The question of difference (Part one of three): Two stories

Postcard from God – I

Yes, I do feel like a visitor,
a tourist in this world
that I once made.
I rarely talk,
except to ask the way,
distrusting my interpreters,
tired out by the babble
of what they do not say.
I walk around through battered streets,
distinctly lost,
looking for landmarks
from another, promised past.

Here, in this strange place,
in a disjointed time,
I am nothing but a space
that sometimes has to fill.
Images invade me.
Picture postcards overlap my empty face
demanding to be stamped and sent.

‘Dear . . . ’
Who am I speaking to?
I think I may have misplaced the address,
but still, I feel the need
to write to you;
not so much or your sake
as for mine,

to raise these barricades
against my fear:
from god.

Proof that I was here.

By Imtiaz Dharker

Two stories, thirteen years apart

My first story is about ‘Mira’. About 13 years ago, I was working out of a small office of a domestic worker’s union. Along with my translator and colleague, C, I had been going there regularly in the hopes of meeting women who would be willing to talk to me about the violence that they had experienced. I met many women in that office, but there have been a few whom I have not been able to forget. ‘Mira’ was one such person. I met ‘Mira’ (name changed) when she came to file a complaint. When we asked her whether she would have some time to talk to us, she immediately agreed to sit and discuss her life with us. I met her consecutively for two days, because she had to come to the office twice – one to file a complaint against her employer, and the other day to file a restraining order against her husband for the death threats he had been issuing to her. Although I did feel at the time (and now) that talking to me was more useful to me than to her, she was bursting to tell us her story. Over the course of the two days, she told us of the horrific things that were done to her – things that made me physically sick when I got home. But the positive energies that was emanating out of her belied the kind of circumstances that she was living in.  In my head, she is still my definition of an indomitable woman – a powerful woman in a powerless situation. In a lot of ways, she is the reason I refuse to believe in the projected victimhood of survivors of violence. I know that for some women, regardless of the violent situations in which they go through, they cannot be defined by the constrained identity of a survivor. Through her, I know how a life of violence is defined by quiet acts of courage, daily defiance of oppression, and laughter at the silliness of the world.


My next story is about a statement made by a friend of mine. It was at a training on qualitative methods that I was conducting a few months ago. My friend who was attending the training said that he would not be comfortable doing research on those who are less empowered than he is. He believed that unless he vacates the space (of doing research), there will not be opportunities for those who are marginalised to represent or speak for themselves. At that time, I was very defensive, as a person of privilege is wrought to do. But my own defensiveness irked me, as I knew it to be a marker of privilege.  I have been mulling over the question, because I think inadvertently, my friend was asking a very central question about my work and who I am when I work.

At the time that this conversation happened, I thought my friend was both right and wrong. He is absolutely right that unless I (as a person of immense privilege) vacate this space, no one can inhabit it. This social space is not an expansive or an expanding one that everyone can be included in it, in some form of imagined utopia. My existence in this space fundamentally implies that others cannot be. The first story that I told you about ‘Mira’ is an example. Because I am occupying this space – this blog space – she cannot be. There is no space made for her here (within this blogosphere) to tell her story, so you are seeing her only through my eyes. So, yes, my friend is right.

But he is also wrong to assume that there is any research project that is devoid of this power of representation. Even if he were to only interview those who are in the same socio-cultural milieu as him, the power of representation that the enterprise of research bestows upon him will still weigh quite heavily. Any good research study must ask: What does representation mean? What are we seeing? What are we missing? Why are we seeing this and missing that? Who are ‘we’ in the field? Who are ‘they’ in the field? I am not exempting myself from these rules. I am not claiming the representation of all Savarna Brahmin cisgendered researchers nor am I claiming an exception to the rule. I am highlighting that there are both structures and individuals functioning within the research process, just as they are in the ‘real’ world. And as a feminist sociologist, I would argue that individuals form structures almost as simultaneously as structures form individuals.

In that sense, these questions have to be answered by most researchers, regardless of their subject position. In fact, one of the key skills that we are taught in our research methodology courses is rapport building. We do know that when people trust the researcher and feel a connection with them, they are likely to be more open about their lives. But who is to say that a person from my social milieu / privilege is going to be more trusting of me than someone who is not, and vice versa. We are different from each other, in one way or another. Of course, there is difference and then there is difference. Because our identities are not singular, uniform or stable, the essential question of difference looms large in both of my stories or, in fact, any feminist research study.

An example I often come back to when I think about the question of difference, are my own identities based on where I am located in the world and the privilege that I inhabit based on sheer geography. My identities can shift range between a Third World feminist operating in the North, and a cisgendered Savarna feminist operating in the South. Who is the ‘other’ in both those contexts are very different. Essentially, the studying of the other in any feminist research project is the close mapping of the difference between the observer and the observed and how those positions can be destabilised. The reason I keep coming back to Mira when I think about difference is because I know there are many things that separated us, least of which that stemmed from our identities and experiences. But when we spoke for those hours, there were moments where those differences did not seem to matter as much. I am not saying that they did disappear – her subject-position and mine are altogether too clear – but I am saying that there were moments of connection in those few hours that did transcend some of the social distance that we had. But whether this connection was real and imagined is fraught with tension and it should be. To understand this a bit better, I will address the meaning of difference in the second part of this blog.

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

Niveditha Menon
Senior Research Advisor, CBPS


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