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

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.

Negotiations in a canal water dispute mediated by irrigation personnel in Pakistan. Photo credit: Maira Hayat.

1. What did you do your Ph.D. in? Please briefly 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.

A newly lined canal in Pakistan. Photo credit: Maira Hayat.

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.

Irrigation water is allocated according to a time schedule called warabandi. The hours of a week are divided by the total area to be irrigated and then time shares of water are allocated in proportion to landholding size. Photo credit: Maira Hayat.

4. What do you hope to accomplish during your time at Stanford?

My postdoc started very well with the Fluid Ecologies conference in February 2019. The co-organizer, Jisha Menon’s, support was key because planning for it started around the time that I was preparing for my dissertation defense at Chicago.

Now, I am teaching and working on a couple of articles and my book manuscript. One article is on the ecology of ethics, and the other questions how anthropological studies of the state bridge the gap between bureaucratic work, what is observed, and constructions of “the state.”

5. How does your research help inform our understanding of the region of South Asia?

By furnishing perspectives from Pakistan, a country that is both particularly vulnerable to climate change-related events and also at the forefront of jurisprudential initiatives to address it, I hope my work can go some way towards contributing to environmental justice projects.

There are several specific strands I could elaborate on further but for now let me just say a few words about this particular one: the kinds of south-south conversations that some judiciaries are partaking in is, I think, such an important “site” to work with. I have been revising one of my manuscript chapters and have been reading some court literature from the Philippines to see how it has been taken up by Pakistani courts. And I am struck by the potential there is for such thinking, and the action it mandates to rescript how we — as societies, nations, people, classes — relate to and conceptualize the environment. What does this kind of conversing do to revising the understanding of categories such as South Asia and East Asia?

On another front too, the Pakistani courts are a particularly generative epistemological location — bottled water corporations are once again in the courts over newly introduced groundwater charges. From this vantage, we can learn something about how and why politics happens in the courts in some places — what historical lineages make contemporary politics look and unfold in a particular way in some locations.

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