Rakhee Kalita Moral, the principal investigator in the project India’s Northeast: Where Women Make Up Another Tribe, revisits the HaB workshop on Feminist Methodologies that took place in April this year for the IIAS newsletter. 

The two-and-a-half-day workshop was “a liberating exercise”, as one women’s studies scholar and teacher remarked, filled with lively conversations with women’s collectives, sharing experiences and perspectives from outside the formal structure of the classroom and the curriculum. Conducted by Professor Francoise Vergès (Advisor) and Dr Aarti Kawlra (Academic Director of the HaB programme), the workshop brought the everyday life of women seamlessly into the feminist scholar’s world and provided a shared space for reflection over common concerns and issues stemming from the region’s unique context.

Our discussions in preparation for the workshop with women of different tribes and communities in the Naga Hills and the Assam-Nagaland borderlands  were initially to explore how traditional customs/practices and formal legal injunctions trigger and influence collectivisation among women in the region. My young and multi-tasking research assistant Tiachenla was largely the mover in Nagaland, without whom it would have been impossible to organise the event. Between Abantee Dutta, project associate and law researcher, and myself, some of the earlier frameworks and rationale of understanding women’s practices of resistance have since been reshaped by the revelations that unfolded through the workshop itself. However, the question that still remained pertinent and uppermost on the workshop’s agenda was: How do we do feminist methodologies in the specific context of northeast India without being limited by overarching theoretical prescriptions that typically direct many of our approaches to gender studies, and in particular women’s studies?

The workshop was flagged off by a plenary session at the Sudmerson Hall on 2 April 2018, where the background and intent of the HaB workshop – to revitalise and make relevant the teaching and learning of women’s studies courses for and by women in the Northeast – was officially recognised by university officials, especially by the newly appointed Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar of Cotton University. It was followed by a lecture by Francoise Vergès on Political Feminism in the Era of Femonationalism and Populism to a packed room and eager audience that included many students and scholars from other small and big colleges and universities in Guwahati and beyond. The public session sent out a clear message to all those present that Cotton University was indeed ready to be the initiating platform for curricular reflection and change in gender studies in the cluster of institutions of higher education in the northeast of India, and for the implications for allied research.

Kheshili Chishi, a tireless peace worker from Kohima in conflict-torn Nagaland, whose drive and commitment was largely responsible for mobilising two dozen women via overnight train journeys from the Naga Hills to Guwahati, exemplified the urgency and spirit of shared purpose that brought the 70 participants together in the workshop. Kheshili, one of the front-runners in the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), a civil society collective of the state rooting for peace with the Indian government, remains a major resource for the current project on women’s mobilisations, and has brought the author in touch with several grassroots people whose stories and struggles give flesh to a proposed publication under preparation as part of the HaB programme. Entitled, The Little Book of Women’s Practices from Assam and Nagaland, the volume is envisaged as a handbook of women’s individual and collective practices in the everyday, both in confrontation and collaboration with state, society and family. One that could feed into larger paradigms of women’s studies programmes elsewhere. Articulating the experience of being a woman in Assam and Nagaland, the handbook will document women’s decisions, personal and public, in the specific cultural and political context and history of the region.

The workshop was a reminder of the recurrent need to mobilise academia-society linkages under one common platform. And for women’s studies to celebrate womanhood (not simply the white feminist variety) while reminding us that being woman awakens the need to go past the discriminations and totalisations that erase the sense of imagining the self as being human in the world. The convergence of ideas, ontologies and epistemologies towards this end came alive as a resurgence of women’s voices, scripting a new narrative in the history of gender studies and approaches in this region, home already to several women’s peace movements and interventions in what has long been regarded as India’s troubled eastern frontier.

Excerpted from the article ‘The Cotton Spring’, published in the Summer 2018 newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies, available online here. To subscribe to the IIAS newsletter, click here

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