Reinventing the Archive – a postcolonial analysis of feminist activism in India and Ireland

Helen Sunderland

Last Tuesday, the Gender and Sexuality History workshop heard from Dyuti Chakravarty, a PhD student in Sociology at University College Dublin. Her research compares two contemporary feminist movements for ‘bodily autonomy’: ‘Pinjra Tod’ (Break the Cage), a campaign against gender-discriminatory policies in Delhi universities and student accommodation, and the campaign to Repeal the Eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which secured two-thirds of votes in the referendum in May.

From the outset, Chakravarty showed this was a personal story. As an undergraduate, she experienced the curfews placed on female university students in India first-hand, and actively campaigned to repeal the eighth in Ireland. Personal connections aside, the comparison between India and Ireland is a well-established one. Chakravarty’s paper engaged with the gendering of colonial relations in both countries and the reframing of Irish and Indian womanhood at the heart of anti-colonial nationalist discourse. Bringing the richness of this historical context into a postcolonial analysis of contemporary feminist campaigns is a real strength of the project.

Moving disciplines, Chakravarty explained, gives more methodological freedom. With a background in History, she feels more at home in Sociology, a discipline she has found more receptive to innovation in archival methods and the use of theory. Chakravarty’s approach uses a postcolonial archival method to create collaborative, living archives of the campaigns she researches. Her work engages the women involved in the two campaigns directly to give voice to and record their experiences. For Chakravarty, this is a challenge all researchers should take up, not just sociologists or those working on contemporary history. Other projects are taking a similar approach, such as the Translating Latin American Feminisms project at the Feminist Archive South. And over the last year, I’ve seen numerous invitations on social media for activists to donate their materials to archives – to preserve their experiences of the People’s March, Women’s Marches and Repeal the Eighth campaigns, to name just a few, for posterity.

This call to ‘reinvent’ the aPicture1.pngrchive challenged me as a historian of the nineteenth century to place more emphasis on the archive as a site of epistemology. All records give gendered, selective narratives and we, as researchers, shouldn’t shy away from methodological innovation in the archive just because alternatives like oral history aren’t possible. How can we create ‘collaborative’, subversive archives when are historical subjects are no longer alive?

The dialogue between the present and past ran through the discussions that Chakravarty’s paper stimulated. Members of the workshop reflected on the place of religion in the narrative and the influence of US organisations and financial support on the Repeal the Eighth campaign. Interesting parallels were made with the contemporary context in Nigerian universities, the gendering of university spaces in late-nineteenth-century England and even some of the more archaic rules still in place to police visitors to Cambridge colleges today.

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