Monday, August 07, 2006

Used Bodies

Photo: Daultabad Village, Haryana, India (August 2004)

I haven't had a chance to blog in a while as I've been absorbed in writing my thesis (FINALLY!). My thesis title for now is "Using Bodies: Negotiating Reproductive Health in one Village in India."

The following is an excerpt from my DRAFT of Chapter 1:

This thesis explores how the Indian state shapes women’s bodies, how the place and space of the village shapes women’s bodies and where these processes correspond and diverge. For example, women may access an illegal abortion against the wishes of the state and in doing so, be committing female infanticide, conforming to village patriarchal preference for sons. The goal here is not to untangle this messiness and suggest that women are either conformist or resisting, but to highlight the everyday strategies employed by women and in doing so to emphasize the spaces of hope created by and with bodies.

In terms of these performances of resistance and conformity, I refer to what Hynman and de Alwis (2004: 552) call the “calculated presentation of self in everyday life.” While these authors speak in reference to survival techniques of Tamils moving about in a Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka, recognizing intentional performances of people can be applied to understanding the ways in which women negotiate their sexual and reproductive wellbeing. Highlighted in the sociological work of Goffman (1959), this view of individual performances as deliberate mechanisms for adapting to different social settings differs from feminist approaches to performativity presented by Butler in her seminal work, Bodies that Matter (1993). Butler views performances not as calculated and/or premeditated but as reiterative acts based on socially constructed scripts within what call “‘regulatory fictions’” (Butler, as cited in Hyndman & de Alwis, 2004: 550).

Hyndman and de Alwis combine the theories of Goffman (1959) and Butler (1993) by showing how “identity is enacted through regulatory regimes that expect certain performances from specific people” (2004: 551), but these scripts can be subverted. The authors demonstrate the ways in which people’s tactics “sometimes make explicit and at other times disrupt the interpellatory scripts of Butler's regulatory fictions by acknowledging the everyday survival strategies of people…” (2004: 553). With this view of performance, Hyndman and de Alwis illustrate spaces and places of and for individual agency, which are downplayed by Butler. Butler writes that performances cannot “be a human act or expression, a wilful appropriation, and it is certainly not a question of taking on a mask; it is the matrix through which all willing first becomes possible, its enabling cultural condition” (1993, p. 7). Combining Goffman’s humanistic, agency-oriented understanding of performance with Butler’s poststructuralist one enables recognition of people’s individual intentionalities within a socially produced context of regulatory frameworks and scripts. Indeed, feminist research shows that people use their bodies in ways that are simultaneously resisting and conforming.

With this understanding of calculated subversions of governing scripts, it is possible to recognize that women are both produced by and produce their sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing. The concept of choice in the activist claim for reproductive rights is therefore problematic. Dominant discourses on sexual and reproductive choice and rights, which I examine in detail below, make simplistic and often false assumptions that the provision of reproductive rights and choice with a liberal human-rights framework can ‘free’ women from existing, gendered regulatory frameworks (Viswanath, 2001).

Following performative theories presented by Butler (1993), my work shows that while women may act in ways that rearticulate dominant social systems of heterosexual reproduction, dualist gender roles, male dominance, and so on, they also act in ways that subvert these systems in subtle, yet critical and often intentional ways (Goffman, 1959). While an apparent lack of individual options and freedoms for these so-called ‘third world’ and ‘poor’ women could easily be construed as disempowerment, the women I present here demonstrate intentional defiance of laws and norms that do not mesh with their sexual and reproductive intentions. Within sexual and reproductive health regulatory fictions produced by the village and the state, women find alternatives in both discreet and overt ways, using the “geography closest in”, their bodies. In presenting women as actively opposing state and village imperatives, however, I also do not wish to gloss over the overwhelming oppression that most women in India face.

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