Attention upper-middle class white women: help save poor Indian women from a life of forced prostitution, all from the comfort of your hammock! Simply purchase some comfy, trendy pants.
(Image from International Princess Project, the organization behind Punjammies)
Aliyah C. wrote to us about a series of photos on a website for a product called Punjammies. The images offer a stark illustration of the racial, classed, and gendered nature of many “development” initiatives.
According to their website, Punjammies claims to offer Indian women who have escaped forced prostitution a chance to rebuild their lives by providing them with the marketable skill of manufacturing clothing.
Images in the Punjammies catalogue make it clear who the target market is: They feature exclusively white women, luxuriously lounging about in Punjammies attire.
Meanwhile, images on the “About” page depict the women purportedly empowered by this operation, conducting manual labour to produce Punjammies products.
Consumerism-driven development initiatives like Punjammies fail to challenge the inherent inequalities at play in a situation where wealthy, white women in the developed world are seen as benevolent and charitable for making a purchase, while women in developing countries manufacturing the products are portrayed as beneficiaries. Furthermore, as Barbara Heron might argue, Punjammies is a prime example of how development initiatives often play into notions of white female subjectivity as compassionate and caring, dependent upon the Othering of women of colour in the south. In fact, since colonialism, the advantages that accrue to those of us in developed countries have been linked to the disadvantages faced by the rest of the world. Our economies are not separate entities, they are intimately linked.
Reflecting upon images like these should remind us to remain critical of the ways in which “development” is marketed to us, and how it can perpetuate rather than challenge inequalities.
Reference: Heron, B. (2007). Desire for Development: Whiteness, Gender and the Helping Imperative. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press.
Hayley Price has a background in sociology, international development studies, and education. She recently completed her Masters degree in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
Cocojams Jambalayah — August 20, 2011
After visiting the linked page and serveral other pages of that organization, it seems to me that poster has judged this organization too harshly.
While the organization's name (International Princess™ Project) and use of the referent "princess" to describe those women is rather grating to me, I believe that organization's overall mission is very commendable.
Sure that organization could have also included photos of well to do Women Of Color (yes, there are some wealthy Women of Color, though regrettably, I'm not one of them). But I don't get the sense that the organization is saying that the only thing that White women and/or other people in the West can do or need to do is to buy those pajama products that the Indian women make.
"The Vision of International Princess Project: For International women once enslaved in the sex trade to have the opportunity to support themselves with skill and dignity, to heal in body and spirit, and to live lives of freedom. For people worldwide to gain awareness about human trafficking and to rise up with finance and action to end forced prostitution
The VALUES of International Princess™ Project
Holistic - We value the whole woman and seek their physical, emotional and spiritual restoration.
Dignity - We believe in the dignity of God-created human life. We desire for each woman to reclaim her value and voice.
Self-sustainability - We desire women to learn marketable skills so they become able to support themselves and their children.
Partnership - We seek to build partnerships with existing organizations in an effort to collaborate on best-practices in the after-care process.
I just hope feminists aren't being too quick to negatively judge a project that seems to be quite worthwhile, even though the organization's founders/members promote the website by showing photos of White women in those clothes*, and use problematic words such as "princess" to describe females.
* And btw, how can people viewing those photos know that those White women are wealthy? They could also be middle class but want to support a deserving organization. Also, just because someone buys those pajamas doesn't mean that they can't also do other advocacy work on behalf of this issue.
meg — August 20, 2011
While I agree that it's important to be wary of perpetuating inequality, I don't believe this organization and its supporters bear culpability in doing so. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the Kiva practice of microloans, except that it seems to go a step further and provide the opportunity for business practice and some sort of therapeutic after-care to help recover from a trafficking experience.
Anonymous — August 20, 2011
I think it's absolutely great that that picture of the working women is on the website and I find it highly problematic that the Price has labelled these women as "purportedly empowered."
What on earth is not empowering about women working in what appear to be good, clean conditions around others who have been through similar hardships?
It appears to me Price is implying that people who perform manual label cannot be empowered and I find that much more problematic than this organization.
Boner Killer — August 20, 2011
A very eye-opening, honest and important piece. I believe initiatives that are not overshadowed by so-called "development" projects are the truly beneficial ones. This one is clearly classist and clearly colonial in its way of advertising the clothing that these women are making - the brand name also sounds very culturally appropriated. However, one can understand some obvious benefits of this - but I understand that you are examining it on a larger level - on a level that understands colonial "development" that occurs around the world. This is what needs to be examined as they are the roots to the larger, societal problems. Although the organization is getting women out of the sex-industry, which gobbles up women whole, and allowing them to work in better and safer conditions, putting their skills to use and likely finding empowerment with that. One cannot assume from the website that these are great and fantastic working conditions because we all know how labor is exploited, particularly women's labor, in a globalized world. We are only told what those in the organization have shared with the public about working conditions and like you, I am skeptical of so-called "development" organizations. This doesn't mean they are not legitimate, it just means that they must be available to critique. The initiatives do not, as you said, counter the inequalities that have lead them to such oppression to begin with. The initiatives are set up by those at the top of the social hierarchy - with the privileges that those they work with do not have. And that is problematic.
I will share this as much as I can. Thank you for this.
Anonymous — August 20, 2011
This sounds exactly like the character of Vera Pavlovna in Chernyshevsky's Shto Dielat' (What Is to Be Done). She organizes sewing cooperatives for women escaping prostitution... I think the book was somewhat mercilessly satirized by Dostoievsky, though it was seen as a revolutionary beacon by many including Lenin.
Nicole Dunham — August 20, 2011
THANK YOU for the reference! I appreciate whenever you all suggest a book that I would not have otherwise come across probably for a couple of years.
WG — August 20, 2011
Disgusting. Price should be ashamed. These women need all the help they can get. If Price has such a problem with a company that cares so much, where is the suggestion for alternatives?
Here's a TED talk from Sunitha Krishnan that does a better job then Price's blog post could ever do: http://www.ted.com/talks/sunitha_krishnan_tedindia.html
Anonymous — August 20, 2011
Giving somebody a fish vice teaching them to fish and all that sort of thing. Surely it is more noble and dignified to help people in a way that generates profit rather than with handouts.
It's more practical, to. Most people would agree that charity should strive to have the most bang for the buck, so lowering costs to the point of being negative should be praised on those grounds alone. Then you can take the profits and invest in expanding the operation. This is how the marginal value of labor in the West was raised to the point it's at now, though not usually for "charitable" motives.
In fact, since colonialism, the advantages that accrue to those of us in
developed countries have been linked to the disadvantages faced by the
rest of the world.
In fact, this is total garbage. The advantages that accrue to the developed world are due to the particular cultural and institutional traits that enable the accumulation of capital and the division of labor. Nothing more. It is instructive to consider the various other societies which were just as if not more "advanced" than Britain around the time of its rise to power, such as Holland, Spain, and especially China, but which nonetheless failed to go into a full-fledged, self-reinforcing industrial revolution like the ones that happened in Britian and the US. There are common themes among such societies, but lack of imperialist spirit is most emphatically NOT one of them.
Imperialism did not cause Western prosperity, but rather, the skill with which the West was able to execute its imperialist agenda and it's prosperity both have a common cause: industrial capitalism and a net positive propensity to save.
Paul Harrison — August 20, 2011
"Imagine there's no countries" wrote Lennon. No, really. Imagine completely open borders, free migration. Your nation's social safety net available to all people.
I buy this kind of product. Oxfam trinkets, fair trade coffee, all that. I like it because it is disgusting. So very obviously wrong. Normally the horror of buying goods made in poorer nations is hidden. This puts it front and center. Citizenship is the new class, and future generations will look back at us in disgust.
debe white — August 21, 2011
Holy crap I find it really weird that folks disagree with the points of this article; like: "Reflecting upon images like these should remind us to remain critical of
the ways in which “development” is marketed to us, and how it can
perpetuate rather than challenge inequalities."
I would take it further to apply it towards the welfare/social assistance programs in North America. Same damn thing. I find it repulsive. it is not just ads. Look at the signs outside of a "family housing" building (even the title is indicative of the patronization). Why are those signs there? I can think of no purpose other than to advertise how incredibly magnanimous of those who provide for the wide smiling, ever thankful poor folks. Helping is wonderful- but don't you think that the folks helped should be shown rightful respect to their dignity? would you rather have the choice of accepting help anonymously, of thanking some one yourself? Or, would you really prefer to have your life made public, your grateful smile and anecdotal comments, purposefully edited to cliché perfection so that everyone can see what good is being done? How is it that this not blatantly clear to all who think the point is whiny?
Ljusalv — August 21, 2011
I think this post is relevant. The website and what we see of the organization does not confront deeper inequalities in the world system. As the poster writes:
In fact, since colonialism, the advantages that accrue to those of us in developed countries have been linked to the disadvantages faced by the rest of the world. Our economies are not separate entities, they are intimately linked.
I also agree with her analysis of gender and white women's roles as helpers and the ones who are responsible (a role that goes back to the Raj) as an underlying message.
But I would still like to support the organization if they do what they say they do. Because changing the present status quo is a very lengthy and time-consuming and inefficient affair - and working with women who are trying to find ways out of prostitution and poverty is a pressing and acute matter. To market on benevolence and generosity on the buyer's part is an easier sell than guilt. (I actually like the 'women's solidarity over borders message). The organization need to get money from somewhere, and teaching useful crafts and providing micro-loans for putting up business is actually a way of empowering people that has been rather successful in many cases. Also, the blog on the website is definitely not condescending, drawing parallels with what is happening in India and in the USA, and picturing the women working at the centre as real and brave people - more like role-models than victims.
I agree with the pictures on things for sale only having white women, though. That is rather uncanny - why not some pictures of indian women wearing them, at least? I understand that they mostly have white women, as they seem to be their prime target groups, but this is just ridiculous.
I do see the problem with the idea of buying objects as charity and engagement (that just confirms to us, in our privileged lives, how morally right we are) but I have also read several studies where one kind of engagement (in that case, buying ecological produce) leads to further engagement. So that people who would buy these kinds of stuff would tend to be more engaged in other ways as well. The fact that people are more aware, I think, also makes it easier to reach them.
Tom Megginson — August 21, 2011
I also find this post overly harsh. Go after the clothing manufacturers without an ethics mission first, the ones that commoditize the labour of women, men and children and increase (rather than decrease) their suffering.
As someone in social marketing, I appreciate the awkwardness of the power dynamic between lounging white women and grateful brown women. That is a criticism that the Punjammies (God, what an awful name!) people can use to make their brand seem less cynical and patronizing.
But the project/product itself? It feeds on the same well-intentioned consumer behaviour as fairtrade coffee purchases or gifting 10000 Villages tchotchkes. Yes, these people are slacktivists. But their slacktivism is not taking the place of "real" activism; it is simply extending the target market from hardcore activists to those who would not otherwise inconvenience themselves with learning and effort, but who feel a need to do something to help. In a fundraising situation, these slacktivists represent a larger pool of money that can be tapped with appropriate emotional cues.And in such a case, who is really using whom?
Jennifer — August 21, 2011
Whenever I read about philanthropy, I always think of "The Lovers of the Poor" by Gwendolyn Brooks (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-lovers-of-the-poor/ ), which captures the social distance between the haves and have nots and the difficulties involved in bridging those gaps. More than that, I think the poem suggests that often do-gooders aren't really that interested in helping or empowering, but are more interested in seeing themselves as do-gooders, while keeping their social status.
It's always hard to assess motives with things like this, so one can look for outcomes with an organization. I looked at the project's web site and don't see any mention of outcomes (how many people helped, how they were helped, etc.)
Anonymous — August 21, 2011
Me and a few others have mentioned it in response to other comments, but is there an explanation of the name and who came up with it? I'm really not sure what to think of it, but it seems a strange choice for an item marketed to this particular demographic (or possibly telling about the demographic).
Lemonade — August 21, 2011
When men try to help men across borders, it's called solidarity. When women do it, it's called privileged rich, white colonialist do-gooders trying to act like saviors for women who don't even need help because they are "active agents" who freely choose to prostitute themselves because it's empowering.
Lance — August 21, 2011
You know, I was thinking about the name, and I wonder: what if the "Princess", and the marketing to well-off white women, is a good thing? I mean, suppose the people behind the project thought something like this: "Currently, affluent white Westerners have almost no awareness at all of the problems faced by women in the third world. So if we market to them, we'll have their attention, and then it'll be possible to actually try to make them aware. Similarly, if we call it the 'International Princess Project', we may get the attention of the Disney-princess demographic, and we can use their interest in a silly gender role to get them to start thinking about more serious issues."
Now, I don't want to actually ascribe thoughts to anyone else, and the intent of these things doesn't matter nearly as much (if at all) as the actual decisions. But is it possible that the class/gender trappings of "princess" and "lounging on hammocks" are bad things, but that they're being used to accomplish something good?
Alamode — August 21, 2011
Actually, no, not all the women pictured in the catalog online are white.
Journey of Young Women — August 21, 2011
Well, I love my Punjammies. I am a poor single mom and usually I onlyl buy secondhand clothes. But I decided to splurge to buy these. They are much for affordable than most cool pants and they are beautiful and comfy and they support a good cause. This is a wonderful project! Maybe their photos could have been a little more PC, but please give these folks credit for organizing a successful venture that helps these women and is successful. And it allows non-wealthy folks like me to have something fancy, and to vote with my dollars for a very good cause. And it gets the word out about conditions in India (and I don't think the message is "just buy and forget about taking other action"). So please be nice to the Punjammy organizers. They've pulled off something wonderful.
Hans — August 22, 2011
If we assume that:
1) These young women in India really are being employed in good conditions, or at least much better then they could get elsewhere, for a decent wage by local standards, and...
2) They are making a product (which seems to me to be quite nice, I could see my wife enjoying pants like these a lot) whose only market is women with enough money to buy them
then, how should these women market that product? Is there any way for them to do so that would not be objectionable? What would such an advertising campaign look like?
Millie — August 22, 2011
A friend of mine works for this organization, so I've been familiar with its work for a number of years. I share a lot of the misgivings presented here concerning their marketing and its tone. Their materials originally said something sexist & condescending about how Jesus thinks all women are princesses. Now it doesn't. That's progress to my mind. There's a learning curve they're working out in both the image and the work of the organization and in their own hearts & minds. And they're definitely improving with time and experience.
I believe the group in question to be sincere and good intentioned. Although I do not know the founder personally, I do take seriously my friend's opinion of her. I also know through my friend that the organization does have very positive relationships with local people and NGO and that women in the factories are not exploited. All of this is to say, I'm not wholly supportive of everything the group does or exactly the way they do it. But I do believe they're acting to the best of abilities in response to the problem of sex trafficking, and I value that.Incidentally, the problem of the models' race--which I do think is a whopper of a problem--is basically due to their photography being done in-house. The models are relatives and friends of two organization employees, so it's less an editorial decision than one based on convenience and cost. And the awkward fact that posh white ladies often have posh white lady friends.
NiceLady — August 23, 2011
Hmm... might get a pair of these. I really do see this as purely a marketing problem, one that should really be rectified. The cause is good, the idea is good it just isn't presented well. I don't like how a lot of the criticism is turning into, "well what are the buyers actually DOING?" Activism takes many forms, people do what they can to help causes they care about. I volunteer, I go to rallies, but that doesn't make be better than someone who buys fair trade coffee and pajamas made by sex slaves and don't "do" anything. These "slacktivists" as you may call them have a lot of value in activism.
betsy santos — August 23, 2011
I think it's good that this company puts the women in what look like safe conditions compared to where they were before, but at the same time the whole "hey, middle-class white women, you can own these CUTE pajama pants that these EMPOWERED brown women spent all day making for you in a sweatshop!" thing irks me for obvious reasons.
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