Body Politics in Development: Interview with Wendy Harcourt

 Body Politics in Development: Interview with Wendy Harcourt

 Wendy Harcourt

Professor of Gender Diversity and Sustainable Development

International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

(For complete interview - watch video)

Dr. Wendy Harcourt is a professor of gender diversity and sustainable development at the international institute of social studies of Erasmus University, Rotterdam. In the interview, Dr. Wendy talks about her book “Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development” and provides a deeper insight into the concept of body politics and gender. She talked about body politics, the complexity of social experiences, and gender development in the contemporary world. Reflecting on her experience as a researcher and as a person, she discussed gender as a social and political construct.

In November 2021, I interviewed Dr. Wendy Harcourt to gain a deeper insight into the concept of body politics and gender. This interesting talk is based on Wendy’s experience as a researcher and as a person. She talked about body politics, the complexity of social experiences, and gender development in the contemporary world. 

Azher Hameed (AH): We see that feminism may be interpreted differently in the mainstream field of studies, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, and even in gender studies. How do you see the understanding of gender biases in feminism, and how do you interpret these perspectives in your book ‘Body Politics and Development?

Wendy Harcourt (WH): It is important to remember that the book was written after my own experience. I did my Ph.D. about 20 years ago, and then I have been a part of advocacy work in development with a focus on gender. To some extent, I lived through how development went from the sort of women and development in Europe to the women and development, and gender and development. I think we, to some extent, were always being very critical of how people were being divided into what was naturally the women did or what naturally the men did.  So, this is a very basic kind of bringing in the idea that there were many, first of all, different genders, not just men and women; but also, that it depends

on the context and positionality according to how gender roles played out. I was learning in practice and what I was seeing is the difference between feminist thinking which was much more radical in some ways and much more embodied and how that was interpreted in development policy and text. So, in that sense the book itself is not going into, let's say, ‘disciplinary’ approaches. I guess you could look at it and see. Well, of course, there was a sort of idea of the society and social understandings of gender and very important gender power roles. And then there is also an anthropological interest, because it is also about place and where people are in their different cultures; and to some extent, an economic concern around how women lack access to resources, etc, that could be seen as sort of concern around economic rights and underlying human rights. So, the book itself is a reflection more of the places or the moments in time, where I saw this critical difference between what women's movements and feminist movements were doing and what was being interpreted in development policy, rather than trying to link up with I would suppose more sophisticated arguments around what is gender, what is the body, etc. Although in the first part of the book, in a way I revisited 20 years later some of the things that inform my Ph.D. which was looking at when gynecology and obstetrics were established in the 19th century. So, I am a historian as it happens. So, in some ways, I have a very historical way of looking at things because I see change over time is very important, also when you are looking at concepts, including concepts of gender. And I am also very interested in the different narratives around gender rather than saying there is a particular theory that I should hold on to. I am quite able to see very many different ways of understanding gender, and I would say that in that way the book is engaging as an outsider to academe, although it is an intellectual discussion around what gender or what is the body, and what is body politics.

AH: Yes, I had a chance to read this book, and I found it very interesting. When you say ‘body politics’, how do you define and situate this term, particularly within the dominant gender theories? Do you see any interconnections that can be used to give an interdisciplinary perspective on body politics?

WH: Interestingly, you are looking into interdisciplinary. Again, the book itself, I mean I am not saying where I am now, but the book was written because I was trying to explain, why I think the body and the way people experience and understand different forms of oppression or different possibilities as well, is often left out in development. So, at that particular time, I was very much in development policy and mainstream development. I think that of course, the book is also tracing how that changed. So again, just to get away from the notion that it is interdisciplinary, I do not want to put, and I think a lot of feminism does not want to put things into categories of, this is anthropological, this is sociological. I think the main thing is that I was trying to break down the idea that the most important thing is economic development. I think we have to see that as a key reason for writing the book, and that the idea that you can only measure development. I was also trying to say, you can feel and experience development on your skin, and at the same time, I was also saying that this is where it is a sort of philosophical thing. You know women are seen as the other to men many times, and we want to break down that dualism. And indeed, in development, it was like the idea that you would add women into what was already existing programs around how to so-called empower women through engaging them in a workforce as if they were meant not taking into account all the other forms of social reproductive labor that they're doing. So, the book itself in a way is really at where those quandaries happened in relation to, for example, domestic workers and the question of how we bring those lives into understanding development. Also, about the women who have been put through, so-called those days, population programs where they are being encouraged to have contraception or become infertile through operations after they have had their child, often without choice. Even men also decided to encourage men to have vasectomies, and this was famous in India in the 70s. So, it was also considering whose choices and who determines what is the right choice for women. I could see the body there was somehow excluded. It was all about the number of children you want, or it was all about what was considered healthy. It was not actually about the embodied need for some women in terms of themselves or in terms of their community to have children, because that was also how their status could be established. I was asking those sorts of questions, perhaps later as I have gone into academia after writing the book. I could start to say, well this was as I said earlier, anthropological or sociological or economic. But I was trying to get a sense of body politics as itself an important thing to look at the body, how you experience development, and what sorts of practices were around the body that was often not even discussed or seen as invisible or not important to development because it was all seen in terms of economics.

AH: Yes, it is interesting. I did ethnographic research in southern Punjab in Pakistan, working on the childcare belief practices and the social value of the child. I interviewed the childless women and the mothers, and I found that in Pakistan or the global south maybe, if I generalize, the women who have children, become ‘women-beings’, and before that, they are just ‘women-becoming’. So, fertility is seen as a sort of token of social visibility. Pakistan is an overpopulated country, so people cannot afford many children. However, childless women think that if they will not have a child, they will be seen as a failure at the social and economic levels. They will not have a social network, and they will not have access to several resources. So, I just wonder that when you use this understanding of body politics, do you see any difference between the global south and the global north?

WH: You have just pointed to exactly what I was saying before the concept of being able to have children give status to particularly economically marginalized groups of people; but also in other contexts as well. So, I think there is a difference and one of the things that I would probably do differently now is to be able to listen more. Well, I travel a lot and that was one reason that I was able to think about these things and see things in different contexts and talk to different people. But certainly, there is a difference. You would see that in Sweden where you are now the idea of equality, for example, is understood very differently in terms of access of women and men to different resources including choices about whether they have children or not, and it is not seen as a status or a way in which you identify yourself. It is an additional thing to your life; it is a real choice. Indeed, the government allows for men to be on paternity leave as much as women. You do see men looking after children and wanting to be part of that; whereas in other, let us say in the global south context, you would see women being responsible for children, and that not being part of how you perform as a man in that society. The thing that I was trying to get at is that, yes, of course, it is different in different contexts, and you have to look very deeply into each context to understand it. Just to say Pakistan, there are many different groups in Pakistan. If you're living in Karachi, it is going to be very different, as compared to if you are living in a remote tribal rural area. All of those things we somehow know, but the one thing that I was trying to say is that we need to be able to talk about development as an aspiration for more justice, for greater social justice. Then we also have to have ways of talking about how the gendered body is allowing or not allowing people to have these aspirations right. I am Australian, although I have been living in Europe for many years. I am white, and I have been privileged in all these things; there was still a sense in which I was connecting with different women, just because I traveled with my children. I mean there was some sort of thing where my sense of being female and body, even being able to have children did determine how other people saw me. So, I was also interested not in that as a universal experience but just that was something that was not a part of the development policy as it was seen. Yes, too many people, well you said it yourself, we have too many people rather than women being able to aspire to equality or justice, but somehow because of their reproductive function or the type of availability, they were expected to have children. They were not seen as being able to participate in the really important things in development. So, I was interested in trying to critique and try to get to say that the body is part of development, and these sorts of positionings of different bodies were excluding people just because of the gender they had. It is very hard to undo that if people do not talk about it. That is, I think what I was trying to get was to put body politics as a political topic, something that you need to change, you need to talk about, and you need to listen to people who are feeling oppressed. It is not about health, and it is not about whether you can have children or not biologically. It is all the social, cultural, and economic constructs that you see when you compare Sweden with Pakistan that I am sure you do in your experiences.

AH: Right. It is indeed a great deal of learning. One question that is more relevant to the gender and consumer market is that when we visit the market, we see clothes classified as male and female clothing. It seems quite explicit that even children can differentiate and prefer gendered clothing for them. I am just thinking that if the products that mean to cover the body are classified into gendered categories; do you think that if it will be a gender-neutral product, the consumer market may be negatively affected?

WH: I think that’s a fascinating question. I mean one thing is that I am not sure what ground am I on here; however, obviously clothing is also about identity. It's also about being desirable. It can be super enjoyable when you dress up. And a part of it is sexual attraction. So, I would say, it's not only about genders; it's also about a sort of hetero normative idea that you dress for the other gender. So, what you do see in queer fashion, they dress differently. I remember the Eurovision contest run by an Israeli singer who had a beard, very beautiful with a beard; and then wearing a woman's dress. It is making you question what that is? So, I think we're also breaking down a bit what is male, and what is female, at least in this sort of body politics. I think that is highly political when people are dressing not to look as if they are men or women. Right, I mean then there are some things in between. So, I know that blue jeans were seen as a thing that all people could wear. The original jeans were workers’ jeans, and then that was adopted by everyone. I've seen over the years how jeans have gone through all sorts of fashions. When I was young, one could buy Levi jeans or Lee jeans, at least in Australia, and there was no difference between jeans for men and women. Then they started to make those differences because jeans became what everybody wore. It was something, that when I grew up, it was a sort of thing to show that you would have said ‘cool’. Now it has become not, particularly a fashionable thing, but it has all sorts of sizes, and different shapes, which are meant to fit different shapes and bodies. So, it's not only about women and men but also if you're tall or thin or curvy or whatever. So, fashion is just moving in so many ways, getting us to consume in different ways. So, I see fashion as not only about gender, but also about getting people to buy, and to go beyond looking different in that sense. I think age is very important here, depending on how old you are, what kind of clothes you can wear. So, it's not only gender but also what looks appropriate. Also, what kind of job do you do? So, there are all sorts of things that clothes are showing, not only gender but also your status, your identity. Not only because you can afford to buy something, but also because you're in an office. You should have unspoken rules. Nevertheless, you're right, I mean, especially when we're all watching and seeing pictures of Afghanistan now. And the main thing with the Taliban is that the women have to cover themselves. Interviews with young women find that oppressive, and yet at the same time, you can also see that is also a part of a culture and a way of being, that you know is much more important. You have to look at all the other things that go with it. So, clothes, yes, I think they're important but they're also significant for other issues which I think are even more important. I remember when I was going to places to speak, I always asked what kind of clothes would be appropriate for me to wear. And I didn't only mean in terms of being a woman, I also meant in terms of, you know, is it okay I wear jeans, or should I wear a long dress? Should I cover it? Should I have a scarf? So, I agree with you it's very gendered in that sense.

AH: Right. Well, the last couple of questions now. When we say men and women, I mean the first thing that we need to differentiate is the ‘biological’. I mean you find someone as man and woman biologically different.  Do you think this biological essentialism is that because it is seen as universal, or it is universally interpreted into gender? Or more of it, it is differently seen in different countries, because if it is not universally interpreted into gender, then we cannot have generalized policies to mark gender equality everywhere.

WH: Yes, I suppose it's not about gender, as gender is not just about men or women. It is also about hijras and people who relate to them as the third gender. So, there are indigenous cultures in Indonesia, North America, and also in Australia where people are seen as neither women nor men, and they can often be seen as spiritually very important shamans or whatever. So, I think first of all dividing people into men and women is not universal and gender equality is not about that. Gender equality is about saying that whatever gender you have, you should have equal access to resources, have the same rights, and have the same dignity; all of those things that development aspires to. In that way, I do embrace if you like this fourth wave of feminism which has helped us see that it's important not to divide in this what we understand as a biological body, as either male or female.  Some people of course are born with different kinds of genitalia, but that's not the point at all. There are very many different ways in which we construct genders, not only related to the body, but that's also just one way of understanding differences. That's why we started talking about femininity-masculinity and also seeing that there are many genders in between. So, I think that's important to recognize it not as a Western concept, but as something that has come out of many different cultures, and there are a lot of studies about it in cultural anthropology or medical anthropology. Now people are starting to see well actually it's not just some sort of strange abnormal thing repeated in different places, but it has been tabooed or hushed up. Particularly if you look at homophobic laws that have been put in, it has also been a very particular historical moment of the British empire or in the African states or even to some extent in the Indian and Pakistani context, that is a particular way of understanding gender, which has a very historical moment and that is not necessarily related at all to how people live their everyday lives.

AH: Right, and when we say that the women come into the protest in Pakistan or other countries, and they say, ‘My body my right’. And in that way, they can deny having children, but on the other hand, we see that in countries like Pakistan, it is difficult to survive if you don't have a child. It gives you empowerment, and it gives you access to the resources. So, do you think that feminism fails there or something?

WH:  No, I think that's where again, there's not one Pakistani woman or one Ugandan woman or man for that matter. It depends very much also on class, age, and also on religious and ethnic beliefs about what sorts of choices you might make. I mean some women make choices to be nuns, and they have a lot of privilege. I mean the same with men. So, I think we have to be careful not to make big assumptions and I think, one of the things that have happened since I wrote the book is this concept of menstrual activism, I wrote in the book a little bit about it, and the idea of menstruation being a taboo in the way. I also talked about female genital mutilation and the importance of talking about these sorts of issues which were so difficult at one point. And in terms of menstruation, that's something the women from the global south have become very vocal in saying that it shouldn't be seen as dirty or something shameful and I think that's something that is also very important that we're looking at this kind of body politics which has brought to the fore what was silenced and something that women were meant to bear. I think that these sorts of feminist protests are really important as well and these are very recent. It is something that I have learned a lot from my Ph.D. So, there are things like people saying that women should be able to wear what they want to wear, and not be seen as being raped. I mean something like black lives matter that black people have the right to be where they want to be without being seen as immediately criminal. So, it is not only about as I say gender, but it is also about other issues, and I think body politics is a part of it.  

AH: Well, it is a great deal of knowledge talking to you. Thank you very much, Wendy.