Transnationalism Reversed:
Women Organizing Against Gendered Violence in Bangladesh

By Elora Halim Chowdhury

Book Review

Acts of gender-based violence such as acid attacks, “honour killings,” and dowry deaths have garnered increasing global attention in recent years. These acts are commonly attributed to “cultural” or “religious” practices, a depiction devoid of any historical, social, or economic context. Furthermore, survivors of such gender-based violence are stripped of their agency, and rendered objects to be rescued, or celebrated as exceptional subjects, prevailing in the face of uncivilised cultures and religions. Such a narrative led to what some saw as the collusion between feminism and imperialism in the case of military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, where liberal-feminist rhetoric, (saving Afghan women) was at the service of neoconservatism in mobilising support for war. (Abu Lughod 2002).

While the call to decolonise feminist theories and methodological approaches in cross-cultural studies of women’s lives and experiences has been heeded (Mohanty 2003; Narayan 1997), rescue narratives, and the politics of exceptionalism remain in Euro-American feminist debates. In Transnationalism Reversed: Women Organizing Against Gendered Violence in Bangladesh, Elora Halim Chowdhury, provides a multifaceted counter-narrative to simplistic “victim” or “survivor” accounts of gender violence by focusing on acid attacks on women and girls, and elucidates how transnational feminist antiviolence organising is undertaken in the international political arena. Transnationalism Reversed opens with the story of Bina Akhter, who was disfigured in an acid attack at fourteen while protecting her cousin from an abduction, appearing at an event at the Yale Club in New York City promoting the US TV channel’s ABC 20/20 report, “Faces of Hope”, in which she was featured. Bina, a survivor-turned-activist, was lauded as “the spokesperson of a campaign that had a complicated genealogy involving the efforts of manifold collaborations and institutions spanning the divides of time, geography, and ideology” (xv). Bina’s story invites readers into the complicated and interconnected world of gender violence, women’s activism, class politics, NGOs, globalisation, and neoliberalism. It is a world where these factors interact to remake the terms of women’s empowerment, feminist organising, power relations, and transnational linkages.

In a thoughtful, engaging, and sharp analysis, Elora Chowdhury “aims to make visible the complicated transactions and uneasy alliances between women activists in Bangladesh and local and international development and human rights organizations” (p. 1). She does this by focusing on the “consequences of transnationalism to a ‘local’ women’s campaign” (p. 1) through the story of Naripokkho, a Dhaka-based women’s organisation that successfully mobilised at national and transnational levels against acid violence. Naripokkho’s strategy of creating workshops for survivors and their families to share stories, creative activities to reclaim public spaces, and strategic alliances with state officials, doctors, journalists and the international donor community, provided an avenue for survivors to re-establish their physical health, reclaim their voices, and rebuild their lives. Through personal narratives of Naripokkho’s activists and survivor-activists, Elora Chowdhury charts how a local women’s organisation crafted a successful strategy to confront gender violence, educate local and international communities, and provide hope for survivors. While Naripokkho’s success resulted in the establishment of Acid Survivors Foundation, which was funded by international donor agencies to provide comprehensive care for survivors, it also resulted in decreased involvement of local activists, cooptation of Naripokkho’s strategy, the further dissemination of a simplistic, ‘survivor’ narrative, and served to reinforce a neoliberal geopolitical agenda.

The book is divided into five chapters. Chapter One—Feminist Negotiations: Contesting Narratives of the Campaign Against Acid Violence in Bangladesh, outlines three phases of the national and international development of the anti-acid violence campaign, highlighting the contested relationship between state, NGOs, and donor agencies in working towards women’s empowerment and social transformation. Chapter Two—Local Realities of Acid Violence in Bangladesh focuses on the story of survivor Nurun Nahar, to demonstrate state failure to provide adequate medical and legal assistance for survivors, and the constraints within which women’s NGOs operate. Chapter Three—From Dhaka to Cincinnati: Charting Transnational Narratives of Trauma, Victimization, and Survival, features the story of Bina Akhter (mentioned above), whose decision to remain in the United States after reconstructive surgery generated heated debates amongst local women activists, international donors, survivors, and Bangladeshi expatriates, and exposes the intersection of class, power, and global inequalities in framing survivor agency and subjectivity. Chapter Four—Feminism and Its Other: Representing the “New Woman” of Bangladesh analyses the emergence of “new womanhood” within the context of neoliberalism and globalisation, by contrasting women’s activism with the depiction of women in a television film, and demonstrates the role of new media in facilitating conversations on gender violence, class positioning, women’s roles, human rights advocacy, and social change. Chapter Five—Transnational Challenges: Engaging Religion, Development, and Women’s Organizing in Bangladesh, brings rising religious extremism into the mix, by suggesting that gender violence, women’s engagement strategies, and transnational feminist thinking and practice needs to go beyond a binary secular-nationalist/Islamist interpretation, for a more nuanced understanding of women’s activism.

While Elora Chowdhury draws on and contributes to a feminist scholarship that privileges accountability and solidarity in understanding women’s struggles through their own experiences, she distinguishes herself by her treatment of sensitive subject matter, self-reflexivity on insider/outsider ethnography, and the ability to be critical of, yet respectful to those whose narratives she relates. The author’s experiences as a former journalist in Bangladesh covering acid attack incidents, and her long standing relationship with many activists and survivor-activists, plays a significant role in explaining why these women entrusted her with heir stories, and in making public their private lives. As Bina said, “I don’t mind telling it [her story] to you because you were there from the beginning” (p. 89). While, arguably, Bina might be pursuing her own agenda, she might not have spoken to Elora Chowdhury unless there was an established level of trust derived from some twelve years of knowing the author, and valuing her commitment to their shared, yet different, struggles on acid violence. Elora Chowdhury’s ethics and care as a researcher are clearly evident in Bina’s case—instead of using information accumulated from their continued interactions over time, space, and geography, she re-interviewed Bina for the book. For me, this not only exemplifies Elora Chowdhury’s intellectual and political dedication to transnational feminist practice, but also makes her scholarship unflinchingly feminist.

Transnationalism Reversed: Women Organizing Against Gendered Violence in Bangladesh expands currents debates in feminism that call for the re-centering of the local within transnational processes for a more comprehensive understanding of localised practices, and their interconnection to the global, as well as ambiguities produced in the in-between spaces of local-global interactions. It is a welcome addition to gender studies, feminist ethnography, development studies, and transnational feminist studies. While this book is perhaps more suitable for specialists, Elora Chowdhury’s arguments, and her clear and accessible writing style will also appeal to a general audience. The book’s main strength lies in the author’s skilled storytelling, which honours women’s struggles whilst employing a rigorous intellectual framework and methodology on how to do, and how to sustain responsible transnational feminist work.

Review ©2012 Azza Basarudin, PhD, Harvard Divinity School, USA.

Transnationalism Reversed: Women Organizing Against Gendered Violence in Bangladesh is published by the SUNY Press.

Review originally published in Gender & Development 20.2 (2012).