Engendering Everyday Resistance

Hart, Gillian. 1991. “Engendering Everyday Resistance.” Journal of Peasant Studies. 19(1): 93-121.

Gillian Hart’s much-cited article “Engendering Everyday Resistance” seeks to answer why women in the Muda region of Malaysia came “to define and prosecute their interests as workers, whereas men [continued] to adopt a far more deferential stance” (93). Hart finds that the already gendered forms of collective work and women’s marginalization from patronage politics gave them more means and incentives to present their interests collectively as workers. Seen processually these gendered dynamics show the inextricable—and potentially radical—links between local community politics, the workplace, and the household, which are as important for men as they are for women. A companion of these arguments is that Hart challenges James Scott’s “everyday forms of peasant resistance” thesis by showing that a more gender-sensitive analysis reveals a broader and perhaps more forceful politics of resistance at work in Muda.

The shifts that Hart traces are put in the context of state-oriented economic reforms under the New Economic Policy (NEP), which among other things increased state patronage networks in the countryside amid the broader restructuring (98). An Arab-inspired Islamization of society also introduced or reinforced a more rigidly defined gendered division of labor. In this context, a pervasive and increasing ideology of male responsibility (supposedly breadwinners) was not matched by a an increased financial wherewithal—for women, who put food on the table in daily practice, the contradictions did not go unnoticed. (This was particularly true for lower-class women working outside the home, than it was for middle class women who were more dependent on male incomes.)

As Hart notes, “Not only are men incorporated into political patronage relations, while women are largely excluded: in addition, they are confronted with a principle that defines them as superior to and responsible for women, simultaneously with an incapacity to put this principle into material practice in the domestic sphere” (114-115).

It was also good to be reminded of Joan Scott’s call for

histories that focus on women’s experiences and analyse the ways in which politics construct gender and gender constructs politics. Feminist history then becomes not the recounting of the great deeds performed by women but the exposure of the often silent and hidden operations of gender that are nonetheless present and defining forces in the organisation of most societies. (116)

Finally, Hart’s critique of Scott mainly revolves on what she sees as his voluntarist conceptualization of peasant agency as well as that of an essentialized peasant engaged in covert struggle against “external” forces in order to stay a peasant. Hart also critiques Scott’s bracketing of the form and class-character of the state. Among her most important conclusions is that

the explanation of gender-differentiated labour relations requires a conceptualisation of agency which recognises multiple (and possibly contradictory) sources of identity and interests. Far from being given and fixed, identities and interests are forged through political struggle (in its extended sense) on multiple and intersecting sites. Not only are women and men differently positioned through social roles and the sexual division of labour; in addition, these struggles are informed in crucially important ways by representations of masculinity/femininity.

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