Elora Halim Chowdhury comments on book, Transnationalism Reversed

Acid attacks against women and girls in South Asia have captured the attention of the global media, and humanitarian aid organizations. In Bangladesh, reasons for the attacks include women’s rejection of sexual advances from men, refusal of marriage proposals, family or land disputes, and unmet dowry demands. The consequences are multiple: permanent marks on the body, disfiguration, and potential blindness. In Transnationalism Reversed, I explore the complicated terrain of women’s transnational antiviolence organizing by focusing on the work done in Bangladesh around acid attacks—and the ways in which the state, international agencies, local expatriates, US media, Bangladeshi immigrants in the United States, survivor-activists, and local women’s organizations engage the pragmatics and the transnational rhetoric of empowerment, rescue, and rehabilitation. Tracking a multi-sited campaign over a period of fifteen years, and examining the multiple axes of oppression – globalization, patriarchy, and rising religious extremism in the region, and grounded in ethnographic work, oral history, and theoretical and filmic analysis, Transnationalism Reversed strives to make a contribution to conversations around gendered violence, transnational feminist praxis, and the politics of organizing—particularly around NGOs—in the global South.

At present, in Bangladesh, the success of the acid campaign can be measured by the creation of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), as a result of Naripokkho’s – a feminist organization’s –  negotiations with the state and international donor community. Financed by international aid agencies, ASF provides consolidated and coordinated services to the survivors of acid violence. The success of the acid campaign can also be measured by the passing of new and more stringent legislation by the government criminalizing the sale of acid without a permit and the creation of the National Acid Council with branches at the district levels. Further, the level of engagement and interest from international media and organizations reflect the present day grander scale and scope of the campaign. These successes however are ambiguous.

At ASF, the survivor-centered campaign that the activist- initiated campaign formerly espoused has taken on a neoliberal agenda, which does not always resonate with the lived experiences of the women who have endured acid attacks. The book details the life trajectories of survivors over a decade in order to illuminate the conditions which make certain women and girls vulnerable to extreme violence as well as the complex terrain they must navigate to avail services for recovery and rehabilitation.

Survivors are increasingly being treated as “clients” who are channeled into various productive schemes designed by the “rehabilitation program” of ASF. In the absence of real choices, women are actively incorporated into service positions that do very little to disrupt global, national and local systems of hierarchies based on gender, class, race and nationality. Nonetheless, it would be misleading to see current developments in the movement simply as a reinscription of power inequalities because it has facilitated the emergence of a national network of services for acid survivors. It is in this paradoxical space where women’s agency and activism is often negotiated.

This book is an exploration of the complexities, and contradictions, of gender justice, solidarity, and feminist organizing in the global South—and the ways in which these initiatives and campaigns enter the discourse of “transnational feminisms.”

By Elora Halim Chowdhury on her recently published book, Transnationalism Reversed: Women organizing against gendered violence in Bangladesh, which was recently reviewed by Eve Spangler in the June 2013 issue of Gender & Society. Click here for the review. For more information on Dr. Elora Chowdhury’s book click here and here.

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