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Meet Maira Hayat, postdoctoral scholar in the Center for South Asia

Negotiations in a canal water dispute mediated by irrigation personnel in Pakistan.

Negotiations in a canal water dispute mediated by irrigation personnel in Pakistan. 

Photo credit: Maira Hayat
Aug 16 2019

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Maira Hayat is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for South Asia, the Department of Anthropology, and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the anthropology of bureaucracy, law, ethics, and Islam; corporate capital and political ecology; science and technology studies; and postcolonial critique. She is currently working on a manuscript, Ecologies of Water Theft in Pakistan: The Colony, the Corporation, and the Contemporary, which builds off of her doctoral research.

She recently spoke with the Center for South Asia for its annual newsletter; read the full interview below.

1. What did you do your Ph.D. in? Please describe your course of study and fieldwork.

I completed my Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2018. My dissertation is based on research conducted mostly in Pakistan’s Punjab, shorter research stints at water fora in several other countries, and archival research. It is a historical-legal ethnography and examines the ways and wiles of people, corporations, and state bureaucracies in water management projects.

2. How did you become interested in postcolonial critique and South Asian historiography?

A summer or two before college began … was my introduction to the writings of Eqbal Ahmad, Edward Said, and Frantz Fanon. I read breathlessly that summer. I was in college in Pakistan at a time when the country was at the forefront of the U.S. “war on terror.” Questions such as “Whose war is this?” were urgent and everywhere. Given that moment, it is not surprising that my senior thesis was a historical examination of statecraft in the country’s northwestern “tribal areas” (formerly and until recently the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, targeted by drone strikes as well as multiple counter-insurgency operations). Colonial-era texts flooded bookstores in Pakistan around that time. I remember walking into my favorite bookstore in Islamabad in the summer of 2008 and being struck by rows upon rows of Caroe’s The Way of the Pathans 500 B.C. A.D. 1957 on the central window display. The “war on terror” provided succor to old stereotypes about “tribals” and created new, equally harmful ones.

Later, I learned more about the blinkers of postcolonial critique (I had been reading mostly South Asianist scholars then) — the recent conversation on decoloniality, STS literature, the occlusions of caste in postcolonial critique, and projects of critique animated by non-South Asian histories. And I now think about how places and people with similar experiences of subjugation and exploitation produce thought and writing that would be so valuable to learn from, but unfortunately that does not happen as much as it should. But it also makes one ask, “What’s getting in the way of a politics of solidarity, and writing and thinking about it?” I, for one, try to read “unlikely” authors.

3. What courses are you teaching at Stanford, and what are some of the learning outcomes for your students?

I taught Government of Water and Crisis: Corporations, States and the Environment in spring, problematizing the “third world-ness” of water crises by examining multiple settings. We examined how water is framed as a problem; how some problems are associated with some places; and how such imaginaries materialize in development programs and policy literature and bespeak charged racial histories. We ended with reflecting on what futures for working in common they enable/constrain.

In the first class, we learned about Phyllis Young and Parween Rehman and talked about the organizing against the Dakota Access Pipeline and politically charged access to water in Karachi. The point was to appreciate the vast range of projects, practices, and stakes in water politics. We examined a variety of written genres such as officials’ testimonies in the Flint hearings, and litigation in Indian and Pakistani courts against multinational corporations like Nestle and Coca Cola. The aim was to unsettle categories such as third world, crisis, failed states, etc.

One of the most exciting parts for me was the final project. Students did mini ethnographies of water bodies on and around campus. I ended up grading some terrific final projects. Students documented water use and understandings of value and waste in the dining halls, dormitories, the golf course, the wastewater treatment plant, and Lake Lagunita.

Read the full interview on the Global Perspectives Blog.