Ask Dr. Purnima Mankekar about family meals during her childhood in India, and she immediately recalls table conversation always revolving around feminist politics and social justice issues. In fact, such heavy topics felt so natural at mealtime that whenever she visited relatives and friends, she thought it strange when she heard only light chatter over a meal.
“I figured they would get around to feminist politics in a few minutes,” Mankekar says with a laugh. Currently, she is an associate professor in women’s studies and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The youngest of four children growing up in Delhi and Bombay, both of her parents were journalists writing for daily newspapers there. Her mother wrote about violence against women as well as efforts to make abortion medically safe. Mankekar, also the associate director for UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, gives special credit to her mother for instilling in her a passion for gender issues. “She was always busy, always ambitious,” she says. “How could I not be influenced?”
With a bachelor’s in English from St. Stephen’s College and a master’s in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, both in India, Mankekar earned a second master’s in communications at Stanford University. She returned to Stanford to teach after earning a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Washington. She taught for more than a decade at Stanford, also serving as its director of Asian American studies.
At UCLA, Mankekar is planning a Gender of “Terror” conference on May 2. She hopes to explore, through a series of panels, the ways in which gender is a constitutive discourse in terms of how people think about terror and peace. She wants to explore inferences behind the word “terror,” calling it a placeholder for cultural, racial and religious differences. She considers terror an abstract concept and puts the word in quotes.
Her 1999 book, Screening Culture, Viewing Politics, won the Kovacs Book Award from the Society for Cinema & Media Studies. The work was an ethnography of families in India and how their viewing state-run television influenced gender identity. By the end of this summer, Mankekar hopes to finish a manuscript on the role of media in forming connections between transnational publics based on her research of Indian communities in the San Francisco Bay area and in her homeland.
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