The Risks of Acknowledgment: Grassroots Feminist Performance in South Asia and the Diaspora
South Asian feminists, at home and abroad, often employ vernacular cultural traditions
and life testimonies in grassroots political performances. How do these performances
invite interest from audiences in issues of social justice and human rights? Why do these
artistic transformations encourage deliberation and debate in the public sphere? Drawing
upon and extending scholarship in rhetoric and recognition studies, Professor Garlough
suggests that the persuasive potential of these performances stems from the ways that
life testimonies and vernacular folk practices serve as hermeneutical resources for
rhetorical invention, what she terms critical play. This transfiguration of artistic forms
invites involvement from audiences, who are witnesses and participants in its remaking.
She first explores this through her fieldwork with members of feminist groups in Gujarat, India, who write, distribute, and perform street plays to encourage deliberation about issues
such as sex-selection abortion, dowry death, and communal violence. Turning to her
fieldwork in San Francisco, CA with the diasporic feminist collective South Asian
Sisters, she also considers the ways an annual performance of Yoni ki Baat (Our
Vaginas Speak) encourages community members to re-consider issues of rape,
domestic violence, and incest. She asserts that in both contexts, through critical play
with traditional tropes, figures, and life narratives, these women engage in striking acts
of social resistance and political advocacy.
Professor Garlough’s research, most broadly, engages with rhetorical theory, critical social
theory, feminist theory, and performance/performativity theory. Through these frameworks, she explores the ways that marginalized groups with political agendas use the cultural resources at their disposal to advance various modes of identification, encourage deliberation and debate, and broaden political consciousness and engagement. That is, why she is particularly interested in how people seek to persuade others in the public sphere using means other than traditional platform oratory, relying instead on transformations of traditional and popular culture for rhetorical ends. In looking at these issues, Professor Garlough has focused her research on the rhetorical performances of feminist groups in India and diasporic South Asian communities in the United States. In both cases, she uses ethnographic fieldwork methods to gather data.