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Rege Explores New Ways Women Writers and Artists Are Redefining Community

October 21, 2008
By: WSU News

The same kinds of problems face women no matter where they are.

That’s the conclusion Josna Rege (English) has reached during her studies of the South Asian disapora in Britain.

“The diaspora of Pakistani women in Britain is not necessarily more empowered than their sisters in Pakistan, which is surprising,” Rege said. “They face some of the same problems.”

“What identities are empowering for women?” she asked rhetorically. “A national identity doesn’t necessarily work for women, because while Woman as national symbol is frequently used as a rallying cry for the nation, individual women may be completely neglected.”

A trans-national identity works only for women who are international jet setters, she said. “And family as a means of identity means class and caste and the use of women’s bodies to define them.”

Rege is thus looking at new ways that women writers and artists are building and redefining community.

A 2007-2008 mini-grant, “South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive: Building Community in and across Nations,” allowed her to visit two organizations in London and Mumbai devoted to the preservation of women’s cultural production and to study how women create a post-independence identity.

Rege, an associate professor in the Languages and Literature department in her third year at the college, has found that writers are creating collaborative organizations to showcase women’s work, thus empowering themselves and their readers.

“These collaborative cultural projects can do more than any one individual writer on her own to cross language groups and classes,” She said. “This allows for the pooling of limited resources and the smart use of new media to maximize their impact.”

Some women are preserving South Asian heritage in Britain, focusing on aspects of culture in their various home countries as well as in the diaspora. They write in a variety of languages. Despite the power and global reach of English, that language alone limits audiences.

“For example, writing a radio drama in Urdu about forced marriages for broadcast on BBC World is starting conversations about this in South Asian communities in Pakistan as well as in Britain,” Rege said.

Using a feminist methodology, which Rege says means working “with” organizations rather than being an “outside” observer, she studied the work of SALIDDA, the South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive, which is based in London.

SALIDDA is a digital archive of the artistic and cultural contribution that South Asian people have made to the development of arts and literature in England, according to its website. The archive includes literature, visual arts, theater, dance and music.

In 2006 and again in 2008, Rege volunteered for a week with a similar group, SPARROW, which is based in Mumbai, to study feminist cultural production.

SPARROW, which stands for Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women, has been collecting women’s literary and other cultural work since 1988.

Rege is working on a manuscript that compares the two women founders of SALIDDA and SPARROW.

“I’m trying to understand their unique approaches to their struggles,” she said. “They are visionaries. One formed an organization that is archiving South Asian diaspora cultural production. The other is doing the same thing in India.”

The organizations have a common bond. “They represent emergent thinking about cultural production and community,” Rege said. “They have found ways to use old and new media to nurture women and allow them to have a voice.”

Having a voice is the first step toward empowerment. These organizations foster empowerment for writers and their audiences by producing their work collectively as well as individually, in translation rather than in just one language, and across national boundaries rather than within one nation alone.

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