Shaming the shameless: the politics of sexual assault in post-Mubarak’s Egypt exposed


Mariz Tadros photo miniMariz Tadros

In preparation for the 30th of June millioniyya [one million person protest] against the current Muslim Brotherhood-led regime, youth coalitions, women’s organizations and human rights activists are bracing themselves for a wave of politically motivated sexual assaults. Groups like ShoftTa7rosh are co-ordinating monitoring, ensuring women are equipped with self-defence measures and that volunteer men are well prepared to pull women targets of assault out from the crowds. These collective actors have not mobilized in a vacuum, but in response to the organized operations of sexual violence targeting them in public spaces over the last two years. A pattern has emerged which suggests that these were politically motivated assaults, aimed at discouraging women from participating in protest action against the powers that be.

One of the most powerful images of the Arab revolts has been that of Egyptian women standing side by side with men in revolt in the densely crowded Tahrir Square. Since Mubarak was ousted in March 2011, there have been almost daily protests against new forms of authoritarian rule, economic hardship and citizen repression. One of the biggest was in December, after President Morsi issued a presidential decree granting himself executive, legislative, and judicial powers that even his predecessor never dared appropriate. Hundreds of thousands of citizens marched to the Presidential palace (El Ettehadeyah) to express their anger at this coup of usurped power. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis organized a counter-protest.

Ola Shahba, a young political leader in the Populist Socialist Front, was there on the 5th of December when she was captured by followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. She recounts that she was wearing a loose jacket and trousers, had her face covered [to protect against tear gas] and had a helmet on [to protect against attacks]. “I realized they could not see I am a woman. They started sexually harassing me from behind when they were thinking I am a man.” When they removed Ola’s helmet and realized she was a woman, “another wave of sexual harassment continued… grabbing me from the front”. She was taken to a military cubicle/kiosk. “The officer in charge asked them ‘would you like to beat her yourself or would you like me to do it?’” Ola was not the only one who was kidnapped – 140 men were too. She could see them from where she was being detained – and they had all been stripped to their underwear, a tactic that was understood as a form of humiliation.

Ola had used her phone, before it was taken from her, to call her friends. They called journalists who began to publicize on Twitter the names of leading Muslim brotherhood figures who were involved in her detention. They accused her of working for foreigners, and being part of the old regime. As pressure grew for her release, fuelled by Twitter, Muslim Brotherhood leaders tried to set her free but the Salafis wouldn’t let her go. One of them grabbed her by her hair, and bluntly told them, “you are not taking her, she is our booty”. After hours of being held in captivity, she was eventually released and rushed to hospital to deal with the severe blows that she had sustained.

From the accounts given by Ola and a number of other survivors of sexual violence on the 5th of December, some worrying dynamics emerge. It is evident that these are not just random acts of violence. The perpetrators were clearly identifiable as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, the security apparatus was complicit in the assaults and they expected impunity. And yet within Muslim brotherhood mobs, Salafi members and sympathizers, there were men who stood up against what was happening. From the narratives of the women who witnessed this, it became clear that these men genuinely empathized, recognising something morally abhorrent with the behaviour of the mobs.

December’s violence was repeated on the 25th of January 2013, when one of the worst ever organized wave of politically motivated sexual assault occurred, as protestors commemorated the memory of the Egyptian revolution by rising against the current Muslim Brotherhood regime.

The prevalent Islamist narrative on sexual assault presents a very different version of reality: Women who go out to protest in Tahrir Square and other public spaces are not virtuous but deviant, they “ask for it”. Sexual assault is the work of protestors who harass female protestors because they can’t control their urges. Women who go out to protest are in the wrong, they should never have left their homes in the first place. This narrative is congruent with that of Islamist satellite television stations; it is also the natural outcome of the impunity the perpetrators enjoy, with legal suits against them seeing very little advancement in the judicial system.

Egyptian political activists have announced that they will claim public protest spaces on the 30th June to make them assault-free in an attempt to send out a message to women and their families that they should not be terrorized from exercising their right to protest. It may not be a war setting, but for many, it feels like it.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

The crisis of Brazilian democracy, as seen from Mozambique


Alex ShanklandAlex_Shankland200

I’ve been in Maputo for the last few days, working with colleagues at IESE on some research into the riots that brought this city to a standstill in 2010. This work is part of a four-country comparative study of the ‘moral economy’ that underlies efforts to secure accountability for hunger, whether through institutionalised lobbying or through ‘unruly‘ popular political action. Rather than Maputo’s own riots, however, much of my time here has been has been spent talking to puzzled Mozambican colleagues about the massive wave of protests that has surged across Brazil.

My Mozambican friends can understand a protest being triggered by a bus fare increase – after all, it wasn’t only the price of bread but also a rise in the cost of the chapas (semi-formal minibus routes on which most urban Mozambicans depend to get to work) that set off the 2010 riots here, and threatened to do so again when another fare increase was brought in last year. The potential for anger at police brutality to intensify popular mobilisation, as happened in São Paulo in the initial phase of the Brazilian protests, is another familiar feature here. And they recognise that anger at corruption – another key issue for Brazil’s protestors – was a factor in the Maputo riots in 2010, and may yet trigger more violent protests here, as a tiny elite continues to hoard the rewards from Mozambique’s mining and energy boom.

But many Mozambicans are perplexed by the other apparent triggers of the Brazilian protests  Why do the protestors seem to hate the Workers’ Party (PT), when under the recent PT governments Brazil has achieved ’zero hunger‘? Why are they so critical of public health and education, when the country’s expansion of access to these services is the envy of many countries in Africa and beyond? Surely Brazil’s recent programme of infrastructure investment is as necessary as that on which Mozambique has itself recently embarked, with Brazilian as well as Chinese assistance? And surely Brazil – unlike Mozambique – has a flourishing democracy in which the state has pioneered many new ways of listening to citizens, so that they don’t have to take to the streets in frustration? Or is Brazilian participatory democracy actually not all it’s cracked up to be?

Here, Brazilian democratic innovations such as participatory budgeting and local policy councils have become part of the good governance packages promoted by the donor community. The need for democratic reform in Mozambique has never been more apparent as a standoff between the government and the opposition party (and former guerrilla movement) Renamo turns dangerously violent, and the tensions that triggered the 2010 riots continue to build in the street markets, chapa stops and back alleys of Maputo. Brazil is ever more visible in and from Mozambique, thanks to a growing presence in the country that ranges from evangelical pastors and mining companies to soybean farmers and social movement activists. As Camila Asano has argued in a recent OpenDemocracy article, democratic Brazil ’is in many crucial ways in a stronger position than its fellow emerging powers to achieve great things on the international stage‘. It thus seems enviably placed to set an example for the future of democracy in Mozambique – but which example, exactly?

Working on both sides of the equation
Looking at Brazil from Mozambique, I’m reminded of the work of our former IDS colleague John Gaventa, who argued that efforts to promote democracy should include ’working both sides of the equation‘, and who led a decade of work under the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability which reached the conclusion that successful democratic change depended on ’blurring the boundaries‘ between citizen and state. Brazil was a model case, one to be looked to and learned from by anyone interested in a democratic future for countries like Mozambique. Now it seems to me that these protests represent the boiling-over of a frustration that derives from failures on both sides of the Brazilian democratic equation – and that they reveal how blurred boundaries have given way to a new divide.

Since the country’s post-dictatorship ’Citizens’ Constitution‘ came into effect in 1988, the Brazilian state, with leadership often coming from the PT, has promoted an unprecedented series of participatory and deliberative innovations. These have deepened and broadened engagement, and successfully kept a democratic conversation going despite the country’s vast size, glaring inequalities, endemic violence and corrupt electoral politics.

On the other ’side of the equation‘, since the mass mobilisations that marked the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, Brazil’s citizenry has opted for forms of collective action that could be linked with,though never confined to, an ongoing process of institutionalised dialogue with the state. Unruly political actions by marginalised groups – ranging from peasants’ land occupations to the invasion of government buildings by bow-and-arrow-wielding indigenous warriors – have continued throughout this period. But they have usually been deployed not as a denial of democratic dialogue but rather as a tactic to force the state to engage more fully in it, and to challenge the use of economic, bureaucratic and political power to close down its possibilities.

The latest protests have broken with this logic in two important ways: they have been led not by the hyper-marginalised rural poor but by middle-class urban youth, and they have systematically denied the legitimacy of institutionalised democratic engagement (whether through political parties or through formally-structured social movement organisations) as a means of converting popular political energy into policy change.

So what has happened and what does it mean for Brazil and other countries? In the next couple of days I will aim to reflect on those questions through a short series of blogs, analysing what has happened on both sides of the democracy equation in Brazil.

Alex Shankland is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

The K’dogo Economy: Food Rights and Food Riots on Harambee Avenue


Patta Scott-VilliersPatta Scott-Villiers 2013

Lucy strokes the head of one of her two shiny children and hustles them out of the rough wooden door with their school books. She’s wearing a perfectly fitting skirt of blue and yellow African cloth and a yellow T shirt stamped with the words ‘Unga Revolution’. She’s young and she looks determined. ‘Now, see, we skip mealtimes, from three to two to one. You can buy less amount of food. Instead of buying a two-kilo packet of unga (maize meal), because the money is not enough, you buy a quarter or a half, depending on size of the family. In 2007, before the post-election violence, maize was 50 shillings a kilo and now it’s 120 shillings. I earn about 300 shillings a day, mostly, and from that I buy food, pay rent, pay school fees. We are coping up because shop keepers, you see, they have the kadogo economy, a small economy where you can get these few vegetables for five shillings, the package is so-o small… you can get sugar, a spoonful at one or two shillings. Vegetables you buy two leaves, old ones, for five shillings. Meat, sometimes, chicken heads and feet, you put a lot of water and make a soup, twenty shillings.’Dhobi women

In Mathare Valley, the slum where Lucy lives in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, the population density is 170,000 in a square kilometre. She moves with confidence along one of the main thoroughfares, a handmade road built out of decades of sedimented plastic bags and sewage. It’s all patched rusty corrugated iron and narrow alleys with washing lines strung between, the main drag lined with kiosks and roadside food stalls, crisscrossed by open drains, people gazing, people drinking, people heckling, ‘careful’ she says, people arguing, people sitting. Every so often an open space, ‘what’s this?’ It burned last year. The landlord wanted the people out. Here, a gang wanted to get rid of someone.

In 2010 Lucy mobilised people from Mathare to join demonstrations for the Unga Revolution – a series of events that mixed working and middle classes in marches to Nairobi’s city centre protesting about food prices. It is part of a growing movement called Bunge la Wananchi, the people’s parliament. Today she’s up at parliament again. Inflated plastic pigs are being tossed between protesters on the steps of the august house – “MPigs! MPigs!” the demonstrators shout – they’re referring to Kenya’s 349 members of parliament who have voted themselves a wage of 852,000 Kenya Shillings a month – and that’s before adding the 469,000 monthly stipend for travel – bringing their claim to over 1.3 million shillings or some £10,000 per month. Lucy and her mother sell vegetables, and earn about £60 a month. She’s alive, but she’s furious. ‘To pay their greedy wages the politicians will put food and fuel taxes up again’, she spits.

Now the steps of parliament are slick with pigs’ blood from the Dagoretti slaughterhouse. The plastic pigs are being butchered and strings of sausages tumble out onto the ruby steps. The blood is coating people’s hands and clothes, the smell is rank, the media delighted. People are throwing one shilling coins into the red sludge – here’s money for you! The scene is on the edge of crazy. It’s what you have to do to get noticed.

The MPs appear to have backed down, and gone for a settlement of only 520,000 shilling per month and a 5 million annual grant for transport, but, on closer inspection, journalists from the Standard newspaper find allowances and concessions that take the figure right back to over 1.3 million.

At the Unga Revolution in June 2010, a few thousand occupied the street between parliament and the office of the prime minister in a noisy demonstration that stopped traffic for the whole day. Late in the day, the protestors extracted a promise of a price reduction from the Prime Minister. When weeks went by and nothing happened, another noisy march on the city a month later produced some subsidised maize meal. It was in the shops for three days.

As global food prices spike and then continue to rise inexorably, Kenya’s Revenue Authority seeks ever more efficient and comprehensive taxation. Basic food prices in Kenya have almost doubled in five years. Despite appeals, value added tax of 16% on maize meal, milk, bread and other basic foods look likely to be implemented this summer. Michael Otieno of the National Taxpayers Association, a lobby group operating out of a residential house in middle class Kilimani, bombards the government and press with data. Every Kenyan will pay 16 shillings a day in tax on Unga maize meal alone, he points out. But, the Treasury has its sights on revenue of 11 billion shillings (£82 million). Another big chunk of government income comes from levies on fuel, forcing prices of food yet higher.

Mathare’s local debate on the causes of food price hikes is sophisticated, but global price volatility doesn’t come into the conversation all that much – the issue here is the obscene inequality between the rich and the poor. Mathare’s vegetable sellers, sex workers, butchers, laundry women and unemployed display an informed understanding of the potentially controllable elements of the political economy. Sharing a newspaper around sheet by sheet, or listening to the radio at Mathare’s jobless corner where the drinking dens spill their customers out onto the main street, Mathare’s citizens follow the latest hair-raising developments. The strategic grain reserve is collapsing under dodgy contracts, prices swell with fake shortages and hoarding, and fat contractors are getting import subsidies for domestic grain shipped from the port at Mombasa for a mile out to sea and back into the country again. The scandals multiply. Today at jobless corner they’re listening to news from parliament – will the new budget bring food prices and fuel prices down?

‘If things don’t shift somewhere’, says Lucy, ‘we’ve no more meals to cut, no way to reduce the size of the pile of shredded cabbage we sell for 5 shillings, no more magnets we can stick to the bottom of our weighing scales.’ ‘We’ll have to shut up shop’, said the chicken-feet seller man joining the conversation with a mix of gloom and fine and ironic gales of laughter.

Kenya doesn’t have a working policy on food prices, but it may be forced to get one, and quick. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there are nearly 1.5 million people living in slums in Nairobi, that’s almost half the city’s population. Another 1.4 million are classified as low income. Almost everyone on a low income is scrabbling for poor quality food, rent, fees for overcrowded schools, in short, struggling for a normal life. There is almost no one in Mathare who cannot come up with a fairly accurate version of Article 43 of the new constitution, which promises every Kenyan a right to food. But Kenya has, as yet, no policy to cut the rising suffering of the millions on parlous incomes who live in its burgeoning cities. The poor are getting angry and the rich appear to be taking very little notice.

Patta Scott-Villiers is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Previous blog posts by Patta Scott-Villiers

A Post-Revolutionary Egyptian Tragedy: Nancy Okail and the Case of NGOs vs. the People of Egypt


Naysan Adlparvarnaysan_adlparvar200

This post first appeared on ‘The Side Room’, a blog written by PhD students at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

For most doctoral students in International Development the three or four years spent undertaking a PhD can feel like a prison sentence. I, and my fellow PhD colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), spend the majority of our time confined to a desk and only get ‘let out’ for a period of intensive fieldwork. As we finally begin to throw off the shackles of the PhD, submitting the draft of our thesis, we ask ourselves what impact our work has had, if any, in the wider world. We ask ourselves, ‘what next?’ I’m sure when Nancy Okail, a recent IDS doctoral graduate, asked herself these questions she didn’t expect to be facing a real prison sentence while standing inside a cage in an Egyptian courtroom.

I first met Nancy when I started my PhD in the autumn of 2008. Already halfway through her own PhD, she struck me as intelligent, reflective and deeply committed. When she finished her doctorate Nancy chose not to follow the usual route into academia but wanted to return home to Egypt to contribute to the post-Mubarak efforts to strengthen democracy.

In August 2011 Nancy took up a post as Freedom House’s Egypt Country Director to oversee a programme aimed at promoting democracy, human rights and a free media. Yet, shortly after arriving in Egypt she and other colleagues at Freedom House faced harassment and intimidation from the interim military-led authorities. At the same time a smear campaign was spread by the state-run media, suggesting that foreign funded non-government organisations (NGOs) were working to destabilise the country. Then in December the Egyptian authorities raided the offices of a number of foreign-funded NGOs involved in democratisation, including that of Freedom House. Nancy and 42 other staff members, including 17 Americans, from a number of NGOs were arrested. They were charged with working with funds received from a foreign government without a license. This charge carries a sentence of five years incarceration and such a ruling can only be given with evidence of intent to ‘overthrow the status quo’. Bearing in mind that numerous civil society organisations operate without a license in Egypt and that these laws are used by the Egyptian authorities to manipulate the NGOs working in Egypt, the case is clearly highly political in nature. Follow this link to read Mariz Tadros’s well-informed analysis of the background and questionable nature of the sentencing.

In March of the following year the Egyptian authorities permitted the 17 American NGO staff members to return home. Following their release the case received significantly less coverage in the international media. For those left behind the situation became increasingly dire. As a result, Nancy and a number of the other Egyptians who had been arrested fled the country. Yet, with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Morsi, in June 2012 hopes were momentarily revived. It was thought this government would pursue a more even-handed line. However, little changed. The case continued in a manner that demonstrated the continued stifling of political freedoms. Last week, after a long and emotional wait, the verdict was finally delivered. Nancy was sentenced in absentia and received a maximum five-year prison term. Listen to her response to the ruling and what it suggests for Egypt’s political transition here.

Nancy’s case (and that of her 25 Egyptian NGO colleagues) demonstrates the risks for those who choose to support political freedoms and democratisation in the face of state opposition. Moreover, it exemplifies the serious resistance to, if not, lack of positive reform in Egypt’s post-revolutionary political system. There is mounting evidence that the Egyptian government is taking steps to exclude minority groups, to restrict political dissent, and to concentrate power in the hands of the executive branch of government. As I type these words I ask myself, has democracy been served in the wake of the monumental demonstrations seen in Tahrir Square? And, what kinds of political change have these demonstrations stimulated?

I wrote this blog with a simple desire to show solidarity for a previous PhD colleague and to raise awareness about the tragic circumstances she and her fellow Egyptians find themselves in. When I began writing, ‘fellow Egyptians’ referred to the 25 Egyptians charged alongside Nancy in this NGO crackdown. Yet, now, as I reach the end of this blog I realise that the tragedy not only relates to Nancy and her 25 colleagues, but also extends to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who demonstrated in Tahrir Square for a more democratic future for their country.

Naysan Adlparvar is a PhD candidate within the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team. His research investigates the changing pattern of identity and relations between ethno-sectarian groups in Bamyan, in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan, and assesses how these relations were formed from 1890s to the present day.

Four Months in Cape Town Begin: Questions of race, xenophobia and positionality


Jessica KennedyJessica Kennedy image

It can be hard to explain a ‘work-based learning placement’. Usually people equate it with ‘research’ or an ‘internship’. Then come the questions: if it is research, where are your questionnaires and why is your question so vague? If it is an internship, why do you keep asking so very many questions and making so very many notes?

I am one of those ‘mappers’ that Rosalind referred to in her post about MA in Participation, Power and Social Change, or ‘MAP’. For the last few weeks I have been working with a number of NGOs and social movements in Cape Town, experiencing life here and generally absorbing what is going on around me. I hope to learn more about democratic mediation: the process of individuals and organisations mediating between the people with power, and those without. I want to find out more about how mediators work, what drives them, and the complex dynamics of accountability in which this action takes place.

One of the first things I noticed about this place is how, to a large extent, everything is about race. Standing, sitting, talking and interacting with other people I am acutely aware of my race in a way I haven’t been before.

The pervasive nature of issues of racial differentiation is most obvious in physical spaces. Space here is racialised. Most days I travel into the office by train. Trains have two classes at different prices. Given the intersection of class, race and wealth here, the people that sit in each class of carriage look very different. Gasps of horror from foreign interns when I explain I have got a third class ‘metro’ ticket and querulous looks from Metrorail staff when I say I do not want a first class ‘metro plus’ ticket suggest that, as a foreign white person, I have been crossing some invisible boundary by taking the low class of carriage. Even platforms become segregated: ‘metro’ and ‘metro plus’ carriages are at different ends of the train, so where you stand on the platform says a lot about who you are. If you looked up and down the platform each morning, not knowing about the different classes, you would ask why all the white people were standing together.

’Those are white people buses‘, someone told me about new MyCiti buses brought in for the World Cup. ’Still, it is a good a thing. This way when the buses break down black people don’t have to toyi-toyi[i], a white person just calls up to complain and it’s fixed straight away’.

The different experiences of life hinted at by that comment are evident if you move between spaces in Cape Town. Coloured, white and black people are physically separated in different areas: townships and suburbs. It can be difficult and dangerous to travel between these areas. Recent protests around poor sanitation in some townships caused uproar by physically bringing the stink of broken toilets into the white domain.

It feels like there can be no better place to learn what ‘positionality’ really means.

June 4 Home Affairs Huddle small

Queuing in the rain at Home Affairs office in Cape Town © Jessica Kennedy

This week I spent time at the Home Affairs Regional Office, which processes applications for asylum. Last week, huge queues led to chaos and violence, so as part of a refugee rights organisation I went down to monitor the situation. With me was one other person, a man who happens to be black. Our races underlay all our interactions: this man could strike up conversations with migrants from other African countries, who would ignore me or stop talking when I approached. In contrast, people from Pakistan and Afghanistan would approach me for conversation, then rapidly move away when my colleague approached.

 Our conversations hinged on South Africa’s ongoing problem of xenophobic violence. Issues of race have been complicated by migration. Hostile attitudes towards foreigners seeking refuge in South Africa make questions of nationality as valid as questions of race. This country’s history feels all around you: police practices of stopping ‘foreign-looking’ people on the streets, demanding to see papers and arresting anyone that is not carrying valid documents are often compared to apartheid-era pass laws. Having to run from a police check as I had forgotten to carry my passport added a new dimension to learning about what it means to be a migrant in South Africa!

Of course, race is not all there is to this country, or this city, and there already seems to be a dangerous tendency to bring everything down to questions of race, limiting political conversation. ‘You are from England, aren’t you? You should have stayed there‘. This conversation opening automatically makes me tense. ’Why?’, I ask anxiously. ’Because of the weather of course‘, comes the cheery reply. ’Isn’t it just getting sunny over there? It’s only going to get colder here!

[i] Toyi-toyi is a South African dance strongly associated with public protests.

Jessica Kennedy is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change. A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of month, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

Read other recent blogs about the MA Participation, Power and Social Change:

Preparing and sharing food – co-creating new recipes for women’s empowerment


Devika MenonDevika Menon

Can preparing and sharing food lead to women’s individual and collective empowerment? Does food have the power to enhance women’s agency, give them a voice, and enable their decision-making power?

As a student on the current MA Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) programme, and having a strong passion for preparing food and a background of working for women’s rights, these questions have been running through my mind ever since I came to IDS last September. However, I previously always considered preparing and sharing food as an interest, and not something I can conduct research on. The MAP programme, and my experiences with peers and faculty at IDS has enabled me to also think about these questions from a research point of view, and has given me clarity to carry out my current field placement.

I am currently in New Delhi, working at a masala[1] center, a space where women come together to grind spices and pound flour. The masala center is a part of the activities of the Servants of the People Society, a well-established Indian NGO. The NGO employs fourteen women at the center, and is giving them a livelihood, along with promoting a small-scale industry. The entire process is done by hand, from pounding the spices, to sieving them once they are pounded, and then packing them up for sale.spices

Since the spices are made by hand, their quality is much better than other products in the market, but it is really hard work, and the women work long hours at the center.

My aim through this research is to understand what this space means to these women. Apart from giving them a livelihood, how else is this center contributing to their lives? Does this space give them the chance to reveal what they are really feeling, or do those feelings get hidden because some women may be dominating the space? I am also interested in understanding who has ownership and control over the space, whether it is the women themselves, or other staff members.

Along with visits to the center, I am also developing my knowledge on women’s empowerment, and reflecting on my own practice. Publications at IDS, brought out through the Pathways to Women’s Empowerment programme are proving helpful in this research journey.

As a young woman researcher, I have a lot of battles to fight. One of the women asked me how talking to me will help her in any way, and resisted to having me in her space. Other staff members are also intrigued by my research, not fully understanding the process. One of the ways I am overcoming this is by seeing this research as a co-learning endeavor, where all actors involved learn from each other.

I am also interested in the sensory aspect of food and how spices add to that – the feel, taste and touch of the spices, the aroma they add to food, and the many conversations they nurture. This is also related to communal eating, another concept I am greatly interested in.

For this purpose, along with visits to the center, I also plan to engage in conversation with strong women from my family, and other professionals who are involved with preparing and sharing food. Their experiences, along with my own cooking exploits in these months, will surely make for very interesting research.

Devika Menon is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP). A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of months, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

[1] ‘Masala’ is a hindi word for spices