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Decolonising Feminisms, Transforming Lives

Cat Wayland and Marta Kowalewska (University of Edinburgh)

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Photo Credit: Megan Harrington

On 22 May 2019, the one-day workshop ‘Decolonising Feminist Knowledge: Reflections on Research and Curriculum’ was held at the University of Edinburgh, under the auspices of Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives, a UGC-UKIERI funded project involving staff and students from Ambedkar University Delhi, India and the University of Edinburgh, UK. The workshop was co-sponsored by the University of Edinburgh’s GenderED, Centre for South Asian Studies and Sociology department. Doctoral researchers CAT WAYLAND  and MARTA  KOWALEWSKA reflect here, in their capacity as budding feminist scholars and as student organisers of the workshop, on its genesis, aims, successes, shortcomings, and lessons for the future.

 

The idea of organising the workshop – as well as the workshop paper we presented on decolonising research and feminist friendships – came from discussions that we had along with other PhD students part of a research and reading group led by Dr Radhika Govinda in 2018-19. Our discussions were centred on feminism, knowledge production, intersectionality, colonialism, imperialism, and on how to navigate these within our research, the institutional spaces we inhabit, our relationships, and our own selves. We were convinced that the questions we were asking about positionality and power structures in academia, about institutional and epistemological hierarchies in our research and reading group warranted discussion and acknowledgement beyond it, and felt inspired to add our voices to the wider debates and ongoing conversations on decolonising the academy.

The workshop brought together early career and established feminist scholars to reflect, through the lens of their own research and/or pedagogical practice, on what ‘decolonising’ meant to them – divorcing it for a moment from its institutional trendiness, ‘diversity’. Professor Rukmini Sen from Ambedkar University Delhi, India got us off to a great start by giving a thought-provoking keynote on autobiographic writing and walking as ‘feminist methods to decolonise the written and the known’. The presentations that followed throughout the day touched on a broad range of topics, including reflexivity, intersectionality, the politics of citation, and the processes of racialisation in university spaces. Dr Supurna Banerjee (Institute of Development Studies Kolkata, India) gave a brilliant account of the legacy of colonial hierarchies in research and knowledge production, as did Dr Ayaz Qureshi (University of Edinburgh) who discussed this in the context of his experiences of challenges of teaching and researching in Pakistan and in the UK, which raised questions about whether we can have the same strategies for decolonising the academy in different parts of the world. For instance, is citing the canon a lazy reproduction of dominant knowledges or a shibboleth for acknowledgement and acceptance in hegemonic academic spaces?

Doctoral researcher Janine Francois (University of Bedfordshire) spoke of the university as a contested and racialised space that is ultimately unsafe for Black and Brown bodies, and Dr Radhika Govinda (University of Edinburgh) finished the day with a critical personal narrative reflecting on her experiences as a Southern feminist scholar of colour located in the global North, and how, for her, the classroom had become a key site of decolonising practice. The discussions throughout the day were stimulating and intense but respectful, and we were delighted to have Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw amidst us as an attendee. Speaking about intersectional pedagogy to decolonise feminist classrooms with her listening to us was surreal! If you’d like more details about the workshop proceedings, check out the workshop abstracts and listen to the workshop presentations!

The popularity of the workshop surpassed expectations, with projected attendance close to one hundred participants. Participants arrived from both within the University of Edinburgh and further afield. Apart from invited speakers from Ambedkar University Delhi, SOAS, CNRS Paris, Bedfordshire and Institute of Development Studies Kolkata, we had in the audience staff and students from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Herriot Watt, Open University, Napier, Roehampton, Strathclyde and Westminster. From Edinburgh itself, apart from SPS, members of HCA, PPLS, Geosciences, LLC, Law, Business School, ECA and Moray House participated. The attendance and feedback at the event suggest that there is a real appetite for more such events, with all those who filled out feedback forms stating enthusiastically that they would like to see more events like this in the future (some even saying they should be compulsory!).

Some of the most encouraging feedback came from Twitter, with one participant tweeting that ‘Words cannot describe the feeling when the person on the podium is finally speaking your truth’ and stressing the importance of being in an ‘academic setting where the dialogue was driven by women of colour’.

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Regardless of the many successes of the day in terms of the politics of solidarity, coalition-building and decolonisation, we acknowledge that despite having women of colour in the driving seat, the workshop could have better addressed how the different power dynamics operating in the space affected differently situated organisers and participants. Some participants expressed concern that space at the event was taken up with ‘apologetic’ whiteness. This raises questions about the labour that white people impose on people of colour simply through the act of acknowledging and ‘confessing’ whiteness – a point that some of us failed to pick up on in the moment but one that we certainly took away for further reflection. We recognise that it speaks to broader concerns of whose interests and agendas are centred in the attempt to create inclusive academic spaces. According to presenter Janine Francois, the norms that govern such spaces tend to ensure that the benefits accrue to white people at the expense of the people of colour present. A related observation with regard to the unspoken norms that govern academic spaces has to do with the question of dis/ability and its absence from the discussions on the day. Here, issues of accessibility and intellectualism are significant, as are the ableist norms that promulgate the notion of the ideal – read overstretched and burned out – scholar.

More broadly, these points serve to remind us how crucial intersectionality is in relation to feminist knowledge and research. Paying close attention to the dynamics of whose knowledge and experience is valid, who gets to be a researcher or the researched, and who bears the brunt of the labour in ensuring that these issues are kept at the table means interrogating the interactions between different axes of exclusion and marginalisation. As several presentations touched upon, intersectionality needs to be addressed explicitly in the context of discussion and action around decolonisation in the academy. When not addressed and engaged with particular attention to the dynamics above, intersectionality can get co-opted, appropriated, and used against those it should ideally benefit.

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Emerging from these stimulating and challenging discussions were the themes of activism and accountability. The question of how researchers should respond to these discussions were helpfully addressed in terms of how we position ourselves in relation to our research questions, participants, and the ethical and political aims we hope to achieve. Beyond this, the workshop participants, us included, also began to conceptualise these questions in terms of the relationships with others that researchers find themselves in, as attested to in our own presentation on the role of feminist friendships in academia.

Finally, in order to challenge the focus on (often inaccessible and rigid) texts in academia, generated over the course of the day was a thematic artwork, created live by London-based artist Raquel Duran. We were able to bring Raquel to Edinburgh thanks to a grant awarded by the Principal’s Fund. The mural takes viewers on a visual journey through complex and sometimes challenging concepts and ideas. Raquel’s artistic talent and ability to capture key themes from the discussions enriched the workshop experience and has provided us with a visual legacy for the event. You can find out more about the mural in this blog post from Kamya Choudhary

About the Contributors

Cat Wayland is a PhD student in political theory at the University of Edinburgh, working on methodology, intersectionality and the politics of knowledge production. @cat_wayland

Marta Kowalewska is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on Romani women’s activism and feminist politics in Poland. @MartaZofia