By Sandhya A S:
As part of their annual intellectual calendar, the graduate students of the Department of Sociology at South Asian University conducted the Young Scholars’ Conference on the 15th, 16th and 17th of October 2015. This is the second Young Scholars’ Conference within the five-year life of this newly born university. Themed Gender and Sexuality: Discourse, Dialogues and Praxis in Contemporary South Asia, the conference unraveled some of the most important ontological and epistemological issues pertaining to gender in the sub-continent. From over 200 entries from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh among other countries, 25 papers were selected for presentation and a thought-provoking discussion.
Empiricism with regards to gender and sexuality was of significance in the conference. It, in a way, reclaimed the divide between ‘theoretical Brahmins and empirical Shudras’, in the well-cited words of Gopal Guru. There was a stress on challenging the top-down approach, whereby theorized categories and binaries of identities were enforced on the social data to make sense of reality. A bottom-up approach was, on the other hand, emphasized with which the complex and multi-faceted empirical reality of the South Asian subcontinent could be used to theorize this part of the world and comprehend its intricacies, which- a Eurocentric model of knowledge fails to capture. The conference also brought out themes that challenged the ways in which gender and sexual identity were conceived of as rigid entities. The fluid yet power-laden manifestations of gender and sexuality and the importance of intersectionalities such as class, caste, religion and ethnicity in shaping the gender identity of individuals in South Asia were stressed upon in the Conference.
With a total of 9 panels by young researchers covering a wide range of topics on gender and sexuality, from love, marriage, labour, nation, to, violence, identity and conflict, a plenary roundtable on sexual violence and impunity by esteemed guests such as Uma Chakravarti, Urvashi Butalia and Navsharan Singh, a special keynote address on ‘changing self’ by Professor Nivedita Menon, and a screening of an outstanding documentary film called ‘Nirnay’ by filmmaker Pushpa Rawat, the three-day conference enthusiastically engaged with the ways in which gender and sexuality in South Asia needs to be studied with depth and detail, something that borrowed ideas on the topic do not serve to help.
Through the 25 papers, the conference started a conversation on whether there is a need to re-think foundational questions and debates about gender and sexuality in South Asia in the contemporary context. How do we understand the articulation of gendered lives and sexualities with contemporary transformations in the social, cultural, economic and political domains? How do these developments manifest themselves in everyday experiences of gender relations, sexual identities and practices in different parts of South Asia, and are they inflected by the social location of gendered beings? Have new forms of resistance, voices and practices emerged regarding gendered violence, marginalization and labour, and how do state policies and institutions respond to these? Are alternative perspectives emerging from the new and massively increased visibility of issues around gender and sexuality in the public sphere?
The conference raised rudimentary questions such as these and many others, apart from providing a space for young scholars of the subcontinent to come together and interact, academically and beyond.
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