Tulley on Gajjala, 'Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women'

Radhika Gajjala
Christine Tulley

Radhika Gajjala. Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women. New York: Altamira Press, 2004. x + 152 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7591-0692-5; $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7591-0691-8.

Reviewed by Christine Tulley (Department of English, The University of Findlay) Published on H-DigiRhet (February, 2008)

Third World Women in the Digital Diaspora

Part manifesto, part ethnographic study, part dialogue, Cyber Selves provides a provocative look at Radhika Gajjala's attempt to form cyberfeminist electronic spaces for a variety of audiences, including South Asian women, academics, and writers. While analyzing the content of some of the e-mail discussion lists that she has created, Gajjala also points to the potential disruption that her presence as an ethnographer has on the process of electronic dialogue. This text contributes to an emerging number of case studies of online communities of women and a body of interdisciplinary literature of postcolonial, communication, digital, and feminist studies, including Feminist Cyberspaces: Mapping Gendered Academic Spaces (1999), a collection of feminist academic Web spaces coedited by Kristine Blair and Pamela Takayoshi, and Isabel Zorn's essay "Virtual Community Building for Networking among Women."[1] Gajjala has organized her text into three main sections: the development of a cyborg-diaspora and resulting "refusal" of participants to be represented in her research; the process of building cyberfeminist Webs; and finally, the outcome of these findings and what they illustrate about the intersection of cyberfeminism and "third world" dialogues. She includes a prologue and epilogue representing the type of creative writing she did on the e-mail list.

Cyber Selves aims to reveal the contradictions in analyzing digital dialogue of South Asian women, while disrupting and playing with the scholarly monograph in the process. Although attempts to stretch the boundaries of the academic monograph are certainly not new in academia, few texts accomplish this blending of tasks as successfully as Cyber Selves. Rather than just experimenting with format for experimentation's sake, this study grapples with essential concerns about how gender, race, and nationality are complicated via the lens of technology. Constructing her study almost as a paper-based hypertext of sorts, Gajjala develops unlikely and intriguing links among discussion list postings of feminist creative writing, sample list postings of debates among South Asian women about the status of South Asian women, and detailed research of the possibilities and limitations of women-centered Web spaces for third world women.

In part 1, "Cyborg-Diaspora to the SAWnet Refusal," the author outlines her early attempts to form and then study the e-mail list South Asian Women's Network (SAWnet) that she formed in 1994. As a participant (both on the list and as a "South Asian" writer) and an ethnographer, she describes the goal of her project as follows: "I wanted to see if it was/is possible for the privileged (only women with material privilege had access to the Internet) South-Asian woman to produce her own countersentences to narratives regarding her identity--thus finding a 'space' to speak from" (p. 19). What she found, in response, was that other SAWnet participants raised questions about her identity as an ethnographer and demonstrated a refusal to participate. They were concerned about how she would protect their privacy and what methodologies she would use to represent her findings. Although she invited members to comment on and discuss drafts of the project, several members did not feel that Gajjala was in a position to generalize about her findings on the list as this would continue to reproduce stereotypical representations.

As a result of this initial experience and resistance Gajjala faced, in parts 2 and 3, she continues to question "the ability of new technologies to further equality," and after meeting many of the participants at a conference, she realized the limitations of trying to represent these complex women by one-dimensional e-mail posts (p. 47). She follows up the study with a discussion of three other discussion lists in an attempt to examine the problems inherent in the list medium itself and notes that "discourse (however well intentioned and democratic the rhetoric and ideals contained within it) becomes limiting to the ability to produce counterspheres" (p. 55). Therefore, the idealistic vision of a women-centered digital space/diaspora is complicated by contentious posts and silence by members in attempts to allow a counterdiscourse to be revealed. After experimenting with various feminist Web spaces, Gajjala comes to the conclusion that "these spaces would probably have worked as collaborative and dialogic spaces if they were based in strategic coalitions working toward a concrete common goal meaningful to all members of the lists" (p. 74). Building on this notion, the last two essays in the text examine what the construction of digital spaces means for researchers situated in the academy and who study third world communities that are not easily represented by digital discourse.

Structurally, the text is somewhat problematic. In her introduction, Gajjala notes that the chapters "can be read as interrelated--following major themes in relation to feminist ethnographies, South Asian digital diasporas, and 'Third World' critiques of cyberfeminism--but they can also be read as discrete essays for particular class syllabi as necessary" (p. 3). When reading this text, I envisioned the chapters as nodes linked together by the voice of reflection and self-disclosure by the author whose own status is fluid, located between the first world, where she lives and works, and her third world background. Further, these chapters are interrupted and interrogated by questions and resentments from list participants. While suppressing some textual elements that do not fit is often a necessary part of academic revision, Gajjala attempts to incorporate these elements, and as a result, though her efforts are admirable, sometimes the connections between chapters, though implied, are unclear.

Complicating the structure of the book is the inclusion of two essays coauthored with Annapurna Mamidipudi in part 3. A major critique in the text, admittedly, is that digital spaces often silence the voices of South Asian women. Bringing the voice of Mamidipudi, a South Asian woman who works and lives in a third world space, counteracts this critique to some extent. The larger problem for me, however, is that the two coauthored essays at the end of the text do not address in detail the questions Gajjala raises in chapter 5, "Building Cyberfeminist Webs." "What would women-centered practices of ICT [Information, Communications and Technology] design and use look like?" "How would women-friendly technological environments be structured?" And, "how might it be possible to develop Cyberfeminist strategies for the development of technological environments and practices that will be empowering for various marginalized populations of the world" (p. 75)? The text ultimately closes with a challenge for other researchers to try to address these limitations of working with participants whose experiences are not easily represented within digital communities. Gajjala's strength is her attempt to mediate the celebratory discourse of the liberation available for women using technology and the digital identities of subaltern subjects suspicious of this discourse. In addition, though the structural issues of the text are somewhat problematic (which Gajjala acknowledges), the text, as a whole, is an intriguing study of how some of these "extra pieces" might fit together within the confines of an academic work (p.75).


[1]. Isabel Zorn, "Virtual Community Building for Networking among Women," in Gender and the Digital Economy: Perspectives from the Developing World, ed. Cecilia Ng Choon Sim and Swasti Mitter (New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2005), pp. 186-210.

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Citation: Christine Tulley. Review of Gajjala, Radhika, Cyber Selves: Feminist Ethnographies of South Asian Women. H-DigiRhet, H-Net Reviews. February, 2008. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=14163

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