Re-Fashioning Feminist Subjects: Authors’ Conversation

In this conversation, Simidele Dosekun & Srila Roy trace the ways that gender and sexuality are both highly local and deeply transnational in the current landscape of neoliberalism. Dosekun’s Fashioning Postfeminism: Spectacular Femininity and Transnational Culture looks to beauty industry and practices in Lagos to explore the tension between self-construction and media representation in a world of savvy consumption and complex audiences for women’s embodied lives. Roy’s Changing the Subject: Feminist and Queer Politics in Neoliberal India looks to two activist organizations representing very different forms of feminist praxis and appeal to the state in contemporary India that both reproduce but also confound neoliberal logics of governmentality. Dosekun and Roy, using ethnographic methods, leave feminist theory undone by their counterintuitive and even ambivalent critical moves that refuse to rest on well-worn binaries and critiques within neoliberalism. This piece is a conversation meant to draw out powerful connections between the challenging, field-changing work of these two scholars, as well as the specificity each brings to their intellectual practice of feminist theory.

With thanks to Samantha Pinto for facilitating this conversation.

Q: Both of your books seek to alter the ‘subject’ of feminism – whether that be expanding our ways of thinking about feminist struggle under neoliberalism or critically working through postfeminism without an attachment to assigning ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminist subjects. Might you each talk about what brought you to this place of wanting to rethink the subject in your work and in feminist studies? 

SD: My core intellectual and research interest is in subjectivity – women’s, more specifically black African women’s. It follows that my approach and interest is in what people have to say for themselves, how they see and imagine and represent themselves, what kinds of subject positions they take up and invest in and so on. So from the outset I conceived of the project that became the book as one that would be about the self-accounting of the subject in whom I was interested – a hyper-stylised young Lagos woman – which meant bracketing different kinds of pre-existent or ready readings and judgements of the presumed type. I wasn’t interested in reading women from the surface of their appearance. Also as a feminist practice, I tried to bracket the judgement, to resist the sexism, including my own – my own ‘feminist sexism’ but also, in the mix, just plain old sexist sexism – that dismisses women’s investment in fashion and beauty as ‘frivolous’, ‘excessive’ and so on. I try to do all this bracketing in the book, and also, even as I am critical of the positions that the women take up, I try to level the critique at the culture that produces and offers what I think are deficient and even cruel positions to women, not to critique the women themselves. I am not sure if I am successful in all this. I know when I speak about the project and therefore am being less careful with and reflexive about my words, I tend to slip into more judgemental positions and tones. All this said, I don’t think of or in the book make an argument about the women as positioning themselves as feminist subjects per se. Maybe it is splitting hairs but I guess I don’t think of the postfeminist subject, or postfeminist subject positions, as feminist ones. I don’t think of them as non- or anti-feminist either but rather as residing somewhere in the middle, as thoroughly ambivalent and contradictory. 

SR: In contrast to Simi, my work has squarely been about the production of political subjectivity, whether leftist, feminist, queer – or those selves who view themselves as being in the business of changing the world. My first book looked at a historic Maoist rebellion in eastern India as a site for the making of left-wing politics and selves in a critical conjuncture in the history of the postcolonial nation, but also how these were fractured by gender and sexual identifications, intimacies and frictions. Many of the women who were part of this moment joined ‘autonomous’ women’s groups or those that broke away from Marxist political parties and collectives in the 1980s, and it was their biographies that led me from a story of leftist self-making to a feminist one. Unlike that time which was perceived as being conducive to the making of political selves, the period from the 1990s was marked by disillusionment and anxiety as social movements were recast under India’s neoliberalisation. India’s entry into global neoliberalism had paradoxical effects for gender and sexual rights, in particular: while it generated new resources and institutional forms for feminist organising – leading to accusations of co-option and ‘NGOisation’ – it enabled unprecedented forms of visibility to struggles around sexual rights and to queer identities and lives. My second book, Changing the Subject, looks at the making of feminist – and queer – subjectivities upon this thick terrain, caught between neoliberal governmentalities which were themselves hybrid and shifting, and the new forms of relating to the self that these made possible. But the book also tries to challenge overestimations of feminism’s co-option by contemporary neoliberalism by revealing feminist struggles – and queer feminist subjects – as always both caught and free. In this way, the book tries to upend attachments – even by feminists – to pure and impure politics (and good and bad feminist subjects) by revealing Indian feminism’s entanglements in power, historic and ongoing, and how these comprise the conditions for making creative, critical and co-opted selves. The book then offers ethnographic insights into a terrain of ‘changing the subject’ but also an analytic to recognise the subject as a site both of governmentality and of ethical and creative self-realisation. 

Q: Talk to us about your (feminist) methodologies in your books – be it ethnography, media analysis, case selection and/or theoretical paradigms, how do you DO your work and/or reflect on feminist methodology (yours or in the field at large)? 

SD: I am very interested in the complexities and ambivalences of feminist methodology and reflexivity, poststructuralist especially. My book is based on in-depth interviews with 18 women, and then – not to get too technical – a mode of discourse analysis of the interview talk or texts that draws on concepts and tools from discursive psychology. All this was again informed by my interest in subject positions, so essentially the methodology consists of trying to read and locate these positions in discourse, in what people say, and to unpack their logics and rationalities and inevitable contradictions. I’ve realised recently that I don’t particularly enjoy interviewing but I really enjoy, even love, working through the interview talk after the fact, trying to figure out how we can make sense of what people are saying, how they are saying it, where the silences are and what they do rhetorically and so on. For me it’s like doing a giant puzzle except you’re making the puzzle as you go along, there isn’t a given picture you are trying to recreate or arrive at. In terms of poststructuralist methodology, for me the central challenge in the research was how to work with categories and language that you are precisely seeking to call into question, when you need those categories and terms to be comprehensible, to be able to sit down with someone to have an interview. Likewise the challenge at the point of finding and inviting women to participate in the project. How do we do so, practically speaking, if it is itself constitutive? What does it mean to invite women to recognise themselves in terms you will later say aha! they recognise these terms, names, and moreover when they are terms and names you intend to critique! There is also an ethical question here. 

SR: I struggle to call my work ‘ethnographic’ as I am not an anthropologist (anthropologists are rather territorial about their methods!) but I don’t think of myself as a straightforward sociologist either. My first two degrees were in philosophy and I only encountered the discipline – and methods – of sociology in the first year of my PhD. I suppose, like Simi, the method I most use is that of the qualitative interview, in combination with others, like observation and archival research. And like Simi, my ‘data collection’ occurs elsewhere, in India, my home (but not for over twenty years now). In the course of my last stint of data collection – via a combination of interviews and ethnography – for my second book, I realised how unsustainable it was, now that I am a parent. I made regular trips to India before my kids were born but managed only two to three robust rounds of data collection after. Of course, the pandemic made it impossible for me to go for two years straight. All of these conditions made me think how much the idea of being able to collect data elsewhere (even if in one kind of home) rests on colonial and masculine tropes of the researcher as male, mobile, childless, well resourced and so on. But there are also ethical questions at stake here which implicate all of us – and not just the white, male scholar from the metropole – who attempt the tricky business of representing others and their lives. My second book is, in part, a critique of NGO and activist attempts to speak on behalf of others, especially those who are marginalised or subaltern. But academics are no different. So, for both practical and ethical reasons, I have come to think quite differently about the kinds of methods and methodologies I might employ in ongoing and future research projects. I am also invested in writing for different publics – outside of academic conventions like the journal article – and excited to explore different types of feminist writing, like the personal memoir.

 Q: While the subfield of ‘transnational feminism’ has been around feminist studies for a long time – signalling an insistence on centring the Global South in feminist inquiry – you are both upending many of its usual pathways in the kinds of subjects and analysis that you work through in your books. Can you talk to us about your relationship (or not) with ‘transnational feminism’ as a field, method, genealogy or conversation in your work or scholarly trajectory? 

SD: I very much locate my work – both the book and more generally – within transnational feminist cultural studies, and the work of so many others in this subfield was and continues to be hugely generative for me. I understand and engage with transnational feminist cultural studies as both a field and method or analytic. It gives me a language and method and impulse for trying and also understanding the utter imperative to trace complex, variously expected and unexpected, certainly deeply structured and historicised connections between women, and femininities, and feminine cultures and commodities and so on, ‘here’ and ‘there’. I am interested in placing black African women in Africa at the centre of my work, and then following them wherever they take me. This is what I try to do in the book. I am very much interested and in fact insistent on recognising them as ‘in the world’. I am also interested in thinking ‘global blackness’ from West Africa. 

SR: When I first encountered the field of gender studies, what I most read was the work of postcolonial feminist scholars (like Spivak), which also dovetailed with the other bit of scholarship I leaned most towards – and learned much from – namely, Subaltern Studies. But very quickly, and especially through teaching gender studies in the UK, I turned to transnational feminist studies, which seemed to bring under one roof critiques of white, western feminisms and highly localised ethnographies on gender or sexuality in the Global South (thus going beyond the South Asianness of postcolonial and subaltern studies). So, even as my work has not been on obvious topics that we might associate with transnational feminist research – like globalisation or migration – it has hugely benefitted from and hopefully contributed as well to this field and the kinds of communities it hails (within and beyond the academy). The intersectional and decolonial – especially in South Africa – seem much more contemporaneous in what they enable us to see, understand and mobilise around, than transnational feminism does today. Still, I find it hugely productive and even necessary to think and teach with the kinds of questions and possibilities around border-crossing, for instance, that we associate with transnational feminism. In a time of rising right-wing populism and parochialism, across the North and the South, our thinking and interventions need to operate at multiple scales and be global, if not planetary. 

Q: What surprises you about feminist theory? What frustrates you? How do either or both of those show up in your work? Or what surprises/surprised you about your own work as it developed into these books? 

SD: One thing that frustrates but no longer surprises me is how little feminist scholarship ‘at the centre’ pays attention to work at from ‘margins’. And here I mean scholarship produced by and about white women in the global North, but also black feminist scholarship about black women in the North, in America especially, which tends to be very inward-looking in my reading. In a conversation about what title to give my book, when the publisher was pushing for the inclusion of ‘Nigeria’, which I resisted, a white feminist colleague told me frankly that were she to see a book with Nigeria in the title she wouldn’t pick it up as she would assume it wasn’t for her. She was being frank, and the point was to back up my resistance of the publisher’s preference for how to mark the book. But I was also really shocked at what seemed to me a blinkered view of things, a ‘privileged inattention’I eventually went on, in the book, to characterise this kind of thing. 

SR: Completely agree with Simi! I am continually surprised – and frustrated – by how getting a seat even at the feminist table is not a given for scholars from the global South. Moving from the UK to South Africa has made these limits and contradictions especially obvious – in little things, like how Northern scholars, often working on gender and sexual rights, will reach out to us ‘here’, to name us as collaborators on grant applications, but not invite us to public facing events ‘there’. Even the new possibilities opened up by the pandemic (via Zoom) have done little to shift these dynamics – of the dominance of scholars from elite schools in the North in conferences and collectives to citation practices and so on. But equally, I have been surprised by how difficult it is to do South– South teaching and collaboration, even in feminist spaces, within the Global South (it is hard, for instance, to teach India in South Africa). I feel quite naive for assuming a readily available site of solidarity and commensurability within and across the South. This is the tension that I hope to explore in my writing next (alongside the desire for Southern intimacies, which these tensions both obscure and provide insights into). 

Q: You are both deeply involved in creating/sustaining/participating in feminist community. What is the place of feminist community (intellectual, academic or otherwise) in your scholarship (its production or its content)? 

SD: I don’t think of or see myself as deeply involved or active in feminist community, to be honest! I am pretty reclusive by nature and also not on any social media. I am part of the editorial collectives for Feminist Theory and also Feminist Africa, although these days not so active in the latter. I have a number of very close and deep feminist friendships though that sustain me in many ways, and in one case, with Rachel O’Neill, who is also at the LSE, it includes an ongoing conversation about our work and ideas, and reading each other’s work. Rachel pretty much wrote the last two sentences of my book, when I just had nothing left in my tank! 

SR: I love Simi’s response because it is, after all, feminist friendships that sustain us, whether these can be found within or outside of the academy. As a migrant academic – from India to South Africa via a decade in the UK – I have also struggled to find a stable community to belong to or call my own (which is true of my friendships as well). And I found it particularly hard to be part of the feminist community in South Africa, given especially the fractures that emerged in the light of the student movements (which kicked off soon after my arrival at Wits). But I think the pandemic years, in particular, have made me realise that communities spread afar – with only virtual presence – are not a poor substitute for something ‘real’. I am lucky to have several communities that nourish my work and my spirit in multiple ways. I am also in a stage in my career where I can focus on feminist institution-building, whether through journal work – like editing Feminist Theory – or through mentoring students and early career researchers (which I do beyond the bounds of my own institution) or through other kinds of collaborations and attempts at community-building. Many of these are taking place with colleagues located elsewhere and are also informing the way I think of the meaning and doing of transnational feminism as an institutionalised politics and practice.

Q: What’s next for your work, or for feminist theory? What work or topic or subject do you keep coming back to, what do you look forward to reading/engaging next? 

SD: I am still working around the same themes – intensive beauty cultures, hyper-consumerism, class privilege in Nigeria – and in my next project also bringing Christian evangelicism, prosperity preaching and literal entrepreneurialism into the picture. I think there’s a fascinating intersection of all these things – and more – in Nigeria (and elsewhere) at the moment. 

SR: In the course of completing the research for and writing up my second book, I underwent some pretty major life changes, such as becoming a parent and moving from the UK to South Africa. South Africa reoriented my research goals in some fairly obvious ways. I was a South Asian studies scholar now located in a South African university, therefore it was only natural that I put these two regions in conversation with each other. Much of my collaborative work – at Wits – has taken this path, of asking questions around sexual violence and anti-violence activism of both South Africa and India, for instance, or investigating the transnational travels of MeToo to these two locales in the Global South. Going forward, I want to step back and think about what propelled this easy turn towards comparison and commensurability. More so, because my experience with a large-scale and multi-sited research project called Governing Intimacies was one of incommensurability and even discordance when it came to producing feminist knowledge in and across the Global South. So, I will be working on a set of essays that explores these questions – of comparison, in/commensurability, intimacy and discordance when it comes to doing transnational feminism in the Global South. I also hope to continue my interest in mapping the lives and afterlives of political struggle and subjectivities, in a more expansive transnational vein.

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