The Geo Interview with Prof. Shweta Singh

Dr. Shweta Singh, an associate professor of international relations at the South Asian University, New Delhi, India. She has also served as the UN Women International expert on Populism, Nationalism, and Gender as well as the academic advisor for the UNESCO project on the State of prevention of violent extremism through education in South Asia.

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

Ansh- Hello everybody today in this episode of the Geo Interview we have the privilege of hosting Dr. Shweta Singh, an associate professor of international relations at the South Asian University, New Delhi, India. She has also served as the UN Women International expert on Populism, Nationalism, and Gender as well as the academic advisor for the UNESCO project on the State of prevention of violent extremism through education in South Asia. In today’s session, we will be discussing the subject of gender in global politics. I, Ansh Tyagi on behalf of our organization The Geostrata welcome you, professor.

It's indeed an honor and privilege to have you.

Shall we start mam?

Dr. Singh- Yes please go ahead.

Ansh- Professor, Could you please share your research interests with our audience?

Dr. Singh- Ok, So my research interests, I am broadly interested in the field you just spoke about the discipline of IR so where I am coming in, and what is my entry point with the discipline of IR? I am broadly interested in what can be classified as feminist in international relations and I think what I am specifically interested is in how we study feminist IR in South Asia.

And I think within this broad canvas in terms of what can be classified as feminist IR, over the years I have been interested in the question of war and violence and when we are talking about the question of war and violence we will look into it from a feminist endpoint, how do we look into war and violence differently, how do we study war and violence differently? We have to bring people into the study of feminist analysis of war and violence. Given that there have been interesting questions of war and violence in south Asia empirically I would say that in terms of my field of research I have been focused on Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Sri Lanka.

But within this field of feminist IR within this broad thing about war and violence, I think I have taken a step further and I am particularly now intrigued by the question of Women, Peace, and Security agenda. The United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 and why is it for instance now matter frameworks like being a UNSC 1325 do not actually translate or why they are not being transmitted in the context of South Asia. I mean if we look at South Asia there are only 3 countries that actually have a national action plan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. So you know I am interested in the workings of the WPS agenda. What is broadly classified as WPS, you know Women Peace and Security agenda.

The second area which I am working on is broadly around themes of populist radical rights in gender. I think at this moment if you are looking at contemporary global politics we can rightly really say that this is really a populist movement that is dawned in terms of many centuries that we already crossed so what are the questions of gender and populism that we really need to engage with and how does gender and populism and how does our understanding of gender and populism differs in a region like south Asia and the third important area that I would say that that I am interested and intrigued by is an alternative feminist genealogy of the discipline of IR in South Asia.

I think if you all look at South Asia and if you look at the discipline of IR there has been the marginalization of women's writings and if you are looking at histories there is a marginalization of the many histories that constitute South Asia like feminist writing in South Asia. So what would be an alternative feminist genealogy of IR look like from a South Asian perspective? So for the instance, very often we tend to look at areas like Kautilya’s Arthashastra to understand the strategic culture that's something very popular but how for instance when you go back to Therigatha, a collection of Buddhist poems and start to think about questions of power or state. So I think an alternative feminist genealogy of IR and that's what I say I am interested in. So there are many areas of IR that excite and continue to intrigue me.

Ansh- Thank you so much professor, for making the subject clear to our audience. Professor, what do you think is the orientation of present IR scholarships when one argues that traditional IR concepts such as war and peace, sovereignty and power, and so on are gendered? What exactly does that signify?

Dr. Singh- Ok, good question. I think I am gonna start with 3 questions: What do you study in International relations, why do you study what you study and how do you study what you study? So these are the crucial questions that young researchers and young minds should be thinking about. What, Why, and How? And if you are thinking about the what, why, and how mostly where we will start our story from?

So if you are thinking about the discipline of IR, we tend to be, just think about if you were to begin a story, what are the keywords that will come to your mind as students of IR. Some of the keywords that might come to your mind like state, security, violence, war, and peace. And now think of some of the common images that will come to your mind like images of the battleground, military, nukes, and territorial borders match yourself and ask is this what is IR, it's just a part of the story alright?

So if you are looking at what constitutes IR you first need to problematize what is international, what is your understanding of international, and what constitutes international or global per se. And I think when you are thinking about this if I go back to my story, traditionally IR has been focussed on a state-centric analysis and how you look at the state, you look at the state as a black box - as a black box alright.

There is nothing beyond the state there is nothing below the state conventionally that is how the discipline of IR has evolved as a discipline. And of course the understanding of a very state-centric IR, you are looking at international as anarchic, you are looking at international in the context of states as rational actors who are focussed on security-centric narrative, focused on ideas and power defined by terms of military capabilities.

Now whatever I said in the last few minutes this would define what is called the way the world is or the way the world is understood through the different paradigms in IR. So there are 2 different ways of doing international relations one is to ask a question about the way the World is or tries to give an explanation of the way the world is and the other way of doing IR is the way the World ought to be. The first is explanatory and the second is constitutive. Now within this story of IR in terms of conventional images that I talked about what have you done, you have depeopled the disciplines of IR alright.

What do you do, you are looking at the state as an abstraction, you are looking at the globe as an abstraction, you are looking at structural factors, you are looking at parsimonious theories, but in the process where are the people or if I can be more specific where are the women in the international politics? You have invisiblized women in this story and now I think in this story what feminists IR scholars would do is to pay attention to the everyday. To pay attention to every day as political and hence international.

So, you actually if I can say you recentre your gaze on the everyday, you recentre your gaze on the mundane and the moment you start to recentre your gaze on the mundane of the everyday what are you really looking at is many side actors, levels, which have been invisibilized in the story of IR centered around the state. So in some way, you go beyond the state and I think in this context I just want to make the reference to Synthia Enloe’s work which talked about feminist curiosity, how do you actually visibilize?

You need to have this analytical tool called feminist curiosity for looking at what I said is called natural or traditional. Start problematizing that. I think one of the challenges with young people's lives is that they stop being curious, I think uncuriosity is very dangerous. So I think in that context start pushing yourself, start thinking about this question, does gender matter in IR and where are the women in IR? So for instance going back to this whole notion of how this discipline is depeopled.

Now start to think about war, can you really think for instance as experience and war as emotions, yes you could and that’s for instance feminists scholars like Christine Sylvester would talk about, start looking at not just states as a sight for modern violence but if you were to look at bodies as sights for war and violence, how would your analysis of the international be different.

If women’s bodies were to become the site of war and violence, how would your analysis of war be different? So if you were to look at war not just in an anarchic world but you start to look at the war in terms of women’s bodies and in terms of the boundaries markers of nations and nationalism and start to think about what war as an experience. So what I am trying to say is that obviously, you need to ask the question of why gender matters in IR, and when you are asking that question of why does gender matters in IR you need to rethink what, why, and how in IR. I hope that helps.

Ansh- Yes professor, that explains it pretty well. Professor, I want to know how masculinity and femininity are used as tools of analysis in IR as well as everyday politics in society. How should one value this tool of analysis and with what kind of expected outcome?

Dr. Singh- Ok excellent question. I think when you think about masculinity and femininity what do you need to bring back to the centre stage of analysis? Start to think about patriarchy alright. You need to understand how patriarchy plays out in terms of privileging ideas of masculinity. Who has internalized and normalized certain norms, who says that men are more rational and women are more emotional?

These kinds of binary that we are talking about here. Who says for instance, if you were to look at let’s say kitchen space, those are not traditional spaces to understand IR would you say that? What is this public-private dichotomy that you need to problematize? Why are these binaries really problematic? I think I need to take regard to Enloe again who talks about that you really need to look at this idea of feminist curiosity.

Now, what do we understand by feminist curiosity, you know how do we unpack this idea of feminist curiosity? I think feminist curiosity as Enloe would say gives us the tool or is really this notion of curiosity that provokes serious questioning of the working of masculinized and feminized and what is it doing in the process and I think this is the most important part, what does it really doing in the process? It is pushing you to rethink the sights for doing international relations or it’s pushing you to rethink for instance what, why, and how of IR. And I think that’s the most important so, for instance, you would conventionally dismiss certain spaces and how would you dismiss those certain spaces think about these words very often you know private, domestic, trivial, everyday, mundane.

You know these are words that often come up to us. They say it is natural, who says this is natural or this is private? When you are talking for instance rape, how is rape used as an instrument of moral violence? Rape traditionally was a subject matter of IR how is it that we start to look at the whole question of rape as the strategic instrument of war? So I think what I am really trying to push you to say is that you need to visibilize the working of masculinity and femininity across different sights and ask how is it operationalized in your everyday mundane spaces.

For instance, you know if you were to talk about military wives or if you were to talk about diplomats' wives or if you were to talk about private spaces or you were to talk about you, many of you would be wearing these fancy labels like Nike shoes, Adidas shoes, have you ever wondered where are they made, who makes them and how is the political economy really gendered. Think about this word used by Enloe used in a book, Cheap labor, and labor made cheap, what is the difference? You know I would just say cheap labor. Does it strike anything in your head probably not, all you would say is just cheap labor.

But said differently as Enloe puts it if you were to say labor made cheap, what are the questions that come to our mind? Who made labor cheap, and where is labor made cheap? What you are doing, you are expanding your investigative agenda. Similarly, for instance, if a woman sends her son to join the military, is she militarized? Is she part of the process of militarization? Young boys wearing camouflage uniforms.

Think about the ideas of militarism and militarization. How are they normalized in a societal context? How is it that you know, certain values that privilege masculinity, for instance? How do you symbolize strong and aggression? If I was to go back to some of the analysis that Carol Cohn has done, for instance, on nuclear politics, alright. And one of the important narratives that come in in terms of a language that is used in the context of nuclear politics, a weak nation that cannot actually, for instance, go ahead and conduct tests should go and wear bangles.

I think what I'm pushing you to think is that start to think about questions of patriarchy, how does patriarchy bring into play questions of femininity and masculinity? How does patriarchy privilege structure, an ideological system that perpetuates masculinity? And why is un-curiosity really dangerous? I think the key word here is “curious”, bringing in what is called feminist curiosity.

Ansh-That was really insightful. So moving on, how can we look at the rise of global populism through a gendered frame of analysis? What are some phenomena and trends to keep in mind in this perspective?

Dr. Singh-I think if you're looking at it, you know, around us right now, I would really say this is the populist moment in global politics. And what is populism? You know, I mean, I go back to Leclau here, populism is centered around the idea of people. Different scholars have defined populism differently. Some scholars would define populism as a thin-centered ideology.

Others would define populism in more discursive terms and say that it revolves around the idea of people. Now, when you start to think about this idea of people, I think it's interesting how you bring in gender to this analysis, how does gender intersect with populism, particularly populist radical right? It's very interesting that there is a complex intersection of gender with the populist radical right. For instance, how do women's bodies become sites for us and them? Have you thought about this question?

You know, for instance, in the populist right discourse, how do you really construct the idea of “our woman, the pure woman” because, you know, if you're looking at populism, it's the pure people against the corrupt others or the impure other. Now, when you're trying to construct these pure people, how do you start constructing a narrative which is gendered and that centers around women's bodies? And how do women's bodies, for instance, again, become the boundary markers of us and them? For instance, when Trump would talk about anti-immigration narrative, all right, go back to Trump's narrative, saving the white women from the brown immigrant, the brown Muslim immigrant maybe, or look at the discourse in South Asia, around populist radical right that’s been shaping up in different ways.

Masculinity, you know, you also have to look at the workings of masculinity in this discourse on populism. And I think what you really need to go back to is that, as I said, if you're trying to understand populism and gender, don't look at gender as a monolithic category, look at gender from an intersectional frame, so populism intersects with gender, but gender also, you know, it's not a monolithic template, and you need to look at it in terms of its intersectional relationship with differing identities such as the caste, class, religion.

So gender is not really monolithic. So we just bring in what I call an intersectional lens to the analysis of gender and populism. It's so complicated, it's hard to put it in a couple of lines.

Ansh- Professor, you talk about patriarchal ideas in the field of international relations. So, I would like to know, what are some instances in the present international governance and security architecture, which reflect these patriarchal ideas and legacy?

Dr. Singh- I think this is again, something that we really need to look at it in terms of the history of institutions itself, for instance, how do we define power in the context of international governance and security architecture? You know, just reflect on the ideas of power? More often than not power still is, you know, centered around ideas of control. Start to think about an alternative definition of power, for instance, if you were to bring in Hannah Arendt, power would be the ability to add in concert with each other. But do we really look at power through these alternative prisms? Actually, no. Now come, you know, let's go back to one of the key institutions, which is the United Nations. And let's look at the United Nations Security Council.

Now, within the context of the United Nations Security Council for the first time in the year 2000, the Security Council, you know, the UNHCR resolution 1325, was passed. And for the first time, it was recognized that conflict impacts men and women differently. And they were different. And they were four pillars that were foregrounded, for instance, participation, protection, prevention, and recovery. These 4 provisions were foregrounded as a part of this normative framework.

Today, you know, we would say that it's been 22 years since the passing of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325. And as I said, earlier, this is an important resolution, if you're looking at governance and security architecture, this is a very important normative framework. Now, as I said, right at the beginning, let's look at how this is operationalized in different countries. Many countries were supposed to adopt it, if they are signatories, they have a national action plan. Now, let me give you an example. And I'm going back going the question of how patriarchy operates. Afghanistan had a national action plan and before the Taliban took over.

In 2017, I was in Kabul and I was looking at, you know, how, for instance, the Women Peace and Security agenda is translating on the ground and is very interesting, you know, more women on the peace table, this would be a part of the WPS agenda. Now, the WPS agenda guarantees participation. But it's interesting that many women who are part of have different for instance, provincial peace committees, they were sitting on those provincial peace committees along with Ulemas and warlords.

And one of the things that they were told is, if you travel, for instance, to different provinces, you need to have a male accompaniment. Now, that's part of the patriarchal culture that you're struggling with, in the context of the workings of even normative frameworks, like 1325. Now, you put across this idea of participation, but you don't really see how participation is inhibited by patriarchal legacies that operate at different levels, global, national, sub-national, local, you know, so patriarchy is something that cuts across the different levels. And that's why I keep saying that, you know, you need to pay attention, not just to international security and governance architecture, at the level of global, but how this translates or not translates at the level of every day. That paying attention to what is mundane within this.

And another example, if I can give you since we are talking about Afghanistan, after the Taliban takeover, and we were looking at different resolutions that were passed, and you're looking at at the great powers, you know, you really need to see how, for instance, women's rights are abdicated in the name of that in the name of inches. You know, so first, there was this whole narrative, for instance, which the United States of America had in terms of intervention in Afghanistan, that they're there to protect the brown Afghan women, but the minute they start to withdraw, they abdicate the responsibility to protect the brown women. So you know, it's quite complex in terms of how it operates.

So normatively, what I'm trying to say is, there have been many firsts, you know, in terms of addressing issues of privileging masculinity, for instance, you know, different normative frameworks that you're talking about, but I think what we're still struggling with is that they continue to impinge the functioning of international governance and security structures. I hope that makes sense.

Ansh- That makes sense. Professor, What can be done to operationalize gender while studying the relationship of marginalized communities with the nation-state and international politics as you talked about Afghanistan in the status of women?

Dr. Singh: I think that's a very important question that you are asking especially in the context of South Asia and I think I always say that when you are thinking about gender in IR and this is where I think for us in the region this is an important question. You need to recognize there is no single feminist in IR, you know there's no single template to understand feminist international relations. And if you are thinking about feminist international relations in South Asia and then I'll come to your question.

If you are thinking about feminist international relations in South Asia, I think it's being marked by what I call dialogue difference and dissidents with a global knot and the idea of difference is important here. Why is this idea of difference important again what we need to really look at is that gender is not a monolithic concept you know it's not a monolithic category. Gender intersects with caste, class, region, and religion. Now the minute I start to talk about how gender intersects with caste, class, religion, and region, you need to look at the histories of postcolonial states in South Asia.

For instance, you have to look at whole politics around postcolonial anxiety, histories of postcolonial states, nationalism, not in the singular but in the plural sense, the journey and the trajectory of nationalism, and how it really intersects with gender. Not the monolithic bit but the interactional filter that centers around gender. And I think in that context you have to start thinking about for instance when you say you know how would you operationalize gender while studying the relationship of marginalized communities, ask yourself this question how would they experience for instance of a Tajik woman be different from Hazara women or Pashto women.

How would the experience for instance of a Sinhala woman be different from a Tamil woman and how you know how within the Tamil community within Sri Lanka, how within this category the experiences of a Tamil Hindu woman be different from a Tamil Muslim woman? So what I am trying to say, I am really trying to bring in this intersectional play which is really there at the margins, and when I say intersectional play caste, class, religion, region, and all of this affects the gender.

So different kinds of marginalizations that you are talking about you know and as I said that is why it is very very important that don't look at understanding feminist IR or gender IR in South Asia from a singular frame. Look at it with, your gaze should be really in terms of understanding the idea of difference and I think feminist curiosity becomes even more important when we are thinking about those equations.

Ansh: That makes it pretty clear professor. So, given the conversation we have had, what should be the way forward for international relations?

Dr. Singh: Just be curious, don't be uncurious you know, that's something I really want to emphasize and I think I am just borrowing from Enloe here, start to think about things that have been on the margins. You know, actors, issues, sights, something which you would consider as natural, traditional. Start to ask questions, and start to ask what, why, and how. Don't be uncurious, it's extremely dangerous. If you are uncurious, you need to start thinking about whose agenda am I serving, whose power am I aligning with, and why I am uncurious about it.

I am sure in many instances in your everyday lives start to think about the why what and when of those little threads that you have and would you think that there is scope for it to be international or why is it that it has not been recognized as international? For instance, I often say this, when you start to think about for instance during the pandemic- and I can go back to Delhi University - outside Delhi University, usually, there are these small stalls for tea or little nibbles around the university college; have you ever thought about how has the pandemic impacted the stall owners, men and women differently or how have they been invisibilized? What is the gendered political economy, for instance of labor?

So what I am trying to say is start being curious and visibilize the workings of femininity and masculinity and to repeat myself, don't be uncurious and expand your investigative agenda. That's the way forward, don't look beyond the state and ask the question where are the women?

Ansh: Thanks professor for that. It was extremely insightful, so I would like to end this insightful conversation with this last question which is you have such a long experience in the field of international relations, how has your journey been in the field of academia and research?

Dr. Singh: I think it's been very very enriching and I am still learning. I consider myself in the constant mode of learning and engaging with these questions. I always say that in so many ways I have learned from the field and one of the things that I always say to young people, especially those who are inclined towards the discipline of IR, is that move away from just desk-based research. Start to push yourself beyond this computer-centric research and be out there in the field. Learn from the field. So, if you are interested in questions of war and violence don't de-people IR. I would say in terms of my own journey, it has been very enriching as I shared with you right at the beginning, I started off teaching in the department of political science at Lady Shri Ram College and then I moved to South Asian University.

I think this is a very special space for me because I think if you really want to learn about IR and the region, this is the space you have to be in because I think, what do we understand by South Asia, how does South Asia play out in the global, you see that in your classroom and what’s better space than your classroom spaces to learn from the young mind. So it's been a very very enriching journey.

Ansh: We will try to learn from your experiences professor.

Dr. Singh: Thank you so much Ansh. It's been wonderful engaging with your team, with you, with Asish, Harsh, and Pratyaksh, and more power to all of you in terms of taking this work forward. Good luck with everything!

Ansh Tyagi: Thank you so much, professor. It indeed was our honor and privilege to host you and we are looking forward to hosting you sometime again.

Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page





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