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Bumper year for feminist scholar

- Wits University

A book, international academic residency and a fellowship on the cards for Professor Srila Roy.

Wits Communications conducted a Q&A with Roy about these, the importance of multiple narratives in feminist scholarship,  juggling motherhood and academia, and advice to early-career academics.

Roy, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology has her work cut out for her in 2022 after attaining major opportunities that will advance the understanding of feminism through a Southern lens. These achievements include the publication of a new book, a writing fellowship at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies (JIAS), a Rockefeller Foundation residency at Bellagio, Italy, and a Visiting Chair at the University of Sydney’s Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC).

Professor Srila Roy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Wits University

These accolades are an acknowledgement of the significance of her ongoing contribution to the visibility and development of Southern feminisms. In addition, she is the inaugural recipient of the Global South Feminist Scholar Award by the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Section (FTGS) of the International Studies Association, launched this year. Roy joined Wits University in 2014 and currently leads a project called Governing Intimacies in the School of Social Sciences, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The project seeks to map some of the complexities of gender, sexualities and intimacies in the Global South as well produce feminist theorising on the South, from the South. By specifically placing southern Africa in conversation with India, the project has also been able to reveal the surprising resonances and dissonances in these spaces. Roy’s first book titled Remembering Revolution: Gender, Violence, and Subjectivity in India's Naxalbari Movement was published in 2012. She is also the co-author of several books exploring South Asian feminism and subaltern politics.

Can you tell us which aspect of feminism interests you and why this area is important?

SR: I am interested in feminisms in the Global South, which still exist in the shadow of white Western feminisms. I believe we need more stories of being a feminist in very many parts of the world, in struggle with many patriarchies. Otherwise, we fall easily into colonial tropes of the Global South as the site of women's victimisation alone, enabling, in fact, the making of feminist agents elsewhere, especially in the North. Notwithstanding long robust histories of feminist resistance and agency, not least in moments of national liberation and decolonisation, the Global South is not considered a site of feminist struggle in its own right. Part of the problem of the continuing dominance of Western feminism is not only the exclusion of other feminist voices and histories, but also their inevitable flattening into one singular and homogenous mass. So, when “we” in the Global South speak, it is as if we speak in one voice, thereby erasing the considerable differences and even inequalities that exist within “our” feminisms. 

My research, most substantively around Indian feminisms under conditions of neoliberalism and globalisation, advances scholarly efforts to globalise gender and sexuality studies and queer theory.

You have received three big news this year, how do you feel about this?

I feel extremely grateful for the recognition of my work and contributions, of course, and the concentrated time to write, which is the primary aim of writing residencies, in particular. But I feel especially grateful that these forms of recognition have come at the time they have. All three fellowships will take place during my sabbatical year, which I had postponed from 2020 to 2022. Given Covid, I didn't manage to apply for many things for my sabbatical (except the residency at Bellagio which I had applied for before the pandemic hit but was effectively placed on hold, given the pandemic). I should also add that as a parent to young children, I knew that certain things were out of my reach, such as year-long or even semester-long residencies abroad. So, I never applied for those to begin with. I am thus very glad for the few things I ultimately applied for and was successful at gaining. JIAS is locally situated - and hosts a vibrant community of both local and international scholars and writers - while the Bellgaio residency is for a month and the SSHRAC chair is for two. These are not too long for me to be away from my children, or to take them with. I think these are all vital considerations if you are an academic and a parent and juggling both things at once.

The Chair, the Fellowship and Writing Residency are from separate institutions, how do they fit into each other?

All of these opportunities go towards meeting the major goals of my planned sabbatical: one is to consolidate my forthcoming book titled, Changing the Subject. I am also embarking on new research in at least two directions, both of which are transnational, collaborative and comparative in ambition and scope. The first builds on a large-scale research project called Governing Intimacy, to reconsider notions of intimacy, sexuality and the archive in southern Africa. The second seeks to develop my queries into feminist resistance and protest in India in a more wider, Southern vein, by asking, under what conditions do we see a reconfiguration of the public sphere towards gender and sexuality rights issues. The project hopes to map the public visibility of women and sexual minorities in recent popular struggles in the Global South.

Has your academic interest changed over the years, if so, how and why?

Since I moved to Wits from the University of Nottingham in the UK, my interests and questions have become more transnational, intersectional and comparative in nature. I have come to realise that many questions cannot be answered in silos or through a national frame alone. At the same time, I have also come to appreciate the depths of dissonances within the Global South and how hard it is to assume any sense of sameness or indeed, solidarity. When it comes to understanding gender-based-violence, for instance, I have gained a lot from a comparative analysis of cultures of violence and of feminist resistance in India and South Africa. Such a comparative lens undercuts the hegemony of the North while offering a different way forward, not only through commonality of history and experience, but also through radical difference. Going forward, I am interested in building epistemological infrastructure in and on the South, which is feminist in orientation and spirit, through my research, teaching, mentoring and leadership. 

Tell us a about the upcoming book?

The book, Changing the Subject is about feminist and queer politics in neoliberal India. The book studies the present state of feminism in India through distinct forms of feminist and queer activism that emerged and evolved since the 1990s. A watershed decade in post-independence India, the 1990s coincided with the opening up of the economy and the introduction of neoliberal economic reforms. The book shows how queer and feminist activism was reshaped by India’s neoliberal economic restructuring, in ways that constituted the conditions for making new subjects and selves. It will be published by Duke University Press and is expected in autumn next year. 

Finally, your advice to early-career and mid-career academics?

Two things: find your people! It is always important to find peers, mentors and collaborators in the academy, to trust, share, support, and be in community with. This is especially true if you are marginalised in university spaces, by virtue of race, gender, class, sexuality, or ability (but the academy can feel like a lonely and isolating place more generally). Secondly, prioritise. As academics, we juggle many things at once, be it teaching large classes, or supervising postgraduate students, doing administrative service, or our own research. The latter often becomes the hardest thing to keep on top of. Seek advice on how best to use and protect your research time. And finally, I would say, let meaning and passion dictate what you are interested in and choose to pursue, rather than the expectations of others and even the demands from above.