Tell us about yourself!
Meet Kamal Arora, a PhD student in Socio-Cultural Anthropology. After receiving her BA from SFU in Communication and an MA in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies/University of Sussex, the feminist anthropologist came to UBC to join the cutting-edge research community and explore the longterm impact of sociopolitical violence on Sikh women in New Delhi.
I was born and raised in Vancouver, and I did my BA at SFU in Communication, before doing an MA in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies/University of Sussex. In the past I have worked for a variety of non-profits focusing on gender and health. Since beginning my graduate career, I have worked as a research assistant or researcher on a variety of projects related to gender and the anthropology of religion, as well as a teaching assistant for introductory Anthropology courses.
How did you end up in an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career such as Anthropology?
During my MA program at the Institute of Development Studies (UK), my mentors emphasized that I “wrote like an anthropologist.” It was only then that I began looking into anthropology as a discipline and a career. For me, the ethnographic method we use in our discipline can be a wonderful tool to gain deep, nuanced, qualitative insights about how we live in the contemporary world.
Why did you choose UBC’s Anthropology graduate studies program?
I actually transferred from another university to the program, as I believed the UBC program would be a better fit for me personally. I am glad I made this decision. It was a combination of various factors – wanting to be back in beautiful Vancouver, to work with particular mentors, and to be a part of cutting-edge research that UBC is known for. I also benefit from the fact that there is a vibrant South Asian Studies community on campus which is cross-disciplinary.
What are your research interests?
I consider myself a feminist anthropologist and so all of my research interests are rooted through the lens of gender. I am studying the longterm impact of sociopolitical violence on Sikh women in New Delhi. As I identify as Sikh and was raised in a Sikh family, I am interested in the anthropology of Sikhism, and, by extension, the anthropology of religion. I am also interested in various other areas: South Asian studies, race, diaspora studies, violence, affect and emotion, postcolonialism, death and mourning, qualitative methods, research ethics, women’s studies, and ethnography as practice. I am also interested in bringing issues of race and diversity within the discipline to the fore.
Tell us about your research
My research examines how Sikh women who survived the anti-Sikh massacre in 1984 in Delhi, India, cope with the long-term legacies of violence and trauma amid the backdrop of the urban space of the city. After the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, approximately thirty-five hundred Sikh men were killed in October and November 1984. Many of the survivors, Sikh widows and their families, were relocated shortly after to the “Widow Colony,” a designated slum also known as Tilak Vihar.
I begin by discussing in depth the space of the Widow Colony and its relation to the rest of the city of Delhi. I then analyze the events of the 1984 massacre through the narratives of Sikh widows and how they remember their experiences of violence. I discuss how violence can have long-term ramifications for everyday life in arenas such as kinship networks, economic stability, health and wellness, and social life. These experiences are further amplified by gender, caste, and class. I also examine the impact of the stigma of widowhood in this community. This research seeks to interrogate how memories of violence inform, and are constituted by, embodied, affective practices carried out in a gendered space produced by the state. I argue that Sikh widows cope with long-term trauma by creating new forms of sociality and memory through their everyday lives and religious practices in the Widow Colony. The memory of the 1984 violence figures heavily among the Sikh diaspora. Thus, I also explore the relationship between the Widow Colony and Sikhs in the transnational arena.
What do you enjoy and find challenging as a UBC Anthropology graduate student?
I have found the PhD process as a whole challenging, yet rewarding. I would say conducting fieldwork and writing up my dissertation have been the most challenging aspects of my program, but they have also been the areas where I feel I have grown the most as a budding anthropologist. Fortunately, I have a great supervisor, committee, and peers who have supported me throughout the process. My supervisor, Gaston Gordillo, has been instrumental to my learning.
What are the most valuable things you have learned and do you have any anthropology-related accomplishments you’re proud of?
As a scholar who identifies as a woman of colour, I have learned the value of supporting and being supported by other scholars of colour in academia. I am thankful that I have received funding from UBC through a doctoral fellowship as well as a fellowship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) among other award-based funding.
What advice would you give to a person interested in pursuing graduate studies in Anthropology?
I think advance preparation is key. It’s a good idea to begin by reading widely in the discipline and looking at job postings to get an idea of contemporary anthropological research and positions, and, from there, narrow down your area of interest. Research in-depth the schools and programs you are looking at and what funding they offer, and contact potential supervisors in advance. Lay out how you plan to financially support yourself, whether through scholarships, part-time work, loans, etc. It’s also important to research the potential city you may be living in for graduate school, and the financial costs associated with living there (rent, bills, etc). Since most programs span a number of years, it’s important to be somewhere you would like to live!