my mind. She was certainly making me question my relationship with self-identity and society. I tried to put myself in her shoes and somehow, I remembered how I have also been targeted by society’s prejudice to the ‘uncommon’. I remembered when I was 13 and I was bullied in school for not shaving my armpits or when I was 18 and I was encouraged by my first boyfriend to wear makeup. I soon understood how I was also one more prisoner of society’s own fears. What is wrong with not shaving? Am I less of a woman for not wearing make up? Am I less interesting for not being one more ant committing to the others’ standards?

The obsession to determine others’ identity is nothing but a lesson of how society’s intransigence is a wall that hides cowardice and fears. In this sense, LGBTQ+ people are a vital lesson of non-conformism. Through their own fight to be accepted for what they are, they show us how society’s prejudices can persuade us to act homogenously and conform to established ideals. As if it was a world ruled by robots that only think through algorithms (rules, values and morals), LGBTQ+ question those algorithms and show us the true meaning of being human: the will to live and love.

This is what the LGBTQ+ community brings us. Many people have certainly struggled to be happy with themselves – some for being too masculine, others for being too feminine; some for not being delicate enough, others for being too delicate. But remember, you are no more than a beauty trapped by the superficial threads of a society that refuses to see beyond. But, again, how can we break with those threads?

In this sense, when my friend Charlotte Graham told me about an exhibition that could illustrate the true beauty of trans life and queer love, I was more than happy about it. Art, in the end, is the ultimate expression of what it means to be human: feel, create, construct, question. Featuring photography, mixed media and film, the viewer is push out into the issues that the LGBTQ+ community faces whilst also celebrating its diversity and power. Through portraits of queer people and stories of their struggle, it makes the viewer question heteronormativity. From soft and gentle portraits of queer love to detailed depictions of trans life, this exhibition reveals new perspectives on a much overlooked community.

Aesthetic Initalism brings together emerging artists to celebrate LGBTQ+ history month. The exhibition opened with a showing in ONCA, Brighton in February and will be showing at the Marlborough pub from the 4-22nd March.

The exhibition is free entry and open to all.

To find out more information, please look at the Facebook event Aesthetic Initialisms or follow @mywildday on Instagram.

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Examining the relevance of the modern slavery and human trafficking discourse

This post is written by Hannah Furukawa, Project Administrator for the ‘Chains’ project and MA Migration and Global Development student. 

In recent years the term ‘modern slavery’ has been widely used to describe practices such as forced labour, forced or servile marriage, the sale and exploitation of children, and debt bondage. The aim to eradicate forced labour and end modern slavery and human trafficking is set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Target 8.7). However, the discourse around modern slavery often uses simplistic binaries of those who are ‘free’ and those who are ‘enslaved’. At the same time, it demonises any intermediaries who are involved in facilitating migration, labelling them as traffickers. New research led by Dr Priya Deshingkar unsettles the dominant discourse on modern slavery by illuminating the infrastructure of brokerage and giving voice to migrants’ own experiences and how they view the process. At a conference last week, outcomes of the research were shared with academics, experts and policy makers, leading to interesting discussions on what the implications for policy and programming might be.

Dr Priya Deshingkar, Global Studies, presenting at the British Academy, London.  Photo credit: Summer Dean

Research in Ghana and Myanmar

Professor Joseph Teye and Professor Mariama Awumbila, University of Ghana, present their findings. Photo credit: Summer Dean

The collaborative project between the University of Sussex, the University of Ghana and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Myanmar conducted over 200 in-depth interviews with aspiring, current and returned migrants as well as brokers and other stakeholders. Both Ghana and Myanmar do not make the top grade of 1 in the US Government’s Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) as they are seen to be wanting in actions to control trafficking. In Ghana two main routes were considered, up towards North Africa and towards the Gulf states, whilst in Myanmar the focus was on migration towards Thailand and Singapore. The research focused on the movement for construction work and domestic work. Both are highly gendered due to cultural and ideological norms and both have many characteristics of modern slavery.

Motivations for migration

In both countries it emerged that reasons for leaving were a sense of frustration and hopelessness with the situations in the home towns and villages, as well as the desire to improve social standing and financial opportunities. Migration is often viewed as a ‘rite of passage’, especially for young men, and in Ghana those who have migrated may improve their chances of marriage upon their return. In line with other research, these findings however challenge the idea that poverty makes people move: migration is a costly process, therefore it is not the ‘poorest of the poor’ who move if they are paying fees upfront. Debt-migrants may be extremely poor.

The role of brokers

Brokers were used at every stage of the migration process and range from formal agencies to informal networks of family and friends. Though some brokers may be ‘in it for the money’, others view themselves as benevolent enablers of migration. Migrants themselves also often see brokers as vital intermediaries who help them with their journeys. Those who migrated from Mon State in Myanmar to Thailand for example, expressed that brokers made them feel safer during journeys. That is not to say that migrants do not then find themselves in exploitative situations. Women moving from Myanmar to Singapore were found to be highly controlled throughout the migration process experiencing physical confinement and having their passports withheld. Debt bondage was also encountered whereby migrants had to work for around 7 months with no wages in order to repay the costs of migration. In some cases where migrants found themselves in unbearable working conditions, brokers were again contacted to help them find alternative positions. The complex role of brokers therefore requires a more nuanced understanding.

Alex Ma, Myanmar Researcher                        Kitty Van Geloof representing IOM Myanmar

Migrant agency

Popular discourse on modern slavery and trafficking often denies migrants any agency. Yet the temporal aspect of how migrants view their experiences reveals that they do weigh up the risks and benefits of migration. Many who have experienced exploitation, once returned home, will choose to re-migrate. Shorter-term sacrifices and exploitative working conditions are chosen over the option of remaining at home; longer-term benefits are considered to be worth the risk and sacrifice. Thus migrants are shown to exercise agency, albeit in highly constrained circumstances.

What government policies often fail to understand is that restricting migration for this kind of work will not stop people’s desire to move and improve their life chances. Both Ghana and Myanmar at different points have banned migration for domestic work, yet rather than stopping movement, this results in longer and more expensive journeys, pushing people further under the radar. Restrictive migration policies often tie workers to employers and limit the length of their stay. This leads to migrants choosing to remain irregular and in informal work. In these circumstances workers may experience exploitative conditions and increased vulnerability.

Policy implications

At the conference academics and policy makers discussed the lack of definitional clarity over the term ‘modern slavery’ and agreed that consensus is needed in order for policies to be developed and to create political and public will. Allowing people the opportunity to experience the positive benefits of migration whilst reducing exploitative conditions is desirable. How can this be done? Conversations arose about providing legal pathways for migrants, regulating brokers and making services more accessible.

Rob Whitby, Head of DFID Migration Policy Team; Ursula Antwi–Boasiako, Head of DFID Modern Slavery Team; and Jennifer Dew, Lead in Migrant Protection and Assistance at IOM consider the research implications. Photo credit: Summer Dean

Recommendations from the research include the need to carry out participatory research in order to better understand the lived realities of people affected by aspects of ‘modern slavery’ and to recognise what is important for them and how things can be improved from their perspectives. Similarly, migrants themselves and not just those who purport to represent them should be involved in the design of interventions; ways need to be found to reach them as they are often invisible, extremely busy and scared of authorities. Finally, endogenous protection (existing informal systems of support for migrants by migrants) can be built upon by policy makers.

For more information see:

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Should we be combatting sexism to stimulate economic growth?

Christine Lagarde at a meeting in Brazil.

This post was originally written for ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’ by Meenakshi Krishnan of IDS and  Prof. Ben Selwyn of Sussex Global. We include it here as the debut post in March’s ‘Experiences in Diversity’ theme. 

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, it was good to see Christine Lagarde highlight the problems of sexism in the global economy. Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since 2011, argues that combatting sexism and bringing more women into the workplace could raise economic growth in some countries by as much as 35%. Greater gender empowerment through changes in state laws and tax accounting contributes to ‘higher growth, a reduction in inequality, an improvement in the strength of the economy and a more diversified, export-focused country’.

Women are now living longer than men in all parts of the world. Over half a billion women have joined the world’s labour force over the last 30 years, and gender gaps in primary education have closed in almost all countries. But there’s still a long way to go.

Lagarde’s emphasis on combatting sexism is a welcome intervention in public debates. It is refreshing compared to the world’s most powerful politician’s attitudes to women. Yet her message is surprisingly narrow, and in some ways contributes to reproducing sexist attitudes; moreover, there is no sense of where the resources to combat sexism will come from. She is not arguing that the IMF, or World Bank, or core economy states should finance the worldwide re-education of men and boys in feminist principles. Of course, changes to the law are necessary. But so too is an extensive roll-out of pro-women education. This would cost money, and since the 2008 world economic crisis, many states across the global south have economised on their social spending.

There is an element here of shifting the task of gender equality onto states with limited resources, rather than identifying potential sources of funds from which to underpin more far-reaching transformations. Such funds do exist, and could be accessed by just and effective taxation of trans-national corporations.

Read also Cécile Andrzejewski, “Women do the heavy lifting”, Le Monde diplomatique, January 2018.

The strategy of combatting sexism to boost economic growth seeks modifications to, rather than a transformation of, a system that is itself rooted in fundamental gender inequality. It is an excellent example of gender mainstreaming. On the one hand, it incorporates into public discourse previously radical demands for equality by women’s movements; on the other, it makes these demands compatible with prevailing economic relations — in particular those associated with industrialisation and economic growth. This is so in at least three ways.

First, the burden of familial care — which is mostly unpaid and predominantly carried out by women — contributes to gender inequalities across all spheres of society. Lagarde does not acknowledge that it represents a mega subsidy to the global economy. In fact, the value of women’s unpaid care work is estimated at $10 trillion — 43 times the annual turnover of Apple. The world’s expanding labour force is, in part, a product of this vast quantity of unpaid reproductive work.

Secondly, the IMF’s economic stabilisation programmes have contributed to the worsening of women’s conditions in many indebted countries. Across Latin America between the 1980s and 2000s, women played the role of ‘shock absorbers’ of neoliberal restructuring, by undertaking more low paid work and unpaid domestic work. Increasing numbers of women entered formal and informal labour markets in response to falling real incomes of male workers combined with cuts to social welfare provision.

Thirdly, much of women’s work across the global south occurs within a dynamic of immiserating growth — where economic gains for a small minority are predicated upon workers’ privation. From the garment factories producing Spice Girls T-shirts where women earn 35 pence an hour, to much of the global food supply chain, to electronics assembly factories across Asia, women workers’ wages are often insufficient to maintain themselves and their families. They resort to various strategies — from extensive and health-damaging overtime, to taking on other jobs or relying upon extended families or producing their own food — all to make ends meet for their families.

In the context of widespread political prejudice, Christine Lagarde’s arguments about the need to combat sexism are important. But they conceal as much as they reveal. They seek to adjust, rather than fundamentally transform a world economy rooted in gender discrimination. The kinds of transformations generating real gender equality and women’s empowerment require much greater shifts in wealth and power towards the working women of the world.

Meenakshi Krishnan is a doctoral researcher at Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, and works on issues of women’s workforce participation, unpaid care work, family friendly work policies and social protection. Benjamin Selwyn is professor of International Development in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, and author of The Struggle for Development (Wiley, 2017).

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“Beyond Plant-Based Diets for Climate Action: The Urgency to Transform Agricultural Systems”

This entry is the latest in our February 2019 “Food and Culture” series. This post is written by Emily Bohobo N’Dombaxe Dola , final year student in International Development.

In October last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its landmark Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR15), which showed that a target of 1.5°C  in temperature increase above pre-industrial levels is not only attainable, but also significantly less devastating for ecosystems than a 2OC temperature increase. The findings were met with significant consideration, alarm and scrutiny. A key issue widely discussed as a result was the need for a shift in dietary habits towards plant-based diets, to support   climate change mitigation efforts. It is estimated that agriculture contributes to around 10-12% of global anthropogenic greenhouse emissions, most of it coming from livestock.

Whilst it is important to reflect on the impact of our lifestyle on climate change, there is also a need to be nuanced. Plant-based eating can’t be appropriately considered as a solution without first addressing the system our food consumption is embedded in. The agricultural industry is questionable beyond its livestock sector. For instance, the mass productions of soy, a popular meat-alternative, has often been criticised due to its role in deforestation, soil erosion, and land grabbing. Hence, when discussing climate change and agriculture, it is essential to include a need for alternative and sustainable production practices, such as agroecology.

On December last year, I had the opportunity to attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) COP24 in Katowice, as parties worked on the Rulebook for the Paris Agreement. I was there as an observer, part of a UK youth climate organisation.  I was also involved with the agriculture working group of YOUNGO (the Youth NGOs constituency to the UNFCC), composed of young people from all over the world. Our work was centred around the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA), the main vehicle within the UNFCCC/COP to discuss agriculture.

Doing an observer intervention to speak about YOUNGO’s Agriculture Working Group input/vision during a KJWA workshop at COP24, I’m on the far end of the table. Credits to Julia Waeger.

A main concern for the group was  the climate, environmental and social impact of the dominant agricultural system, especially in relation to agro-corporations and mass-intensive production. Whilst we advocated for plant-based diets and other changes in lifestyle (e.g. waste reduction), we believed that changing consumption without transforming production is not enough. Even if the livestock industry is to be downsized, as part of a just transition, there is still a need for sustainable production alternatives. We also stressed how the livelihoods and way of life of small-scale farmers are equally threatened by climate change, with a mutual relationship between both areas.

My stance on this issue, reflected above, isn’t just informed by my involvement in climate activism or by my studies at Sussex, but also by experiences such as my one-month open residency in Senegal. Though the residency was with an arts organisation in the city of Saint-Louis, I did more than artistic work. I conducted my own research-oriented project and, as part of it, I participated in activities about    the history, society and environment of the Saint-Louis region. One of them was a visit to Doune Baba Dieye, ‘the Sunken Village’.

Backstory on Doune Baba Dieye, extracted from my personal blog.
A picture of the environment where the disaster occurred area. 

Through a boat expedition led by Doune Baba Dieye’s village chief, I learnt about the effects of the flooding disaster, how lands were slowly reversing, and how locals were making the area habitable again through their traditional ecology and sustainable practices. When the sunken lands started to re-surge, tree-planting became key to prevent further coastal erosion. Additionally, by planting specific species that help with desalinization, through their natural filtration properties, locals made sustainable organic orchards in the reappearing islets, growing vegetables like cabbage, watermelon and potatoes. ‘Artificial’ islets had  also been created, for migratory birds. Unfortunately, many flora and fauna species were unable to adapt to the mix between freshwater and seawater as a result of the disaster.

Different stages of tree planting captured, each of them in different islets across the area. 
Orchards on one of the islets.
On the left: an example of a plant used to help with issues such as coastal erosion and salinization. On the right: an example of vegetables grown on the orchards. Pictures by myself.

The above case is not a unique one. Indeed, locals in Doune Baba Dieye had even shared their knowledge and practices with Dutch visitors who were suffering from similar environmental issues in the Netherlands. The effects of climate change, such as extreme weather conditions, are not as distant as often portrayed: they have already affected many communities globally. Therefore, moving towards sustainable agriculture isn’t just a “green choice”: it is a way to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Besides, practices such as agroecology have the potential to reduce greenhouse emissions. It is no surprise that organisations like the Alliance for Food Sovereignty Africa (AFSA) have pushed for organisms like the African Union to scale-up agroecology initiatives, in light of commitments to sustainable production and climate-resilient systems.

The SP15 sparked important conversations. However, there is a need to go beyond lifestyle changes. It is not enough to promote plant-based diets if the production that upholds them also degrades the environment and harms communities. Truth be told, not even focusing on agricultural production is enough: other issues need to be considered, such as international trade and the advertisement industry. Moreover, it can’t be ignored how agriculture is both the livelihood and way of living of many people across the world. Ultimately, there is a need for transformational climate action. As it was chanted by activists during an action/protest at COP24, we need system change, not climate change.

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