Dr Mirna Guha is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Course Leader for our MA Sociology. A political sociologist and interdisciplinary scholar, she researches and teaches on gendered inequalities, gender-based violence, social justice, and gender and development.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently on research sabbatical and working on two projects.
The first is a manuscript for a book, a monograph which explores socioeconomic marginalization, sexual politics, developmental governance and everyday violence in the lives of women who sell sex in urban India. I undertook life history interviews and participant observation with forty women who had formerly and were actively selling sex across two prominent and historical red light areas, and residing in anti-trafficking shelters and villages in eastern India.
This fieldwork alerted me to the ways in which the violence in these women's lives were folded into very ordinary relationships, specifically everyday gender and social relationships. However, when you look at developmental interventions which aim to address the violence in their lives, we find that the violence is often spectacularised, exceptionalised, and framed as anti-trafficking or vulnerability to AIDS. The problem with this is that these interventions demand certain expressions of agency, victimhood, choice, and exploitation that are often disconnected from the complex factors that drive marginalised women into selling sex, and their experiences within it.
So in the book I argue that this insistence on what is violence, what is resistance, what is choice, what is coercion, and what is legitimate, in this sense is frankly quite dangerous, and a form of violence in itself. These narrow and imposed ideas often disregard the lived experiences of women - that their experiences of violence are not exceptional to sex work, but draw from everyday gender and social norms around women's autonomy, sexuality, mobility and participation in the informal labour market.
My second project is funded under the Safe and Inclusive Communities theme, and is an investigation into the vulnerabilities of Asian women around domestic abuse in the South Asian diaspora of the East of England. This region is marked by very low levels of representation of Asian and broadly ethnic minority women within local politics and policymaking. It's also very underserved by the presence of specialist “by and for” services. These are services led by women from particularly marginalized communities, and their aim is to serve women from those communities. A recent report by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner highlights that ethnic minority women report feeling twice as safe when they can access such services compared to their peers who don't access any, but these services are six times less likely to be funded than their generalist counterparts.
So, to understand women's vulnerabilities against this context, I interviewed 15 women from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds from across Cambridge, and my research team analysed 530 police records involving Asian victims in the county. Across my sabbatical, we have been developing a paper outlining the findings from this research for a journal on gender-based violence.
What one thing inspired you to do what you do now?
I think it was the experience of growing up in India. I'm a middle class woman from a privileged caste, but at the same time I was also attuned to the fact that there are certain spaces which are quite difficult for women to participate in equally with men - for example, public spaces in India. Although Indian women are out and about - they're working, they're traveling, they're going to school and work - these spaces can often be sites of violence in the lives of women across all sections of society in different ways. And often this does get highlighted within media. For example, we had the infamous Delhi rape case in 2012 which made global headlines. But at the same time, there's also experiences of violence that happen within homes - and this is globally, not just in India. For example, child sexual abuse or domestic abuse, perpetrated by people known to victims, which often don't get the same kind of attention.
Growing up, I was starting to become aware of these contradictions and what kinds of violence are spoken about and what kinds aren't. One particular issue that really drew me to this work was child sexual abuse. When I was a university student, I was trying to understand how we can address this issue, and started working with a couple of my friends and other young people to form a peer group to raise awareness on the issue. There was a lot of silence on it back then. Things have changed because now there's a bill for it in in the Indian legislation, and it's talked about in schools too. But at that point, we really needed to do something to challenge the silence around it.
That's the first thing that got me started working on social justice and issues of violence, and that led me to working on other forms of social injustice, other forms of violence.
What’s the most valuable thing you took away from your own education?
I think the researcher I am today, a lot of it is owed to my university education. I went to Jadavpur University in Calcutta and did the Bachelors and Master’s in English. I was interested in English literature and I wanted to develop my understanding of it, and it was through this that I encountered feminist literature, feminist scholarship, and through that the discipline of gender studies.
What that did was make me think very interdisciplinarily about a particular issue, and I think that's the beauty of studying humanities. Even though I'm a social sciences academic now, I always talk about the value of education and humanities because it really makes you think about social issues, global issues, in a very interdisciplinary way. I may have been writing about literary concepts, but these are concepts that mirror what was going on in society at that time.
We were using different ways in which to talk about it and to write about it, and I think that informs my research now. I don't restrict myself to a particular discipline. I call myself a political sociologist, but I am an interdisciplinary scholar. I believe in the power of the arts and the media in making social change, and I always try and draw on this as much as possible within my work, because I think if we can leverage the power of all disciplines, then we'll be able to come together to solve social and global issues faster.
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
Looking back at my academic journey, I was not your straight A student in school. It took me a while, particularly through primary school and again in high school. In middle school I think I was all right for a bit! But in high school and primary school, I found it very hard to align my interests with what the education system was telling me was important. There was, and still is in schools in India but also globally, a massive emphasis on STEM and particularly maths and sciences. Obviously these are really important subjects, and I encourage women and girls to not hold back in exploring them, but I often feel that the ways in which these subjects are taught can be made more interesting.
So I felt alienated by the education system a little bit in school, but then I started to find things that I loved reading about and that I loved doing in university. That enabled me to develop a PhD project that brought all my interests together - my interest in gender justice; my interest in the lived realities of women; my interest in social inequalities. So I think the advice that I’d give to my younger self is to not lose hope. To remember to keep looking for things that interest you, or things that will hold your passion, because it will come. Just keep doing what you're doing, and believe in yourself. You're going to get there one day. If you told my younger self she was going to be an academic and a lecturer, she would have laughed in your face! But here I am now, so that's what I tell my students as well.
What have you learned about Cambridge that other people might not know?
I've lived here since 2015, so a fair few years. What I would say is that Cambridge has many faces, and it takes time to find them all. Obviously when you come to Cambridge the first thing you see is the University of Cambridge, all their properties, and you see the gown as being intrinsic to the city. But actually, when you start to look, there’s a life outside of Cambridge University. There’s the startups that develop from it, that have led to the formation of the science park and the big professional community. Then there are the communities that have migrated from parts of London and different parts of the world that have made Cambridge their home.
We see a little bit of this on Mill Road, a little bit of the diversity, but then we don't really see a participation of these communities in everyday life in Cambridge. And I think the surprise for me was finding this vibrant migrant diaspora community in Cambridge, which led me to the work I'm doing now as well, and I hadn't expected that. I think in London it's a lot more visible. It's a big city and you know there are different areas where there are certain communities that have settled, for example, Brick Lane and the Bangladeshi community. We obviously don't have that in Cambridge as it’s quite small, but there is a lot of diversity in Cambridge. You just have to look for it.