Letting the Field Speak

A Talk with Amya Agarwal about her new Book Contesting Masculinities and Women’s Agency in Kashmir

The Centre’s Communications Team recently had the opportunity to sit down with Associate Fellow Dr Amya Agarwal to discuss her new book, Contesting Masculinities and Women’s Agency in Kashmir. The book, which is a result of her PhD research as well as intensive engagement at the Centre during her fellowship (Dec. 2019–March 2021), examines militarized masculinities and agency in the Kashmir conflict.

The field research for the project was conducted in the Kashmir valley between 2013 and 2016 as part of Agarwal’s PhD thesis, and then later articulated into its current format with the help of collaborations both at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research and elsewhere. Agarwal explains that her methodological approach was broadly an ethnographic one, which augments interviewees’ statements with textual analysis and examinations of media output, as well as folk songs, graffiti, and poetry. Those interviewed belonged to diverse groups of militarized stakeholders in Kashmir; men and women whose experiences as state and non-state actors in the conflict help to better understand the role that gender plays in conflict situations. This increasingly sharp focus of the book proceeded from a realization of the restrictions of a normative gender analysis.

The  initial aim of my study was solely to explore the complexities of  women’s agency in the Kashmir resistance - but after first few fieldtrips, readings and some reflection - I realized the significance of foregrounding militarized  masculinities in order to arrive at a more meaningful understanding of agency (of both men and women)in the conflict. As opposed to the general idea of masculinity associated with only violence in conflicts, the study reveals the co-existence of multiple, overlapping and often paradoxical masculinities forming a web/mosaic.

Disentangling this web, according to Agarwal, is a process which involves exploring the construction, enactment and interplay of masculinities. Focusing particularly on military/ militarized masculinities in the book, the study is broadly driven through these questions: What are the meanings and expectations of manhood attached to the state military and militancy? How do these masculinities intersect with religion and class? How has the meaning of manhood in the conflict changed over a period of time? Do militarized men actually live up to these masculine expectations? What stories do these masculinities tell us about the narratives of femininity in conflict? How do women navigate these narratives and exercise agency?

At the outset of the text, the author identifies her area of inquiry as one that has gone under-researched in the past. ‘So far’, she writes ‘there is a limited exploration of masculinities in the Kashmir conflict’. The existing discussions on gender, she argues, ‘have a tendency to focus mainly on the perspectives of women…However, an equally significant part–how gender influences men and masculinities–often gets somewhat overlooked in the process’ (1). A significant impetus of the text’s genesis was the acknowledgement that ‘the study of women’s choices, roles, and perspectives remains incomplete without studying the politics of masculinities in conflict’ (2). Following from this recognition of a well-rounded understanding, Agarwal aims, through the study of the local dynamics in the Kashmir conflict, at contributing to ‘the universal study of men and masculinities in conflicts in a transnational world’ (3).

This goal is not without its caveats however. The author stresses the importance of context, as well as a general awareness that a great deal of the existing literature on masculinities and conflict in IR has come from the West. This indicates that before universalizing the findings of her text, one must take into account the local realities and insights gains from the field itself.

My entry point when I foreground masculinities is that each local context has a different set of indicators and ways of enacting masculinities, so it cannot really be generalized…Most of the literature on masculinities in conflict-affected societies in IR emanates from the West and written by Western scholars; the application of those frameworks are not completely adequate in contexts like Kashmir and elsewhere in the Global South. So, there is a need to develop frameworks relevant to the context that also contribute towards diversifying the study of masculinities in international politics.

In both the text itself, and through our discussion with Dr Agarwal, there is a recurring theme of ‘letting the field speak’. Derived from feminist research methodology, this concept has broad implications both for the analysis and presentation of the text, as well as for the research and interviewing process itself.

It is important to let the field speak, so as to place emphasis on the experiences of the people who are actually living in the conflict. In that spirit, the book presents many narratives and excerpts from the interviews. A people centred approach helps not only uncover the tacit ways in which gender operates and agency is creatively deployed; but may also offer more suitable pathways to peace. An important lesson from my field research experience is to – listen to the field, reflect and don’t try to fit the existing theoretical boxes.

Proceeding from this idea, and well-represented in the text, is a conspicuous self-reflexivity surrounding positionality as researcher, scholar, and author. Agarwal devotes a great deal of contemplation to the ethics of her engagement in her research and writing process. For example, interviewees, collaborators, and guides have all been anonymized for the purposes of doing no harm to those involved. Terminology is also used in a very deliberate way, eschewing terms which reflect colonial connotations, for instance. Agarwal also includes in her text a very personal and transparent exploration of her trepidation around publishing, writing, ‘I was deeply concerned about my incapacity as an author and the incommensurability of language to do justice to the profound experience shared by some of my interviewees. Whenever I wrote something, I felt that a lot got lost in translation’ (8).

Though in some ways a meta-analysis of the modern ethics of ethnographic research, the text also presents an array of thoughtful engagements with the subject matter. Having no familial connection to the Kashmir region, Agarwal developed a deep personal connection with its people and their stories.

It became a personal project because I met people who shared their profound experiences with me and that shaped my own world view differently. Everytime I would go back to Delhi after my field work, the conversations stayed with me. These conversations sometimes empowered me in my own life journey. In particular, conversations with a mother of a killed son and one with a state army personnel who shared his trauma of living under stressful conditions – both provided strength in some of my own life experiences. In many ways, it felt spiritual. I reflect more through a few anecdotes in the book.

The text makes intriguing contributions to the understanding of masculinity in conflict situations by presenting an extremely nuanced view that undercuts traditional dichotomies of gender. An exploration of men’s trauma and coping helps to undermine conventional assumptions about violence and militancy while at the same time expanding the understanding of gender roles, behaviour, and societal expectations of both men and women in the framing of gender performativity. Agarwal finally suggests ways to incorporate the findings of her case study on Kashmir into future investigations of gender and its complex interrelations in conflict.

Andrew Costigan

About the Author

Dr Amya Agarwal is a Senior Researcher at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institut at the University of Freiburg and Teaching Fellow at University College Freiburg. She was a Postdoc Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research from December 2019–March 2021, during which time she was part of the research group 'Pathways and Mechanisms of Global Cooperation'.

Following her time at the Centre, Amya continued her affiliation as an Associate Fellow, working closely with the our team of researchers. Her fellowship project 'Alternative Perspectives on Cooperation: Construction and Mobility of Ideas and Practices in Conflict' has been reformulated into a chapter in the forthcoming book on 'Imagining Pathways to Global Cooperation', edited by Centre researchers Christine Unrau, Bettina Mahlert, and Sigrid Quack.

Amya is also currently co-editing - with Christine Unrau and Simon Koschut - a special issue on emotional proximity and distance in world politics for the Journal of International Relations and Development. As an extension of the book project Contesting Masculinities and Women’s Agency in Kashmir, a chapter on civilian masculinities in the Kashmir conflict for a volume on masculinities and transitional justice is also in the works. 

About the Publication

Agarwal, Amya (2022). Contesting Masculinities and Women's Agency in Kashmir. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Part of the series 'Men and Masculinities in a Transnational World', Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Series Editors: Simona Sharoni (SUNY Plattsburgh) and Henri Myrttinen

"This interdisciplinary series highlights innovative approaches applied to understanding the experiences and struggles of boys and men around the world. Geared towards both academic and non-academic audiences and featuring cutting-edge analyses and case studies on the formations, contestations, and transformations of men and masculinities, books in this series can be adopted as undergraduate and graduate-level texts and will be of interest to policymakers and practitioners." (from the publisher)


What is the significance of gender and masculinities in understanding conflict?

Through an ethnographic study conducted between 2013 and 2016, this book explores the politics of competing and sometimes overlapping masculinities represented by the state armed forces and the non-state actors in the Kashmir valley. In addition, the book broadens the understanding of women’s agency through its engagement with the construction, performance, and interplay of masculinities in the conflict.

Combining existing elements of both feminist research and critical scholarship on men and masculinities, the book highlights the significance of foregrounding the interplay of men’s identities in conflicts to understand agency in a meaningful way. Through the focus on the simultaneous play of multiple masculinities, the book also questions the oversimplified and monolithic usage of masculinity being associated only with violence in conflicts.

The empirical data in the book includes interviews and narratives of multiple stakeholders belonging to diverse vantage points in the Kashmir conflict. Some of these include activists, widows, wives of the disappeared, ex-militants, surrendered militants, participants of the stone-pelting movement, mothers of sons killed in the conflict, women representatives of the village Halqa Panchayats, and army personnel. The book also draws from alternative material in the form of graffiti, folk songs, poetry on graves, and slogans. Through anecdotal reminiscence, the author reflects on the challenges of field research in Kashmir that served as an opportunity for self-contemplation.