Portrait: ‘Important to go global’

2016-09-29 19:29

Helle Rydström is the gender scholar who began her academic career by herding buffaloes in Vietnam. She did so to learn about gender socialization, power and violence in rural Vietnamese families. Today she works as a Professor at the Department of Gender Studies at Lund University in Sweden.

Asia has always been close to heart for social anthropologist Helle Rydström.

‘Vietnam was part of my childhood landscape’, she says. ‘My parents were strongly against the Vietnam War.’

This engagement continues to greatly impact her life. As a grown-up, she became one of the first Westerners to conduct a 1-year anthropological fieldwork in rural Vietnam at the time when the country was opening up after the US embargo had been lifted in the early 1990s. The fieldwork was part of her doctoral research, which was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). During her fieldwork, she established close contacts with people in the rural community and even with Vietnamese scholars in the urban areas. She was also learning the language.

Eager to strengthen international cooperation

Swedish gender studies, Helle thinks, should cross boundaries to reach out to scholars across the globe. It is crucial for Swedish gender studies to engage in international collaboration and go even more global to avoid isolation and centrism. The global spirit is a benchmark of Helle’s research as she has specialised in the anthropology of gender in Asia.

‘In my view, gender scholars should collaborate as much as possible with colleagues around the world so we can broaden our horizon and gather new insights. Research should be inclusive by cooperating with the Global South and the Global North. Research should explore urgent and critical issues such as human insecurity, social injustice and the extent to which various groups in particular societies enjoy the same rights and possibilities. Global gender matters hopefully could become more central to Swedish gender research.’

Helle Rydström studied International Development Studies (Development Anthropology) at Roskilde University in Denmark and she obtained her Ph.D. at Linköping University by defending a doctoral dissertation entitled Embodying Morality: Girls’ Socialization in a Northern Vietnamese Commune. The interdisciplinary approach at the ‘Tema’ Institute at Linköping University inspired her understanding of gender research as a genuinely interdisciplinary field.

After completing her doctoral studies, Helle has been in charge of many externally funded research projects. She has produced a great amount of publications on global gender matters much of which has a special focus on violence. Helle Rydström also runs a seminar series called Global Gender Matters together with her colleague Prof. Diana Mulinari.

Gender scholars and the study of injustice

Helle believes that gender scholars have a special responsibility to work for gendered justice. A feminist foreign policy, as announced by the Swedish government, might offer such potentials. Currently, she is studying the intersections between gender and climate catastrophes and the ways in which disasters may result in increased violence in the family and beyond. Helle Rydström is thus the coordinator of a research project on Climate Disasters and Gendered Violence in Asia: A Study on the Vulnerability and (In)Security of Women and Girls in the Aftermath of Recent Catastrophes in Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, which involves her colleagues Prof. Catarina Kinnvall and Dr. Huong Nguyen both of whom are at Lund University. This 5-year research project is funded by the Swedish Research Council and includes collaboration with scholars, institutions and organisations in Vietnam, Pakistan and the Philippines.

‘It’s critical to collaborate with colleagues in the areas you are studying. I’ve always worked together with local institutions and organisations in my research projects.’

Helle tells that international organisations have registered increased violence in the aftermath of a climate disaster.

‘Violence is an aspect which needs to be explored further in connection with catastrophes. What happens with the social infrastructure when the physical infrastructure collapses?’

‘This type of research can provide important knowledge about gendered injustice and harm; it gives indications of the kind of aid which is needed to attempt to prevent gendered abuse and even the loss of lives before, during and after a catastrophe. Figures show that girls and women are particularly vulnerable in connection with climate disasters. If girls and women cannot swim, they run a very high risk of drowning in connection with flooding. If girls and women have not learned how to read, official evacuation plans posted on walls in the country side sadly would be in vain.’

In my opinion, research should contribute with insights which could help to improve the conditions for precarious groups. Our study identifies gender specific insecurities and risks even in regard to children. In our material from the Philippines for instance we see how natural disasters have led to increased violence against children, especially the girl child.

Colonialism, conflict and violence

So, what about the buffaloes she helped to herd years ago? The herding was part of her research about gender socialisation and was carried out far away from Hanoi, its universities and institutes. In the local rural community, Helle stayed with a host family and every day she set off to one of the five families with whom she collaborated for more than a year.  In the five families, she observed all social interaction, participated in daily chores, and so on. Even though it takes time to get to know one another, she was welcomed with a warm and open-minded attitude. She got to know these families well as she did with her host family and other inhabitants. Going to the fields with the kids when they were herding the buffaloes was an important part of the research.

‘I joined everyday life – cooking, cleaning, going to the market as well as going to the rice fields during the planting and harvesting seasons. I also went to school and kindergarten with the children. My focus was on the children to understand how gender socialisation takes place from very young age through daily routines and interaction with other family members; siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Social life outside the family also informs gender socialization so I even studied girls’ and boys’ interaction with their peers and teachers when in school. And then of course when taking care of the buffaloes. In the beginning, I got much attention but as time passes at a certain point you become part of the ordinary.’

That was in the early 1990s, but Helle Rydström returned to Vietnam for yet another long-term anthropological fieldwork in the same rural community. (This research project was funded by The Swedish Foundation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency). So Helle has developed close bonds with this community with which she still is in touch. Over the years, she has carried out many other research projects in Vietnam even in comparison with other countries such as India.

Some topics might be politically delicate and should therefore be addressed with some carefulness.

‘Girls and boys were supposed to be treated equally so principally there were no differences. Though, it was especially my early focus on violence which had to be balanced, as violence ideally should not exist. But like anywhere else in the world, also in Vietnam there is male-to-female abuse and violence in families. Today, the Vietnamese government, the Women’s Union and Vietnamese NGOs are engaged in preventing and combating violence in the domestic sphere. People’s experience of contemporary violence is important to study but so is the violence of the past; French colonialism and the war against the USA were periods marked by extreme brutality. In my research, I have collected testimonies from older people about the horrifying violence to which they were subjected during these periods of conflict and war.’

Prior to her doctoral research in Vietnam, Helle was involved in a Ghandi project in rural India through Action Aid Denmark (Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke).

‘That experience was formative and it greatly inspired my interest in Asia; later, I went to Asia to conduct fieldwork in Nepal.’

An engagement that fuelled her career

It would not be wrong to say that Helle’s early engagement with Asia came to set the direction for her entire life and career. Her Department at Lund University is interdisciplinary and has a global focus and offers gender courses with an international and postcolonial perspective.

‘Readers who might be interested in becoming a gender scholar at our Department should know that we are devoted to provide students with analytical tools by the aid of which they could understand how hierarchies and power structures produce precariousness and insecurities in times of crisis, conflict and catastrophes’.

‘Our Department seems to be good at bridging research and activism.’

Helle Rydström is deeply involved in international collaborations, including a Linnaeus-Palme exchange programme on Gender and Space, which she coordinates together with her colleague Prof. Anindita Datta from the University of Delhi. Thanks to this programme, the Department of Gender Studies in Lund and the Department of Geography in Delhi exchange staff and students. Students get an opportunity to stay for a longer period of time in another environment to take courses and collect data. Students could for instance study a common geographic site such as the metro in Delhi or Stockholm to highlight how gender, power and even violence frame such spaces.

Peacefulness in the Swedish countryside

After much travelling and long-distance commuting between Asia and Europe, Copenhagen and Linköping, Copenhagen and Lund, Helle Rydström has found her personal haven in a small rural community outside Lund in southern Sweden.

‘At last, I have landed after all the flying around.’

But then again, Helle is not the type who likes to sit still and relax. She continues to travel a lot in connection with her work; to Vietnam, India, Singapore, South Africa…  And her leisure time is occupied with international visits, family, kin, friends, sport and various cultural as well as natural activities such as watching cranes and eagles on bird safaris. She used to do Aikido, a physical exercise without winners and losers; entirely based on perpetual adjustment and cooperation. Of course!

Author Anna Norrby
Photo Helle Rydström, photo: Astar
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