Accepted Paper:

"Amphibiousness: quagmire of mud and gender in North Bihar, India"  


Luisa Cortesi (Yale University)

Paper short abstract:

In rural North Bihar, India, a space of troubled waters and mud, women negotiate their life and social identity as a mucky quagmire. This paper will confront their ways of knowing space and choosing risk while floating on, but at time sinking in, the tension between nature and culture.

Paper long abstract:

North Bihar, India, is a land of water. Recurrently flooded and crisscrossed with rivers that swell mud every monsoon, the landscape is engorged with marshy water through the seasons. When every path feels like a slippery bog, how do people navigate the landscape? This paper narrates women moving on unstable surfaces, neither gripping nor skidding on them, as evidence of their amphibiousness.


Despite the precarious ground, no adaptive behavior that eases movement is apparent. Where the no-slip soles of the anthropologist are still slippery, local women master the path on dainty and fashionable heeled slippers. Yet, counter intuitive choices stick, even when the mud gets thick with consequences. Women die more often than men when the frail overloaded boats capsize -as they often do. Their sari inflates like a balloon, and once drenched, engulfs them and drags them down, burying them alive in the clay of the riverbed. Yet, even in the very moment in which the boat is keeling over, very few attempt survival by loosening their clothing.


To examine how the materiality of the watery landscape clashes with gendered norms of sociality, this paper borrows, and questions, theories of space from Bachelard, of spatial practices from Lefebvre, of cultural production of spaces from De Certeau, and of embodied spatial knowledge from Ingold. The result is a study of amphibiousness as a knowledge of space, through the miry trajectories of amphibious women between nature and culture, between the banality of the everyday and the tragedy of death.

Panel P29
Muddy footsteps and hydrosocial futures: understanding relationality with, through and about water