• Kat Gupta’s research blog

    caution: may contain corpus linguistics, feminism, activism, LGB, queer and trans stuff, parrots, London

BBC: where hyperbole rules and suffragettes aren’t really suffragettes

As a Khasi and as someone who researches the suffrage movement, I was intrigued to see a BBC article titled Meghalaya, India: Where women rule, and men are suffragettes. Unfortunately it’s not a very good article. The photo of the women wearing jainkyrshah is nice though.

Firstly, my criticisms as a Khasi:

Things that it does cover:

  • Statements like “As a mother of children by three different Khasi fathers however, she is the first to admit that their societal anomaly has afforded her ample opportunities to be both a mother and a successful career woman” without any kind of background information so it just sounds judgemental by patriarchal Western standards. Well, yes, if you neglect to mention anything about how Khasi marriages are conducted, how Khasi divorces are conducted or how Khasi inheritance works I suppose it does sound a bit weird, but come on BBC, you are based in a country where you celebrate a man who was married six times, had three children by three different women, and killed three two of his wives. That’s weird.

Things that it does not cover:

  • Meghalaya’s ratio of male and female babies born is one of the most equal in India
  • Why matrilineal inheritance was practised and what it implies for tracing ancestry
  • Any sort of detail on how it actually works
  • Any sort of feminist perspective
  • Any awareness that Khasi men aren’t subjected to the same kind of treatment that women experience in other parts of India. It’s not like Khasi boys are aborted, denied access to education, experience poor health, are malnourished, experience domestic violence, or are the victims of ‘honour killings’ because they are boys (link)
  • That there are other tribes that have similar practices such as the Jaintia
  • Any other reasons for alcoholism and drug abuse – for example, poverty

As someone who researches the suffrage movement, I find it a lazy comparison. Is this about the vote? Is this about corverture? Are specifically men working in appalling conditions and have no way to raise their concerns in a political arena? Are specifically men’s health problems routinely ignored? As far as I’m aware, Khasi men aren’t disenfranchised for being men.

However, the suffragette comparison is interesting for a different reason, and that is the history of North-East Indian separatist movements. There is an issue that people in North-East India feel that they lack a political voice because of the area’s geographical isolation and cultural differences – for example, differences between tribal cultures and more mainstream Indian culture. There are underground separatist groups and they do engage in direct action, such as bombs in Assam. I don’t think I’d want to make explicit parallels between the movements, but if I absolutely had to make a dubious, lazy argument I was thoroughly ashamed of, I’d say Khasi men may feel disenfranchised because they are Khasi rather than because they are men.

Anyway, now that’s all out of my system I can get back to marking. Didn’t want my marking to be affected by my grumpiness!

Suggestive placement isn’t dead!

In the early 20th century, news reports were grouped into articles. These articles often shared a theme – for example, being about the same or related events. What I find interesting is when these news reports aren’t all explicitly about the same thing, but the grouping primes the reader to expect a link or common factor shared between them. For example, one of the articles I’m looking at places a report about the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison (the suffragette knocked down and killed when she crossed the Derby racetrack), a report about two suffragettes suspected of setting fire to a racecourse as part of the WSPU arson campaign, a report about a woman injured at a WSPU meeting in Hyde park, a report about a bomb found in a ladies waiting room at a train station, and a report about the “vivisection question”.

Some of these links are obvious, but some are less so. I think the report about vivisection is there because prominent anti-vivisectionists were also members of the suffrage campaign – notably Frances Power Cobbe, who founded the British Union for Abolition of Vivisection and was involved with the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. There’s also a link in that there was staunch opposition to the anti-vivisection campaign.

However, the report on the bomb found in the station waiting room doesn’t explicitly mention suffrage campaigners. Instead it relies on the audience’s familiarity with the arson campaign and the report’s proximity to other reports about suffrage disorder to guide the reader into an interpretation they might not otherwise have made. Placing that particular report alongside those other reports is suggestive – it doesn’t say that suffrage campaigners were responsible for the bomb, but that’s the conclusion a reader will probably reach.

Suggestive placement can also be used to form resistant readings, to provide commentary or to encourage a critique. It doesn’t actually put anything into something so explicit as words, but an editorial stance can be made clear through placement and juxtaposition.

I suspect it’s used less often now because of the different way newspapers are organised (and reading the news through online news articles again changes things) but I am utterly delighted by the Guardian‘s sublime front page today. Nothing as crass or explicit or likely to obtain furious reactions as actual words, but there’s a news editor out there who put this together with a wink and a gleeful grin.

After all, they’re both important news stories. No one can actually complain that the Guardian put important news stories on the front page. And that’s a dramatic shot of the Costa Concordianews reports from around the world are using similar. It’s totally justifiable why they’d want both news stories on the front page and why they’d use that particular photograph. And yet…

Suggestive placement: the art of saying something without saying anything at all.

I’m impressed.


A year and a month ago I was sleeping inside a university occupation. The temperatures were subzero, there was snow lying on the ground outside, and the heating and electricity in the hall we were occupying had mysteriously suffered faults. At the time, it was sometimes hard to gauge the support we had – we certainly had support from all kinds of people both within and outside the community. However, there were also people who regarded us with a certain detachedness, as if we were overreacting in ridiculous fashion.

And so I found this recent report on growing anger about higher education reforms interesting, particularly the following:

There have been three responses […] The third is to regard the government’s reforms as heralding the death of the university as a public and liberal institution. Key academic values are under attack, whether scholarship in the humanities or curiosity-driven science. So are key social values such as widening participation.


It is the third response that seems to be gathering force. No longer confined to the “usual suspects” such as the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, it is gradually becoming established as the dominant response among the academic rank-and-file and high-profile public intellectuals. Not so long ago, the much-despised “chattering classes” shared the politicians’ low opinion of universities; now they are rallying to their defence.

However, as well as defending our universities’ existence, there’s also an opportunity to ask what we want our universities to be. Jennifer Jones and Martin Eve discuss this as “angry young academics” who want universities to be more than just consumerism. Mark has recently been posting material about the neoliberal university and I’ve found it really thought provoking.

As a young academic in the arts and humanities, I am aware of what we lose because of this neoliberal model of the university, particularly when it comes to funding young researchers. The important and fascinating PhD theses not written because the applicant couldn’t get funding. The scientists who can’t work on non-commercial projects because there isn’t money to support that. The ways projects that don’t have an immediately obvious economic benefit are devalued. The scrabbling about for limited amounts of funding which means that interesting and valuable ideas never get explored. Collaboration across departments or institutions that doesn’t happen because it’s difficult to work out who should be funding it.

And more and more, I’m led to question whether I want to fight for this system. I want to work in a university that is visionary and creative, rigorous and challenging, nurturing and supportive. The university I want to work in values research regardless of its economic usefulness, and values curiosity and exploration. The university I want to work on is aware of power and privilege, is critical and reflexive. Perhaps it’s the stage I’m at in my PhD (the despair, wailing and general hideousness stage), but at the moment I’m doubtful this happens on a university level.

I’m probably hopelessly idealistic about this. I am glad, though, that there are the beginnings of a debate about whom universities should serve, and I hope it does led to a change.