The thirteenth post in our series celebrating Gender, Place and Culture turning 25 (#GPCat25) is authored by Dalia Bhattacharjee, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali, India. Her work is an ethnographic inquiry into the lives of the women working as surrogate mothers in India. Adopting Feminist Geography as the framework of research, she acknowledges surrogate mothers as active agents in this industry, and not mere victims.
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Documenting the everyday experiences of the respondents in my doctoral work remains the central objective of the dissertation. As an ethnographer of commercial surrogacy in India, listening to the experiences of the women working as surrogate mothers has taken the center stage in my research. The stories documented in my fieldwork has directed my work to comprehend commercial surrogacy as a form of “intimate labor”; and it is in this direction that I propose the term “reproductive laborer” in my dissertation to refer to the women working in this intimate market. Through such a perspective, I challenge the construction of the reproductive laborers as disembodied human agent by highlighting on the everyday negotiation of meanings in the spaces of the surrogate house, a controlled and surveilled space where the women are supposed to stay for the entire gestation period. Highly inspired by the approach in feminist geography to capture the everyday activities of women and other marginalized groups as the basis for knowledge production, I work towards paying special attention to the multiplicity of the experiences of the women working as surrogate mothers in the Indian commercial surrogacy industry.
Feminist geography has developed into the field of human geography in a social and political context which has had a considerable impact on the topics chosen for enquiring and the methods used for the same. It argued that the domination of the discipline of geography by men has serious consequences both for what counts as legitimate geographical knowledge and who can produce such knowledge. Gillian Rose’s book Feminism and Geography (1993) plays an important role in critiquing the existing process of knowledge production. She refers to a range of feminist theory to develop her claim that hat “to think geography – to think within the parameters of the discipline in order to create geographical knowledge acceptable to the discipline – is to occupy a masculine subject position” (p. 4). She goes on exploring the ways in which feminist scholars might adopt a strategy in order to resist and move beyond the masculinity of geographic knowledge production, which is characterized by the absence of women’s voices.
Gillian Rose examines the approaches in geography that have attracted feminist researchers as well. She takes into consideration time geography, which implies tracing everyday lives through time and space in order to account for social life in its spatial setting. Feminist geographers have been naturally attracted by the highlight on routine and everyday behavior. However, as noted by Rose, the assumption of time geography “that space can always be known and mapped”; that space is “absolutely knowable” (p. 38), clearly silences what is certain about the one who claims to have that knowledge. This masculine subject position has been described by her as “social-scientific”. She further argues that this biased outlook makes it clear why feminist geographers’ attempts to consider time-geography to examine women’s lives have been proven as incompatible to capture the important dimensions of everyday life, namely “the emotional, the passionate, the disruptive, and the feelings of relations with others” (p. 28). In her writing, Rose especially urges to understand the everyday life of women because the seemingly banal and trivial happenings of the everyday are shaped by power structures which restrict and confine women.
Thus, walking on the road shown by Gillian Rose, I base my dissertation on the embodied and emotional experiences within the inter-subjective context of gestational commercial surrogacy in India. These narratives of surrogate motherhood as shared by the reproductive laborers in this research assign meanings to their own lives. It is of utmost necessity to take into account women’s everyday experiences in feminist research because these experiences lead us to understand the nuances which work towards highlighting the ways in which women navigate the power structures in their day-to-day lives and attain a sense of empowerment with whatever they achieve at their disposal. These experiences otherwise remain overshadowed by the dominant narratives which only display the helplessness and victimhood attached to the lives of the women, often implied as the subordinated “other”. Feminist geographers like Gillian Rose and others have helped emerging scholars like me to embrace the voices of the women as the highlighting factor in research than merely referring to malestream and mainstream Euro-American theories which continue to take major space in academia.
Therefore, the major focus of my PhD dissertation has been to highlight the voices of the reproductive laborers, which otherwise remain hidden beneath the discourses which stigmatize these women and perceive them as perpetual victims at the hands of the capitalist economy and patriarchy. My research acknowledges the choices made by the reproductive laborers in India, who are willing to make use of whatever market can provide in pursuit of her own vision of a better future, or, celebration of her self-worth. To conclude, I would like to quote one of my key respondents, whose words remain the motivated factor behind my writings and inspires me further to continue writing. She says,
Please write a book on us. The society doesn’t understand us and we all we have to go through for survival. They think that we have chosen the easy path. I want them to know that it is never easy to be a surrogate mother. They think we sell babies for money; and we sleep with other men. I wish they had the heart to believe us and accept us as much as they accept any other men who work for money. Please let our stories be heard!