Stories from the field

A third key contribution to postcolonial theory is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (1988): the outlawing of Indian women’s practice of sati by the British colonisers is examined to find a gap in the historical record. Hence Spivak illustrates a lack of a people’s history of India and argues that the subaltern ‘native’ is thus a creation of the British colonial administration of the time, which is today reproduced by western scholarship that serves to erase specific voices by reinforcing the notion of universal subaltern (Judd, 2014).

Subalterns’ histories have been erased (Pal, 2016), yet Pal shows how contemporary subaltern discourses challenge dominant western neoliberal ideals by asserting more politically-just ways of organising society. This point underpins the central argument in the story from the field that follows. In this short film interview, Dr Vandana Shiva, the renowned scholar and environmental activist, discusses the effects of colonising practices and how her organisation in India is working to challenge them.

Project researcher Avilasa Sengupta [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] : an interview with Dr Vandana Shiva

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Transcript: An interview with Dr Vandana Shiva

Ma’am, in today’s world, where the whole idea of feminism and matriarchy is seen as a binary opposite of the patriarchal society that we have been living in, how does Navdanya manage the conflict between the social rules that are practised in India and the women who are associated with Navdanya?
Because Navdanya is founded with the philosophy of a living Earth, as well as the recognition that women are the ultimate experts on living with the living Earth. And this work was defined as non-work. Their knowledge was defined as non-knowledge.
To overcome the artificial and violent duality of capitalist patriarchy, that led to, in the early stages, a very reactive feminism, a feminism that wanted to be like the patriarchs. And Maria Mies and I, who have written a book called Ecofeminism, called it the ‘catching-up syndrome’.
It’s a bit like cultures like India – so sophisticated, so rich, so ancient – trying to prove that they can build bigger highways than the West, when building highways was never the end of our civilisation or bigger buildings. It was about letting life flourish. That’s why Tagore called us an ‘Aranya Sanskriti’, that lived from the forest and learned from the forest. And therefore, he started Shantiniketan as a university of the forest, saying the brick and mortar does not create life and will not give you the knowledge of life.
So the old feminism basically was used by capitalist patriarchy. There was this American advertising model, Betty Crocker, who was in advertisements in the ’60s and ’70s on liberation from the patriarchy.
And so women became the first consumers of bad food and promoter of industrial food in the language of liberation. I remember the big global companies got a report written by McKinsey, whose title was called Fayeda [Benefit]. And the first line was, ‘Only 1 per cent of the food in India is processed.’
And that was at the World Economic Forum. And Gupta of McKinsey was coming down the escalator. I’m going up, and he’s complimenting me on my talk. And I’m saying, ‘I can’t compliment you on your report, where you’ve written “1 per cent of the food is processed,” as if women don’t do any work.’
And he said, ‘Oh, you want to keep women in prison in the kitchen.’ I said, ‘No. It’s just that we don’t want you to steal our kitchen and our food.’ And so we need to overcome the division of labour. But with the overcoming of the division of labour, we also need to defend that which is central to life.
And doing that is what Navdanya does. We say men also should be in the kitchen. We don’t say women only should be in the kitchen. We say everyone should be in the kitchen.
The kids should learn how to cook a little bit. We have a little chef’s programme. And boys should learn how to cook. Why only the girls? This is the way we reclaim, both vasudhev katumbakum [‘the world is one family’] and women’s rights in the context of vasudhev katumbakum.
What is Navdanya’s approach to the central idea or the traditional idea of domination and subordination that exists in our country? And how does it work towards promoting justice and social equity?
So India is such a pluralistic society, and particularly in space and time through history, as well as in different parts. I’ve grown up here in the Garhwal Himalayas. Women of these mountains are the ones who created cheap food.
The women of these mountains grow the food. They’re in the field. They are the knowledgeable ones. So I’ve grown up knowing that women can be farmers. My own mother was a feminist before the word ‘feminism’ was created. My father was a feminist. So I have not assumed that we live in a society where domination is inevitable. Yes, it’s true that there is structured domination. And I’ve always said there’s a structured domination of religious patriarchy that created certain roles for women and certain roles for men.
But there’s capitalist patriarchy, which invades into our very bodies with poisons. Capitalist patriarchy doesn’t even allow us to have autonomy over our bodies. It doesn’t allow us to have autonomy over our food, our farms, our knowledge. And therefore, I’ve always looked at the multiple levels of patriarchy, and as I’ve written in my book, Earth Democracy, what we are getting is a convergence of the worst form of religious patriarchy and the worst form of capitalist patriarchy, creating new codes of conduct on what women can do and what women should do and what humans can do and what humans should do and what nature can do. And we have to break out of all of this.
So very, very often, I realise the dualistic mode of thinking has so overtaken our thoughts that if you point out to something that is an unjust domination, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, so you’re justifying religious patriarchy?’ No, I’m not. I will never subject myself to that – but if this is killing us …!
I was at a jury: 2000 women, victims of violence. And I’ll never forget sitting on the stage and the women in the hall, one by one, they are coming, mothers of girls who were killed, all mothers. The mothers are coming after the death of their kids, the children.
And this woman said, I also lived in a patriarchal society. But my husband did not dare lift his hand. Physical violence was not allowed. Division of labour, of course, but not physical violence against women. It was just unheard of in our times.
And now it’s treated as a norm. And the rapes of two-year-olds, two-month-old baby girls, where’s it coming from? It’s coming from a mutation that has taken place in our social norms. And we cannot take the current brutality and make it part of our history throughout, because we are mutating.
And that mutation must be dealt with. The best of our traditions – we are the tradition that has given the world a cosmology of the divine feminine, of Shakti, Prakriti. Go to Odisha, go to Bengal – she’s there, alive, fully, in the hearts of everyone. That is what has to be celebrated.
End transcript: An interview with Dr Vandana Shiva
An interview with Dr Vandana Shiva
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Activity: Dr Shiva interview

Watch the interview of Dr Shiva and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Define ‘religious patriarchy’ and ‘capitalist patriarchy’ in your own words.
  • Do you see Dr Shiva’s ‘philosophy of living earth’ as a form of decolonisation? How does this work?
  • What practices with nature can you think of that offer marginalised communities a means of empowerment?

We recommend that you keep notes of your answers to these questions so you can return to them during the course.

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Together, the three pillars of postcolonial thought – Said (1978), Bhabha (1994) and Spivak (1988) – unpin what are understood as the ongoing problems of postcolonialism: the discursive production, subjugation and erasure of the Other to reinforce the dominance of Western thought and practices. These are complex ideas but they are fundamentally important in order to begin to understand how colonialism has created intergenerational traumas that scar current and future generations. With such a theoretical understanding, researchers can empower themselves to identify and develop research methods to decolonise.

It might seem from reading this brief introduction to postcolonialism that colonisation was a thing of the past. It is not. Today, some peoples, particularly indigenous peoples feel colonised by postcolonial governmental and neo-colonial organisational practices that use their powers to gain – or retain – ownership of or access to their ancestral lands and retain policies that continue to erase their histories, subjugate their cultural ways of being and disavow their knowledges. Decolonial research methods seek to empower such marginalised and disenfranchised peoples, bring their knowledges to the fore, and contest the dominations that seek to suppress and potentially erase them.

The key text, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) focuses on establishing a radical research agenda to engage researchers with indigenous community activists, and to empower indigenous researchers to draw on their cultural knowledges rather than on Western philosophical ideas. This therefore, raises the question of who can and should undertake postcolonial and decolonising research. The award-winning author, Alexis Wright (2016), discusses how, for too long, the stories of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were told by non-indigenous researchers and writers, and with that paternalism came misinterpretation, misrepresentation and mythmaking. As such, the outcome was a sustained disempowering discourse of Australian indigenous peoples’ inability to overcome extreme disadvantages that informed government policies that intervened in their lives (Wright, 2016).

The narrative has begun to shift only recently, with subaltern and indigenous voices being heard in policymaking and academic debates. This is one reason why leading scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Aileen Moreton-Robertson call for, and encourage, more indigenous researchers. This is not to the exclusion of non-indigenous decolonial scholars, but any researchers who seek to engage with marginalised communities, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, need to understand the historical and cultural contexts of participants’ everyday lives. This is because the scars of past colonial violence remain unhealed. Research that does not understand and respect this, risks reopening old wounds and perpetuating marginalised peoples’ traumas.

Postcolonial and indigenous management research