Feminist Methodologies in Guwahati: A Workshop Diary
From April 2nd to 4th, HaB organized a workshop titled “Feminist Methodologies and Interventions” along with Cotton University in Guwahati, India.
As before, in Mandalay University in Myanmar and Brown University in the USA, the workshop was conducted by Françoise Vergès and Aarti Kawlra. Cotton University is an old and venerable public educational institution. Founded in 1901, by a colonial officer Sir Henry Cotton, it functioned as a college for more than a century before being upgraded to university status in 2017. It now has a large and diverse student body – more than 7000 students from very different backgrounds. They study a variety of disciplines from Archaeology to Assamese. The workshop was convened by Rakhee Kalita Moral, one of HaB’s principal investigators or PI, and Dilip Gogoi from Cotton University. Rakhee’s team from the English department including Pallavi Barua and the student volounteers were the backbone of the entire event. Prior to the events of the workshop, the HaB team made excursions to the Assam State Museum and Panacea Eco-Village. The recently opened museum had displays on textiles, sculptures, paintings and exhibitions on village life in North East India. While many of the sculptures and textiles were exquisite pieces in their own right, the museum seemed to be already in a state of disregard with many sections looking abandoned and uncoordinated. On the other hand, Panacea Eco-Village is a large getaway site outside Guwahati city. It features well-manicured grass and a small hill on its premises where people came to lunch, picnic or engage in adventure sports. The meal was excellent Assamese cuisine and right after, the women workers performed a special Bihu dance, which celebrates spring and the coming of the new year according to the Assamese calendar. On the morning of the 2nd, the day began with a public lecture by Françoise Vergès on “Feminist Politics in the Era of Femonationalism and Populism”.
Before the lecture, Aarti Kawlra, speaking on behalf of the Director of IIAS, Philippe Peycam, introduced the audience of students and academics to the HaB programme and its motivations. The students showed their enthusiasm for the programme and cheered at the announcement that Cotton University was going to be the programme’s partner in the North East. Françoise’s lecture focused on how feminists and feminist language can be co-opted by nationalistic forces to validate the agenda of the state. The workshop, as envisioned by Françoise, Aarti and Rakhee, would bring together academics from various institutions in the North East of India and activists from Nagaland. These two groups would come together to co-create knowledge. As the content of the workshop revolved around feminist methodology, it was essential that the format of the activities reflected that as well.
The workshop began in the afternoon of the 2nd with an introduction session. Instead of the conventional method, the volounteers distributed index cards to the participants. On the cards, the participants wrote short introductions (“as if you were talking to a friend”) and stuck photos. Those who hadn’t brought photos improvised with sketches and self-doodles. Then, they came up to a large map of the North East that had been setup and pinned markers onto their homes. Then, with colourful thread, they tied their pins to their index cards. The result was a fun, active and meaningful exercise in situating oneself geographically. After the mapping, having situated themselves geographically, the participants situated themselves as social beings. They talked about what they do outside the home and the family. The second day started with a session titled “Who is caring and cleaning the world?” Here, Françoise led the group through a presentation on women’s work and its often invisible, unvalued nature. Aarti discussed the idea of value and its various nuances, beyond the idea of price. Then, the volounteers distributed worksheets to each participant that asked them to calculate the number of hours that they spend on cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping and caring for family and non-family. This was totalled up and posted in front of everyone. The forty women in the room cumulatively did 513 hours of work per day, which translates into 64 days of a normal 8-hour working day. This was over and above any formal labour that they took up. The latter half of the day was spent on developing and problematizing the issues discussed in the morning. The idea of the mental load on women was discussed.
Similarly, they discussed whether visibility was always desirable and whether it was truly the right goal to be articulated. This led to discussions on the decolonization of the mind where the participants formed break-away groups to discuss possible interventions in this regard. These groups were formed so that there were a good mix of both Naga and Assamese women, both activists and academics. These interventions seemed to focus on solutions rather than exploring the underlying structures and causes. During the final reflections, Francoise discussed why the process of developing solutions cannot be depoliticized and connected it to her points on the language of human rights from her plenary lecture. The third day continued the conversations of the previous days into an exercise in feminist utopian thinking. In an exercise titled ‘I dare to think, I dare to imagine’, the participants used dry pastels and chart paper to visualize and give form to their reimagining of the representation of the women. They were asked to respond to the standard motif of the mother and the child. The results were powerful. They were put together to form a mural on the walls of the conference room. In the lunch break, the academics had an impromptu session where they discussed the development of a curriculum based on the feminist methodologies of the workshop. The course will aim to help students to develop a feminist critical lens of engagement in the world within the frame of HaB. It will encourage students to engage in the deconstruction of notions such as gender, class, nation, etc. and how they mutually construct and articulate each other. The students will also analyse discourses and practices of state feminism, NGOs, international institutions, as well as universities. The Registrar, Professor Shikhar Kumar Sharma, and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Bhabesh Goswami, of Cotton University attended the final section of the workshop and gave their support for the implementation of a new course in Cotton University that would take advantage of the curriculum developed by HaB. They were excited about offering it to undergraduates and post-graduates. Their wholehearted openness to pedagogical experimentation made it clear that the humanities at Cotton University were in good hands.