Meena Khandelwal

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Meena Khandelwal
Associate Professor & Interim Director of Undergraduate Studies
225 Macbride Hall
(319) 335-2496

Research Interests: India/South Asia, transnational feminism, feminist anthropology, migration, Indian diaspora, development, Hindu renunciation, gender and sexuality

Meena Khandelwal is best known for her pioneering research on Hindu celibacy and monastic life that puts gender at the center. Her book Women in Ochre Robes (SUNY Press 2004) focuses on the everyday lives of women initiated into sannyasa—one of several traditions of Hindu renunciation. These women walk away from marriage, family ties, wealth, caste, and professional status for a life of celibacy and spiritual discipline. Paradoxically, sannyasa is a monastic tradition created by and for elite men, but claims to transcend gender –in part because ‘the soul’ is neither male nor female. Khandelwal’s research suggests that sexuality and celibacy are mutually implicated and that abstinence should be accounted for in the field of sexuality studies. She co-edited a volume with Sondra Hausner and Ann Grodzins Gold entitled Women’s Renunciation in South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2006). A South-Asian edition of this book was published with the title Nuns, Yoginis, Saints and Singers (Zubaan 2007). Khandelwal has also published on transnational aspects of Hindu renunciation, including an essay on foreign swamis who have migrated to India (Identities 2007). Her essay “The Cosmopolitan Guru: Spiritual Tourism and Ashrams in Rishikesh” examines cosmopolitanism in the yoga capital of the world (in The Guru in South Asia ed. by Copeman and Ikegama, 2012). 

As a straight, cis householder herself, Khandelwal has also published on romantic love and other things renounced by celibate women in ochre robes. Her essay “Arranging Love” (Signs 2009) argues for combining the insights of area studies and transnational frameworks to undo stereotypes of arranged marriage. In “Dance On!” (Cultural Dynamics 2014) she and co-author Akkoor describe the cultural politics of campus-based Indian dance competitions as an expression of US-born second-generation experiences. .

More recently, Khandelwal has turned her attention to a collaboration with applied scientists sparked by a chance conversation about a solar cooker project. A colleague in engineering took a group of students to visit a village in Rajasthan, India; they learned that women and girls were trekking long hours to find and haul firewood that was once available just outside their homes—simply to cook a meal. Availability of a solar cooker, they thought, would not only address the problem of deforestation but would also ease women’s workload and put more girls in school. The engineers’ consideration of perspectives from cultural anthropology and gender studies led to an awareness that the cook-stove problem is not only technological, but also environmental, cultural and political. The project now involves a multi-disciplinary group of colleagues conducting research on the complex nexus of forests, energy, gender relations, health, consumption and culture. 

Thus far, three publications have resulted from this collaboration. Khandelwal published an essay on veganism, vegetarianism and beef-eating titled “Cooking with Firewood: Deep Meaning and Environmental Materialities in a Globalized World” in Mapping Feminist Anthropology in the Twenty-First Century ed. by Lewin and Silverstein (2016). She has also published two co-authored essays. One is “Why Have Cook-stove Initiatives in India Failed?”(World Development 2017).  “The Humble Cookstove” is included in a special edition of LIMN on Little Development Devices / Humanitarian Goods (2017) edited by Stephen J. Collier, Jamie Cross, Peter Redfield, and Alice Street.

Khandelwal was recently awarded a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Award to take a group of 12 faculty and students to Rajasthan for one months in Winter 2016-2017 to learn about the story of cook-stove interventions.

This research collaboration has also led to the development of an innovative, multi-disciplinary ‘big ideas’ course entitled People and Environment: Technology, Culture and Social Justice being taught by the same group of faculty. Khandelwal has directed and co-taught this course for four years and describes it in a video as part of UI’s Extraordinary Teaching Project.

In Spring 2017, Khandelwal received the inaugural International Engagement Teaching Award co-sponsored by the University of Iowa’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and International Programs.   

Courses Developed and Taught:

Undergraduate Courses:

Global Migration in the Contemporary World
Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
Gendering India
South Asian Sexual Cultures
Anthropology of Marriage and Family
Transnational Feminism
Gender and Justice: Inquiry into Social Change in Rural Haryana, India (study abroad 2010)
Bollywood, Parades and Religion: How “India” Came to America (first year seminar Fall 2011)
Bollywood, Curry and Temples: How “India” Came to America (first year seminar Fall 2012)
Cooking Up Storms (first year seminar Fall 2013)
People and Environment: Culture, Technology and Social Justice
Love and Kinship in South Asia

Graduate Seminars:

Reading Transnational Feminist Theory (current)
Crossing Borders Seminar – Disrupting Diasporas: Indo-Fijian, Indo-Trinidadian, and American Indian Experiences (Fall 2006, with Dr. Jacki Rand)
Feminist Anthropological Theory
Feminist Ethnography

Professional Service, Affiliations & Links:

Dr. Khandelwal holds a joint position in the UI Department of Anthropology.
Dr. Khandelwal has served as Secretary of the Association of Feminist Anthropology (AFA), a section of the American Anthropological Association (2006-2008).  She is also serving as AFA co-chair for the 2017 and 2018 AAA annual meetings.
Dr. Khandelwal has served as Director of the South Asian Studies Program at University of Iowa (2004, 2007- 2008, 2016-2018).
Dr. Khandelwal is serving her second term on UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Educational Policy and Curriculum Committee (2011-2013, 2016-2018).
Dr. Khandelwal is serving on UI’s International Studies Academic Advisory Board (2016-present).
Dr. Khandelwal has served as Co-editor Indian Traditions section of the peer-reviewed journal Religion Compass (2011-2014).
Dr. Khandelwal has served as a member of the South Asia Council of the Association of Asian Studies (2010-2013).