Gender, Agency, and Consent in the Global South

by Julia Kowalski, University of Notre Dame

Books Reviewed in this essay:

Wasted Wombs: Navigating Reproductive Interruptions in Cameroon, by Erica van der Sijpt (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2018)

Arranging Marriage: Conjugal Agency in the South Asian Diaspora, by Marian Aguiar (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil, by Alvaro Jarrín (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017)

Nearly 20 years ago, Saba Mahmood’s landmark article “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent” intervened in longstanding debates about how to interpret submission and resistance among populations of women viewed by outsiders as “oppressed.” Refusing to search for what she called a “slumbering ember” of “autonomy and self-expression” ready to “spark to flame in the form of an act of resistance,” Mahmood instead challenged anthropologists to re-evaluate what the ethnographic study of “agency” might look like (2001, 206). “How,” she asked readers, “would one imagine the politics of gender equality when situated within particular life worlds, rather than speak from a position of knowledge that already knows what the undoing of inequality would entail” (224)? Mahmood’s provocation coincided with an explosion in debates about agency, empowerment, and consent around the world, as international organizations sought to empower women as a pathway to development. On a global scale, such organizations have framed the problem of gender inequality and injustice in the global South as one of a lack of agency, understood in precisely the liberal sense that Mahmood, and many other anthropologists and feminist scholars, have critiqued.

Even as anthropologists have discarded a priori definitions of agency as the individual capacity to choose freely, then, the lives of our interlocutors have been reshaped by precisely this definition. In turn, this definition has reshaped representations of social mobility, community belonging, and personhood around the world. The three books reviewed here together engage the question of gender in the global South by taking up precisely the stance Mahmood suggests: deferring diagnoses of inequality in favor of examining how social action takes place under conditions of possibility and constraint, at a historical moment when definitions of agency are in flux. Read together, these books define two domains where liberal models of agency as choice come into acute crisis: social reproduction in the family, and the body.

Wasted Wombs

In Wasted Wombs, Erica van der Sijpt examines the reproductive lives of Gbigbil women in rural and urban Cameroon, as they seek to manage and make sense of what van der Sijpt calls “reproductive interruptions”—pregnancies that do not result in a living child. While Western public health models tend to distinguish between pregnancy terminations that are “on purpose,” and those that happen “accidentally,” as well as between the loss of a pregnancy and the death of an infant, Gbigbil women consider such events together on a continuum of “wasted” pregnancies. Because such interruptions are grouped together, women are able to weave dynamic narratives about what their pregnancy losses reflect about themselves, their relations with others, and their place in society. Through these narratives, they adapt to and contest the diverse expectations women face regarding their fertility as they move from rural to urban settings, and across the life course.

Van der Sijpt argues that these narratives reflect a “paradox of powerlessness.” By narrating their lack of power over their bodies and fertility, women manage how reproductive interruptions are understood by others. Fertility and the ability to bear and raise healthy children are understood in Gbigbil communities as an index of vitality and social power, making reproductive interruptions highly threatening to how women are seen by others and how they are treated in their families. Yet rather than suggesting that this system leaves women vulnerable to the whims of unruly bodies, van der Sijpt suggests that women’s narrations of their experiences enable them to navigate a complex landscape of social reproduction precisely by emphasizing their powerlessness and capacity to suffer. In narrating, women actively navigate and improvise. An unwanted pregnancy that resists attempts at termination becomes a wanted pathway to a more permanent relationship. A lost pregnancy transforms into a strategic decision to pursue education.

After an introduction that situates the book in conversations about reproductive navigation, loss, and corporeality, Wasted Wombs begins with chapters that explain the historical and social context of Gbigbil life in Cameroon, and introduces Gbigbil perspectives on pregnancy, reproduction, and fertility. From there, the book examines how women in rural and urban areas face differing ideas about what fertility means and whether or not to bear children, leading into a long concluding chapter that analyzes women’s narratives to show how varied contexts for social reproduction lead women to construct complex “discourses of decision-making”—meta-narratives about how (and whether) they made their reproductive decisions, and why those decisions matter. Van der Sijpt concludes by bringing together insights about how reproductive navigation is shaped by both social and corporeal constraints: “bodily navigation,” she writes, “is always dialectically related to social navigation as women try to align their unpredictable bodies with their social projects” (193).

Van der Sijpt’s central insight in Wasted Wombs is that reproductive narratives shift dynamically over time, and that such narrative transformations are a key site where we can see something like agency as women contest, accept, and explore the constraints of bodies and social roles, playing off the tensions between reproduction’s individual and social elements. Van der Sijpt charts a methodological and theoretical path for how scholars might analyze narratives for modes of agency not readily apparent under liberal models. Through long term relationships, anthropologists can attend to the dynamism of desire, action, and meaning. “[C]ontrary to the stability that is often attributed to women’s fertility desires, reproductive projects change with the hopes and horizons that emanate from women’s individual and social bodies,” she concludes (193). In weaving reproductive interruptions into their broader life stories, often by underscoring their powerlessness, Gbigbil women act meaningfully on their worlds.

Arranging Marriage

Marian Aguiar’s Arranging Marriage also attends to meaning, narrative, and the representation of choices that are not always obviously “free,” via an encyclopedic discussion of South Asian arranged marriage as it is depicted in legal and literary accounts in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. Drawing on her background in cultural studies, Aguiar suggests that anxieties about arranged marriage, both among South Asian diasporas as well as in receiving countries, point to the profound role that conjugality plays in shaping how people connect liberal models of agency and consent to the politics of belonging.

Aguiar draws on short stories, novels, legislative debates, and legal decisions to show that arranged marriage profoundly troubles ideas about personhood, consent, and choice in these three countries. Yet at the same time, this focus on arranged marriage makes it difficult for both those who celebrate the practice and those who critique it to engage in more structural analyses of the intersections between consent, inequality, and migration. Ironically, these contestations of arranged marriage center choice and consent over more nuanced understandings of social reproduction. Marriage emerges as contested ground for differing valuations and definitions of agency, as people struggle to interpret the role of conjugal agency, which is spread across multiple actors engaged in arranging marriages, and its relation to liberal models of agency that treat it as a property of individuals.

The first section of the book unfolds its theoretical and historical context across three chapters. The second, main section of the book is organized into geographic chapters: one focused on Britain, one on the United States and Canada, and a third on “transnational popular culture;” the chapters, in turn, are organized by the specific texts under discussion. While this provides a useful summary of how each of these locations have represented arranged marriage in line with specific histories of transnational migration, immigration policy, and marriage practices, this structure obscures the book’s overarching theoretical arguments.

Across these chapters, Aguiar draws together a picture of arranged marriage as a dynamic trope that serves many representational purposes. Like the many scholars who study arranged marriage in South Asia, she emphasizes that it is not a timeless tradition but rather a modern phenomenon. To these studies, she adds an exploration of the diverse ways that arranged marriage has been pulled into projects of national belonging in diaspora. As arranged marriage is made acceptable, she argues, it is pulled into discourses of choice that further neoliberal models of self and society; in the UK, for example, both diaspora communities and the state use “consent” to distinguish carefully between unacceptable “forced” marriages and acceptable “arranged” marriages. In the United States, arranged marriage becomes a mark of cultural distinctiveness and celebration as it is narrated in terms of choice and romance.

Biopolitics of Beauty

In The Biopolitics of Beauty, Alvaro Jarrín examines the role of “beauty” in shaping working class aspirations for social mobility by focusing on Brazil’s well-known plastic surgery industry. Combining fieldwork among plastic surgeons and working class patients with historical analysis of Brazilian notions of beauty, Jarrín unfolds a devastating picture of how plastic surgery produces novel forms of biopolitical governance that rely on the affective force of race and class to manage the poor. Plastic surgery clinics, in need of docile bodies to practice cosmetic techniques on, open clinics in public hospitals that frame tummy tucks, breast lifts, and nose jobs as “reparative” surgeries that address the suffering and violent injuries that well-off Brazilians imagine mark the bodies of the poor. Working class patients, on the other hand, embrace the promise of a “reparative” plastic surgery that will enable them to become upwardly mobile by “repairing” marks of racial otherness on their bodies, referencing and reproducing Brazilian ideas about race and phenotype. They maintain this faith, even in the face of bungled surgeries by inept surgeons and the unexpected costs of recovery.

Jarrín argues that in this context, governmentality becomes “plastic”—a “flexible approach to the management of public health that allows [plastic surgeons] to conceal its imbrication with commercial medicine” as they present themselves as humanitarian saviors of the poor, while developing surgical skills that will net them significant income in the private sector (55). Such plastic governmentality is made possible because beauty weaves biopolitics together with affect. Beauty—here understood as an unspoken but powerful call to conform to racialized standards of a “good appearance”—has long been framed as a project of national development in Brazil, a sign of the health of populations. At the same time, people’s individual appraisals of their own bodies and other bodies provoke visceral responses, shaping how one reads a nose, hair texture, the ratio of waist to hips. With great care, Jarrín shows that these visceral responses were shaped by a long history of eugenic approaches that celebrated Brazil’s unique mixture of origins while pathologizing African and Indigenous phenotypic characteristics.

After a highly readable introduction that explains his approach to biopolitics, affect, and beauty, Jarrín lays the ground work for the historical context of beauty ideals in Brazil. Then, after turning to the history and practice of plastic surgery, Jarrín traces beauty as it holds out promise for surgeons and working-class patients alike, even as it enmeshes them ever more deeply in hierarchies of race, class, and gender. As working-class people seek any possible path for upward mobility, they seek out discordant physical features in themselves and their children—ears that attach to the head “incorrectly;” overly large pectoral flesh on male chests—seeking to “harmonize” their appearances with an “unmarked aesthetic ideal” that always skews towards heteronormative white bodies (134). In harmonizing patient bodies, plastic surgeons strengthen the nation. Yet the risk of these medical interventions is always borne, Jarrín argues, by patients themselves, “cosmetic citizens” who contribute to the national good by conforming to racialized expectations about looking (and being) good (158).

The Biopolitics of Beauty is gripping in its empirical narrative and in its theoretical framework, which demonstrates that empirical attention to beauty can bring together theories about medicalization and theories about affect. Taken together, these conversations push beyond what Jarrín calls the “structure-versus-agency paradox,” where agency is only ever legible against rigid social structure, even though social scientists are well aware that structure is itself the result of human social action (7). How to avoid portraying patients as “dupes” (7), while still acknowledging the heavy weight of beauty’s history and bodily norms it enforces? Jarrín tackles this dilemma by attending to “embodiment not as predetermined by discourse but rather as an unpredictable process of sociality” (11). In ways that resonate with van der Sijpt’s attention to her interlocutors’ reproductive navigations, Jarrín demonstrates that affect and biopolitical discourse shape how patients and plastic surgeons engage each other around questions of beauty, health, and social mobility.


How can analyses of social difference both acknowledge that individual actions are constrained by social structure while still exploring the possibility of social transformation? This is a central question raised by anthropological critiques of representations of agency as synonymous with choice and consent. Such critiques crystallize around the topic of gendered difference, because the relative agency of women has long served as an index for the civilizational status of societies and a justification for the civilizing mission of colonialism. By critiquing liberal models of agency, anthropologists complicate popular narratives about gender inequality and cultural difference in the United States. As I wrote this, for example, Condoleezza Rice appeared on a late-night talk show to argue that negotiating with the Taliban amounts to an “abandonment” of the women of Afghanistan. Her statement was met by enthusiastic cheers from an otherwise skeptical audience (Rice 2019). At this moment of extreme political polarization in the United States, apparently the call to liberate women from their oppressive societies continues to be the one thing upon which we can all agree (provided that said oppressive society is, of course, not our own). As many scholars have argued, these concerns over gender are the grounds for debates about how consent and choice index rightful governance and social order, in popular discourse as well as among scholars.

Read together, these three books show us that social bodies and collective decisions are not artifacts of “non-liberal” places and times, but emerge alongside liberal projects such as governing through public health or encouraging companionate models of marriage. Each centers the question of choice, a key term in mainstream political evaluations of whether or not a social group “has” agency. What does it say about selves, relations, and societies when people seem to “choose” a painful bodily modification, a pregnancy, a marriage? These examples of choice are paradigmatic in many Western social movements addressing gender inequality. Yet Jarrín, van der Sijpt, and Aguiar all demonstrate how these moments of choice evade our analytic gaze the closer we look. All three books propose a path forward that neither dwells on the impossibility of “real” choice nor celebrate moments when it appears to break through social constraint. Instead, they examine how their interlocutors navigate the tensions between structure and agency. Such navigations, these three books suggest, are where meaningful social action takes place; as ethnographers, we are uniquely situated to trace their contours. By attending to how bodies, relations, and selves are forged through relations with others across diverse social contexts, we can imagine new languages of rightful governance and richer understandings of consent.

Works Cited

Mahmood, Saba. 2001. “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 16(2): 202-236.

Rice, Condoleezza. Interview by Stephen Colbert. “Condoleezza Rice: We’re Not Going to Abandon the Women of Afghanistan.” The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. CBS. September 10, 2019.