Intersecting Spatial-Environmental Perspectives with Urban Health
I Life-Worlds of Women Vendors: A Global Scan
A Transnational Discourse on Gender
Women in the Global South, particularly poor women, have been rendered invisible in urban theory. Peake (2016), who identifies as a feminist geographer, brings to light how dominant urban scholars marginalize the positionality of women in their analyses of cities and regions. She gives examples of contemporary and classic texts, like Amin and Thrift’s Cities: Reimagining the Urban (2002), which offers a comprehensive and global survey of urban conditions while completely ignoring issues of gender. Peake also points out that in the classic text by Manuel Castell The City and the Grassroots, women are present in the beginning but soon fade out by the end of the book, implying their minimal role in theory development. I mention these two books because they are considered pillars of urban theory, and are cited continually in publications that cover spatial issues in cities. Even Lefebvre’s Production of Space reinforces my belief that many of these classic Western texts regard cities only as theoretical objects of study. I deem these “musings” as overly abstract with limited practical application to making a difference in women vendors’ lives.
To situate women vendors in the world, it is first important for Western researchers and practitioners, including feminist scholars, to change their ways of looking at poor women in the Global South as subjects in need of development and enlightenment. Parnell and Robinson’s (2013) article is an example of a post-neoliberal insight into urban planning for cities in the Global South by women in the Global North. Although long overdue, this approach is still lacking and inadequate. A truly beneficial approach would be to engage more fully with the women’s lived experiences, everyday struggles, and priorities for living and working, and “to seek an understanding of the complex macro- and microcosms upon which the vast majority of the world’s urban working poor pin their hopes and dreams” (Peake, 2016, p. 225). Global-conscious urban feminists suggest that a collective theory production, or praxis for that matter, is required to understand women across cultures. This entails not only collecting data and writing about poor women, but exerting effort to breakdown the stratified distinction between theory and method (Lock-Swarr and Nagar, 2010). In other words, women must be involved in knowledge production. A critical transnational feminist praxis is put forth as an intellectual activity that involves setting comparative urban agendas and new creative methodologies, engaging in participatory dialogues that lead to open-ended ways of producing knowledge that is tentative, fluid, and likely to change (Lock-Swarr and Nagar, 2010; Robinson, 2011). By focusing on the everyday lives and struggles of women across cultures, transnational feminists can ensure that urban theory does not discount poor women in the conversation.
To reiterate, the need to embrace pluralism in the study of Asian cities and the women vendors who occupy their spaces encompasses the validation of case studies as legitimate research material. Nunez (1993) qualifies the use of such case studies for a small number of seven interviewees in her analysis. In an apologetic tone, she justifies her approach by “trying to keep a balance between a minimum account of women’s experiences and the development of their narratives” (Nunez, 1993, p. 75). In my decolonizing journey, the reading of places requires a constant reminder that I do not have to engage in a positivist view to validate research studies. In other words, knowledge that comes from research does not have to be generalizable in order for it to be valid. Celebrating pluralism and being comfortable in analyzing diverse experiences of women vendors and their distinct places is enough of a compelling research approach. For example, Nunez (1993) describes the lived realities of women who have been domesticated all their lives, migrate to the cities, and work for the first time. She narrates the experiences of their journeys, going from insecurity, shock of coming out into public spaces, and learning to survive on the streets. She then documents the results of their actions — autonomy and empowerment.
I tend to be cautious about supporting ideologies and arguments that deliver without rooting them in authentic experiences. If transnational feminists are able to recognize and acknowledge that they are theorizing and writing from a position of privilege, then I believe they are on track and should be accorded the right to formulate new and ground-breaking thoughts and methodologies to impact urban policies and practices. To me, non-researchers of the place have to undergo an honest and deep reflective process in order to represent the voices of poor women. I would also add that if scholars are sincere about taking on the challenge of theorizing global-conscious feminism, they should be willing to start their own process of peeling the layers of biases engrained in their minds by Westerncentric and hegemonic ideologies. These women should be able to clear their heads of the “savior mentality” and “femplaining” as if women in the Global South are not competent to think and speak for themselves.