Hurting And Healing In The “Global South”

Image with "SOUTH?" written on it.

A few months ago, after a day of overusing and over-reading “Global South”, I spoke to the void that is Twitter to find out how others were feeling about its use  (and overuse). We acknowledge that our use of Global South is not based on geography and that beyond a metaphor for under-development, our use of South and Souths is shorthand for the various systems of oppression and legacies of colonialism we have to navigate within and between our bodies, communities and borders. So even as we question the limitations of Global South as a way of identifying inequalities and injustices, we continue to use it for the dots it connects. I know I do it. 

I don’t have many answers yet but I want to keep asking questions about my own complicity in how experiences and realities are erased and hidden due to my overreliance on South and Souths when I articulate issues, do advocacy and organize transnationally and across movements. There is a flattening that happens when we don’t name social, political and cultural specificities as they are and implicit and explicit violence embedded in such flattening. And the binary of South-North, while convenient for pointing out the unequal and unjust ways our worlds are made and re-made, ends up invisibilizing other ways power and privilege manifest and perpetuate. Especially, but not limited to, class and caste. It also creates a lack of curiosity about the different ways we belong/non-belong in the South(s) and the ways we need to show up for each other. 

One of my own entry points to this has been through the discourse and practices of healing and collective care. I recently had the opportunity to join TARSHI’s “Reflect, Realign, Renew: Manage stress and keep burnout away”, a thoughtfully designed course that aims to “help learners conceptually and experientially understand stress and burnout, and locate their unique causes of stress at the individual, institutional and systemic levels”. Many of the healing and collective care spaces I’ve been in the past go right into healing and care based on certain assumptions about the stresses and oppressions we experience and while not all those assumptions are wrong, they miss certain nuances and specificities that should ideally inform the ways we try to heal and care for ourselves and each other.

Many of the healing and collective care spaces I’ve been in the past go right into healing and care based on certain assumptions about the stresses and oppressions we experience.

So I appreciated that folks at TARSHI resisted these assumptions and allowed us space to reflect on the personal, institutional and systemic contributions to the stress and burnout each of us experiences, and to imagine and construct the habits and systems of self and collective care we need from a place of complexity. As I considered some of my existing self and collective care practices (including those I cannot sustain) and also considered new possibilities, the design of the course helped me sit with my own discomforts and hesitations, personal and political, on how practices like yoga and meditation are defaulted to in various healing and collective care spaces including in the Souths. Possibly detached from the historical and ongoing contexts and co-options that inform our different relationships to such practices. 

This is not to dismiss yoga and meditation, I definitely find comfort and healing in certain aspects of these practices as do others. But our collective “Global South” identities, while very good at identifying and navigating the Western commodification and co-option of these practices, may gloss over how they are used within parts of the Souths to further casteism and fascism, and reinforce ideas of privilege, purity, etc. While my own hesitations around certain framings of spirituality and healing stem from Sinhala-Buddhist ethnonationalism in Sri Lanka and related systems of violence and oppression, an ongoing process of learning to be a better ally to anti-caste movements have added more layers to this. 

Prachi Patankar, in her 2014 article “Ghosts of Yogas Past and Present”, articulates this much better than I can, through her analysis of how a South-North discourse on yoga results in dangerous homogenization.

“Many caste-privileged Hindus use such claims to cultural capital to dominate cultural norms in ways that oppress and even perpetuate violence against Muslims, Christians, Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis, altogether the vast majority of India’s people. They have used this power to erase or appropriate from the richly-diverse indigenous and local spiritual practices of people into their brahmanical form of Hinduism.”

While I don’t subscribe to a reductive notion of “safe spaces”, one of the ways we can bring more safety and comfort to spaces we create, especially those of collective care, is by ensuring there’s room and understanding to speak up and be supported when our antennas are up.

Dhanya Addanki, in her 2019 article “How Appropriation of Yoga Masks Violence” deepens this by noting that it is not just the ongoing appropriations but also “the very foundations of supremacy interwoven with the practice”. And just last month Prinita Thevarajah reflected on “How Casteism Manifests in Yoga and Why It’s a Problem”, noting that “more effort must be placed on seeking out yogis who are holistically healing the lineages of trauma that they have been born out of”. These are all points worth reflecting on as we create South-based feminist spaces, whether it is for advocacy, organizing, collective care and various amalgamations. And to be conscious of the visible and invisible power dynamics that exist in these spaces, underneath the commonalities of the Souths. 

Even though I’ve used examples more specific to South Asia in this reflection, I know that each of us, wherever we might be from, have things that send our antennas up in these spaces. These things can be specific to the places we are located in, the hierarchies that exist in our communities and societies, and contain cultural codes that are not always apparent to others. And I worry that sometimes we have to put these on a backburner when we wear our Global South hats. While I don’t subscribe to a reductive notion of “safe spaces”, one of the ways we can bring more safety and comfort to spaces we create, especially those of collective care, is by ensuring there’s room and understanding to speak up and be supported when our antennas are up. 

I’d love to keep finding entry points to deepen and broaden our conversations about the unique and common ways we hurt and heal. To go beyond the framing of Global South to listening to, learning from and understanding each other’s specific contexts and experiences. To examine more closely the things, practices and spaces that help us heal and understand dynamics of economic justice, accessibility, indigeneity, queerness, class, caste, etc. in them. As Dhanya says in concluding her piece,

“Religion, yoga, or clean eating aren’t necessarily the problems; it’s the systemic ways in which they have been used to harm, dehumanize, and demean others that are problematic. What I am asking for is that we be unafraid of taking a deeper look at the ways in which seemingly innocent practices have chipped away at the worth of certain groups (of) people for centuries, creating a hierarchy that denied so many their humanity.”

BY SACHINI PERERA