Recording Refusals

My Dictaphone was a crutch. I was so afraid to lose any piece of information that would allow me to make an “original” contribution that I recorded everything I heard on the field on a black Dictaphone.

The little black box was a strange object, sitting apart from the conversation, yet catching it to be extracted later for my thesis. The strange, unseemly object has a strange, unseemly name – Dictaphone. But we don’t dictate to it, it dictates to us. The Dictaphone symbolises colonial and capitalist logics, dare I say, patriarchal logics of what Eve Tuck and K.Wayne Yang call extractive research. The little black box, the tiny panopticon seemingly disciplined me and my interlocutors. But the refusals that came alive in its presence told me another story.

You can see all of Philippi from up here, I tell Imka (name changed) as I sit across her on a large bench facing the floor-to-ceiling windows in the enterprise hub. She nods along. I ask if I can record our conversation. Imka agrees. I set down my black Dictaphone between us. I asked Imka about the location of their hub in the middle of Philippi (in a chic building overlooking tin roofs for as far as the eye can see). I omit the part in parenthesis. But Imka’s eyes narrow. She asks – what are you doing here, studying enterprises in a South African township? I want to draw a contrast with India, I tell her. But why? How will the people of this township benefit from you drawing the contrast? I attempt to change tracks. But the recording is evidence of Imka’s wall, her refusal to let me in.

I am sitting in a small, glass-walled meeting room with a team I met less than a day ago. I start as I always do by asking if I can record the meeting. No one disagrees, and I put my Dictaphone in the middle of the table.

I ask them about the project. They tell me it’s an entrepreneurship project for rural women in Uttar Pradesh, India; it’s the language of their project brochure. I think about one of the interventions – “Safe Spaces.” Such a buzzword. People use it in all kinds of settings, to allude to a therapeutic space of vulnerability, a safe space to share. I was intrigued by its presence in an entrepreneurship program working with women in the informal economy. Tell me about safe spaces. Silence. After a minute, a team member recites the brochure. This time, I ask if they’ve held a “safe space.” A monosyllabic response – yes. How was it, I probe. It was ok.

There’s a sharp sigh. It’s Shyla (name changed), an associate on the program. She demands to know why her colleague said it was okay. It was not OK.

Shyla turns to me—safe spaces are a failed intervention, and I will never participate in them again. She continues that on our insistence, the women of the village turned up. But they wouldn’t talk to us. After a while, one of the local women snapped and said—you are wasting our time. You’re asking us to speak about our problems. Are our problems not evident enough?

Later, when I listen to the conversation, Shyla’s resistance to a censured conversation echoes the rural women’s refusal to endorse a cultivated safe space.

During my research, I saw Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation.” In it, a woman refuses to stay in her marriage to coerce her husband to move from Iran for their daughter’s future. The daughter refuses to leave with her mother to keep her parents together. As I think of the film, I wonder how desire shaped their refusals and how their refusals shaped their worlds. There’s another woman, a hired domestic help, in the film. Her refusals, shaped by her poverty-stricken, desperate world, shape the course of the other women’s resistance, all against the backdrop of a restrictive patriarchal regime.

I also saw the movie “ Thappad.” Amrita or Amu refuses to accept a single slap from her husband. Her desire for respect and dignity shaped her resistance. Amu’s world intersects with that of her domestic help, with the movie showing how her help, a woman as well, faces a daily, more insidious kind of abuse. The plight of Amu’s domestic help is of little concern to Amu, but Amu’s disrespect finds an empathetic reception in her help. I think of the hierarchies in our refusals.

I wonder whose refusals count and who hears and responds to our refusals.

The world of my Dictaphone and my personal world collide. The discomfort, and the silences come alive in the refusals I hear in others and express myself. I walked away from an abusive relationship, even as the act threatened to upend my research. In the refuse of the relationship, as I attempted to write, I heard my supervisors’ refusal of my formulaic writing. In their feedback, I saw their desire to hear me in my thesis, to what brought me to my work.

Desire is time-warping, Eve Tuck and K.Wayne Yang tell us. Sophie Marie Niang adds in being attentive to the desire in refusals, it extends to world-making and other possible futures. So, I hearken to refusals, to the desire for new worlds. Worlds not recorded by a black box sitting in the middle of a conversation but rather a world revealed through the stories and interactions behind the recordings. The women in the films I watched, Imka’s wall, Shyla’s anger, and the rural women’s
resistance were all part of the circuits of resistance I was a part of; a resistance against a world that tells us about our place in it – an imposed place, not a desired one.

So, I ask – who is hearing us, and how are we hearing them?



  • Tuck, E., and Yang, K.W. 2014. R-Words: Refusing Research. In: Humanizing Research:Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities, Eds, D. Paris and M. Winn. London: SAGE Publications, 223-248
  • Niang, S.M. 2024. In defence of what’s there: notes on scavenging as methodology. Feminist Review, Issue 156, 52-66.
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