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Locating 'Agency'

Culture, Power and Agency: Gender in Indian Ethnography edited by Lina Fruzzetti and Sirpa Tenhunen; Stree, Kolkata, 2006; pp xxiii + 231, Rs 500.

Locating ‘Agency’

Culture, Power and Agency: Gender in Indian Ethnography

edited by Lina Fruzzetti and Sirpa Tenhunen; Stree, Kolkata, 2006; pp xxiii + 231, Rs 500.


ld-style feminists found oppression everywhere and saw women as victims, or so it is often said; new-style feminists show respect for women by finding “agency” in the most unlikely places. This makes it hard to know in what sense something can be regarded as feminist, though oppression, of course, often coexists with agency. I say this because the editors describe this volume as a feminist collection of postmodernist, post-colonial approach. Rosa Maria Perez, one of the contributors who might more accurately be described as “post-feminist”, remarks that feminists wrongly assumed that agency is seen only in the breaking of rules. There is some truth in this but two comments are pertinent. First, in all societies and classes, women, as individuals, have always worked the “system” as best they could. That may well be wise, as well as shrewd; it makes life more tolerable and certainly shows agency, but should not be mistaken either for resistance, or for the equality which feminists were seeking. Academic description of the workings of such agency can hardly be regarded as feminist in itself though such work may sometimes be usable for feminist purposes. My second observation is that it is not only the words of “informants” that should be put in context; so, too, should the words and approaches of ethnographers. Early north European and American feminist ethnographers have, I suggest, been deeply influenced by the middle class puritan values that are widespread in their particular academic and social milieus. These place strong emphasis on “straightforwardness”. As more north Atlantic women acquired education and independent earnings in a situation where their input to the labour market was needed, in the second half of the 20th century, it was not surprising that some of them would seek “straightforward” challenge to cultural and social inequalities, “breaking of rules”, rather than “mere” manipulation of traditional practices.

Some contributors struggle (womanfully?) with the dilemma of recognising agency and inequality simultaneously. Nita Kumar, in postmodernist fashion, feels that all one can do is opt for shifting perspectives, moving back and forwards, from herself to her informants, without attempting to claim any transcendent analytical high ground. She describes the satisfactions in her informants’ lives, while recognising that they are only able to contribute to the reproduction of the social structure as it is, not to change it. Sylvia Vatuk’s paper on domestic violence, divorce and family courts, on the other hand, fits more squarely into classic models of feminism, while including reference to agency among her informants.

The desire to provide ammunition against western stereotypes of south Asian female passivity intensifies, in some papers, the concern to demonstrate agency among women in India. I would have thought that these stereotypes were, thankfully, much reduced now in academic writing, though still found in the media. Many, though not all, of the western feminists who wrote about inequalities in India, were, of course, writing in similar vein about their own societies.

The concept of agency may be stretched so far that it is doubtful whether it retains any analytical usefulness. This is the case in some of the papers here. Nita Kumar, for example, demonstrates how artisan “housewives” in Benaras attribute worth and meaning to what they do, and she refers to this as “agency”. This seems to imply that women have agency whenever they feel reasonably happy about following local cultural scripts. Does this also imply that they would be lacking agency if they felt unhappy about it, or simply that everyone has agency, whether or not they are happy with their situation? If the latter is the case, then the term agency ceases to be of value because it cannot differentiate one situation from another.

Some of the papers in this collection focus on bringing to visibility the categorisations used by the women they studied, rather than on providing statistical or “material” information about their situations. This social-constructionist approach expands our understanding of others and is found in much ethnographic writing today, yet it sometimes reads like a return to the early days of anthropology, with its generalised description and reliance on the concepts of key informants. It is also hard to see what it can lead to, other than theaccumulation of yet more ethnography.

If we wish to see change and make society more equal (which, surely, is what is meant by a feminist project) what we need to know is why some groups of women, or some individual women, have more agency than do others. Comparisons, either within groups, or between groups, are needed, and traditional ethnography may need to be expanded in this way if it is to be of more value. We need to try to generalise about the contexts that are favourable to the emergence or increase of agency. This would involve looking at socio-economic contexts, not just at cultural frameworks. We might benefit if we looked comparatively at limitations on agency among men, too, rather than simply straining to find signs of “agency” among women.

On the other hand, and I hope I am not contradicting myself here, I think we also need more critical discussion of this concept of agency. Talal Asad has argued that its use has to be located in the particular concerns of modern Europe (Formations of the Secular, Stanford, California, 2003, pp 85f). A volume that claims to be postcolonial would have benefited from engaging with such a discussion. My point is not that “agency” was originally a European concept, and therefore not appropriate in India, but rather to see what kind of cultural work can be done by using the

Economic and Political Weekly January 6, 2007 concept, and what kind of questions it can help us to answer. This implies that it may only be useful in certain contexts.

Tradition and Agency

The dust cover and ‘Introduction’ to this volume claim that most of the women described challenge the dominant ideology. This is true only if one uses the word challenge very broadly. Most of the women try indirectly to work their way around, and within, the dominant ideology, though often in ingenious ways. Many object only to their particular situation, not to the system in itself. Only a few of the papers actually do what the ‘Introduction’ claims and show how local culture can be a weapon for the weak, as well as a constraint. Sirpa Tenhunen, for example, shows how working class women in Kolkata make use of the tradition that the immediate neighbourhood is segregated female territory to achieve a remarkable degree of solidarity in sharing secrets. So effective is this that many men do not even know that their wives are doing wage earning work at home, and, sometimes, even slipping out to the cinema in the afternoon!

The paper by Siru Aura similarly shows how traditional kinship ideas can be stretched and reinterpreted as a basis for forming new links in a womens’ refuge.

It is disappointing to see one of the papers reproduce uncritically the old idea that the existence of mother goddesses is automatically an indication that women are powerful, ignoring the complex debate challenging such a simple assumption. Similarly, the assertion that fecundity automatically makes women powerful in south Asia sits oddly with the facts of dowry and bride burning, as well as with some of the other papers in this volume.

One would not expect an article on attitudes to sterilisation of mothers in part of south India to provide fascinating reading, but it certainly does so, in the case of Minna Saavala’s excellent paper. She shows that sterilisation is the most popular means of birth control among rural women in their 30s, despite its risks, and despite the poor medical conditions they have to face. This is not due to government preference for this method; women defy their husbands and in-laws to become sterilised. The visibility of the scar enables them to enter a new and more senior status, thus they encroach on the symbolic post-procreative position of the mother-in-law’s generation. This pushes the mother-in-law towards old age earlier.

Anyone who wants to get a sense of the approach and flavour of contemporary “feminist” ethnographic writing would find this a useful book. Its style is relatively jargon-free and accessible. However it presumes an academic readership familiar with the issues and hence contributions do not always spell out the relevant debates. The book contains much interesting ethnography and looks at topics not often dealt with by ethnographers in India, “homes” for abandoned girl children (Lina Fruzzetti), divorced women in refuges (Siru Aura), or at familiar topics in new ways, such as womens’ perceptions of the domestic domain (Chanasai Tiengtrakul). Some of these show, only too clearly, that women do not always feel a sense of agency or self-worth. The book’s focus is on the world of kinship and marriage, not on struggles beyond that world; only occasionally do contributors look at questions of agency or “resistance” where employers are involved.



Economic and Political Weekly January 6, 2007

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