On October 14, 2011 I interviewed the Religion Graduate Student (RGS) for the fourth time, so she had now been working on her dissertation for a year and a half. Her project was still moving in fits and starts. Over the summer she had gone through a rather rough stretch, in which she entertained a lot of doubt and uncertainty about the overarching theme of her work. After reading her 50 page first chapter in the middle of the summer, her advisor John Raines suggested that she was not “writing where her passion is”.
Acknowledging this, RGS went back to texts on globalization that she was most interested in — by Stiglitz, Sachs, Sen, and Wallerstein — and began reexamining her ideas. The chapter had looked at the second wave women’s movement from which religion had been expunged, but it included no references to globalization. The books on globalization made no reference to feminism and religion. She began “looking for the gaps” in the conversations on feminism, religion, and globalization and she returned to the Nationwide Women’s Program (NWP) archive to see if these sources might provide some explanation. She found that the notion of progress seemed to be embedded into each of these narratives in important ways.
By the time we met RGS had realized that she would probably end up using very little of the 50 pages she had submitted during the summer. On the other hand, she had a good fall schedule that left her free on Tuesdays and Thursdays and she was getting up each and every morning to work on her dissertation between 6 and 8. Though she had not written a lot since the summer, she was ready to push ahead. The “full body dissertation” routine she had tried to establish when she began in early 2010 had flagged a little: for exercise, she was walking now instead of running because, as she explained, it was harder to talk herself out of walking. She was now hoping to finish her dissertation within the next six months.
(I found myself wondering if she had passed through that “dark night of the soul” that all seekers of knowledge encounter just before the dawn.)
(Listen to previous interviews: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
Professor Patricia Melzer is the author of a new book titled Death in the Shape of a Young Girl: Women’s Poltical Violence in the Red Army Faction (New York University Press, 2015). By focusing her study on the Red Army Faction (RAF), a West German terrorist group which had many female members, including leaders, Melzer complicates our contemporary understanding of feminism and violence. The RAF committed acts of assassination, bombings, bank robberies, and kidnappings from 1970 to the early 1990s in order to challenge what it saw as the West German state’s support of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy.
While contemporary feminism is closely linked to positions of nonviolence, this was less the case at the founding of the Red Army Faction, where patriarchy shared responsibility with economic and political structures for women’s oppression. As feminism narrowed its focus to patriarchal violence – especially the personal physical abuse of men against women – the nurturing role of women and the importance of nonviolent political resistance became more essential to feminism’s understanding of itself.
Melzer also analyzes the ways German media portrayed the lives and acts of these terrorists through a gendered lens that was very often inaccurate and misleading. This placed the contemporaneous German feminist movement in the delicate position of trying to respond to the misrepresentation of female RAF members while distancing itself from their terrorist acts.
Juxtaposing feminism and violence in the Red Army Faction offers valuable insights on the nature of the modern women’s movement. I spoke to Patricia Melzer on April 4, 2016.
During the 1950s the young Indian nation faced immense challenges but was, as Professor Priya Joshi explains in this interview, still innocent and optimistic. By the 1970s the bloom of youth had faded as Indians suffered under widespread political and economic corruption and malaise, most visible in the 22 months’ “Emergency” which gave Prime Minister Indira Gandhi the power to limit democratic governance and civil liberties. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, India charted a new course of economic liberalization that led to dynamic growth and increased engagement with the rest of the world.
In Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy (Columbia University Press, 2015), Priya Joshi chooses these three historical periods – the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s – to illustrate how, in critiquing the state, Bollywood blockbuster films have performed a kind of “social work” for the Indian nation. Popular throughout India and globally, Bollywood films feature a rich mixture of romance, comedy, melodrama, social themes, and exuberant singing and dancing. Professor Joshi focuses her analysis on the serious social commentary flowing through these films, such as Awara (The vagabond, Raj Kapoor, 1951), Sholay (Embers, Ramesh Sippy, 1975), and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? (Who am I to you?, Sooraj Barjatya, 1994). She looks at the themes of crime and punishment in the 1950s, the family and romance in the 1970s, and the emergence of “Bollylite” in the 1990s. Throughout this entire period, however, Joshi’s Bollywood turns a sharp edge to the Indian state in the secure and safe fantasy world of the cinema.
I spoke to Priya Joshi on September 16, 2015, about her new book Bollywood’s India: A Public Fantasy.
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