What is Body Politics?

Wendy Harcourt speaks about the concept of body politics and explains how the body is so central and yet so invisible in development theory and practice. As she points out, writing her prize winning book Body Politics in Development (Zed Books 2009) was a way to challenge mainstream development and reclaim the body as a subject of political power and contestation in development.

Body Politics in Development is based on twenty years of experience working (somewhat accidentally) in the field of development, very engaged in the work of women's movements around body politics, - the strategies and practices around sexual and reproductive rights and health, gender-based violence, maternal health, sexuality and technologies around the body. The book looks at how the body is so central and yet so invisible in development theory and practice and contrasts it with the outspoken focus of (mostly) women's groups on the autonomy and rights of their bodies. The book takes up moments of contradictions and awkwardness that I have experienced in the development arena in order to tease out what is going on underneath.

Ill health, birthing, pain, cruelty, and pleasure are very real experiences. Development displaces that reality and is instead about counting bodies, controlling bodies, ensuring the health of bodies, securing safety of bodies, providing water, food, shelter. In this way development practices ascribe normalities on to bodies, defining sexualities and identities onto bodies, all done in programmes and bland sounding jargon, figures and measurements. The flesh and blood, the nerves, the glow of health and pleasures, the weariness of work, fears and dread of pain the power exercised on the body are all felt on the skin. People are judged by their bodies, their strength, their beauty, the colour and the sex. Many things are ascribed and written on the body through culture and society as well as the economy.

Modernity, tradition, religious all have rules around the body, often according to sex, sexual orientation, before other layers are put on to it. Despite the centrality of the body in development it is very difficult to talk about it within the international political context as a subject rather than an object of study and number crunching. In the book I speak about female genital mutilation as one practice that has successfully been taken up as a development and human rights concern. I discuss my discomfort about the way it has been treated in various contexts: conferences, campaigns, films and projects.

My concern is the way in which it has been interpreted in development discourse, and I question some of the assumptions particularly white middle class Northerners like myself on the topic. I continue to be troubled about the right way to speak about FGM and use that discomfort to raise issues around power and knowledge in gender and development practice throughout the book. I am deeply committed to challenging silences around the body, including my own, so writing the book was a way to reclaim the body as a subject of political power and contestation in development, to name it and speak of the many ways the body is inserted into development discourse and forms an integral part of it.

All the acronyms and programmes around gender and development are defining and creating norms around the body in a series of state endorsed social, medical and technocratic practises. The book aims to challenges these assumed norms of mainstream development practices by naming them as well as validating other practices by feminists and women's groups that are equally constructing and shaping development discourse. Although the book uses my own experience to pull out the various questions I want to raise about body politics in gender and development it is better seen as contributing to a collective understanding of those engaged in feminist practice around gender and development. It builds on multiple voices and experiences various knowledges that have been part of the positive changes that have occurred in the last years through, in particular, vibrant women's movements.

The book recognizes that it is always by connecting with people in networks both informally and formally, that I could learn how best to engage. The book aims to recognize the huge number of unofficial stories running parallel and shaping the official mainstream gender and development programmes. I felt it was important to write using as authentic a voice as possible in order to honour all of those people living on the margins of the main stories of development. In this the FWSA 2010 Book Prize acknowledges and makes visible the key collective experience of body politics, helping to make visible what were once tabooed topics around sexuality, violence, technologies and reproductive rights.