On Identity

Identity is a result of a social norm. Hence, it exists outside of a human being.

Identity is generated in relation to another human or thing. An identity comes into existence once one can identify ourselves as different from another human or object.

To illustrate the example of identity as being outside of a human and not within, in the sense that it exists in relation to another being, I shall use a hypothetical example. Suppose that you are all alone, stranded on an island like Robinson Crusoe. You have always been like this, alone since you can remember. Now, if someone were to ask you who you are, you would not be able to understand the person since you don’t speak the language (another social fact in the Durkeimian sense.) But let us imagine that you speak the language and you are suddenly asked by something, like god or some voice from the heaven, as to who you are. You will not be able to describe yourself in relation to other human beings, like saying that you are a brown woman, you are French or Pakistani, because these things won’t exist.

One of my students argued that there would still be a “core” identity to this stranded Crusoe. She argued that the core would tell you, if you are stranded, to not kill another human being. But there is no other human being on this island, and if there would be one who suddenly enters the island, we cannot be sure that this “core” would tell the stranded Crusoe to not kill the person.

The Crusoe would still exhibit behavior similar to humans in some sense (like hunting because of hunger) and would develop an identity in relation to other objects (like trees, stones which don’t move, and animals). So there would be an identity, but not in relation to other humans. And this identity would still be a construct, outside of our Crusoe.

Another of my students asked why she can identify herself as different from her own childhood self? For example, you are naive and stupid when you are a baby and now you know that you are smarter than the baby you were, that you are different. The distance here is time, I argue, and this distance makes it appear that we are different now from our selves in the past. This again goes on to demonstrate that identity is a construct; that while you do remain the same physically, you can still differentiate yourself from who you were in the pictures of your childhood.

Notes from the discussion class I teach at Sciences Po Paris, Spring 2017.

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The becoming of an Other

I have tried for a while to give words to how I identify myself after having spent last 7 years in France. Can I put myself in any national category? Am I Indian? Am I Parisian? Who am I in relation to this new space I inhabit?

As I have sought for a space to belong for the last few years, I have discovered a fascinating space – the space for the Other.

There are no set rules on what one does when one comes to this Other. One only needs to not be the natural. I have learnt to speak the new language, but there will always be something crooked about the way I place my words or the way I will smell of harissa and spices like many in the RER B train that passes vertically through the Paris region.

The Other is a place for those who cannot make any claims to being natural, either using a biological excuse (like the skin color) or a cultural excuse (like the kind of clothes one wears). The sense of natural, used often in terms like naturalised, give a scientific uniformity to what one can be so that one is natural. 

The Other is not the un-natural. It is not the opposite of natural. On the contrary, it exists because of the natural, in complement to the natural. The Other almost looks like a natural outcome of the existence of natural. 

The Other is an inclusive place created out of a grander exclusion. The inclusion into this Other is a continuous reminder that one shall never be the natural.

The Other is a dream land that lets you rebuild a home, but on the periphery of natural. You build a home in relation to the natural, in an attempt to be the natural. You buy the cheap replicas of the leather boots from the Chinese store around the corner, color your hair blonde.

Then, you go out and criticize the natural; the next day, you wake up and criticize your neighbor because you speak natural better than her. You are now integrated. You are now the naturalisé into the permanence of the Other.

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Men, Cows, and Sluts: Public Space in Ahmedabad

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I am a woman. I happen to come from a middle class family and live in a rather middle class Hindu neighborhood in Ahmedabad. The Shiv Sena colony of apartments lies right opposite to my apartment.

Ahmedabad is divided into two: the east, which is rather poor and considered dangerous by the middle class west, mostly because of the idea that it is rather Muslim dominated. The west is mostly Hindu. The Sabarmati river, fed into by Narmada waters, divides these two. Until I was 17, the most east I had been was to my school on the other side of the bank.

I did not know what public spaces meant until I went to France, where I began to see them as a meeting place of town or city dwellers irrespective of their socio-economic background. These spaces could be public transportation, or the many parks and squares that become neutral grounds for encounters. These are not temples that I visited on Sundays growing up in India, nor parking spaces of apartments that are segregated to the sub-caste and where I spent my childhood playing with other kids (where I live in Ahmedabad would not allow non-Gujarati non-Hindu families to rent or buy apartments because they would potentially cook meat and hence destroy the “purity” of the living space.)

So once I decided that I wanted to, as a woman, claim my space in this absent public space, I entered as a slut. I was surrounded by men and cows as I walked through the traffic and the million stares that I dared not look back into. These stares were those that told me that I had, by the very act of leaving the covers of my household, deserved to be stared at, and become a public entity to be observed, objectified, and vulgarized. I stopped being a human; I became an object. I am now an object every time I close the door to my house, for then I become an object of my neighbors’ vulgar curiosity. As I go down the stairs, choosing not to take the elevator, I am judged for my femininity. As I walk alone from then on, deciding which direction to take without a male to direct my beastly spirit, I have made a complete conversion to a slut. I am now an object that is devoid of any moral considerations.

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Against women upliftment?

Feminism came to me as a white woman dressed in a pink short dress with perfect nails and brightly painted lips. I was 12, with big glasses and pimpled face, sitting in Ahmedabad. Never in my life, I realised, would I be able to carry that pink dress with my maternally-inherited curves. So I rejected feminism.

I had to relearn what feminism meant to me when I went to the US as a young 15 year old exchange student. It made me look at myself and search for why I feel the way I do about my skin, my body, my hair, my strange accent.

But I had to see myself as exotic to explain my role in the society as a brown woman. Feminism didn’t provide me answers to the problems I faced continuously at home in India, in the society in which I felt I needed to belong, and fight to belong, just because I wanted to.

I found a solution: I needed to “uplift” myself and my neighboring women, but lift us up from where and what? – I did not know. Women needed to be empowered in my poor country; empowered because they had been suppressed. But what if the men had climbed up the stairs they shouldn’t have? Why did women have to do the climbing to fight the oppression? Why couldn’t men climb these stairs down to the place where women all sat together discussing anything – movies, sports, family, or politics – and have some chai.

Declaring that where men stand in the society is the utopia that women need to achieve, I felt and continue to feel, is like using a war to fight the war. That we as women enter this fight on the rules set by men, I have found, is against the very idea that the feminist movement should stand for.

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The Transitioning

A lot has changed since the last I wrote here. I now have a career teaching and I am also transitioning from a field to another: from economics to sociology. For many who have known me, this transitioning has not been surprising at all. I am the only one who seems surprised.

I am now able to take some distance from a field I am preparing to leave, ie economics. I taught a class last semester at Parsons of The New School fame (the Parisian campus) on political economy. We read the basic texts of Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and Keynes. Along with these, we also read some texts that set my critical thought towards economics rolling (one of the most important texts being The Use of Knowledge in Society by F.A.Hayek). At the end of it, I would have been fooling myself if I were to continue in economics, for I was not willing to give up on the theory and analysis to be fancy with numbers that the mainstream success and acceptance in economics demands. I had numerous discussions about the field and the prospect of the transition with my friends and colleagues, whose frankness I am grateful to. I realized that I did not want to spend my life trying to find the best identification method for my parameters, that I wanted to treat these parameters as humans, and not look at simultaneity problems in my analysis with scorn. My equations were to all be endogenous if I were to study society and human behavior, so I had to look beyond.

Accepting the need to transition was important both to maintain my sanity and to continue my rather halted (according to my view) academic career. I went through a very depressing process of applying for graduate programs in economics where I knew my fit in the department was a big zero. I still pushed myself, anticipating only disappointment which came later. Now it shall be round two (or round one in a way).

I have also tried to understand how much of my personal life should intersect with that of my life in the public sphere. I have come to realize that it shall be a topic of continuous negotiation and that nowhere shall I find a constant answer. This has been important especially in the context of teaching (and in the context of writing and publishing now and in the future) where I always tend to use, albeit in a critical way, pieces of anecdotes taken from my living experience. For example, one of the very first academic articles I published was about the Catholic missionary schools I attended in Ahmedabad. I know that I have written less (which is unfortunate) mostly on the pretext that I was potentially causing harm to people who were close (like my family members for example) through criticism of the norms of society(ies) I grew up in and society(ies) that I am a part of, especially by being a migrant.

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A woman economist? You have got to be kidding!

I was once told by my grandmother that I don’t look as intelligent as I am.

I didn’t know how to react to the comment, but as the years have flown, this has come to explain a lot in my life.

I love numbers. In an ideal world, I would have probably been studying mathematics and philosophy. I have come close enough to the ideal. With some odd noise that events in life have thrown in, I decided to work in social sciences. More precisely, in economics.

When I decided to study economics, I thought it put together a few things I loved and cared about. I could understand human life through numbers, not like those biologists but more in the sense that you could throw in some bombs and see how humans react (this is in sarcastic reference to controlled trials of development policies that has surfaced as a form of mass produced academic work in the field; for example, you choose a set of people in a village and give them $10 and see how their consumption changes compared to another group that is not being subjected to this sudden chance to additional money). As my boyfriend jokes about it, we are a generation of 9/11 so this odd fascination continues. And since peace is a far away dream for now, I will have enough to work on.

I landed in my first class in economics, with professors that were male and the noise in the classroom that was male and I felt that I needed to be weak because I was not a male. I didn’t talk about code-writing or the amazing article published in Financial Times. I didn’t even care about it. I was fresh in Paris from a crazy year in Beirut and an oddly-timed stay in Cairo and I would have been more interested in talking to you about how stupid Beirut Souks is.

Coding is an important part of economics. And so are the fancy models that I took my happy slow time to understand. I can handle them but I must say that I am not a fan of them. I believe that they are a starting point to an economic analysis, but it can never be a good body to it. Economic models don’t explain an economic phenomenon, rather they try to imitate a simplified version of the reality.

But I have a funny face. It is all brown and colourful and if with this face I were to tell you that yes I can play around with Stata (a quantitative software) and surely there must be something I could contribute to this grand field of economics, you will not take me seriously. Even in my head, I cannot take myself seriously. I am almost used to being seen as a joke. And I think that there is something wrong here. And I think that here is a point that would explain why women self-select themselves out of the field of economics.

I spent the second year of my masters in pre-PhD track being awkward in a mostly male class. I went around having coffees with academics who advised me to move into anthropology, sociology, political sciences, anything but economics. We were told that finding a job in Development Economics was like catching a white rabbit. It sounded scary but I still don’t understand what it is supposed to mean. So I spent my time convincing myself with my funny looking face to stop thinking of putting Lebanon or Syria or Egypt into my economic models. The data was little and bad they said. I can ascertain that this is true about the Middle East, but how long are we going to keep excusing ourselves from it?

I had my periods of happiness I must admit, where I toiled with data and came up with my own models to understand odd economic behavior. I loved it. But most of my time during my study was about self-shaming. I later sold myself wrong to a job in a fancy international organization where I was hired for the sole purpose of unpacking for them the complex brownness of myself. India is so big that everyone seems to be baffled by it, especially in the academic world. So I was there to be exotic, especially with my big nose-ring. At some point though, you get tired of being exotic and so you stop playing exotic and then your job takes a downturn and voila.

Since it’s the Nobel prize season, I will end on a noble note. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel has been awarded 47 times to 76 Laureates between 1969 and 2015 and only once has it been awarded to a woman.

Update: I continue to meet with researchers in my field of study for coffees. When I tell them that I am quite decent in econometrics, they usually look at my face as if I was cracking a stupid joke.

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Morality as a Battleground between Women and their Right to Will

Everywhere I go, I seem to be welcomed with the same question: why are there so many rapes in India? I have been harassed to a point where I was forced to accept that there was some form of evil that lived in the uncivilized lands where women drape meters of cloth around themselves as if to hide. Gun-throat force comes all the time, for the belief that our brown skin and an odd English accent makes us characters of ancient barbaric stories rather than humans existing in the realities of 21st century is too deeply rooted behind the questions that come. I have denied and continue to deny all these theories of evil, for I have come to believe through my travels and different encounters that deep down somewhere, everyone is good.

So what is going wrong in India? Going back to my habit of story telling, I shall recount an incident. I found a part of an answer to the recurring question about a year ago, when I took my 20 year old brother grocery-shopping with me in Ahmedabad. We went over to the hygiene section with sanitary pads wrapped in all colors and I asked my brother what they were. He got a bit shy, said it was some feminine thing but had no clue what and how and where it went.

The anatomy of one sex remains a myth to a large number of humans of the other sex. This is true for both men and women, in varying degrees across different regions and culture. India has a particularly sad culture of ignoring sex education (sex-ed). I remember that we completely skipped the “reproductive organs” section in our biology class in 9th grade. And I was in an all-girls school for goodness’ sake! One would want to believe that this would have led to more conversation on the anatomy of the female organs, but we were told to pretty much shut up. As I have written in my previous post, I grew up not knowing what exactly a period was, much after I was already menstruating.

Gender segregation is everywhere. In my mixed-gender high school, girls sat in a separate row and mixing was seen as wrong. I once ventured and sat in the ‘boy’ zone, only to be preached by a teacher about it being wrong and how I had adopted the “American values” while my time in US to shun the “India morality”. Women walk with women, men with men. Men hold men’s hands, women hold women’s. Menstruation is kept tightly hidden along with bras and female panties with odd red stains. Living in the same small house, women are still a myth to men.

To this monstrous myth along with the rising hormones and void of characters to desire comes racing the flamboyant Bollywood. With female presence always translated into nude mannequins with bodies that imitate the desires of the Occident, the Bollywood industry finds it easy to believe that it is the gatekeeper to the great modernity that awaits India at the foothills of Hollywood. For a film to be successful there needs to be an ‘item song’: a semi-nude woman dancing among horny men while saying No to their lusty desires which are to be interpreted as a Yes. All India Bakchod, a comedy group in India, came up with a great satire video for this recently. Consent in India is taught by Bollywood, and it is taught all wrong. If a woman says No, it means a Yes. Sexual harassment and assault to me, with my experiences as a woman, have come to be an attempt to translation of desires as painted by main-stream Bollywood to reality.

The rising value of portraying oneself as a moral being through the obsession over purity has led to women being understood as semi-humans, if humans at all. They are deprived of their right to will: a will to freedom, a will to argue, to express and find equal space in the public sphere. The very act of willing is seen as a sign of moral depravity, as a sign of their lower fertility for some and lower caste for others. This idea that a woman who wills to say no and who has desires of her own is lower in fertility relates in a way to the idea of their “blood” being of a lower value, hence of her being of a lower caste. It goes back to the tradition where men from high caste could take mistresses from lower caste for they were ‘not worth in their blood value of any human dignity.’ This practice continues, with the presence of women in public sphere marking their ‘low worthiness.’ Added to a tradition of myth surrounding the stories of Kali and Durga, the non-understanding of women’s bodies and a culture of pride in this ignorance makes this subjugation through patriarchy rather easy.

To understand this idea of purity that constitutes the pillar to understanding not only the position of women within the Indian society but also the political and social dynamics, I have explored morality in my previous posts “The Odd Rise of Morality in India” and “India’s obsession with purity.” This idea of purity as a signal of morality within the Indian public sphere shall only increase in its importance with the rise of the middle class in India, a class that has never existed before. This birth of a class has needed an ideology, and this ideology has fed and continues to feed itself on women. And no economic development is going to save us women folks.

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