Thursday, October 16, 2014

Banu Subramaniam

With a life story that is relevant to her choice of research subjects, Banu Subramaniam has shared bits of autobiography in many of the papers she has published. In a 1988 article in Women’s Review of Books, she explains that her movement into the liminal space between academic disciplines, “… all began when I got on the plane at the Bombay Sahar International Airport on a warm still night ten years ago, with visions of donning that revered white lab coat amid a sea of white-skinned, white-lab-coated male scientists studying the proverbial white male rat.” (1)Feeling a growing sense of marginalization in her doctoral program at Duke University, she decided to take courses in the department of women’s studies—from which she eventually earned a graduate certificate, in addition to her PhD in zoology-genetics. Rather than leading her away from evolutionary biology, the tools that Subramaniam acquired studying feminist critiques of science allowed her to return to her home department in a more engaged and political manner.

Since then, she has practiced and advocated a science that is activist, liberatory, and progressive. Such a science is still entirely committed to producing knowledge about the natural world, but with the awareness that this world—and this science—is embedded in society and culture and that this embeddedness must be explicitly recognized and discussed. Early evidence of this orientation can be seen in Subramaniam’s 1998 paper, co-authored with Mary Wyer, “Assimilating the Culture of No Culture in Science: Feminist Interventions in (De)Mentoring Graduate Women.” For this project, three groups (men and women faculty; women graduate students; and women faculty and graduate students) met separately over the course of ten months to discuss their experiences in academia. The attitudes revealed are startling, and the results slightly disheartening. The authors conclude that “to truly transform the educational experience for graduate women, we need to deconstruct a ‘culture of no culture’”—that is, the ideal of the objective and decontextualized scientific researcher—“and name the interpersonal interactions, behaviors, and rules that govern this culture.” (2)

Subramaniam’s writing is exhilarating to read not only for the range and depth of her ideas but also for her enactment of these ideas in a remarkable variety of styles. Three papers published in 2000 excellently illustrate this point. Published in Evolution, "Balancing Selection on a Floral Polymorphism" describes an experiment to determine the mechanism by which flower color polymorphism is maintained in the common morning glory. She and co-author Mark Rausher planted five plots, with proportions of dark, light, and white flowers varying from those observed in natural populations. After monitoring the changes in gene frequency for a generation, they were able to show “the first direct evidence indicating that selection acts to prevent the elimination of the white allele.” (3) The paper nimbly describes their experiment and analysis, giving a clear example of balancing selection at work.

Published in the same year, yet entirely divergent in tone, is “Snow Brown and the Seven Detergents: A Metanarrative on Science and the Scientific Method.” Here she tells the tale of the courageous girl Snehalatha Bhrijbhushan, who travels from “deep within a city in the Orient” to “the land of the kind and gentle people.” Here she enters “the Building of Scientific Truth,” which lies within “the Land of the Blue Devils” (mascot of Duke University). After a traumatic interview with “the mirror” (embodying “the collective consciousness of all the Supreme White Patriarchs”), Sneha decides to enter “the Great Washing Machine” and subject herself to its “Seven Detergents.” To see their effect, you must read the story—but be warned: Subramaniam will implicate you directly by putting before you three alternate endings to the (tragic) tale.(4)

Subramaniam’s third paper from the year, “Archaic Modernities: Science, Secularism, and Religion in Modern India” (Social Text) begins with an evocative jumble of dream fragments, ranging from a filmic depiction of a mysterious Western illness entering India, to squabbles in the corridors of American academia, scenes of religious fervor, school-board renunciations of evolution, and extensive home remodels based on the science of energy flow. These fragments deftly introduce the paper, which explores the rhetoric of religious nationalists in contemporary India, comparing the country to the secular India where Subramaniam grew up. She ends this paper with another dream, less fragmented and more hopeful than the others: "I dream of a world where the project of building a progressive, antiracist, feminist politics within the social institutions of science and religion becomes possible.” (5)

These three early papers provide a good introduction to Subramaniam’s body of works, which has grown in scope yet retained a connection to many of these same themes. Her current research focuses on xenophobic responses to invasive plant species and on how the resulting emphasis on border policing diverts resources away from habitat preservation. Her first publication on this problem was “The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric of Biological Invasions.”(6) This essay also appeared Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), which Subramaniam co-edited with Betsy Hartmann and Charles Zerner. More recently, she and co-author Karen Cardozo related invasion biology to Said’s Orientalism, Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblages,” and Haraway’s “naturecultures,” in “Assembling Asian/American Naturecultures: Orientalism and Invited Invasions” (Journal of Asian American Studies, 2013).

Subramaniam is currently finishing work on a book, to be titled “A Question of Variation: Race, Gender and the Practice of Science,” which will deal with these and other issues. What makes this book (and all of Subramaniam’s work) so unique is that she actually practices the science—in this case, performing field and lab studies of Southern California’s flora and soil—while simultaneously attending to the contexts of language and history from which the science cannot be separated.

This interdisciplinary practice is in line with Subramaniam’s view that “women's studies programs must make it a goal to produce a scientifically and technologically proficient group of students and faculty who are not relegated only to the role of ‘critics’ (important though this is) but are also members of the scientific enterprise, producing knowledge about the natural world, a world that is deeply embedded in its social and cultural histories.”6 Subramaniam has been heavily involved in this project through her participation in feminist science studies. She co-edited a foundational volume of the field, Feminist Science Studies: A New Generation (Routledge, 2001), and has also published more reflective papers, such as “A Conversation on Feminist Science Studies” (Signs, 2003) with Evelynn Hammonds, and “Moored Metamorphoses: A Retrospective Essay on Feminist Science Studies” (Signs, 2009).

"Banu's work has been inspirational to myself and my graduate students," says Rachel Lee, who invited Subramaniam to speak at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women on November 5th. "She is an intrepid experimenter in both the scientific and writerly domains following the example of feminist STS trailblazers like Donna Haraway."

--Devin Beecher
Beecher is a doctoral student in the Department of Comparative Literature at UCLA. His research focuses on the intersections and spaces between literature and medicine.

On November 5, 2014, from 4 to 6 pm in Royce 314, Banu Subramaniam and Deboleena Roy will give talks in the Life (Un)Ltd speaker series. Titled “Surrogating the Cradle of the World: On the Onto-Epistemological Illusions of Matter,” Subramaniam's talk will focus on an analysis of surrogacy in postcolonial India. By incorporating aspects of caste, as well as genetics and evolutionary biology, she aims to bring new perspectives to the debates of nature and nurture. Roy will speak on “Germline Ruptures: Methyl Isocyanate Gas and the Transpositions of Life, Death, and Matter in Bhopal.” Organized by Rachel Lee, Associate Director of UCLA Center for the Study of Women and Associate Professor in the Departments of English, Asian American Studies, and Gender Studies, this event is presented by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women and cosponsored by the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics. More information is available on the website:

1. Subramaniam, Banu. 1998. “A Contradiction in Terms.” The Women’s Review of Books 15 (5): 25.
2. Subramaniam, Banu, and Mary Wyer. 1998. “Assimilating the “culture of No Culture” in Science: Feminist Interventions in (De)mentoring Graduate Women.” Feminist Teacher 12 (1): 25.
3. Subramaniam, Banu, and Mark D. Rausher. 2000. “Balancing Selection on a Floral Polymorphism.” Evolution 54 (2): 691–95.
4. Subramaniam, Banu. 2000. “Snow Brown and the Seven Detergents: A Metanarrative on Science and the Scientific Method.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 28 (1/2): 296–304.
5. Subramaniam, Banu. 2000. “Archaic Modernities: Science, Secularism, and Religion in Modern India.” Social Text 18 (3 64): 84.
6. Subramaniam, Banu. 2001. “The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric of Biological Invasions.” Meridians 2 (1): 37.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

From Chiapas to the UN: Women in the Struggle for Indigenous Rights

"Indigenous peoples are being permanently alienated from our being. We are being stripped, ripped off, and plundered of our values, our spirituality, our spirits, even of our gods," says Margarita Gutiérrez Romero (left), an Nha-ñhu activist who will be speaking at UCLA on October 22. She has been involved in the movement for two decades, a time period that has seen a dramatic increase in indigenous rights activism on the global scene. Indigenous women have been key leaders in these efforts to ensure rights--including women's rights--for indigenous peoples during this time. For decades, activists worked tirelessly on behalf of a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which was passed in 2007.
World Conference on Indigenous People
The first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples was recently held in New York City on September 22 and 23, 2014. In conjunction with this conference, UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women is sponsoring a series of lectures on “Women’s Activism and International Indigenous Rights.” Curated by Maylei Blackwell, Associate Professor, Department of Chicano/a Studies at UCLA, this series will explore the intersection of women’s rights and indigenous rights and will reflect on women’s role globally. 

Blackwell accompanied indigenous social movements for the past sixteen years developing a research expertise on the intersection of women’s rights and indigenous rights within Mexico and California.  More recently she has conducted community-based and collaborative research documenting cultural continuity and political mobilization with Zapotecs and Mixtecs from both the northern sierra as well as the central valleys of Oaxaca as well as the increasingly Mayan diaspora from Guatemala in Los Angeles.  In addition, she is a noted oral historian and author of ¡Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (U of Texas Press, 2011) which was a finalist for the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize and named by the Western Historical Association as one of the best book in western women and gender history. Her research focuses on indigenous women’s organizers in Mexico, Latin American feminist movements, and sexual rights activists, all of whom are involved in cross-border organizing and community formation.
Blackwell selected her as a speaker for this series because of Gutiérrez Romero’s long history of activism on behalf of indigenous people, which began in community radio and continued as she studied journalism at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Part of the indigenous rights movement that burgeoned in the early 1990s, Gutiérrez was a founding member of the National Plural Indigenous Assembly for Autonomy (ANIPA), which advocated for constitutional reform to establish a system of regional autonomy, and co-founded Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indígenas de las Américas (ECMI), which includes organizations in twenty-six countries in North, Central, and South America. "The powerful growth of [this organization]," says Blackwell, "reflects the emergence of indigenous mass mobilizations and social movements across Latin America and the Caribbean throughout the 1990s as well as the development of a specific set of gendered demands surrounding indigenous autonomy in the region." (2)

ECMI's member organizations are committed to training, research, and advocacy in areas including nonviolence and ancestral justice; territory, environment, climate change and food sovereignty; international law instruments; intellectual property and biodiversity; health and spirituality: sexual and reproductive health; political participation; indigenous intercultural education; and racism and discrimination. In 1995, the group organized the First Continental Meeting of Indigenous Women in Quito, Ecuador. It has gone on to “consolidate [itself] as a network that links indigenous women from throughout the Americas to promote the formation of women's leadership and influence, from the perspective indigenous spaces of representation and international, regional, national decision and the organizations they lead in order to strengthen policies that allow us to fully exercise our human rights.”(2)

In 1994, Gutiérrez Romero was as an advisor at the negotiations on Indigenous Rights and Culture, Dialogue and Negotiation in San Andrés, between the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, the Chiapas State government, and the Mexican national government. These negotiations resulted in the San Andrés Accords, which were never implemented due to governmental incalcitrance.  A key component of the negotiations regarded “the triple oppression suffered by indigenous women (because they are poor, indigenous and women)” (3) Included in the demands was this request:  “Among the public resources which belong to the indigenous peoples there should be a special consignment for women, administered and managed by them. This will give them the economic capacity so that they can begin their own productive projects, guarantee them potable water and enough food for everyone, and allow them to protect health and improve the quality of housing” (3) Only a portion of these demands was actually included in the Accords, and the Indigenous Law ratified in May of 2001 was a even further watered down version of the original demands. (4,5) The law only states that officials have a responsibility “to promote the incorporation of indigenous women into development, through the support of productive projects, the protection of women’s health, the creation of incentives to favor women’s education, and their participation in the decision-making related to communal life.”(6) 
As the indigenous movement grew after the 1994 Zapatista rebellion, Gutiérrez Romero went on to serve as a member of the National Indigenous Council (CNI) and was National Coordinator of Mexico’s Indigenous Women (CONAMI) and Secretary for Political Education in the Executive Committee of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). From 2001 until 2010, she was President of the International Instruments Commission for Continental Network of Indigenous Women.  She is currently President of the State Coordinator of Indigenous Women Organizations in Vinajel, Chiapas, Mexico. In that capacity, she participated on a panel for the Organization of American States Policy Roundtable on  “Inclusion and Democracy in the Americas” in April of 2011.

Highlighting the ongoing efforts of activists and organizations to secure equality and full participation in governance for indigenous women is the focus of this series.  "These transnational social movement networks that were developed to engage the UN," according to Blackwell, "have resulted in new indigenous solidarities and policy advocacy strategies. Critically, this transnational network not only orients activists toward the international arena but it provides a critical space for exchange to build indigenous women’s political identities and forms of political analysis that they take back to their communities. Through this multi-scaled activism, they localize a wide range of strategies against violence against indigenous women, militarization, ecological destruction (mining and resource extraction), intellectual property rights, racism against indigenous people, and the need for women’s human rights within their own communities."
Organized by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women and cosponsored by the UCLA Latin American Institute, the UCLA Dean of the Social Sciences, UCLA Institute for American Cultures, and the UCLA Center for Oral History, Gutiérrez Romero’s lecture will take place on October 22, 2014, from 2 to 4 pm in Royce 314 on the UCLA campus.  Updated information can be found on CSW’s website:
1. “Indigenous Groups Challenge Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination,” July 22, 2011, Jason Coppola, Truthout,
2. ECMIA website, 
3. The Dialogue of San Andres and the Rights of Indigenous Culture, EZLN,
4. “18 years after the signing of the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, these continue not to be recognized by the State,” SIPAZ, International Service for Peace Blog,
5. “Mexico Ratifies Indian Rights Law Amid States' Opposition,” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2001,
6. “Autonomy and Resistance in Chiapas: Indigenous Women’s Rights and the Accords of San Andrés,” Petra Purkarthofer, International Social Theory Consortium, Roanoke, May 18-21, 2006