Sunday, March 09, 2008

Review: Body Evidence

[Shamita Das Dasgupta, ed. Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007.]

Most of what I read these days is not about me, and usually I feel perfectly fine about that. It is, after all, one of the benefits of written texts that they are a means for transferring information about one local set of experiences into lives shaped by quite different sets of local experiences. And I happen to think that in our current world nothing is unconnected from anything else, so any book is in some way related to me figuring out the world and my place in it.

In reading this book, though, I felt a bit like I was trespassing some place I didn't belong. It faded significantly by the time I was done reading, but not completely. And I'm not sure why this particular book, of all the not-about-me books I read, evoked that reaction.

One possibility is that it is a legacy of racist and sexist socialization on my part. I believe that the longstanding imperialist trope in Western thought of the need for white men and women to save brown women from brown men is not really the opposite of the seemingly contradictory tendency to ignore racialized women and their experiences altogether, but in fact quite complimentary to it. The "this is none of my business" reaction from at least part of my gut is more in tune with the latter form, but both forms flow from the ways in which we are taught to see racialized women as passive objects in one sense or another rather than active agents with whom we have a responsibility to engage as agents. So that might be part of what is going on here.

However, I engage with a lot of texts by and about racialized women, and usually do not react like that. So I am inclined to think that this latent tendency created by my training into white masculinity was activated in part because of features of this specific book.

My sense is that, in many ways, this is a very important book for activists, academics, and service providers responding to interpersonal violence experienced by South Asian women in North America. The eighteen chapters cover a broad range of material, from the general contexts that shape how such violence is experienced to more detailed examinations of facets such as mental health impacts on survivors, body image, the use of culture by courts, the experiences of queer South Asian women, and specific case studies of organizing against violence.

As with any book, its particular shape is a product of the political impact being sought by those who produced it. In this case, it is funders, researchers, and those engaged in frontline work with South Asian women in the context of both mainstream and community-specific services that I take to be the intended audience. The intended impact, it seems to me, is to prod, push, and cajole the responses to violence in more positive directions, both through shaping how services are delivered at a very micro level and also by shaping the political agenda of South Asian Americans and of the mainstream women's anti-violence movement in terms of which legislative reforms they prioritize and so on. This intense pragmatism is understandable, given the urgency of the need faced by the women to whose experience it is a response.

However, it also means accepting certain aspects of dominant understandings and strategically choosing not to challenge them. The colonial past and present of the states in North America are not mentioned, for instance, and little open attention is given to the ways in which capitalism has shaped the experiences at the heart of the book. One consequence of this book's version of the inevitable million little choices around when to be silent and how to speak is that they made specificity feel narrow in many places, at least to my outsider's eyes, and I don't think that has to be the case. I think accepting aspects of dominant frames, at least in certain ways and in some essays, means the book as a whole challenges less thoroughly than many of the individual authors might wish the ways in which 21st century neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy organize communities through imposing a very particular understanding of "difference" that can make it harder to see and talk about and struggle against relations of power.

This relates to the very broad range of ways of understanding "culture" demonstrated in the book. I found this range to be personally challenging. Partly it was because it indicates the presence of struggle among South Asian American women on the terrain of their cultures, and this is terrain about which I know next to nothing, so I felt kind of ungrounded in trying to navigate it. Beyond that, though, is the sense that one variable in that range of understandings is different, complicated relationships with the dominant understandings of culture enforced by (white supremacist) projects of ruling in North America. I could get glimpses of that, but have no knowledge base to get more than glimpses. And partly I found it difficult because I was not quite sure what to do with the fact that a hostile reading of some of these essays could twist them to provide support for liberal, multicultural racism. And perhaps that was an important factor in my overall unease reading the book: It is ridiculous to expect in a volume such as this that every word should be hypersensitive to the possibility that it might be misread by white people. That would be a serious burden to accomplishing the actual goals of the book -- that is, centring the violence experienced by South Asian women and resistance to that violence -- and it's not like it would ever be able to prevent that misreading anyway. But that decision not to centre concern about dominant eyes made me more aware that this text was not particularly meant for me.

Anyway. Though I am not anything close to an expert, I have the sense that if you are involved in work around violence experienced by women, this could be a useful and interesting, if sometimes difficult, book. However, particularly for those of us whose everyday experiences do not give us a living, complex, nuanced understanding of South Asian cultures, I would encourage readers to be careful and critical of the frames into which we might be reading this work. And I would encourage that subset of potential readers to seek out other material to challenge our default frames on an ongoing basis.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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