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Jul 20, 2022

Book Review: Women Trying to Make Their Own Histories in the Face of State Power

In 'Vernacular Rights Culture', Sumi Madhok documents different political imaginaries that animate rights struggles of subaltern groups.
Christopher Michel/CC BY 2.0

The central question foregrounded by Sumi Madhok in Vernacular Rights Culture: The Politics of Origins, Human Rights, and Gendered Struggles for Justice is the following: how do we tell stories of human rights that are independent of global power? How we should tell stories of culturally specific human rights, or of case studies of the discourse on the decolonial?

Madhok in this competently argued work, which is in equal parts political theory and empirical anthropology, foregrounds several sets of philosophical debates, from the vantage point of gender. The argument is buttressed by field work in several districts of Rajasthan in Northwest India, and in Punjab in Pakistan. The work is located somewhat loosely in what has been called decolonial studies, but it eschews both polemics and binary opposites that many of these studies adopt as rallying points for their attack on epistemological inequality; seen as the outcome of hegemonic western-centric theory.

Madhok begins her argument by looking at what she calls the coloniality of power. The philosophical context for the emergence of the ‘rights of man’ is well known – pre-capitalism, the notion of the white propertied, heterosexual male as the holder of rights, the emergence of market society and of alienation, individualism and contractual relations. That these preconditions did not exist in a world that was colonised by the same countries and where movements passionately advocated freedom, is more than obvious. That the exploitation and the brutality of political colonialism violated the same language of rights that rulers of colonial countries spoke of is also well known. Nevertheless, it is the western notion of rights that has been upgraded into a universal currency.

Vernacular Rights Culture: The Politics of Origins, Human Rights, and Gendered Struggles for Justice
Sumi Madhok
Cambridge University Press, 2021

Consequently, processes of the formulation and assertion of rights in the rest of the world have been reduced to mere case histories, or as derivative of hegemonic theories and practices. Postcolonial scholars have a problem with theories that are the product of European experiences, because these obfuscate the specifics of oppression and resistance phrased in the language of rights. The irony is that many governments in the postcolonial world also dismiss standards established by global human rights because these theories are based on philosophical presuppositions alien to their own people and culture.

Of particular note is hostile criticism/dismissal of the rights of women as western, and therefore as unsuitable to postcolonial worlds. Feminist movements are attacked on the ground that they speak a foreign language, and subscribe to western philosophical notions, and that these languages are inauthentic, culturally inappropriate and illegitimate. These attacks obfuscate the way women’s rights came up during the course of the freedom struggle in India/Pakistan. Subsequently they became an integral part of constitutional morality, at least in India.

Feminists in the postcolonial world have, consequently, to take on the daunting task of acknowledging that the standards established by global human rights are legitimate. At the same time, they have to take on another task; that of defending the articulation of rights claims in their own societies as worthy of consideration, not only by their own governments, but by global human rights institutions. This is a daunting task.

Madhok universalises global rights claims, by telling us stories of how these claims originated in geographical spaces that do not find resonance in dominant languages. She introduces us to the alternative notion of rights as haq, and to the vocabulary, the philosophical preconditions and the imaginaries of the term. According to the author, haq is the Arabic Urdu, Persian, Turkish and Hindustani word for rights. The first recorded existence of haq can be traced to classical Hebrew, and it is also found in older Semitic languages such as Aramic and Mendian. Till today haq is used in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa as synonymous with rights. In India the term has been deployed extensively in the Northwestern part of the country – particularly Rajasthan, which is the focus of her study – by subaltern gendered groups. In her study of Pakistan, Madhok explores the way Punjabi subaltern women use the term to lay claims upon an authoritarian and militarised state.

Madhok does not only offer a linguistic alternative to a globally hegemonic discourse of human rights. She anchors political consciousness in this terminology. By exploring the vocabulary of rights in other cultures we come to understand and appreciate other imaginaries, contestations and struggles for rights. Notably Madhok does not view the historically specific assertion of rights as isolated from global human rights discourses. Her intent is to find out how scholarly investigations of contemporary struggles for haq can inform global scholarship on human rights. Conversely how useful is the human rights framework for capturing political struggles for haq? The argument in the work addresses these major, complex and admittedly difficult questions competently.

Madhok with great dexterity avoids falling into the universal versus culturalist trap in two chapters which focus on the gendered articulation of haq in South Asia. We function in a world that is dominated and shaped by western epistemology and ontology. She also recognises that there can be no recovery of authenticity of culture, meanings and vocabularies in countries that have been subjected to colonialism and now newer forms of colonialism.

Sumi Madhok. Photo: Twitter/Sumi Madhok

This recognition enables her to negotiate theoretically and through empirical anthropology the links as well as the contradictions between hegemonic vocabularies of rights, and rights discourses formulated in specific contexts. She is aware, as she shows in the fourth and the fifth chapter that a wholesale rejection of theories produced in the west and reproduced across the world can land us into uncritical celebrations of culturalism and right into the plans of rulers to reject rights talk.

In the course of her field work Madhok recorded the stories of development workers, grassroots activists and various citizens mobilisations that have demanded their haq. She has also interviewed independent rights activists within state-sponsored programmes such as development. Why do women in this part of the world phrase their demands in this language?

Women discover that they, as the bearers of rights, are owed certain goods that range from freedom to food. Rather than the outcome of rights, it is more interesting to deal with the context of, and the articulation of rights, that is developmentalism.

Struggles for haq by dispossessed people are ultimately struggles for life. These struggles are for natural resources that are increasingly appropriated by the state acting in tandem with capital. Vernacular political vocabularies, imaginaries and critical languages that emerge from sites of struggle are qualitatively different from the abstract and rarified global discourse of rights.

Madhok documents different political imaginaries that animate rights struggles of subaltern groups. She maps the ways in which they disrupt, speak back, expand and also help decolonise human rights talk. The specific agent who asserts rights is the poor tribal woman demanding right to food, employment, public information, accountability and land and who articulates rights as a response to local power. Though rights reinforce global hegemonies, they can also subvert power hierarchies. In the final chapters of the work, Madhok suggests that global notions of human rights can be decolonised only when scholars track different genealogies and historical trajectories of rights. This is important if they want to shift the epistemic centre of human rights. We can replace origin stories of global human rights, with plural narratives of how rights emerge and are articulated in different sites that are not captured by the dominant human rights discourse.

Notably the author does not uncritically accept the articulation of rights in sites of struggle. She seems to imply that if feminists concentrate on immediate needs, or the preconditions of the right to life, they are likely to miss out on the wider context. Feminist movements in India and Pakistan have been unable to articulate a sufficiently transnational frame that would enable them to call into question the category of the nation state.

I find it interesting that unlike most theories in the decolonial mode, Madhok does not dismiss global rights as epistemogical imperialism and then proceed to privilege methodological nationalism. She focuses on the local but is all too aware that this site of struggle is shaped through global cycles of knowledge as well as by the practices of the nation state. There can be no easy answer to the question of global imperialism, there can be no easy solutions to the problems of the nation state, and there can be no easy resolution of the dilemmas of the local. A scholar has to carefully work through texts and contexts. It is this mapping out of overlaps and contradictions that makes her work so interesting.

The only aspect of her writing that bothers me is the language of the argument. As someone who has taught political theory for many years to post-graduate students, I believe that specialised languages can prove a bar to comprehension of significant theorisation. I recognise that scholars have to deploy languages adopted by the peer-group they address. This is the demand of academia. Yet the constituency of the scholar should not be only the peer group, but also women who are trying to make their own histories in the face of state power, howsoever badly they may make these histories. I hope in the next work I read by Madhok, I will find her more comfortable with an easier style of communication. Her ideas are too valuable to be confined to seminar rooms of dense political theory and gender studies.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.

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