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Feminist Periscoping into Research on the Surrogacy Industry in India

In this article, the author lays out her decision to lean on “feminist periscoping,” a methodological approach developed by the feminist geographer Nancy Hiemstra, to conduct her field research in India. The author then discusses the ways in which this feminist methodology proved to be useful in studying difficult-to-access subjects and spaces and the insights she gained by adopting a periscoping strategy.

This artiy dissertation project studies the Indian surrogacy industry and it aimed to examine the Indian government’s claim thcle is a methodological reflection on how I conducted my dissertation research during the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Mat the 2015 transnational commercial surrogacy ban would protect surrogates from exp­loitation. My initial research plan was to conduct an ethnography (in-person interviews and participant observation) with key surrogacy stakeholders: fertility clinic personnel, infertile individuals/cou­ples, and surrogates in New Delhi to compare and contrast the lived realities with the claims of the Indian government. However, the pandemic foiled my original research agenda of ethnography. By adopting a periscoping methodological approach, I was able to not only continue my research but also gain insights about the Indian surrogacy industry.

In addition to documenting the different stakes of each surrogacy stakeholder, I wanted to examine how infertility and assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs, technologies that assist in conception) were discursively framed and defined in both Indian state policies and the feminist movement. For this, I needed to conduct archival research with legal documents produced by the Indian government (drafts of policy bills on ART and surrogacy, parliamentary committee reports and court hearings) at the Parliament and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) libraries in New Delhi, as well as analyse feminist documents (reports and publications) produced by two feminist organisations in New Delhi: Sama and the United Nations Population Fund Asia (UNFPA). However, strict prohibitions on international travel in the United States (US) as well as in India meant that I could not conduct archival research or conduct ­in-person interviews with feminist acti­vists at Sama and UNFPA in New Delhi until restrictions were lifted.

The pandemic also pushed me to think about doing feminist research more critically. Feminist principles of research mandate that I pay attention to not only what I research but also consider how I do the research. They require that I do not view my interlocutors merely as objects of my work from whom information can be gathered, without any concern for their safety and agency. The safety of my research subjects, especially pregnant surrogates, was of paramount importance to me. Previous ethnographic works conducted by sociologists Amrita Pande and Sharmila Rudrappa in India clearly stated that even though money earned through surrogacy was not “life-changing” (Pande 2014; Rudrappa 2015) for the surrogates, it did help them navigate the everyday economic vulnerabilities. Knowing this, a feminist approach to data coll­ection does not permit me to put the surrogates’ health in danger, esp­ecially in ways that might take away their already precarious chances of economic stability. I was, there­fore, faced with the imperative of completely re-­envisioning my original methodological approach.

Feminist Periscoping

In order to navigate the methodological challenges that the pandemic posed to my research, I leaned on the concept of “feminist periscoping,” a methodological approach developed by feminist geographer Nancy Hiemstra. Coined by Hiemstra, feminist periscoping is con­cep­tua­lised as a distinctly feminist me­thod to overcome challenges associated with engaging in research on difficult-to-­access spaces and subjects. Hiemstra (2017: 332) writes,

[feminist periscoping] aims to reveal systems, processes and experiences typically out of view that have previously been left uninterrogated due to lack of access or awareness.

Just like a periscope uses a careful arrangement of mirrors and prisms to view things that would ordinarily be out of a direct line of sight, researchers can use this approach to assemble a variety of lenses (that is, multiple methods and research foci) to interrogate the object of study. By mobilising different and multiple methods (such as interviews, discourse analysis, and policy analysis among others) different aspects of the object of study become visible.

Instead of abandoning a difficult to access research topic, a periscoping metho­dology allowed me to continue working on my research by shifting it to the virtual domain. I decided to conduct my interviews virtually and do in-person interviews with my interlocutors in India only when it became more permissible to conduct them under COVID-19 protocols. I also conducted digital archival research and accessed legal government documents from the Parliament and ICMR digital archives, and documents from online archives of various feminist organisations (not just Sama and UNFPA) working on women’s reproductive rights and surrogacy in the country. I also combined virtual interviews (audio/video interviews conducted over Zoom, text interviews over WhatsApp, and email conversations) with content analysis of the websites of 15 Indian fertility clinics, including their social media accounts (Instagram/Facebook/YouTube), Instagram accounts of seven infertile individuals who used surrogacy or another ART technique, and several blog stories on surrogacy publicly shared on social media.

What makes a persicoping methodo­logy feminist is that it builds on the feminist methodological principle that all knowledge is partial, incomplete, and influenced by the situated positioning of the researcher (Haraway 1988). By assu­ming data sets to be multiple and cons­tantly evolving, the methodology (i) dis­rupts the masculinist notion that the obj­ect of study can be fully, comprehensi­vely and objectively captured, and (ii) allows for a deeper, richer, more contextualised research project to emerge, suggesting that multiple views of the same pheno­menon can be generated (Williams and Coddington 2021). The methodology, there­fore, permits the researcher to engage in an ongoing process of iterative methodological development as poi­nts of access become available. This gave me the flexibility to begin doing my res­earch with what was available to me. For example, because I was unable to fly to India immediately, I revised my research focus to include popular culture as a site in my analysis of the discourses of ARTs in India. I built an archive of Bollywood films, which centred on the issue of surrogacy and ARTs and watched them on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube. My project’s aim, then, expanded to interrogate how Bollywood films framed ARTs and shaped cultural attitudes towards infertility and ARTs. I combined my analysis of films with observations about in vitro fertilisation and infertility in everyday Indian life in my research journal to tease out sociocultural attitudes tow­ards infertility and ARTs.

Moreover, even though the pandemic closed some doors on my research, new doors opened up, each allowing me unique insights into the kinds of conversations going on in and about the Indian surrogacy industry. For instance, because I could not speak to feminist activists at Sama in New Delhi, I ended up contacting smaller women’s health collectives and organisations across India that were not as well known as Sama. I spoke with two feminist activists from Progressive Organisation of Women (POW) in Visak­hapatnam (Andhra Pradesh) and its sister organisation Pragatisheel Mahila Sang­athan in New Delhi who not only exp­ressed their vehement opposition to the dominant discourse on legalising commercial surrogacy in India, but also acc­ompanied me to conduct an in-depth int­erview in-person with a Dalit surrogate once I was able to travel to India. The interviews with the activists and Dalit surrogates revealed cases of forced surrogacy of Dalit and Adivasi women, and how deeply entrenched casteism is in the Indian surrogacy industry that all­ows dominant caste owners of ART clinic to violate Dalit women’s bodies with imp­unity, and how systematic barriers in the police and poor implementation of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atro­cities) Act, 1989 prevented Dalit surrogates from seeking justice.

More importantly, these initially un­p­lanned research activities led me to discover that there were smaller Dalit feminist groups in the country that opp­osed the legalisation of commercial surrogacy in India, demonstrating fragmentation within the Indian feminist movement on the question of regulating surrogacy markets (Images are available on the EPW website). It also reveal­ed that the dominant feminist frame of surrogacy as a livelihood option for poor women did not match the lived realities of Dalit and Adivasi surrogates in Visakha­patnam. It highlights a lack of caste analysis in the previous studies of the Indian surrogacy industry. Johanna Gondouin and others (2020) in their recent piece “Dalit Feminist Voices on Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice” also raised questions about the lack of research on the relationship between caste and assisted reproductive technologies, and based on in-depth interviews with Dalit feminists, they demonstrated that Dalit feminist scholars and activists challenge dominant understandings of surrogacy in national and international debates on reproductive technologies. My field findings provide additional evidence to substantiate their claim.

Methodology and Positionality

By combining different mirrors and prisms, I was able to realise that COVID-19 was not the only obstruction to accessing my interlocutors in the surrogacy indu­stry, and unequal power relations among the surrogacy stakeholders also shaped who I could speak to or have acc­ess to. For instance, while most doctors and stand-alone surrogacy agents showed their willingness to speak to me both virtually and in-person, they either hesitated or outrightly refused to connect me to surrogates. Further, fertility clinics and surrogacy agents showed more commitment to supporting needs and concerns of infertile clients. This was evident in the ways in which fertility clinics build trust with their clients by maintaining clients’ secrets of using surrogacy services. For instance, often clinics declined to connect me to infertile clients saying “clients wanted privacy,” or that clients were not “bold enough” to share their stories. Sometimes clinics/agents arranged fake pregnancy bellies (silicon-made artificial pregnancy bands) for infertile mothers and respected clients’ desires of not sharing pictures/testi­monials of successful surrogacy stories on clinics’ websites.

The situation was similar in the virtual world. There was a strong digital presence of Indian fertility specialists and stand-alone surrogacy agents, which inc­luded a plethora of fertility clinic websites across the country as well as social media accounts of often young, English-speaking fertility doctors/embryologists who targeted clients’ needs, and routi­nely made posts to provide “medical facts” and “bursting myths” about infertility and normalise ARTs. In contrast, there were only a handful of infertile individuals (men and women) sharing their own personal journeys of using ARTs and surrogacy on social media and blogs. What was completely absent, however, was a digital presence (such as stories, blogs, documentation) by Indian gestational surrogates themselves. This huge contrast in presence on the internet among different surrogacy stakeholders is indicative of whose narratives become more visible in the virtual world. It also reveals that class and caste hierarchies shape uneven access to technology and virtual world among the stakeholders, reflecting power dynamics in the material world.

Employing a periscoping methodo­logy also helps to illuminate the role of a researcher’s own positionality. While my social location as a middle-class, dominant-caste woman in India allowed me to stay at home, practise social distancing, and afford uninterrupted access to internet so I could conduct my research in the virtual domain, it also highlighted the barriers to knowledge in the Indian fertility industry. For instance, my position as a researcher from a US university studying the topic of surrogacy in India shaped how fertility doctors and surrogacy agents perceived me and interacted with me. Widespread awareness on the issue of surrogacy and the rhetoric of exp­loitation of surrogates in the media made them curious (sometimes even suspicious) about me and my research. Often, they tried to understand “my perspective” on surrogacy before agreeing to be interviewed or opening up in the interviews. They would ask me about my research at length (my educational history, what exactly I am doing in my rese­arch, what got me interested in the topic, whether I am based in India or the US) to understand my personal stance on surrogacy. Even though I refrained from taking sides, in most cases, the doctors and agents did not respond to my req­uests to connect me to surrogates on phone, emails, or texts. This highlights the power of discourse on surrogacy in the country and how it casts Western university researchers in the eyes of Indian fertility specialists in a way that makes access to most marginalised stake­­holders almost impossible.

Conclusions

Applying feminist periscoping in my res­earch steered my project in directions not originally intended. For my research, it emerged as a strategy that brought att­ention to previously neglected, hidden, complex ground realities of domestic surrogacy industry in India. Hiemstra (2017: 336) envisioned the use of mirrors and prisms as a creative way to view things that are often obscured, and as an intentionally feminist and political strategy that “produces images that disrupt existing understanding and inspire alter­native, potentially radical narratives.”

Periscoping did just that for my rese­arch by exposing unequal power relations in the domestic surrogacy market in India, and highlighting the absence (or deliberate erasure?) of discussions of caste/class in state and feminist debates on ARTs and surrogacy. Even though this methodology emerged in the context of feminist geography and spatial studies, periscoping holds the potential for other social science researchers who want to push through research topics not directly accessible, and use innovation to stretch their methods and analysis to piece tog­ether a more nuanced picture of the topic under study.

References

Gondouin, Johanna, Suruchi Thapar-Bjorkert and Mohan Rao (2020): “Dalit Feminist Voices on Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 55, No 40, pp 38–45.

Hiemstra, Nancy (2017): “Periscoping as a Feminist Methodological Approach for Researching the Seemingly Hidden,” Professional Geographer, Vol 69, No 2, pp 329–36.

Haraway, Donna (1988): “Situated Knowledges: The Science question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies, ­Vol 14, No 3, pp 575–99.

Pande, Amrita (2014): Wombs in Labor: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India, New York: Columbia University Press.

Rudrappa, Sharmila (2015): Discounted Life: The Price of Global Surrogacy in India, New York: New York University Press.

Williams, Jill M and Kate Coddington (2021): “Feminist Periscoping in Research on Border Enforcement and Human Rights,” Journal of Human Rights, Vol 20, No 1, pp 143–50.

 

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Updated On : 11th Jun, 2022
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