Keeping a Close Eye on Protests

The URPP Asia and Europe’s annual conference “Traveling Norms and the Politics of Contention” (October 24–26, 2013) explored issues including political protests, global protests, anti-nuclear movements, land grabs in South Asia, the setting up of special economic zones, and citizenship in the Arab world. It concluded with a discussion of constitutions and human rights. The theme of the conference was introduced by the opening panel on political protest, which emphasized that political theory has a paradoxical past of trying to overcome politics and pretentions as it faces various contestations.

Thiruni Kelegama

The keynote by Paul Routledge (University of Leeds) addressed the contentious norms of ‘food sovereignty’ and the ‘politics of occupation.’ By speaking of the traveling norms of food sovereignty through the likes of La Via Campesina—an international coalition of small farmers’ organizations—as opposed to the hegemony of food security norms, Routledge claimed that it was not possible to separate food sovereignty from food security. Using the example of the “Climate Caravan” of 2011—a protest march advocating climate justice around Bangladesh in an attempt to inform people and instigate solidarity—he emphasized the importance of forging a politics that extends place-based interests and experiences, or a Gramscian idea of solidarity, which is specific enough to mobilize or empower those concerned.

The panel on anti-nuclear movements brought together perspectives ranging from reactions to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan and abroad, the impact of the disasters in Fukushima and Chernobyl on India’s anti-nuclear movements and energy policy, and the post-Fukushima environmental movement and protest in the UK. Against the background of theories of change and with Germany and Japan as examples, Daniel Aldrich (Purdue University) engaged with the critical role of political frameworks when analyzing Fukushima. Using India as an example, M.V. Ramana (Princeton University) revealed that in spite of many protests and large-scale opposition, nuclear power still enjoys an important priority in foreign policy since Nehru introduced the Atomic Energy Bill in 1948.

Garment factories and military bases

Protests concerning land grabs in South Asia and the role of special economic zones (SEZ) as spaces of exception and norm production were dealt with when Neloufer de Mel (University of Colombo) talked on the nexus between militarization and establishing SEZs in post-war Sri Lanka. By looking into the role of these garment factories, which are always located near military bases and typically under intense military surveillance, de Mel examined how women working in the factories, while recognizing the authority imposed on them, fought to create their own space of self-determination. Michael Levien (Johns Hopkins University) addressed the politics of India’s special economic zones and discussed the variegated governmental policies regarding SEZs, given that the number of protests against SEZs is on the rise. According to Levien, these protests, which in turn become movements, are rooted in the local dynamics of social inequality and rivalry between subnational political systems. Loraine Kennedy (CEIAS) summed up the theme of the panel by stating that in South Asia, and especially in India, SEZs are seen as “exceptional” and therefore tend to have an “exceptional” regulatory framework.

Talking of the challenges and opportunities surrounding new feminism in North Africa, Zakia Salime (Rutgers University) conversed with the theme of negotiating citizenship in the Arab world. Through the introduction of the concept of “new feminism” as opposed to already existing theories of feminism, she examined the movement that emerged in February 2010 in Morocco as well as protests in Tunisia. She showed how these protests, like those in Tahrir Square of 2011, did not obey the norms of a collective framework, but instead can be seen as “personal revolutions.” They neither fit into the already existing revolutionary narrative nor into current patriarchal models, but instead form a new channel where individual women take on their own revolutions by creating their own stories. Sherene Seikaly (American University in Cairo) exposed the roller coaster of hope and despair and what it meant to live in Egypt over the past five years. Based on a historical study of the Arab feminist movement from the beginning of the 20th century, Roa’a Gharaibeh (University of Bordeaux) undertook a micro-sociological analysis of individuals who called themselves feminists in Jordan and Lebanon.

Challenging Western supremacy

While the larger theme of the conference was approached in a variety of ways by the renowned scholars who attended, the Young Scholars Panel proved to be an interesting space to observe how doctoral students at the URPP Asia and Europe are engaged with similar themes and ideas. Tobias Weiss brought to light the role of media in Japanese reactions to Fukushima. In her presentation on squatter settlements in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Eliza Isabaeva posed critical questions, such as who are squatters and how illegal settlements become legal when looking at the relationship between state and society in a Post-Soviet space. Speaking about the death penalty under the Palestinian Basic Law, Motaz Alnaouq demonstrated how his research fits into the larger framework of international law, while looking at how international bodies see the death penalty in Palestine. Ulrich Brandenburg’s presentation on the relationship between Japan and the West critically looked at how the international image of Japan as a rising Asian power was intrinsically tied to the idea of a challenge to Western supremacy from the Russo-Japanese War 1904/05 up to the Second World War. As a consequence, Japan could quite successfully present herself as the defender of non-Westerners against a racist world order in her war efforts against the British and the Americans.

Overlooked political protest

The international and diverse quality of perspective provided by the speakers proved helpful in establishing the main insight of all panels that political protest is taking place in frequently overlooked forums. It is this very lack of critical engagement by many researchers that marginalizes the analysis of all too often dichotomized ideas of what does or does not constitute protest and what exactly an individual or collective act of protest is. By questioning and transgressing such dichotomies, the conference succeeded in highlighting areas for future research.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 3/2014, pp. 18–19)