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Experiments in Methodology on Reproductive Technology: Feminisms, Ethnographic Trajectories and Unchartered Discourse

The conflicts within feminism have been largely dominated by issues of power and inequality between feminisms, particularly those that organise in transnational spaces. Movements such as third world feminism and "women of colour" have attempted to counter the hegemony of western feminist discourse by arguing for the recognition of "difference". In contemporary feminist perspectives on reproductive technology, it has become something of a truism to say that technologies are appropriated differently depending on the cultural context within which they are used. This paper is an attempt to understand the connections between feminisms as well as the feminist concepts that circulate in Australia and India. Through multisited feminism, it sees the differences more clearly by also understanding the threads that connect feminisms and multiple meanings that issues such as abortion and sex-selection can take on as they move through a range of political contexts.


Experiments in Methodology on Reproductive Technology: Feminisms, Ethnographic Trajectories and Unchartered Discourse

Victoria Loblay

The conflicts within feminism have been largely dominated by issues of power and inequality between feminisms, particularly those that organise in transnational spaces. Movements such as third world feminism and ”women of colour” have attempted to counter the hegemony of western feminist discourse by arguing for the recognition of “difference”. In contemporary feminist perspectives on reproductive technology, it has become something of a truism to say that technologies are appropriated differently depending on the cultural context within which they are used. This paper is an attempt to understand the connections between feminisms as well as the feminist concepts that circulate in Australia and India. Through multisited feminism, it sees the differences more clearly by also understanding the threads that connect feminisms and multiple meanings that issues such as abortion and sex-selection can take on as they move through a range of political contexts.

I am grateful to the organisers and participants of the Feminist Methodology panel at the XIIth National Conference of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper, especially Anandhi S for her support. I would also like to thank Kalpana Ram, Lisa Wynn, Jane Buckingham and Sumant Badami for their constructive insight.

Victoria Loblay ( is a PhD scholar at Macquarie University, Australia.

The awkward relationship between feminism and anthropology is lived most dramatically in the tension experienced by those who practise feminist anthropology. They are caught between structures: the scholar is faced with two different ways of relating to her or his subject matter (Strathern 1987:286).

eminist anthropology is at once scholarly and political in nature. The practice of feminist anthropology is also a contested domain. As Marilyn Strathern (1987) has argued, the disciplines of feminism and anthropology relate to one a nother in an “awkward” fashion by virtue of the fundamentally different ways that each understands the world. Anthropology, with its emphasis on culture, has often seemed to hold promise for feminism by illuminating cross-cultural constructions of gender. Yet feminists, particularly those arguing from a non-western perspective, have highlighted the inadequacy of gender and c ulture as a holistic concepts for understanding power relations (Mohanty 1988, 2003). Taking their cue from debates over the tension between universalist claims to female oppression and differences within the category of women, such critiques have pointed to the power relations inherent in scholarship that m easures women’s empowerment against an assumed model of liberal western feminism. Recognition of the power asymmetries i nvolved in western scholarship practices has since been pivotal in inspiring new feminist methodologies which encourage reflexive attention to the positionality of the researcher (Haraway 1988; John 1996), a strategy that has also shaped the practice of feminist anthropology (Abu-Lughod 1991).

This paper treats the practice of feminist anthropology as an example of transnational political practice. In this sense, feminist anthropology is one of numerous feminist internationalisms that confront the challenges thrown up by asymmetries of power between what has historically been constructed as the west and the non-west. The pressing nature of such challenges has become evident to me during my own ethnographic travel between Australia and India, where I have become aware that a chasm continues to permeate the international politics of women’s health a ctivism on a variety of issues in relation to reproductive technology (Loblay 2007). In the political arena of the international women’s health movement, this chasm is characterised by the persistent dominance of a liberal model of feminist internationalism. In thinking about my own feminist methodology on reproductive technology, it struck me that power struggles among feminisms on reproductive health issues mirrored many of my

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own methodological dilemmas as a feminist anthropologist conducting research at home (Australia) and in India, places that are often related in terms of west/non-west dichotomy. By understanding feminist anthropology in terms of transnational political practice, and experimenting with my own ethnographic t rajectories in Australia and India, it seemed possible that my methodology could yield insights for other feminist internationalisms. Thus, it is hoped that the methodological explorations in this paper may contribute to a process of disrupting familiar channels of west/non-west power within feminist anthropological scholarship and other feminist internationalisms.

The practice of anthropology provides a useful launching pad from which to discuss the west/non-west power dynamic that continues to provoke feminist debate, particularly among feminisms that circulate as internationalisms. As Abu-Lughod (1991) has aptly noted, anthropology is a discipline whose foundations are based on the west/non-west divide in which a western self purports to study the non-western other. And so despite attempts to experiment with a variety of ethnographic forms to mediate the power asymmetries engendered by the west/non-west divide, she argues:

From our positions as anthropologists, however tenuous our identifications if we are feminists or “halfies”, we work as Westerners, and what we contribute to is a Western discourse… it seems impossible to imagine any anthropology without a Western epistemological link (Abu-Lughod 1991:159).

It is this dilemma that has led Mary John (1996), a postcolonial feminist writing from India, to ask whether it is possible to write a post-colonial feminist ethnography. She is concerned with issues of “locational bias” and explores her shifting perspectives on feminisms as she travels between India and the United States (US) (John 1996:121). In contrast to her feminist anthropologist counterparts, who write from a perspective that seems unable to escape its location in the geographical west, John a ppears to demonstrate a greater facility for simultaneously a ddressing scholarly audiences in the US and India. In her concluding paragraphs, for example, this is accomplished through the seamless fusion of the implications of her argument for feminists in the US (and more generally, in the west) as well as for her audience in India. No doubt this facility is a function, at least in part, of her subject position as a post-colonial feminist, who has intimate familiarity with feminisms in both the US and India. However, it is also a valuable model for feminist anthropologists who write from western locations and in the process, experience the tension Strathern (1987:286) describes of being “caught b etween structures”.

When Strathern describes the awkward relationship between feminism and anthropology, she argues that the tension is a function of the fundamentally different manner in which each discipline relates to their subject matter:

Feminist inquiry suggests that it is possible to discover the self by becoming conscious of oppression from the “Other”. Thus, one may seek to regain a common past which is also one’s own. Anthropological inquiry suggests that the self can be consciously used as a vehicle for representing an Other. But this is only possible if the self breaks with its own past. These, thus, emerge as two very different radicalisms. For all their parallel interests, the two practices are differently

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s tructured in the way they organise knowledge and draw boundaries, in short, in terms of the social relations that define their scholarly communities (Strathern 1987:289).

Strathern concludes that these fundamental differences in the self/Other conception of feminism and anthropology are somewhat irreconcilable, other than in the form of an awkward dialogue. However, this projection is based on the assumption that anthropological critiques of feminism are deflected because “feminists inhabit their own society, and the discovery that their values are culture bound is irrelevant” (Strathern 1987:291). Given that numerous feminisms have long been engaging in p olitical projects that transcend societal boundaries and negotiating the difficulties thrown up by cultural difference in the process, it seems likely that Strathern’s model of feminist practices was based around a conception of western feminist traditions. Postcolonial feminist projects such as that of John (1996), demonstrate how feminisms can redraw the boundaries of feminist practice and incorporate experiences from multiple locations.

I contend that the contemporary feminist anthropologist has much in common with such feminist internationalisms; even when one writes from the geographical west, it is not possible to escape methodological issues of power between the west and the non-west. Viewed in this way, the feminist anthropologist who is “caught between structures” is poised not between the contradictory pulls of feminism and anthropology, but more pertinently and increasingly, occupies the difficult position of negotiating multiple (sometimes conflicting) political perspectives on the meaning of her research once it begins to circulate in various n ational and international contexts. In other words, one must learn to engage multiple audiences, while paying special attention to the power dynamics that tend to privilege certain political perspectives over others in feminist internationalisms. For a feminist anthropologist, such a task demands a methodology that can redraw the boundaries of anthropological practice.

In the methodological model put forth in this paper, the boundaries of anthropological practice are explored through reconceiving ethnographic travel in the form of transnational feminist practice. In order to illustrate the challenges involved in u ndertaking ethnographic travel as a form of transnational feminism, I explore my own shifting perspectives on feminist politics and reproductive technology as I move between Australia and India conducting research. I consider my perspectives to be a p artial representation of the cultural and political meanings that are attached to concepts such as “abortion” and “sex-selection” as they circulate transnationally between feminisms, as well as within distinct national discourses. My experiences are set against the larger backdrop of the historical configuration of the west/non-west division in relation to feminist and anthropological scholarship to facilitate a consideration of the implications of this methodology for feminist anthropology and feminist internationalisms more generally.

Partial Perspectives: Australia and India

That the musings of anthropologists about “how things are” should echo the musings of their informants is no more and no less a product of the same permeation. Anthropology, no less than natural science, is


“haunted to its very depths” by ideas that are salient in the cultures in

which it lives (Martin 1998:40).

My own musings on Australia and India are permeated by my subject position as an anthropologist training at an Australian university. Though I am conducting fieldwork in both India and Australia, my relation to these locations as a researcher is radically different: in Australia I am very much at home, whereas in India, creating a sense of home is a work in progress. The implications of these relational positions for my research are expansive and there are numerous ways I could describe the disparity between research roles in Australia and India, only some of which will be drawn out through this paper. At this juncture, the point I wish to make is about how concepts of “home” and “elsewhere” function in anthropological research. It is no accident that Martin professes her methodological concern that “my initial worry was that I would not be able to get outside science in order to talk about it” (Martin 1998: 39), when applying anthropology closer to the culture of home. As with culture, it turned out that science was not something that could be readily located and objectified outside the self. That anthropologists should have difficulty stepping outside their own cultural frameworks is one of the reasons that ethnographic travel has been given such purchase in anthropological training. As Strathern (1987:289) says, “anthropological inquiry suggests that the self can be consciously used as a v ehicle for representing an Other. But this is only possible if the self breaks with it’s own past.” It is doubtful whether one can ever shed one’s cultural skin by living elsewhere, but I am becoming aware that my own ethnographic experiences in multiple c ontexts have yielded insights that have only come through the reflexive perspective that comes with this kind of deliberate movement. Nowhere is this more apparent than when I am doing anthropology at home in Sydney, when perspectives cultivated during time spent elsewhere seem to illuminate the cultural frameworks in operation when you shift the gaze homewards. In fact, it is this phenomenon that has compelled me to do an ethnographic study that included fieldwork in Australia.

In the early days of my literature review on sex-selective abortion in India, I began to notice a discursive “gap” between the prolific material on the topic in the Indian context and research conducted in western settings. In India, alarm over declining sexratios – particularly those revealed by the 2001 Census – has enabled the feminist campaign against sex-selective abortion to r eceive a high degree of visibility in national and international media; visibility has subsequently been translated into responsiveness by the State, the non-government sector and international aid programmes. The success of this push by the Indian women’s movement can also be credited with bringing the issue to my attention; it was while driving in Sydney that I heard a BBC broadcast on the “missing girls” in Punjab and decided to explore the option of conducting research on the topic in India. After learning that a law had been implemented to regulate the use of prenatal diagnostic techniques to prevent the misuse of ultrasound and amniocentesis to determine the sex of the foetus, I decided to undertake research to look at the impact of this law. There was no shortage of sources to feed my curiosity and a sizeable literature exists on the topic.1

However, when I expanded my review to the sociological, anthropological and feminist literature from Australia, and other western settings such as the North America and the United K ingdom (UK), I noticed that there was a distinctly different flavour to the research on prenatal diagnostic technology. Studies such as Rayna Rapp’s (1999) work on amniocentesis in urban medical settings in America construct an ethnographic picture of women as “moral pioneers” in the face of new kinds of decisions during pregnancy; Celia Roberts and Sarah Franklin, working on Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD)2 in the UK, have a ttempted to paint a sympathetic portrait of parents who, far from being guilty of the charge of crafting “designer babies”, are only hoping for “a child who lives with a tolerable quality and length of life” (Roberts and Franklin 2004: 288). These anthropological studies of reproductive technology also follow and r eflect feminist concerns with technology but of a very different order. The preoccupation here is with the medicalisation of pregnancy rather than with the issue of sex-selection (see for example, Rothman 1994; Davis-Floyd and Sargent 1997; Jordan 1997; Lippman 1999; Reiger, Possamai-Inesedy et al 2006). Apart one notable exception (Squier 1994), the concept of sex-selection or sex-determination seems to receive scant attention.

From an anthropological perspective, these discursive gaps seemed worth probing in greater depth. When I found the concept of “misuse” of prenatal diagnostic technology for the purposes of sex-determination to be notably absent within the western feminist-social science literature, it seemed fair to conclude that sex-selection is not practised in the geographical west. Some studies are currently emerging about declining sex-ratios and sex-selection among Chinese and south Asian populations in the US (Puri 2007; Saletan 2008). A more recent report from the BBC detailed an Oxford University study that has discovered a low sex ratio in the south Asian-British community, concluding that p eople are travelling to Delhi to get sex-selective abortions (BBC 2007). However, such research tends to reinforce the discursive gaps by implying that sex-selection is a problem that is confined to these communities.

And yet, if we look beyond the social science and feminist l iterature and turn to bioethics debates concerning the application of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) in Australia, a dif ferent story emerges. In recent years, the subject of sex-selection has caused considerable consternation among bioethicists in the Australian context, particularly with respect to PGD. A well-known private In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) clinic in Sydney was advertising and providing sex-selective services using PGD until 2005. A ccording to the website (“Sex Selection with PGD” 2008), they have suspended these services pending further community d ebate, after the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC) ruled that new reproductive technology such as PGD should not be used for “social” sex-selection. The bioethics debates that u nderpin this ruling circle mostly around whether couples should be able to choose the sex of an embryo for “family balancing” (AHEC 2004). Those in favour of “family balancing” bolster their arguments with a liberal choice rationale that asserts that couples who already have one or more children of a particular sex should be given the freedom to engage in social sex-selection and

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pursue medical assistance for conceiving a child of the opposite sex (Savulescu 1999; ASRM 2001). The logic of this discourse is suggestive of a moral hierarchy in which engaging in sexselection to produce a family with both sexes is based on genderequality, and is somehow more rational, and therefore, less problematic than sex-selective practices that emanate from a cultural preference for males (which is assumed to happen elsewhere, particularly in India and China). The ease with which liberal r ationality can be used to further moral arguments in the course of bioethics debates is a fact which has not been lost on a leading PGD provider operating out of Mumbai, who has attempted to use similar arguments to circumvent the legal restrictions on sexselection in India (Malpani, Malpani et al 2002).

These debates highlight the fluid nature of moral meanings when discourses move in transnational circles. They also raise the spectre of feminist accountability for research that travels in such spaces. Purewal (2003) has argued that issues such as f emale infanticide and foeticide are “particular spectacles of c ulture” which have constructed an “oblique lens through which South Asian women have been understood”. This statement rings painfully true when I recall my own decision to pursue sexselective abortion in India as a topic for PhD research. But it is also true that my reactions to the BBC broadcast were partly p roduced by what Purewal calls “an unqualified double standard in the ways in which the impacts and interpretations of reproductive technologies in various cultural or geographical contexts have been understood and explained” (Purewal 2003:144). Put differently, when viewed from a transnational perspective, the discourse on sex-selection and prenatal diagnostic technology is split along the same asymmetrical geography of power as the west/non-west divide that has historically constituted anthropological scholarship. Taken together with Martin’s

o bservation about anthropology’s vulnerability to the “ideas that are salient in the cultures in which it lives”, my own predispositions can be seen as a valuable representation of discursively produced, unequal perspectives on sex-selective practices and the beliefs surrounding the use and “misuse” of prenatal diagnostic techno logy in particular communities. My desire to d evelop an alternative methodology is part of an attempt to r ecapture a sense of feminist accountability in my research, and to avoid reproducing the inequalities that enable this “unqualified double standard”.

Shifting the Gaze Towards Home

My awareness of the asymmetrical discourse on sex-selection b ecame the first step in the methodological process of gradually realising the biases entailed in my own perspective. The next step happened quite by accident. I decided to prepare for my r esearch in India by doing some fieldwork in the obstetric and gynaecological ultrasound department of a public hospital in Sydney. I expected that this would be a “neutral” context in which to examine the practice of sex-determination during routine ultrasound scans conducted in the 20th week of pregnancy. But it quickly became apparent that here too, the literature had not prepared me. This time I was caught unaware by the high level of emotion that surrounded the practice of sex-determination.

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When I explained my research to the head sonographer of the department during our initial meeting, she told me how “she wished we weren’t allowed to tell (the foetal sex)” because she hated the way that some people would get really upset when they did not get the sex they wanted. And when I began to do interviews with patients, and observed their ultrasounds, I came to understand that as with many other components of routine ultrasound during pregnancy, the decisions and experiences relating to sex-determination have the potential to be fraught with emotion and questions of morality.

I began to question why the moral and ethical issues surrounding sex-determination and ultrasound had not merited more a ttention in the Australian context? When I broached the issue with a long-time geneticist in the field, I was told that originally there were concerns about revealing the sex during ultrasound, but that these had been overridden by an acceptance that people just wanted to know “whether to buy pink or blue”. Coincidentally, just as I began research on this topic, a press release announced the arrival of a new “pink and blue” DNA test which would theoretically enable consumers to test for X and Y (sex-determining) chromosomes within six weeks of pregnancy. A British company operating through web-based services offered the test “worldwide” – or at least, to those “liberal” countries which did not have a preference for one sex or the other – the web site invokes the company’s morality in the following manner:

As a company we, together with the manufacturers of the test, have decided not to sell the early gender test into China and India and some other areas, as it is not our intention that the Pink or Blue test should be used, either directly or indirectly, for sex selection. The company operates in the UK, a liberal society that does not prize babies of one sex over another, a culture which also places responsibility for the unborn baby firmly with the mother. As this is the case with most if not all Western cultures we are happy that, with education and informed debate, responsibility should lie with the individual (“Early Gender Testing – The Ethics” 2007).3

This statement reinforces the gap between “China and India”, where presumably the test may be abused for sex-selective purposes, and “western cultures” where “liberal society” is assumed to act as a buffer against sex preferences, so that individuals can be trusted to use the pink and blue test without engaging in sexselection. The recognition of this presumptive distinction b etween “China and India” and “western cultures” is taken as an evidence of the ethical conscience of the company, evading the question of why a pink and blue test should be sought after at all in a “society that does not prize babies of one sex over another”. In fact, the response to the pink and blue DNA test in Australia indicated that “sex-selection” is also a moral issue for “western cultures”. News of the test prompted public condemnation from the federal health minister, Tony Abbott, and outcry from pro-life activists who warned of the potential for sex-selective abortion (Sydney Morning Herald 2007). Not only do such reactions demonstrate that the issue of “sex-selection” is contested well beyond the context of locations such as “China and India”, but it shows that the politicisation of the issue can be reconfigured in terms of pro-life/pro-choice morality in relation to abortion. Although I was unable to find any explicit pro-choice or feminist statements


in relation to the pink and blue DNA test, there have been i nstances where a pro-choice logic has been used to argue against the ban on PGD for sex-selection in Australia.4

For my part, I came to appreciate the naivety of my proposal to study the Australian context as a “neutral” benchmark against which to understand the Indian context. The further I probed, the more I began to see that I was not the only one maintaining the fallacy of liberal gender neutrality in the application of reproductive technology in Sydney. The pervasiveness of the pink and blue argument is suggestive of a similar conception of the practice of sex-determination during ultrasound. It denotes a light-heartedness surrounding the expectations of a girl or a boy: the material decoration of nurseries, purchase of clothes and other accessories that are ritual preparations in the lead up to the birth. Yet, this light-hearted conception of pink and blue does not really reflect the degree of emotion that can accompany decisions and expectations that I found to surround the practice of sex-determination during ultrasound. As one sonographer said to me:

I can see why they come, feeling the way they do. And all they want to know is – you know one of the most exciting things is knowing whether it’s a boy or a girl or you know, deciding oh, we don’t want to know or...

Indeed, for many pregnant women and their partners, the d ecision of whether to “find out” the sex can be a weighty one. Without exception, in the course of my observations of the 18-20 week scans (the time when sex-determination is usually practised at the clinic), every pregnant woman had thought about this decision in the lead up to the ultrasound test. Sometimes disagreements over the decision “not to find out”, played out during the ultrasound scan itself:

Sonographer: What about the sex – do you want to know? Pregnant woman: There is a difference of opinion, but no, we’ve d ecided that we won’t find out. Sonographer: More of a surprise that way. Husband: That’s what I think! Sonographer: Going to be one or the other – there aren’t too many choices. Pregnant woman: No.

As a consequence, sonographers sometimes found themselves embedded in the matrix of emotions and uncertainty surrounding the practice of sex-determination. In my interviews with sonographers, I often found that they had strategies for navigating this matrix. In each of the following, I had been trying to elicit information about the range of emotional responses that sonographers had experienced from patients during the anomaly scan, where people are often told that they will be able to learn the sex of the baby (Box 1, 2, 3).

Box 1: Interview with Sonographer (Over 10 Years Experience):

Sonographer: I have had people who are cross because you can’t see too. They desperately want to know and they’ll tell you for all sorts of reasons that they desperately need to know. VL: That they need to know? Sonographer: They need to know! More than anyone else needs to know. Its usually you know decorating the nursery or, “you don’t understand we have to know” – “you don’t understand we can’t see” and some people you just can’t see… They all think they need to know more than someone else. My stock answer for that is that’s great for the sale of white, green, and orange clothes really. And that’s mostly the reason; they want to be able to tell people what colour clothes to buy.

What is significant is that in each case the sonographer responded to my questions about emotion by detailing their own personal strategies for mediating people’s emotional responses. In interview 1 (Box 1), the sonographer reasons that the desire to know the sex is about “what colour clothes to buy” and so when people become exasperated about the “need to know” in the face of uncertainty, she reminds them of the material, (light-hearted)

Box 2: Interview with Sonographer (Less Than Five Years Experience):

Sonographer: I’ve had basically every situation you can think of. Patients telling their husbands to walk out of the room while they just want to know, or, you know, or people being disappointed in the room because they found out the sex wasn’t what they were expecting, or… VL: How do they show that disappointment? Sonographer: Oh, it’s pretty obvious! But um, you know, you just don’t comment on anything they say. Or you can actually say to them, and say well look, what I’ve just told you is not a 100%, so don’t make any permanent changes in the house just as yet. But as I said its not 100%, its not 100% accurate, I’m just telling you what I think it might be. And whatever they do with that information is up to them.

nature of this “need to know” by invoking “the sale of white, green, and orange clothes”. In interview 2 (Box 2), the sonographer also invokes the material “permanent changes in the house” consequences of sex-determination, but does so in order to mitigate the evident disappointment when “the sex wasn’t what they were expecting”. In interview 3 (Box 3) the sonographer d escribes how she returns people to the “medical” nature of the test by telling them that the health of the baby is “much more important” than the gender. In these ways, sonographers respond to negative emotional reactions in the context of sex-determination by reminding people of the fact that the gender of the baby (and also the health) is not determinate at this point in the pregnancy. In the process, they engage in strategies to neutralise overtly (negative) emotional responses of people in relation to sex-determination.

Box 3: Interview with Sonographer (Over Five Years Experience):

VL: Have you had people get angry with you for not being able to see the sex of the baby? Sonographer: Yep, yep. A lot of people its sort of an expectation. But in that situation I just say as diplomatically as I can, say to them, “look this is a medical test, we’re here to find out any medical problems with your foetus and you know, the gender of your baby is probably the least of, the least important thing we look at in this scan… its much more important having a healthy baby.”

If sex-determination during ultrasound really is just a matter of “pink and blue”, how do we explain the need for these reminders? How should we understand the emotional pull and the potency of the pink and blue knowledge? Examining these questions and the gendered expectations around the decision to learn the sex of the foetus seems fertile research material for feminist methodology, and yet, there seems to be little discussion from western feminisms on the topic. One reason for this is possibly that pro-life a ctivists in places such as Australia have claimed the critique of sex-selection as part of their political agenda against abortion, as demonstrated by the public response to the pink and blue DNA test. I ndeed, even within the Indian context there have been philosophical dilemmas among feminists in relation to abortion politics, the campaign against “foeticide” and the desire to protect the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act (Forum Against Sex

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Determination and Sex Pre-selection Group 1994; Menon 1996). However, my concern is less with abortion debates and more with the way that certain feminisms – especially, those feminisms whose perspectives dominate international politics – are predisposed to see gender issues in their own backyard.

Re-Conceiving Ethnographic Trajectories

It is time to conceive of travel differently – between third-world n ations, for instance, or between third-world spaces in the West… Western feminists need to reconsider what they are out to learn from the distant places they visit. Instead of developing ever more theoretically sophisticated twists on the cross-cultural construction of gender, why not attend also to feminist voices from elsewhere? (John 1996: 144).

What are the implications of my shifting perspectives on home with respect to my research in India? Apart from the fact that it is no longer possible to contain my ethnographic project solely within the Indian context, what does my awareness of the moral politics surrounding issues of sex-selection and pink and blue tests at home bring to bear on my proposal to study the impact of the laws to prevent sex-selective abortion in India? It is not that I had been ignoring feminisms emanating from within India. On the contrary, histories of feminisms in India and the theories that have emerged from the third world feminist perspective are a crucial part of a confluence of forces that compelled me to arrive in India as part of my PhD studies in anthropology. More than a decade after John’s (1996: 144) call for western feminists to pay heed to “feminist voices from elsewhere”, it seems evident that one of the legacies of third world feminist movements is that a western educated feminist anthropologist, such as myself, has developed feminist sensibilities with an acute awareness of these movements. The fact that my formal study of feminist theory was preceded by a study of the conflicts within feminism serves to show that it is possible for marginal perspectives to occupy a central place in one’s academic development, even if it is located in the geographical west. At the same time, it is also true that the privileges of a western education and location have ensured that I have imbibed feminist precepts that do not emanate from a marginal perspective, and this is underscored by the partial and shifting nature of my perspectives on India and Australia. Thus, perhaps my research in India presents an opportunity for finding ways to bridge the gaps between feminisms. What is needed is to implement this concept in terms of ethnographic methodology.

A key priority of such a methodology should be to address power relations between feminisms, especially those within the field of anthropology. A possible means of accomplishing this may be through a conscious displacement of the usual trajectories of ethnographic knowledge transmission. John (1996) uses a similar strategy in laying the foundations for her “postcolonial feminist ethnography”, when she charts a passage between India and the US. She states that she is seeking to “reverse the flow of information” by viewing her time in the US as a sort of fieldwork experience in which she collects information on US feminist culture to bring back to an Indian audience. However, given my l ocation as a western educated anthropologist, my methodology necessarily involves a different kind of reversal. I am seeking to

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displace the familiar ethnographic trajectory of viewing fieldwork elsewhere as an exercise in ethnographic data-collection. Instead, I want to use my experience in India – a place that would typically constitute the elsewhere for an Australian anthropologist – as an opportunity to cultivate my feminist sensibilities from within the Indian context. The aim is to use this knowledge to understand the connections between feminisms as well as the feminist concepts that circulate in Australia and India.

In practical terms, this methodology entails training myself to understand the feminist methods and practices that form part of contemporary Indian politics. So far this process has involved consultations with various people involved in research and activism in relation to women’s health issues in Delhi and Chennai. The ideas in this paper have also been formed in the midst of interviews and meetings with non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, activists, pregnant women, social workers, health professionals and families in Chennai. Moreover, my thoughts owe a great deal to my experience at the 2008 National Women’s Studies Conference in Lucknow, for which this paper was conceived. These collaborative exercises have given me a fresh inspiration for how feminist approaches to understanding sex-selection in the Indian context might be applied to my fieldwork in Australia, such as examining the meanings attributed to macro-data on sex ratios. Ultimately, I envisage a more sustained engagement with the academic and feminist communities in I ndia during the latter phases of writing up my research. This would allow me to gain a deeper familiarity with numerous feminist audiences outside of my home institution in Australia.

Ethnography as Multisited Feminism

Multisited ethnography has been embraced by anthropologists as a form of “circumstantial activism”, whereby working in a range of field sites means that the “politics and ethics of working in any one reflects on work in the others” (Marcus 1995: 113). Such a methodology foregrounds the notion of ethnography as a political practice, and is a valuable model for the implementation of feminist anthropology as transnational political practice. What the anthropological model of multisited ethnography does not elaborate upon, are the consequences of renegotiating one’s i dentity when you occupy various positions of authority as a researcher in the disparate locations you inhabit. A multisited feminism, on the other hand, might attend to the ways in which the partial perspectives elicited in various locations form part of a larger structure of unequal histories between feminisms.

The conflicts within feminism have been largely dominated by issues of power and inequality between feminisms, particularly those that organise in transnational spaces. Movements such as third world feminism and “women of colour” have attempted to counter the hegemony of western feminist discourse by arguing for the recognition of “difference”. In contemporary feminist perspectives on reproductive technology, it has become something of a truism to say that technologies are appropriated differently depending on the cultural context within which they are used. However, it now seems time to acknowledge the


connections between feminisms (Mohanty 2003). While Abu-The significance of these methodological pathways is that Lughod (1991) has encouraged a strategy of “Writing against Cul-they attempt to unsettle the channels of power that continue to ture” to articulate connections, my methodology entails a strat-structure the relationship between the west and the non-west. egy more along the lines of practising ethnography against cul-The geography of power among feminisms may be less clear-cut ture. My partial perspectives from India and Australia have than in the past, but that does not make it any less of a challenge shown how multiple feminisms can productively inform research for feminist anthropologists, postcolonial feminists or other in deceptively distinct cultural contexts. In this sense, my shift-feminist internationalisms that traverse the contemporary landing perspective becomes a lens through which to understand scape of the west/non-west divide. In tracing my shifting perssome of the historically constituted frameworks that function to pectives, it has occurred to me that the process of turning my reinforce the power relations within feminisms as they travel gaze homeward has been a function of my exposure to feminisms across national borders. Through multisited feminism, we can in India. With this comes the recognition that such a methodosee the differences more clearly by also understanding the logy has the potential to counter not only the asymmetrical structhreads that connect feminisms and multiple meanings that is-ture of the discourse on sex-selection and prenatal diagnostic sues such as “abortion” and “sex-selection” can take on as they technology, but also some of the historically constituted asym

move through a range of political contexts.


1 Reading Lists from the Centre for Women’s Development Studies list 256 articles on “Foeticide” CWDS (January 2005). CWDS Reading List No 28: Foeticide. New Delhi, Centre for Women’s Development Studies and 215 articles on “Sex R atio” CWDS (May 2006). CWDS Reading List No 41: Sex Ratio. New Delhi, Centre for Women’s Development Studies. It is beyond the scope of this paper to review this literature in any great depth, but a comprehensive discussion of the current research can be found in Patel (2007).

2 Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is a rapidly evolving technique in which genetic diagnosis takes place through testing IVF embryos before they have been implanted in the womb.

3 Since the website was accessed in May 2007, all references to the “pink and blue” test appear to have disappeared from the DNA worldwide web site. Searching for web-based information on the test at the time of publication produces only media statements, and links to a California based company “Consumer Genetics – The Pink or Blue® Company” whose website can be accessed at

4 An ABC report, on increasing numbers of Australian couples travelling to the US to seek sex-selective services from PGD providers cited prominent bioethicists who felt that the ban on the use of PGD for sex-selection in Australia was too extreme Bourke, E (2007). Australian couples using sex-selecting IVF abroad. Australia, ABC Online.. The implications of withdrawing people’s access to choice was portrayed in the following way: “what we know is that people, if they can afford it, get on a plane and go somewhere where they can choose the sex of their child. And we also may be creating a situation if we stop people from doing that because, say, they don’t have enough money to travel, where they’re having a child that they’re actually not going to be a very good parent to, and this doesn’t seem a very good outcome either” Leslie Cannold, ethicist from the Centre for Gender and Medicine cited in Bourke, E (2007). Such an argument is reminiscent of scenarios portrayed in relation to prohibiting women from a ccessing abortion, even if the potential parenting circumstances are not really analogous.


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vol xlv no 44

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