6 South Asian Female Academics You Should Know About
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
This list will be updated weekly
Being a Desi woman in the humanities can be daunting. Within the sea of whiteness that characterises higher-level education in terms of learning materials and underlying biases, it is altogether too easy to feel excluded from the learning process. It seems that the family is often the formative arena in which the seeds of doubt are sowed, with calls for children to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, or other relatively linear, vocational routes towards their future goals. Being ambitious and pursuing the humanities are two things that are often seen in conflict with each other and demeans the efforts of Desi women who earnestly have a passion for the work they do. Often, learning for the sake of learning seems to be a premise that is discarded entirely – and whilst it isn’t wrong to enter a vocational field, there’s always a case to be made to expand your worldview beyond what is taught in the highly-selective, elitist institution that is university-level education. The draw of the humanities is in its title, after all: as a study of human culture and the functioning of society, which in turn fashion discourses around the practices of medicine and our general livelihoods.
This series aims to instead offer a means through which you can begin to centre the life and works of Desi women in your academic career, or in your understanding of the world around you at large.
Foucault’s theory of hegemony of power should form the basis of conversations around academia, particularly in its acknowledgement of power being embedded in all manners of institutions and discourses as a means of maintaining cultural imperialism. However, theory should not substitute for its practical application – moving onwards, it is important to acknowledge lived experiences as a means of diverging from the tendency to centre conversations around philosophers who are white men, or Eurocentric in nature.
Ensuring people from all racial backgrounds have sufficient representation at this level, both within the canon curriculum and in the student/staff body is a means of combating preconceived notions and biases. By inserting Desi women into spaces in which they have generally been excluded through systemic inequality, we challenge racialization that characterise them in the public consciousness as meek, subservient or ignorant. In the present, that can manifest as Desi people feeling ostracised and out-of-place in the humanities, or even academia in general.
It is possible to ‘decolonise’ without falling victim to tokenism or surface-level change. Legitimising women in academia begins through taking active steps to centre their dialogue. To this end, this series will cover key thinkers within the humanities, hoping to educate or reintroduce Pardesi’s readerbase to these academics, as well as the tangible, real-world ways their writing can be applied. Many of these intellectuals identify and comment on the intersectionalities between race, gender and other personal identifiers that their male counterparts may be unable to provide a personalised response to. This does not mean to detract from the writing of Western scholars in particular (which are worthwhile in their own right) or hold their arguments up as infallible – and it is even encouraged to challenge the claims made, as long as there is acknowledgement of their contributions to academia. This series aims to instead offer a means through which you can begin to centre the life and works of Desi women in your academic career, or in your understanding of the world around you at large.
Gayatri Spivak is a scholar and critic, currently based in New York’s Columbia University as a professor of the humanities. Her work is most often considered within the field of postcolonial studies and within race theory; drawing on Marxist theory to consider the marginalised and the ways they interact with power in society. In this context, power is understood as the ability to influence behaviours and beliefs, most predominantly through methods such as coercion or brute force. This is particularly relevant when considering the study of postcoloniality: the coloniser is able to maintain the established power dynamic, since the beliefs and practices they imposed on the colonised nation continue to hold influence.
Spivak’s most famous essay is ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ and explores the means in which white saviorism is presented as a kindness in the face of the subaltern’s perceived barbaric practices. Here, the coloniser presumes to know best. The erasure of practices in colonised nations is related specifically to the British administration and their outlawing of the Hindu practice sati, in which a widow would throw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband.
Spivak’s essay calls on us to assess the procedures of lawmaking and whose hands they are situated in. When democracy and liberalism is presented as infallible, the established traditions of the subaltern are overwritten. This, in turn, constructs pre-colonised India as in dire need of an external influence to reshape their ways; particularly when in considerations of the treatment of women and the Dalit ‘Untouchable’ caste.
The ‘subaltern’ is a word adapted from Antonio Gramsci and his studies on the ‘subordinate’ class within Soviet Russia. The concept of subalternity goes hand-in-hand with ‘hegemony’, which constructs certain practices as normative. Hegemony today can be witnessed in the acceptance of western modes of communication – for example, the utilisation of English as a universal language in business and education exists due to the domination of the US as a global power. Hegemonic power implies something that has become so commonplace that it often remains unchallenged and unquestioned. It has situated itself in the everyday and is the result of the power of the ruling class. The subaltern comes into this as a member of the class that is subjected to such hegemonic power, and yet have no capacity to influence it in any way – often considered the ‘marginalized’ whether through race, gender, class, or any other ‘non-normative’ self-identifiers.
Spivak’s argument ultimately makes the claim that the subaltern cannot speak, as they often lack the means to access elite educative tools and institutions, in which their voices are consistently and systemically silenced. When the subaltern cannot ‘speak’ the worth of knowledge in the form of mythology, folklore, and word-of-mouth is diminished. Therefore, intellectual discourses shape the literary ‘canon’ as works of literature or philosophy that are highly elitist, exclusionary and inaccessible. This can be witnessed in action through the diminishing relevance of oral artforms, such as the Urdu storytelling form of Dastangoi, which enjoyed popularity between the 13th and 19th centuries and is reliant on the generational ‘passing-down’ of stories to adapt and improvise for new audiences.
“Imperialism’s image as the establisher of the good society is marked by the espousal of the woman as object of protection from her own kind.” (‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, p94)
“Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernization.” (‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, pg 102)
“The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish.” (‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, pg 104)
Gayatri Spivak – ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’
Mohit Agrawal for Sunday Guardian Live – ‘How a collective of storytellers is reviving the ancient art of dastangoi’
Leela Gandhi is the current Professor of Humanities and English at Brown University and also, notably, the great-granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi. She is known for her work exploring the intersectionality between feminism, Marxism and queer theory in relation to postcoloniality. Her work is quintessential for those looking to delve into postcolonial literatures for the first time – both covering a history of the study, whilst making her own interjections.
She argues that in order to perform active change, the marginalized should both be offered ‘equal access to the means of knowledge’, as well as a participatory role in the making of knowledges. Lived experience is as much a basis for academic acknowledgement as any other forms of knowledge, but it cannot be validated without diversity being normalised within the academic institution
Focusing on bonds of kinship relating to marginalized communities, she focuses on how those can be turned into a ‘counter-culture’ of sorts against imperialism. Colonialism is coded as a masculine action, set in place by male aggressors. This is especially relevant when considering that indigenous peoples of a nation often refer to their home as the ‘motherland’. It becomes the site on which violence is enacted, and colonial actions perpetually exclude women from elite society and in decision-making processes. As with many other scholars, she simplifies the world into two arenas, through the East-West dichotomy established by colonial action: the Occident (countries of the West) and the Orient (countries of the East).
Gandhi sets her work up as a critique of established work within the humanities, defining postcolonialism as oppositional in two facets of its portrayal: through the recovery of ‘marginalized knowledges’ and by bringing attention to the ‘privileges and authority of canonical knowledge systems’. In short, the primary project of postcolonialism should be to assess academic bias whilst simultaneously looking to ‘rediscover’ what the canon has overwritten. She argues that in order to perform active change, the marginalized should both be offered ‘equal access to the means of knowledge’, as well as a participatory role in the making of knowledges. Lived experience is as much a basis for academic acknowledgement as any other forms of knowledge, but it cannot be validated without diversity being normalised within the academic institution.
Her work remains important and relevant as she offers an accessible, all-encompassing means of reading up on numerous scholars and vital theory. ‘Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction’ is both informative and highly readable, making it the ideal starting-point for delving into postcoloniality and its associated fields. She acknowledges that the study of Postcolonial Theory is relatively biased in that its activism is commonly rooted within academia rather than on a broad-scale level – to which ends the intellectual has a responsibility to share knowledge, so it is not limited to the realm of higher-level education. It is also important to note the ways in which Gandhi attempts to create kinship between various marginalized groups, which can be transferred to real-world scenarios; banding together against the common enemy of imperialism.
“…the disempowerment of women has been facilitated, in part, through their exclusion from the space where knowledge proper is constituted and disseminated.” (‘Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction’, ch3)
“In writing the ‘Orient’ through certain governing metaphors and tropes, Orientalists simultaneously underwrote the ‘positional superiority’ of Western consciousness and, in so doing, rendered the ‘Orient’ a playground for Western ‘desires, repressions, investments, projections’.” (‘Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction’, ch8)
Leela Gandhi – ‘Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction’
Lecture at Stockholm Assembly, October 2013
Meera Nanda is an Indian academic based in Pune, whose work primarily focuses on theology and the conflict between Hindu Nationalism and science. Most notably, her writing speaks of how science and the guise of the ‘secular state’ has been used to justify the notion of Hindutva. Neoliberal ideologies and modernity are understood by many as the construction of the elite Hindu class, thereby sidelining its other, more ‘backwards’ populations - particularly the Muslims of India - and removing them from narratives of progression. Nanda criticizes this idea, claiming that the language of rationality and science has been co-opted by political parties to legitimise their actions.
In more recent history, following Partition, an image of India is projected to the world that is monolithic - a reactionary response that works in the favour of political parties such as the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). When thinking about India, the common tropes that come up in relation to its scientific practices are Ayurvedic, ‘all-natural’ and holistic treatments. Whereas there can still be a case for natural medicines intended to supplement, rather than substitute, other forms of treatment, the ‘Vedas’ becomes shorthand for all sciences that align themselves with the spiritual practices of Hinduism. Such a proposal is evidence of the national anxiety that permeates a liberated India - in the search for unity and identity, the nation rejects anything that promotes ‘westernisation’ or cultural dissonance.
Additionally, Nanda’s work warns of the trap of absently absorbing any information put forward using the language of decolonisation - as Hindu nationalism often turns towards academia to spread its ethos. One such case, in the context of the sciences, is that the ‘decolonisation of knowledge’ can refer to a wish to construct holistic sciences as a forgotten art which must be pushed as a way to recover what was lost during British occupation. In particular, elite Hindu society seeks to take back what was overwritten through colonial ‘Enlightenment’ - referring to the 18th century European philosophical movement that endorsed reason and secularism as a means of cultural and political progression.
Nanda’s writing is particularly important for being accessible, as well as bridging the gap between different knowledges under the umbrella of postcolonial theory. Although most well-known for ‘The God Market’, her shorter works are readily-available and varied. Her essay ‘Making Science Sacred’ is a free resource that condenses the main focus of her studies into an easily-digestible format that can be read in one sitting. Nanda often brings a multitude of perspectives and accounts into her writing, allowing her readers to understand the wider scope of her arguments and the palpable impact of Hindu nationalism on a global scale - particularly the impact of globalism and ‘outsider perspectives’ on contributing to India’s shifting image. Her writing has drawn much ire from Indian scholars who do not align themselves with leftist politics, who have accused her of being anti-India and anti-Hindu in order to appease her white, Marxist colleagues in academia.
“Why this over-eagerness to claim the support of science? There is, undoubtedly, a modernizing impulse in all religions, that is, all religions display a desire to make the supposedly timeless truths of theology acceptable to the modern minds raised on a scientific sensibility.” (‘Making Science Sacred’)
“Pride in the achievements of your own tribe is a legitimate emotion. But when pride is fuelled by prejudice against others, it becomes jingoism. Hindu triumphalism is jingoism, pure and simple. It is in fact a very dangerous jingoism targeted directly at Muslim and Christian minorities at home.” (‘Hindu Triumphalism and the Clash of Civilisations’ from Economic and Political Weekly)
Meera Nanda - ‘The God Market’
Available in print
Jasmine Joshi is a digital researcher based in London, and a recent graduate in MA Postcolonial Studies at SOAS - where she specialised in Indigenous futurities. In the past, she has written extensively on Dalit rights, non-normative sexuality and gender presentation in South Asia, and protest countercultures. The primary focus of her work is aiming to make knowledge accessible for everyone.