Dr. Sneha Krishnan is Associate Professor in Human Geography and Tutorial Fellow at Brasenose College. She comes to this position from a Junior Research Fellowship in Human Geography at St John’s College, Oxford (2015 – 2018). Sneha did all her graduate work at Oxford (2015) and her undergraduate degree at the University of Madras in India (2009). As a cultural and historical geographer, Sneha is interested in gender, childhood and the intersections of bio- and geopolitics in postcolonial contexts. Her doctoral research used ethnographic and historical research to focus on the spatialities of risk and safety in the lives of young middle-class women in the South Indian city of Chennai. Building on this, her monograph-in-progress examines hostels for women in historical context as sites where imperial logics endure into the postcolonial present.
How would you define ‘girlhood’? Do you have any anecdotes which you believe summarise girlhood?
Girlhood is fluid – while sociologists might define it as a time ‘before’ adulthood, ‘girl’ subjectivities have been used by women and children in various ways to play with time. Between 2012 and 2013 I did ethnographic research at a hostel – boarding house – for girls in Southern India. The young woman who lived in this hostel were all university students, roughly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. In legal terms they were ‘adults’. But they all called themselves ‘girls’. As I learned, being ‘girls’ allowed them to keep one foot in a child world of playfulness and fantasy: the things they did in their ‘girlhood’ didn’t really count, I was told. Nothing was serious. So ‘girlhood’ was a way of inhabiting what Saidiya Hartman has called ‘waywardness’ – openness to radical possibilities beyond the narrow horizons dictated by social circumstance.
Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?
Girlhood is important because girlhood has historically been a point of convergence of imperial and development discourses about what it means to be modern. Racial imaginaries of civilisation were writ into the discourse of girlhood, and continue to be so in the practice of international development. Girls were by the turn of the 20th century a subject of preoccupation for philanthropists and social reformers, for legislators and colonial officials. In the League of Nations’ meetings, debates on an age of sexual consent, determining the boundary between girlhood and womanhood featured centrally. At these debates, climate scientists and racial scientists discussed their beliefs about the inherent differences in maturity between African, Asian and European girls: a discourse that privileged the figure of the innocent middle-class white girl as the ideal subject of girlhood. Even in our present, development discourse reiterates these ideas. A programme called Girl Up run by the United Nations for instance perpetuates stereotypical images of girls in the Global South as likely to be exploited, lacking in agency and in need of ‘girl power’ from the West to save them. Studying girls and girlhood tells us a lot about how social ideas about modernity, civilisation, development and geopolitical power come to play out in intimate and everyday ways.
How, and when, did you become involved/interested in girlhood studies?
I became interested in girlhood when I started researching the lives of young women attending universities in Chennai, India, in 2010. I had long been interested in middle-class girlhood in a personal way. I myself went to a very proper Catholic girls’ school which had been set up by French nuns near Pondicherry in Southern India. And I had grown up on my grandmother’s stories of her education at the Basel Mission High School and Providence Convent in Calicut. So I had what felt like an intimate knowledge of how a history of missionary education and social reform in South India shaped the terms on which middle-class girlhood was produced and understood. In my DPhil I turned my lifelong interest in this history into my academic work.
How do you think globalization has affected how we define girlhood?
I think it would be a mistake to see the present moment of globalisation as exceptional. As above, I think the ways in which it defines girlhood (as racialised, as vulnerable, and within other geopolitical stories about modernity, civilisation and rescue) all have a much deeper history in the story of imperialism. So I think historic globalisation – in this I’m referring to imperialism that began in the late 15th century – has profoundly shaped and indeed created the conditions under which ‘girlhood’ as a category makes sense.
Would you describe girlhood as a construct (social or other)? Please explain.
Yes – girlhood is a historical and social construct. Like other categories of gendered subjectivity, it is performative: in that it is produced by the repeated ‘doing’ of girlhood in the clothes girls wear, in how they hold their bodies, and how they talk, and walk and what they do with their time. All societies didn’t always have a concept of ‘girlhood’ or if they did, its meanings have varied very widely over time. For instance, in the early 20th century, the legal age of consent for married women in most parts of the world was somewhere in their mid-teens at the latest. This would be considered very young these days. Similarly, for instance, black and white girls were not attributed with the same attributes of innocence and fragility in the US in the late 19th century.
Black girls were widely seen as lacking the capacity to feel – as insensate – and hence incapable of reform and self-development. On the contrary, white girls were seen as pure and innocent: figures at the heart of national culture and the fantasy of the American family.
To what extent is the definition of girlhood constructed through inclusivity and plurality?
‘Girlhood’ has historically been a troubled category. And it has been a category riven with histories of race and class exclusion. But ‘girlhood’ has also been claimed by those on the margins of this category as a site from which to inhabit a radical politics of gender.
Girlhood studies is a fairly new field, how do you believe it has changed since it was first established? How do you believe it will continue to evolve over the next few decades?
Girlhood Studies is having a much-needed reckoning with imperialism, as a growing body of scholarship on Colonial, Black and Indigenous girlhoods emerges. I think this development will shape the field in the decades to come.