Epistemology of War

By Tahmina Sobat and Vaishnavi Kollimarla

Catching up with the last days of warm sunshine in Minneapolis, we sat outside the building after our seminar class, Ways of Knowing — taken by Professor Richa Nagar. We sat down to discuss our ‘final project’. Whenever we meet for ‘work’, we realize that it needs to start with a long conversation about how we feel, our dreams, desires, and conflicts. We share below a snippet from one of our first conversations that led to the conceptualisation of our project:

Vaishnavi: I haven’t been able to pay attention in class, Tahmina. Just this morning, I got the news that one of the people closest to me back in India went through brutal sexual violence. I am shocked, and yet I’m not shocked. I don’t know how all this makes me feel, it makes me feel…so strange. It isn’t fair at all — this difference that we all have to live with.

Tahmina: I’m so sorry to hear this, and thank you for trusting me with it. Can I give you a hug? Our lives are complicated and deemed surplus on so many levels. These are some of the toughest days ever for me — being a student and having the privilege of getting my PhD degree from a US university. A few days ago, there was a terrible bomb explosion in Kabul at Kaaj Educational Centre where Afghan girls, mostly Hazara students, were taking their university entrance exams. Many of them died and others were injured. There are many handwritten journals and pictures of these girls’ visions, dreams, and hopes that are all that’s left to remember them. I feel guilty to be in classrooms full of technological facilities and many privileges, while they didn’t even get to set foot in a university classroom. Why should I have this privilege and not them?

Vaishnavi: Yes! I absolutely agree with you on that…I think I can understand your feelings in some way…in Afghanistan, they use this kind of violence that you are describing as a means to keep girls and oppressed communities away from education. Whereas in India the state uses casteist ideas of merit and imposes multiple barriers to ensure education is inaccessible and exclusionary for most. A systemic lack of institutional support for students from oppressed communities remains a strategy to close the gates of educational spaces to people from these communities. From institutional murders of young students from oppressed castes to barring young Muslim women from entering educational institutions by creating controversies over hijabs.

Tahmina: This is so true. It makes me think that war doesn’t have any particular form, meaning, or limits. There are wars that are being recognised and declared as such, but there are also many undeclared wars such as those that you have to experience because of the colour of your skin, religion, caste, ethnicity, and much more. War isn’t limited to destroying physical infrastructure but also about destroying things without material body — visions and dreams, access, and maybe this war is more about certain people being deprived of things they want to do in life.

Vaishnavi: Yes! Also, who are those people that are made to feel like they belong and are safe in these spaces of education once they get there, and why are some others pushed out or even purged so violently? Thinking on these lines, we could broaden the idea of what war means and what it entails…I would be further interested in this ‘broadening’ using our bodies. Our bodies store memories of many different kinds of wars that we have been through, known and unknown. What would happen if we brought our bodies to move, feel, remember, and think together to understand what wars could mean beyond the conventional view.

Then our classmate, Rachel Bergman, joined us. We thought of the ways in which we could engage with the questions of anti-imperialism, resistance, and solidarity across borders. Together, we wanted to explore three key questions: what does war mean to us, and how do we experience it? In what ways do we resist these wars? How do we weave anti-imperial values, resistances, and solidarities amongst people when they come from spaces that are so deeply unequal?

With this focus and the aim to theorise from our experiences and bodies, we invited our classmates to provide their perspectives on how they felt and experienced war, resistance, and solidarity, and to open up these questions to their multiple meanings.

Listening to expand the meanings of war

To bring the concepts of imperialism, necropolitics, and biopolitics to the attention of our class, I (Tahmina) focused on stories and experiences of the wars in Afghanistan and Afghan women’s struggles — especially regarding their right to education. Afghan women’s lives and their existences have perpetually been overshadowed and hindered by prolonged periods of war. I shared the stories of the Kaaj girls’ unfulfilled dreams with my classmates who listened attentively, and with sympathy. We all sat in a circle as I shared the stories. My heart warmed at the way my peers were committed to walking alongside us to explore the multiple meanings of war.

Among others, Sufiya* emphasised the invisible imprint that wars leave on the personal lives of people who die before they get a chance to live out their hopes and dreams. It was very touching to witness how Rachel and Sufiya* felt close to Marzia, one of the girls who was killed before she got to fulfil her wish to ride a bicycle while listening to music. Sufiya’s* own dream to ride a bicycle stemmed from the fact that she had never had a chance to do it because of the cultural stigma against girls riding bicycles in Qatar; on the other hand, it was Rachel’s awareness of the joy of riding her bicycle while listening to music that made her feel connected to Marzia’s dream.

(1.1)
(1.2)

(Figure 1.1 and 1.2)

In her reflections later, Rachel wrote: “…this, and the comments from others, brought to mind a new perspective on how I might define war: a form of oppression that physically or emotionally inhibits our freedom of movement.”

For Vaishnavi, war meant social and political conditions where people were not able to freely express what they were going through under the restrictions and control of the state. For Sara, war was something foreign, unreal, and only seen in movies; she felt safe and shielded until war broke out in Ukraine and she saw the devastation it caused. Muskaan, however, brought attention to the war in spaces closer home, in our neighborhoods. She referred to the way in which politically induced communal ‘wars’ have brought in violent differences amongst Hindu and Muslim populations in many neighbourhoods in India. With hatred dictating the way neighbourhoods organise, interact and live instead of togetherness and understanding, she described how for her those streets and spaces lost their beauty and were unimaginable without the presence of Muslims.

(Fig. 2)
(Fig. 3)

Following on from these, and having in mind the caste discrimination in the everyday lives of the oppressed communities in India, Vaishnavi complicated the discussion further by posing questions: Why is it that despite the fact that many people labour under the conditions of war (as discrimination) their whole lives, this mode of systemic injustice is not recognised as warfare? And when is something evil and obvious enough to be deemed warfare? While she spoke, I (Tahmina) kept turning these questions over in my mind —really, what kinds of wars are ‘worthy’ of caring and talking about? What wars are grave enough to be stopped? Who is worthy of life? Who is to be killed? And who is allowed to make these decisions?

Moving together to feel, know and resist

Piqued by the despondency that I (Vaishnavi) was feeling through this circle of sharing, learning, and expanding that Tahmina had thus facilitated, I invited everyone to think of how we resist different forms of war. Wars that are waged to reify religious fundamentalism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and even dictatorships — wars that are not acknowledged, wars that erase voices, people, and dissent. With the embodied piece I had prepared, I requested people to walk at different speeds, changing directions every few seconds, and to cover the entire area of the room with their strides. I requested people to focus on the changes their bodies were going through, and the way they felt when the prompt to walk at a certain speed or direction altered abruptly. We paid attention to our bodies, the relationship of our bodies with other bodies in this space, and the culminating stories of these bodies. With this awareness, we then held hands and watched a video together (the link to the video is embedded here). It was a compilation of the different ways in which people resisted, using their bodies. Glimpses of resistance of various kinds — everyday and mundane, spectacular, visible and invisible. The intention there was to highlight stories of how people resisted these wars and to engender hope in the darkest of times.

What happened when we all moved with, felt, and absorbed these diverse forms of resistance? Our class bubbled with notes, phrases, and slogans in multiple languages — we had all used different forms of expression to share our thoughts and emotions. These small notes of hope gave us ways of re-imagining resistance. The notes affirmed and opened up ways of resisting through building, loving, and moving together in search of truth instead of subscribing to bald-faced destruction and hate. A classmate scribbled (in Malayalam) many slogans on the walls, and put a sticky note near his shirt pocket. When I asked what was written, he replied, “Sambhaavana, it means a feeling of equality. Babasaheb (Dr B.R. Ambedkar) talked about this idea along with maitri (friendship).” I smiled and hugged him because he had reminded us of a powerful and fundamental way of resistance. A small note on the wall, in response to the prompt ‘what does resistance mean to you’, read: “Surrender to the journey of collective dreaming and walking for justice (becoming radically vulnerable).” Another one read: “Telling the suppressed truths despite the war.”

Tahmina shared how changing speeds, bumping into chairs and other objects in the room, and looking at people, kept bringing her back to the present. Through the exercise, her body reminded her that she was removed from that scene of violence. As I (Vaishali) listened to her, I realised how the ability to live in the present and be conscious of the moment — despite the wars of the past haunting you — is in itself a showcase of hope and very powerful. By focusing on the present, we defy the imposed ideas of time, and the way of living imposed on us by the wars of the past. A note on the walls of our classroom simply read “breathing” as a way of extending solidarity; that was perhaps one of the most profound epiphanies that came out of that exercise. Rachel shared how she became more conscious of ensuring that she never hit other people as she moved at different speeds and directions around the room. She thought of how if everyone moved very quickly, the space wherein we could resist might shrink. Hence, it was important for her (and for all of us) at the end to hold hands, and move at a pace that enabled us to look out for everyone, continue our thoughts, and in our own way resist from within the space of the classroom.

(Figure 4: A collage of some notes from our classmates in our collaborative process exploring meanings of wars, resistance, and solidarities)

Conclusion

Moving and feeling together became our way of recognising the different meanings of war and resistance that we were familiar with. We moved together and let ourselves be affected by the multiple stories and experiences of joy, pain, trust, sorrow, and rage of the people in our collective. These ways of knowing required a commitment on our part to be vulnerable and make the space for each one of us to be vulnerable, if we wished. This space to feel vulnerable could be created only with continued care, love, and a sincere effort to understand people’s struggles and contexts. The different ways in which we gained knowledge came not just from the individuals within the collective, but through their communities, conflicts, and bodies that archived either consciously or unconsciously the histories of places, experiences, and socio-political changes through which we had all moved uptil now, and might continue to inhabit later.

With a deep commitment to the process rather than a fixed outcome or conclusion, we wish to engage with similar ways of knowing (those that challenge the dominant ways of knowledge production), where people from across geographies come together to co-imagine just worlds. This process would be weaved in such a way that there wouldn’t be a single narrator acting as the primary storyteller in charge of the collective’s narrative regarding their efforts for advocacy. Rather, it would be an amalgam of many stories, bodies, desires, and pains moving and breathing together, striving for justice. We are committed to exploring possibilities of challenging dominant ways of knowledge production, across borders, time zones, and spaces, and invite anyone interested to co-travel with us on this journey. We imagine our project to be one of the many steps in realising the possibilities of radical epistemologies that we engaged with through this work. Thus, the intent of this work has been to theorise through/with our bodies, emotions and memories to expand meanings of war, resistance and solidarities rather than neatly defining these notions.

(Figure 5: Our classmates’ responses to our prompt ‘Thoughts? Feelings? Questions?’ at the end of all sharing and sessions)

Notes:

  1. (*) denotes that we have anonymized the names of the participants.

2. In this context, prolonged periods of war include but aren’t limited to the previous rule of the Taliban between 1996 and 2001, the US invasion in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, or the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban after the so-called process of peace between the US and the Taliban in 2021.

The video started with a scene from the movie Karnan, where the avva (grandmother) requests people to dance and celebrate. She emphasised the fact that she has had enough sorrow, loss, death, and misery. She resisted being in a constant state of loss, and she invited everyone to dance and celebrate in the face of war. Following was a clip from the Aaravani Art project’s mural painting exercise: transwomen, ciswomen, and others painted walls, and their bodies, with bold colours. They painted to leave a mark, their claim on the walls of the city that pushes them away. So, they decided to paint their bodies to celebrate their life. They painted themselves in their way, by their choice, asserting their right to determine their identities. The video had clips of the Shaheen Bagh protests, where langar was being served, and the protesters emphasised how it was as important as the songs and speakers at the protest site. The protesters cooked together, ate and invited everyone to join them. At the same site and at the same time, children studied. This highlighted, for me, how education, community cooking, eating, and celebration could all become ways of protesting. Wars (like the one in India imposed through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and its political likes) that snatched people’s mundane and everyday lives away from them were resisted. They were resisted by bringing the mundane/everyday to the streets as a way of claiming citizenship. To be able to assert their existence and live as equal citizens was a protest. The casteless collective’s celebrating the food that is stigmatised in their songs and concerts added to the celebration in the video. They celebrated different beef delicacies (which are otherwise prepared in a hush, buying, and consumption of which have had histories of violence and lynching) by describing how tasteful they are, marking their assertion, and reclaiming their right to dignity. This was followed by protests from the Stop Hazara Genocide protests (of Afghan people protesting in Minneapolis against the genocide in Afghanistan), young Muslim women fighting the state apparatus in Delhi, slogans by Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan at Shaheen Bagh, showing solidarity with the Dadis. The video ended with a recent viral post on social media in which a young Indian Muslim boy is protesting and arguing with his teacher about the lack of sensitivity and perpetuation of Islamophobia.

4. See Nagar, Richa. Hungry Translations: Relearning the World through Radical Vulnerability. University of Illinois Press, 2019.

References:

The following are the sources for Figures 1, 2, 3:

  1. Source for figure 1.1 and 1.2: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2022/10/05/1126902717/the-diary-of-an-afghan-girl-killed-in-bombing-reveals-a-list-of-unfulfilled-drea
  2. Source for figure 2: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/oct/05/victims-of-the-afghanistan-kabul-blast-remembered
  3. Source for figure 3: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-63526483
  4. See more about Fatemeh Amiri’s story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mF-6xZqG8KQ

The following are the sources that were used in the video compilation:

  1. Selvaraj, Mari, director. Karnan. V Creations, 2021.
  2. Aravani Art Project, director. Aravani Art Project. Aravani Art Project 001, Aravani Art Project, June 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50tJhYl0eRA.
  3. Vice Asia, director. The Casteless Collective — An Indian Folk Music Band Fighting for Social Justice, June 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCX_x8eVSvM&t=318s.
  4. BBC Hindi. पंजाबसेयेसरदारशाहीनबाग़क्योंआएहैं?(Why have these sardars from Punjab come to Shaheen Bagh?). Facebook, January 2020, https://www.facebook.com/BBCnewsHindi/videos/452349319006244
  5. Sameer Kulavoor, artist. Read and Resist, depicting the protest as viewed from the children’s perspective, accessed from https://www.1854.photography/2022/10/a-multilayered-document-of-the-shaheen-bagh-protest-site-before-its-erasure-by-the-state/
  6. Pictures taken by Tahmina Sobat and #STOPHAZARAGENOCIDE Whatsapp group.
  7. Outlook magazine. Chandrashekhar Gives Voice To Our Protest: Shaheen Bagh Women. January 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlJz8SECEZM&t=20s.
  8. Picture from The Quint article, Agarwal, Poonam. “Did Delhi Police Give Jamia CAA Protests Political Twist in FIRs?” The Quint, December 24, 2019. https://www.thequint.com/news/india/jamia-caa-nrc-protests-delhi-police-political-colour-fir
  9. @LiveUpdatesFromSyria, posted November 28, 2022. https://www.instagram.com/reel/Clf-U2TADB9/?igshid=MDJmNzVkMjY%3D.

About the author: Vaishnavi Kollimarla (she/her) is a M.A./Ph.D. student in the department of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a performer. Through her research, she wants to explore the radical role of performance in challenging and reimagining ideas of justice and solidarities. She also thinks about performance as a way of knowing and knowledge production that challenges dominant epistemologies. She is interested in working at the intersection of performance and the politics of caste, gender and sexualities in the South Asian context. She holds a master’s degree in Social Work (Women Centric Practice) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai where her research focused on Street theater and the politics of gender and caste in the Delhi University Theater Circuit. She has also worked with many collectives and NGOs in India using theater and performance as tools for social change. 

About the author: Tahmina Sobat is a women human rights lawyer from Afghanistan. She obtained a law degree from the Herat University of Afghanistan in 2015. Through the FPJRA scholarship, she earned her LLM degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Notre Dame in 2020. Afterward, she started her second master’s degree in Gender and Women Studies through the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She has also been through a fruitful career path. She started her professional experience working as an M&E Assistant for Women Empowerment Program at Zardozi Organization. In 2017, she started her next professional position as Ombuds-person at Independent Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan. She has done extensive research in legal analysis of women’s rights, including women’s harassment in the workplace in Afghanistan; women’s role in peace-building, case-study of Afghanistan; and a book review: “A Woman’s Place: US Counterterrorism Since 9/11,” published at Feminist Pedagogy Journal. Over and above that, during her Ph.D. degree, she is aiming to conduct research titled “The Role of Grassroots Feminism in Demilitarization and Peace-Building in Afghanistan.” This research is highly interdisciplinary in which she will have an international human rights law and transnational feminist approach. Her research will offer a new perspective of the US counterterrorism strategies and Afghan women’s advocacies for inclusion in the peace process and peace negotiations.


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