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Academics in Action: Women in Asia Conference

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In September I attended the Women in Asia conference at the University of Western Australia in Perth along with New Generation Network Postdoctoral Scholars Dr Amy Piedalue and Dr Pawan Singh. The theme of the conference was ‘Women in the Asian Century: Challenges and Possibilities’ and there was a focus on gender-based violence (GBV). The conference was organized by the Women’s Forum of the Asian Studies Association of Australia. It was an inspiring conference that brought together academics, activists and front-line service workers from across Australia and Asia.

Amy was invited to speak in the opening plenary on GBV in Asia. She spoke about her research with grassroots women’s collectives in Hyderabad, India and Seattle, USA that work closely with Muslim women and communities. These groups address intimate partner violence and promote women’s empowerment, while also resisting structural violence and Islamophobia. I was part of a roundtable discussion with other scholars from the University of Melbourne about ‘New Approaches to Gendered Violence in the Asia Pacific region’. I spoke about how our conceptualizations of the causes of GBV (e.g., attitudes or ‘mindsets’) shape our perceptions of the locus for change (e.g., individuals), and called for conceptualizations that are better attuned to the structural roots of violence.

Amy, Pawan and I also organized two sessions on the politics of changing social norms in India. The seven scholars in our panel sought to map some of the shifting contours of contemporary efforts to transform societal norms as a pathway to greater equity for women, as well as others marginalized on the basis of their sexuality or gender. Annie McCarthy from ANU spoke about her research with girls in the slums of South Delhi who were participating in self-defence classes. Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, also from ANU, spoke about activism around menstrual taboos as emblematic of a new focus on the desires and aspirations of young, middle-class women in Indian feminism. Margaret Becker from the University of Adelaide spoke about the difficulties women in Nepal face in engaging with the legal system. Sarah Homan from the Australian Catholic University spoke about the ways women in Nepal are creatively challenging cultures of gendered violence through public performance.

Pawan spoke about issues of privacy and visibility in the context of the criminalization of homosexuality under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, focusing particularly on the social cost of negotiating norms through legal representation and recourse to human rights. Amy explored the focus on individual’s behaviours and attitudes as the primary target of mainstream, global efforts to reduce gender-based violence and asserted the need for a framework that allows for a reclamation of the collective in theorizing social norm change. Drawing on her research with young gender justice workers in Delhi, Amanda’s focus was on efforts to engage men and boys in this work. She argued that the use of ‘soft’ messaging to avoid alienating men and boys risks creating a false equivalence between the effects of patriarchy on men and women. Our sessions were very well attended and opened up lively discussions that continued throughout the conference.