Reflecting on positionality /self-locating

As some of my CAPI peers have written, the question of privilege and it’s complex intricacies come up often when traveling to a new place. Even before we left, our pre-departure contained numerous readings and conversations on the topic. Situated biography, positionality, and self location are all terms used to describe a process of understanding how a person occupies a place in relation to other people and groups of people. This process posits that every person’s experience in the world is influenced by identifiers such as race, sexual orientation, gender, class socio-economic status, physical and mental ability, age, language and other factors, and that these identifiers create positions for people to exist in, and relate to each other from.  The term privilege is often used in relation to positionality and highlights the ways that some people benefit in ways that others do not.

The focus of ARROW is to further women’s access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and  Rights  (SRHR). Privilege and positionality plays into this when we look at the different ways in which women enjoy their access to SRHR. My own privilege and position in the world have often led me to seek clarification from someone discussing their experience, because it is unrelatable to me.

A recent example of this came from conversation that I was having with one of ARROW’s partners. Casually she mentioned that one of the barriers for her work was communicating with women, because of the ‘cellphone problem’. At first, I assumed that she was referring to problems with a lack of services or economic means to afford cell phone services. It was later, when she again referred to this problem, specifically in relation to speaking with women, that I was compelled to ask what exactly the cell phone problem was.

She explained to me that although many women have cell phones, in her experience the use was highly regulated by their husbands in the contexts and communities she was working with. This provides barriers for ARROW’s partner organization, because many of the women they work with were unable to consent to meetings or answer calls or messages, without approval from their male counterparts. This regional context for women was something that I had trouble to relating to in my Canadian contextual experience.

I thought of my own experiences of being a woman in Canada, and how they led me to identify as a feminist, and work for a women’s rights organization. I also wondered about the experiences that led my colleagues at ARROW, who come from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Fiji, Nepal, India, and The Philippines to identify as such and work for women’s rights.

I asked one colleague what influenced her to work for women’s SRHR, her story follows.

“In 2005 I went to Indonesia to attend a short course at the State Islamic University of Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta. The program was an annual scholarship provided by Ford Foundation. This was where I met Fatimah, a Tsunami and civil conflict survivor from Aceh. Somewhere in the middle of the course, participants from around the Asian region were made to give a report on the gender situation of their home country. Fatimah didn’t speak English, and had requested for me to translate her presentation to English from Indonesian. Nothing prepared me for what I thought was a simple assignment to help a course mate. Fatimah recounted the days after Tsunami, how pregnant women’s needs were ignored, women who have lost their husbands were not given a food ration card so some were forced to perform sexual acts to be able to feed their families. Rape was still a rather complex situation to report, because the perpetrators were the authorities, and the rape survivors were not able to confide in medical professionals in fear of confidentiality being broken – which happened all the time, because they were in resource poor settings. She held my hand and I could feel it tremor as she spoke. There was not a dry eye in the audience, and I had to choke back my tears to be able to continue helping her translate what she had to say. After her presentation ended, I had to step outside the lecture room from the intensity of the whole experience. Fatimah came outside, hugged me and she said “Thank you for helping me. You were my voice”.

The story from my colleague, and experience of Fatimah, is one of many stories of women’s rights being violated. I realized that each of us at ARROW, and women everywhere, have had very different experiences, but that within these varied experiences, there is also a sense of camaraderie with women everywhere within the movement for equal rights.