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Gender and Governance in South Asia: An Interview with Seema Kazi









“The participation of women in governance has long been hindered by the assumption that their proper sphere is the ‘private’ sphere, and this same assumption has been an obstacle to good theoretical and practical work on the question of gender and governance,” wrote Martha Nussbaum, law and ethics professor at the University of Chicago, in an essay titled ‘Gender and Governance: An Introduction’ (2003).

What do you think of this statement? Does it reflect what you have observed, experienced or read? Can the public-private distinction made in the context of USA be used to understand political realities in South Asia? The relationship between gender and governance is investigated at great length in a new book titled Gender and Governance: Perspectives from South Asia (2019) edited by Seema Kazi, who is a senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Women’s Development Studies.

It uses the conceptual framework outlined in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, and brings in research work conducted and written up in five different ‘conflict zones’ across South Asia -- Swat (Pakistan), the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh), the Northern Province (Sri Lanka), and Kashmir and Manipur (India). It has been published by Zubaan Books.

Read it to learn how women’s lives are shaped by patriarchy, how structural violence is sanctioned by institutions of governance, and how women suffer the impact of war and militancy. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives are not addressed in this book. Therefore, it must be seen as one of various studies that could enrich our understanding of gender and governance in South Asia.

Here are some excerpts from Chintan Girish Modi's interview with Seema Kazi:


What personal and political reasons drew you into the study of gender and governance?

There are two motivations with regard to my engagement with gender and governance. Both are eminently political. During my work on conflict in Kashmir and later on Manipur, it became apparent to me that normative ‘good governance’ debates in conflict zones -- advanced by a section of academia, commentariat and mainstream media -- as the remedy for the human tragedy in both regions, were misplaced and misleading. The concept of governance in conflict zones is ahistorical; it does not take into account the historical roots of conflict, the importance of ethnicity, identity or popular aspiration shaped through history, all which are key to understanding and resolving conflict. I have attempted to highlight this in the edited volume.

At a secondary level, my motivation for entering gender and governance debates is anchored in my interest in comparative politics. There is relatively little comparative research within South Asia yet compelling historical and political reasons to undertake the same. My interest is informed by the intent to underscore the common historical, political and cultural challenges to women’s movements for political equality in the region. 

How do you define a conflict zone?

The concept of conflict zone used by me is based on the 1949 Geneva Convention definition which defines the term as “one involving State forces and one or more non-government armed groups; where hostilities are of a collective character; and where the government uses military force against insurgents instead of the local police.” I have used this concept for the edited volume.

What did you learn during the process of putting this book together?

It was a huge learning experience in terms of understanding the historical and political origins of the tragedy of conflict zones in South Asia. While I was aware of the fact of conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Swat and Sri Lanka, I learnt a great deal about the nature of war in the region -- its deeply gendered character as well as the need to craft accommodative and democratic nation-states. Most poignantly perhaps, with the exception of Sri Lanka, the conflicts in Kashmir, Manipur, Chittagong Hill Tracts and Swat underscore the catastrophic outcome of the 1947 partition of India, and the compelling need to redress its grievous and bloody legacy being played out in the region’s conflict zones.


When the writers speak of women's experiences, do they include cis women and trans women? How important is it for you to push back against feminist discourses that erase trans women's experiences in conflict zones?

This particular dimension is, I am afraid, not addressed by the writers in the volume. Of course, it is very important to include the experiences of cis and trans women. However, you may appreciate that research in conflict zones is difficult and, at times, risky. Locating cis and trans women may not be easy, though this of course does not detract from your point.

What kind of coalitions have emerged between women's movements in South Asia despite national borders and visa regimes?

South Asian solidarities among women’s and feminist groups in South Asia were forged through the decades. However, I am not quite sure whether one could talk of cross-national coalitions between women’s movements. There are important movements in the region but they are not really connected with each other or working together. There is no major political achievement of any South Asian women’s coalition in the region’s post-colonial period. In addition to borders and visa regimes, women and women’s movements in South Asia have seldom been able to transcend their own internalized nationalism. The tension between Sinhalese and Tamil women regarding the war in Sri Lanka, mentioned briefly in the chapter on Sri Lanka, is a pointer. So is the deafening silence of Indian women’s groups and movements on movements of self-determination in Kashmir, Manipur and the north-east. By way of personal experience, I can say that many Indian women in the public sphere have attitudes of superiority and condescension vis-à-vis Pakistan, women in Pakistan, Muslim culture, Kashmiri women, etc. Such a frame makes it impossible to dialogue or debate, much less work together.

What is gained and lost when we speak of women's experiences as if they were a homogeneous group instead of looking at how caste, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity and religion shape their realities?

Intersectionality is a critical gender concern. Much is lost by way of deeper, more nuanced understanding of the complexity of women’s experiences if the categories you mention are not taken into account. At the same time, it is widely accepted that women are not a homogenous category. For reasons of focus and scope, no research is perfect, all inclusive. Having said that, it is necessary to acknowledge the epistemological and practical limits to scholarship.

Could you please share a bit about your recent visit to Kashmir, and the work you are engaged in at the moment?

What has happened in Kashmir is catastrophic. It is against the will of the people of the region. Therefore, the attempt to subdue popular anger through repression and a communications blackout is bound to fail. At the moment, drawing upon the insights gained during my work so far, I am working on a book on war, gender and ethnicity in India.

About the interviewer: Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher who works on peace education and queer rights. He tweets @chintan_connect, and can be reached at chintan.prajnya@gmail.com