My previous post was about how ethnography, for me, is a way of being grounded in particular contexts, of getting one’s feet muddied with the nuances and contradictions of everyday life, and building something concrete out of it.
The term ‘front-line’ encapsulates that grounding for me. In this post, I want to demonstrate what the term signifies about the work done by the front-line workers in Dharavi themselves, and then conclude by reflecting on what it means to do ethnography in such front-lines (or, alternatively, front-line ethnography).
When I first began working on the pilot study for the NGO, the term ‘front-line’ featured in a rather banal way. The ‘sanginis’ – Hindi for female companions – we worked with were simply described as ‘front-line workers.’ These women are recruited by the NGO from the bastis (communities) during intervention and advocacy sessions by the Prevention of Violence against Women and Children (PVWC) team. As work continued, however, I realized that front-lines signify more than just a neutral description. In fact, I felt it should better describe the work of the sanginis and the PVWC team.
In this sense, ‘front-lines’ denote the spatiality, or spatialization, of everyday violence and gendered violence in the bastis of Dharavi. I initially described it as a ‘spatial proximity’ to case of violence, but that was erroneous since it is difficult to demarcate sites of violence from sites where there is none. Certainly there are certain spaces in bastis where there are more regular occurrences of violence, like public toilets or small, dimly lit streets. But violence is also something that happens in the home, behind closed doors. In several interviews and community sessions, the sanginis spoke about the sensorial aspect of violence: hearing screams or cries from their neighbor’s houses; sounds of pots and pans being thrown around; or in some cases, when the woman was thrown out of the house after being physically assaulted. The ‘private’ violence would, literally, spill out into the ‘public.’
This is perhaps the most important aspect of the term ‘front-line’: that it blurs the line between private and public forms of gendered violence.
Indeed, there are difficulties in pinning down exactly what violence, or hinsa, means for the women and the community. The women – and the front-line workers – would instead talk about abuse (atyachar), exploitation (shoshan), or ‘torture’ (in English). Many would deny that a husband beating his wife was ‘violence’ (hinsa) – it was disciplining the wife, the husband loves her, after all; or, very simply, the woman would have nowhere to go, so she had to suffer (sehna).
The sanginis and the PVWC team, thus, have to continually negotiate these multiple meanings and values attached to violence, and in some cases impose certain categories or ideas (also for legal reasons). Front-line work recognizes and negotiates the multiplicity of everyday social violence. I say ‘everyday social violence’ because they also intervene in cases of structural violence of the state and bureaucracy. Although Dharavi is described as a ‘good basti’ by its residents – which it certainly is, in terms of services, infrastructure and employment, at least, compared to bastis in several parts in Eastern Mumbai, like Govandi and Deonar – everyday life is marked by structural violence that manifests itself as bureaucratic neglect (the police or municipality refusing to file complaints), or as social violence by political actors and big-men, the looming threat of redevelopment and displacement, and of course, gender-based and domestic violence.
As a concept, then, front-lines demonstrate that it is untenable to talk about violence in the singular; instead we need to speak about the ‘violences of everyday life’ (Kleinman, 2000). But apart from the spatialization of everyday violences, the term ‘front-line’ also signifies the specific kind of labor the sanginis are engaged in. Here, I find Jennifer Wies and Hillary Haldane’s edited volume Anthropology at the Front-Line of Gender-Based Violence (2011) to be extremely relevant. The text offered an exciting reflection of both my topic and work – gender-based violence and ethnography. They write:
Frontline workers can tell hundreds of stories of victimhood and survival. They can map the scope and scale of violence in their communities…They are the barometer of violence… (2011: 2; emphasis added)
In a similar context, Susan Clisby and Julia Holdsworth (2014) talk about women community workers, and their work, as a form of embodied infrastructure. They refer to
[T]he ways that women’s bodies and material actions themselves become the vehicles, the catalysts, the embodied infrastructure, facilitating access to services and enabling change and support through women’s networks…that serve to provide a framework, an infrastructure of support for women. (2014: 7; emphasis added)
What I add to the interventions above, are the specific gendered and feminized logics that the sanginis use in their everyday work in the bastis. In other words, the way in which violence is defined as an object of intervention, and the methods or tactics used to act upon it. The most important one, I think, is the statement, ‘We want to join families, not break them’ (Parivaar jodhna, todhna nahin), which is how the sanginis and community organizers (COs) usually describe their work. This helps them gain credibility with the women, men and other community institutions, who often accuse the mahila mandals (women’s groups) of ‘breaking families’ by instigating the women to file complaints. Instead, the COs and sanginis focus on things like ‘building a healthy relationship’ between family members. In a community session, Bhavanaben,* a program officer (PO), suggested that a husband ought to love and care for his wife, and while the wife should also respect him, she has the right to be free from violence.
As a feminist, when I heard this, I was left with a sense of unease, wondering whether these statements essentialize femininity as docile. But as an ethnographer, I had to pay attention to the nuances of such articulations. Most marriages in Dharavi are relations of dependency, since women lack resources, education and support networks (which is also prevalent in other situations across class and geographical contexts). This is often why they continue to suffer in violent relationships (along with a host of other structural factors like poor implementation of gender laws, discriminatory community rules, etc.)
But within these unequal relationships, there is also hope for change (badlaav). In another session on ‘Women’s Unpaid Work,’ Bhavanaben said something that, at the moment, seemed to contradict her previous statement. ‘It is your [women’s] unpaid work,’ she said, ‘that maintains the basti! Men go out to work, but they return home and eat the food you cook for them. You take care of the children and the elderly – jobs you would get paid for if you worked for someone else’ (which is what many women do as they are engaged as domestic workers). After the session I asked her if she had read anything about socialist feminism that informed her views. Bhavanaben said no, that she developed this ‘module’ on the basis of her own experiences and observations. But she seemed very excited by the fact that other ‘thinkers’ had written about it as well!
I think Bhavanaben’s statements can be thought of as a part of a continuum of feminized (and indeed feminist) logics, which critique structural patriarchy on the one hand, and on the other talk about domesticity, desire and happiness as pragmatic conditions. I must reiterate that these logics of care work and unpaid labor do not essentialize femininity and womanhood; indeed, many front-line workers, especially the community organizers, see gender itself as an unequal relationship between women and men (stree-purush asamanta). These feminized and gendered logics respond to the material, experiential and phenomenological conditions of the women in Dharavi. (I use the term gendered because I briefly interacted with a few transgender activists whose experiences of violence and notions of gender identity are different than that of other women. So I do wish to keep open the possibilities of a kind of queering of front-line work, for the lack of a better term).
As an ethnographer, the term front-line signified a specific way of doing ethnography with my colleagues in Dharavi: of being able to understand, interpret and analyze their techniques of intervention and the kind of embodied knowledges they produced. I contrast this to the more ‘sanitized’ and ‘objective’ – and very often, depoliticized, forms of knowledge that NGOs normally produce, like quantitative/qualitative analyses, metrics, outcomes, and so on (which is how one could describe my report to the NGO).
In this space, ethnography could take seriously the nuances and messy contradictions, and follow the attempt of the sanginis to make sense of the violences of everyday life in their own terms, and the ways in which to negotiate, if not overtly resist, them. This also involved helping the PVWC team improve their ‘modules,’ give feedback to their presentations, collect relevant and accessible documents on the prevalence of domestic violence, which I would translate and share with them (becoming a partial social worker, perhaps?). There were awkward encounters, too, where my erroneous assumptions about the community would clash with theirs; or when I would be asked to speak to a meeting of Dharavi residents, breaking the imagined pact of ‘objectivity’ that binds researchers.
There is still, however, a sense of confusion whether I should describe this as ‘ethnography in front-line spaces’ or as ‘front-line ethnography’ (or both?) – I invite the readers to share their perspectives and experiences.
The latter would indicate a kind of ethnography that goes beyond the academic convention – indeed, it can and should be used to describe the work done by the sanginis and COs, which I consider ethnographic in its own right. Further, this raises important questions of doing ethnography among/with NGOs and social movements. There are real risks of the depoliticization of critical anthropological perspectives, as there are of dismissing such work as unscholarly, mere activism, or as ‘public ethnography.’ The answer, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle. And these challenges, I believe, should inspire new forms of ethnographic engagement and commitments with people like Bhavanaben and the sanginis.
* I have changed the names of my colleagues
Clisby, S. & Holdsworth, J. (2014). Gendering Women: Identity and Mental Wellbeing Through the Lifecourse. Bristol: Policy Press
Kleinman, A. (2000). The Violence of Everyday Life: The Multiple Forms and Dynamics of Social Violence. In Das, V., Kleinman, A., Ramphele, M., and Reynolds, P. (Eds.) Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press
Weis, J. & Haldane, H. (2011). Anthropology at the Frontlines of Gender-Based Violence. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press