Tag Archives: feminism

“Seeing Like a Feminist” Book Should Be Required College Reading

Lady in the Ivory Tower post by Lakshmi Sarah on May 6, 2013 – 11:43am; tagged academiaacademicsbooksIndia.


Some books are easy to read, yet stay with you long after you’ve finished the last chapter. Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist(Penguin/Zubaan, 2012) is a timely work that explains a complicated subject without over-simplifying it.


When one “sees” the world like a feminist, Menon writes in her introduction, it is like “activating the ‘reveal formatting’ function in Microsoft Word. It reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete.”

Reading Seeing Like a Feminist made me think: what if we all, especially in academia, thought like feminists? What would the world look like then? To be a feminist is to understand the position of the powerless, as Menon writes, “to imagine occupying the marginal, relatively powerless position with reference to every dominant framework that swallows up the space at the centre.”

Menon is a professor of political thought at Jewaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. whose previous books include Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law (2004). She divides Seeing Like a Feminist into six main chapters: Family, Body, Desire, Sexual Violence, Feminists and Women, and Victims or Agents. Menon relates each of this big issues to a simple dynamic: choice.

The book is definitely aided by Menon’s position as a woman who has lived with India’s legal and cultural systems. As she points out, the Indian penal code criminalizes sexual activity that is “against the order of nature” (whatever that means). Menon’s perspective is powerful, precisely because it is based on feminist scholarship and debates in what she calls “my part of the world.” She highlights many non-Western assumptions and goes beyond other Zubaan books that have a historical focus. The book looks “directly on the gendered nature of power.”

In the end, like Rainer Maria Rilke’s quote on loving the questions themselves, her aim is not to provide answers, but new questions. Menon wants each to shift her or his lens. To see like a feminist is “not to stabilize, it is to destabilize. The more we understand, the more our horizons shift.”

If only Seeing Like a Feminist was required reading for all college students—and professors.


Read the rest of this guest blog series on feminism in academia.

Q&A with an Editor of Race and Class in Academia Anthology Presumed Incompetent

In my last post, I explained my love for the new anthology Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Using personal narratives, empirical studies, and scholarly essays, over 40 different authors discuss the challenges faced by academic women of color in higher education. I emailed with Seattle University School of Law Professor Carmen G. Gonzalez about what it’s like to put together such a meaty and long-overdue book.

How did the idea for this book come about?

CARMEN G. GONZALEZ: As women of color who have managed to survive and thrive in academia despite formidable obstacles, we (the co-editors of Presumed Incompetent) felt a need and a responsibility to create a public dialogue about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of workplace bias women of color experience.

Despite decades of struggle to achieve workplace equity in academia, both women of color and white women face daunting obstacles. For example, a recent study found that female faculty in the United States on average earn 6.9 percent less than men in similar academic positions.

At each full-time rank, women are hired at lower salaries than men, receive less career support than men (such as research leave, relief from service work and research assistants), and are tenured and promoted at lower rates than men. The statistics for women of color are particularly grim. Women of color hold only 7.5 percent of U.S. full-time faculty positions. But even this low number is misleading because women of color are concentrated at the lowest faculty ranks.

Those who differ from the invisible and largely uncontested white male norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, presumed incompetent as teachers, scholars, and participants in faculty governance.

In other words, it is necessary but not sufficient to increase the numbers of women faculty of color. What is required is a transformation of the culture of academia.


What was the most surprising thing you found through your research?

The most surprising thing for me was how difficult it was to articulate the role of class in the experiences of women faculty of color. Our book focuses on the intersection of all three. But when one faces workplace subordination based on several intersecting identities, it can become difficult to tease out what part is due to gender, to race, to class, or to sexual orientation.

We don’t talk about class in the United States despite the fact that the United States has among the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world and the lowest rates of upward mobility.

Women of color from working class backgrounds face enormous obstacles—not only due to material disadvantage, but due to the alienating nature of academic culture. Without family members who can help them decipher the opaque rituals and expectations of academic culture, academics from the working class are essentially navigating without a map. They often struggle with isolation, with the disorientation of stepping into middle and upper class worlds, and with the nagging sense that they have abandoned their communities of origin or “sold out.”

How do you believe we, as a country, community, and world will be able to overcome overt and covert sexism and racism?

I don’t think we will begin to overcome overt and covert gender and racial bias until we stop pretending that we live in a “post-identity” society where race and gender no longer matter.

Only by talking openly about racism and sexism, in all of its manifestations, in all of the institutions that affect our daily lives, will we understand it, deconstruct it, and overcome it.

Lady in the Ivory Tower: If You Pack Only One Book, Make it a 570 Page Hardcover on Race and Class

I brought just one book to India: It was a 570 pages hardcover on race and class. It is true, I did consider that it could be used as a weapon or a seat if needed. Still, it got me through a 30-hour train ride. I call it my “survival book”—without it, the long, hot days of travel would have been unbearable. What would your survival reading be?

Before embarking on a trip of any extended length, many of us privileged enough to read this screen have an important choice to make—what book to bring? Yes, of course, those who have a kindle or tablet can essentially pack an endless number of books in their bag. But for those of us who prefer print or can’t afford the alternative, choosing the one or two books to haul along with us is a crucial decision. What did I choose on my most recent trip? Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012, Ohio University Press) was the book whose 570 pages would keep me company throughout my trip to India, and help me sort out my thoughts as I delved further into academia by drafting a Ph.D application.

It’s rare to find a book worth hauling across a foreign country. Though I was a bit embarassed at the weight of my bag, Presumed Incompetent deepened my understanding of the challenges women in academia face.

Presumed Incompetent has been four years in the making and maps a history that mirrors the history of higher education in the United States. The book’s more than 40 essays examine the working lives of women faculty of color. Using personal narratives, qualitative empirical studies, and scholarly essays, the authors discuss challenges that stretch beyond pay equity and overt sexual harassment. The book focuses on resilience in the face of adversity and developing supportive networks, as well as what academic institutions need to know to improve the tenure process. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, a prominent figure in Critical Race Theory and current professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School said, “It reminds us that the mere passage of time is not enough to create equitable workplaces for anyone facing institutional subordination.”

You can preview the book here, I suggest picking up an actual copy. I do not necessarily recommend picking up an actual copy and hauling it around India, but in my experience, it makes not only a good seat but also an excellent mental support.

If you were to pack only one book for a long trip, what would it be?

Lady in the Ivory Tower: This Bridge Called My Back and the Backs We All Stand on

Bridge Called My Back

The new year brings with it new resolutions, fresh thoughts and affirmations, new ways of thinking of ourselves and the world around us, and a general feeling of possibility in the air. In all the newness that surrounds inaugurations and New Year’s parties and trips to the gym to stay true to that one resolution (at least for the first month), sometimes we forget where we have been. We forget whose backs we are standing on and how we came to be where we are now.

On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1963 March on Washington, it is a good time to reflect on that iconic oration, but it is also a good time to remember the lesser-known prompt delivered by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who stood on stage with King. As the story goes, she urged from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream,” prompting the from-the-heart part of King’s speech. So, sure we all remember and were taught about many of the men at the forefront of the civil-rights battle. But what about the the ladies who also came before us?

There were women we seldom hear about, walking through university quadrangles and classrooms in an attempt to blaze their way beyond the ivory phalluses of the university (those white heteronormative spaces that they still are). Though women have achieved so-called parity under law, there are many spaces in which equality is yet to be seen, and academia is one of them.

The purpose of this blog series is to offer a feminist response to the culture of academia, including the experience of working, teaching, and researching within academic institutions, with a particular focus on women of color. Women’s rights, racial justice, and institutional sexism are tightly interwoven, and Lady in the Ivory Tower will examine those intersections with an eye toward making them clear to everyone. When you walk into a conference space, for instance, or an academic space, do you count the people who look even remotely like yourself? Do you think about the structure of the space and whether or not it includes those who identify as queer or women with children who might not be able to afford a conference-weekend’s worth of childcare? Do you consider whether or not the space is accessible for those with disabilities? If you don’t, you may be part of a privileged majority. No shame, no guilt, just an awareness of your positionality is all I would ask for.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were both refused seats at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 because of their sex. In the 1920s, Barbara McClintock was prevented from majoring in genetics at Cornell University because she was female, so she majored in botany instead. No big deal: McClintock went on to be a founder of the field of cytogenetics and was awarded the 1983 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine.Anna Julia Cooper became one of the first three African-American women to complete a PhD in 1925. Since she couldn’t enroll in a doctorate program the United States, she graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris.

Fast-forward to 1981, when the anthology This Bridge Called My Back offered up an the work of a handful of women of color in academia, providing stepping stones to understand intersectional feminism. At the time it was written it was, as Nisha Agarwal put it in a Huffington Post remembrance, “a vermilion ink bloom on the crisp white wedding dress of the U.S. feminist movement.” In an effort to blur demarcations between intellectual and disciplinary spheres, and expose “the un/speakables,” as coeditor Gloria Anzaldua would say, for this new year and this new inauguration let’s not feel uncomfortable being women in the academy. Let’s live in borderlands and in acknowledging the backs we are standing on, resolve to help those around us be the bridge to their own power.

Mindy Kaling is a Role Model For Everyone, Not Just Women Of Color

This article originally appeared in PolicyMic.

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Mindy Kaling might just be the new role model for all of us. Notice, I do not say; Mindy Kaling is the new role model for Indian women. If we are going to say she is good, let’s give her credit for being more than just “good for a woman” or “good for an Indian” or “good for a woman of color.” The truth is Mindy Kaling is both witty and smart.

Mindy Kaling (whose name at birth was Vera Chokalingam) stars in The Mindy Project which premiered on FOX in September.The Mindy Project tells the story of the eternal search for career balance and a love life. While the show plays into some of the stereotypes of Indians in America (of course she is a doctor), it also expands on the Indian playing the token Indian. She is not a token at all. Let us rejoice, we have a women of color as the lead character! When was the last time we had that? Margaret Cho andUgly Betty’s America Ferrera are the only two names that come to mind.

Though success cannot be measured by Facebook likes, and Twitter followers alone, Kaling has accrued 111 thousand facebook likes, over 2 million twitter followers and has written her ownbook. She is both writer and star of The Mindy Project. As New York Magazine describes, “every detail of the set, has had to pass through Kaling’s brain and reflect her unique worldview as a self-described ‘chubby’ 33-year-old Indian-American female comic by way of Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dartmouth College; and eight years as both a writer and a cast member on NBC’s The Office.”

Kaling’s inspiration for her character comes in part from her mother, who was an OB/GYN. Though Kaling may seem like she is new in the TV scene, she has been a writer with The Office, since 2004. Over the course of her time at The Office, she wrote 24 episodes, directed two episodes, three webisodes and received an Emmy nomination for “Niagara,” which was co-written with The Office creator Greg Daniels.

What about the fact that she is Indian? Does her country of ancestry support or detract from her character? She managed to get through the first episode of The Mindy Project without any overt Indian references, which can be seen as a positive or as a negative depending on your perspective.

Kaling does add a dash of race humor, but not in a way that excludes her myriad of fans. When a car nearly runs her over as she is drunkenly riding a bike, she screams “Racist!” But, beyond that one line there is no mention of race. According to Kaling, she isn’t interested in having her skin color, or her gender define her. “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists,” she tells New York Magazine. “I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?”

So how is Kaling’s character portrayed beyond a woman who struggles with balancing love and life? New York Magazine describes Kaling as “disastrous but still hopeful at love.” In the show, she plays into the age-old metanarrative of a woman searching for a man. But at least she has a job (more than we can say for Hannah on Girls). Kaling goes beyond the preteen-esque youngster as portrayed by Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on New Girl. She’s found her life path, she has had sex with more than a couple of people, and she is confident.

The Mindy Project feels like a more honest version of Sex and the City. As New York Magazinewrites, “Both the mainstream and the marginalized can identify with her; by defying easy categorization, she’s become the contemporary Every-woman, both a Mary and a Rhoda.” A perpetual rom-com in sitcom form that provides the audience with something we can all almost relate to and a lead character we can all respect both on and off screen.

Kaling should perhaps be everyone’s role model. A successful person realizing her dreams. I look forward to seeing how the real Kaling, as well as her character in the Mindy Project end up.


Women Banned from Using Mobile Phones in Indian Villages

The article originally appeared in Global Voices.

A village council in the Indian state of Bihar banned the use of mobile phones by women in the Sunderbari village, roughly 385 kilometers (239 miles) east of Patna, the capital of Bihar. The population of Bihar is 104 million, larger than any European country and one third the population of the United States.

The most recent ban, comes after a July ban on mobile phones for girls in the Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh. This was followed by a ban in August on mobile phones for girls under age 18 in Jhunjhunu district’s Udaipurwati in Rajasthan, according to The Times of India.

In Rajasthan, the ban was issued so that girls would not be “spoiled” by excessive use of cellphones. In UP the ban on mobile phones also included a ban on women under the age of 40 going shopping un-escorted by a man. Overall the bans target women’s freedom and mobility. A local resident said:

It has been observed that mobile phones have given ‘unnecessary’ freedom to girls, which is distracting them from following our culture. The Panchayat’s decision will be followed strictly in the village as it has been accepted by all.

Photo courtesy of Gayatri Agnew

In the most recent case, in Bihar, the village officials claimmobile phones were “debasing the social atmosphere” by leading to couples eloping. In recent times the “elopement” from these villages have been increasing rapidly. The council has also imposed a fine of 10,000 rupees ($180) if a girl is caught using a mobile phone on the streets and married women would have to pay 2,000 rupees ($36.60).

Jagmati Sangwan, vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said that the men who head such village councils “want women to get cut off from the processes of modernization, education and employment.”  She said they that such laws, targeting only one segment of society, are not legal, according to India Ink.

As Techdirt reported: this is not about “eroding the moral fabric of society”, but about power, and in particular the erosion of traditional male power in the village.

Local officials have begun investigations saying such bans cannot be allowed in a healthy society.

While some twitter reactions from India have been surprised at the ban, and seem to blame it on the predominantly Muslim population of the village, religion does not explain bans in other regions of India.

@Against_Pseudos: Islamic Sharia!! Muslim dominated village in Bihar, Sunderbari, ban girls and women from using mobile phones!

@HeathaT (Heather Timmons): A ban on cellphone use for women & girls in rural Bihar shld spark a write-in campaign to Bihar tourist office: RC http://nyti.ms/TECSFd

‏@subtletea (Sameer Khandelwal): Indian Village Bans Unmarried Women & Girls from Using Mobile Phones. Why not ban it for everyone, irrespective of gender or marital status?

Kavitha Rao notes that mobile phones may be the single most empowering technology for Indian women. In other areas of Bihar, mobile phones are being used by activists and social workers to work on areas such as health and education and it contributed to results such as decrease in maternal mortality rates.

A couple of years ago Contador Harrison Wanarua wrote on a news of a similar ban on mobile phones for unmarried women in another part of Uttar Pradesh:

Only an neo-colonial mentality person can fail to support local women’s rights group criticism of the measure as backward and unfair.

Mobile Phones have played a tremendous role in helping ease communication among people and one cannot discriminate in the use of these contraptions on the basis of sex. If effected this could be a national shame to all mobile industry players…

On Facebook Sethi Mushtaq writes:

This is the real India and not what their Bollywood projects it to be worldwide :P

Let’s hope the real India stops restricting women’s freedom and mobility.