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Reproduction and defining womanhood.

November 18, 2010

Originally posted at Gender Across Borders

“A woman a lot of times defines herself on her ability to have children” – Lisa Switzer

MADE IN INDIA is a documentary by Rebecca Haimowitz & Vaishali Sinha covering the complex subject of “Reproductive Tourism” wish is a growing trade, valued at more than $450 million in India. American couples could pay up to $100,000 for a domestic surrogacy, or “outsource” to India for a quarter of the price. From the Filmmaker’s statement:

As women deeply interested in issues of reproductive rights, social justice and global issues, the subject of “outsourcing” surrogacy to India captivated us from the moment we first read about the practice. We aim to create a film that goes beyond sensationalist headlines and uncovers the personal lives and choices of the surrogates and the infertile Americans involved.

The movie highlights the complex choices and pressures on these women and their relationship to their bodies in reproduction. While the American woman who hires a surrogate believes that a woman, “defines herself on her ability to have children”. The Indian surrogate admits,

I’ve done this because of my poverty. Otherwise I would have never taken this step.

Both of these statements, seemingly said easily, reveal a source of pain. Yes, there are stark cultural and class divides, but these women both inhabit a world where they feel defined by their reproductive ability, but have their choices about their bodies regulated by outside pressures and demands. The trailer gives us a snapshot of Western public reaction to Switzer’s surrogacy calling it “disgusting and immoral”. 
Aasia Khan, the 27-year-old mother of 3 from Mumbai who is carrying the baby, puts on a burka in order to hide her identity from her neighbors as she walks to the fertility clinic.

I think it’s interesting the way that reproduction can both bring women together and divide them. It seems to me that a big reason for it is that a woman’s relationship to her body is not static. The way we feel inside it and our relationship to reproduction molds and shapes itself over time as we grow and change physically, emotionally and mentally. Not all women have the ability to have children, not all women want or need the ability to have children. I’m at a stage in my life where the “Time of the Month Tiger” meme hits me perfectly – like many of the women I spend time with, I treat my period as a bit of a nuisance, with a little joy that I am once again, not pregnant. It can be a source of bonding as we loan tampons and trade horror stories. But when I dig a little deeper, I find complexities and nuances to our relationships with our reproductive selves that we don’t all share. For example, while I fight for a woman’s choice, I don’t think I would ever have an abortion myself, and that often surprises people.

I wonder how we can bring women together around the issue of reproduction, with each of us holding complex relationships with our bodies and unique social pressures: the pressure to conceive, the pressure not to conceive, the need to conceive to support your family, being told you are not a real woman if you can’t or don’t or won’t have children.

What’s wonderful about this documentary is that there is no desire to flatten out these complexities. It explores two women, two life experiences, two choices. For me, it allowed me to look inward at my body, but also see it within a more complex series of pressures, choices and privileges that can both unite and divide women.

MADE IN INDIA premiered at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto in May 2010 and was most recently screened in competition at the Woodstock Film Festival (NY). The film is currently traveling internationally in the festival circuit and is also on a simultaneous campus tour. Learn more on their website

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    November 19, 2010 7:23 PM

    I’m really digging how the global contexts of reproduction are coming more and more into focus. Shellee Colen devised this great term, “stratified reproduction,” which refers to the ways that some reproductive futures are valued and others despised. I think it’s really useful for understanding how the hand-wringing about high-achieving White women who wait “too long” (or don’t want!) to have children and the total failure to problematize utilizing the bodies of women of color to allow privileged women to achieve their reproductive dreams are really just threads in the same fabric. It’s within these contexts that resources are provided (or not), punishments and incentives are levied, and public opinion takes its shape.

    Of course, it’s also within these contexts that we incorporate, contest and resist these public meanings in our own conceptions of our bodies, which we see the surrogate doing here, and which I know I think about quite frequently.

  2. November 29, 2010 7:20 PM

    A very thought-provoking post. Intuitively something does not feel quite right that women are forced to use their reproductive capacity as a way to climb out of poverty. Desperation breeds desperate measures. I think that there is definitely more than one issues going on here and it sure has led to a tangled mess.

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