Rhea and Sheher are GENDER.ED’s current PhD Assistant and Undergraduate Intern respectively; at the beginning of their time at GENDER.ED, they met and sat down to have a conversation about themselves, why they chose to intern for GENDER.ED, what they hope to gain from this opportunity, and the kinds of feminist work and theory they are interested in.
Sheher: Tell us a little bit about yourself, what attracted you to the role, and what subjects and things you are interested in.
Rhea: I’m doing my PhD, I’m in my first year, in Counselling Studies in the department of Health and Social Sciences. It’s a very tiny department in the university. I’m trying to decolonize counselling and psychotherapy training, and that is my research interest. I’m also a therapist – I work part-time as a therapist – and I’m doing my PhD full-time, technically.
What attracted me to GENDER.ED is that I’m studying decolonization and interested in queer theory. I’m interested in what it might mean to decolonize queer theory, which is why I thought it would be good to be involved with more feminist work and organising. I also thought it would be nice to work with everyone in GENDER.ED because their interests are so intersectional – that’s what drew me to the role. What about you?
Sheher: I’m in my third year of Sociology, and I think it’s a pretty broad subject. Initially, I was never going to do Sociology, I was going to go into English Lit or History, but I didn’t like how very white-centric and Eurocentric those subjects tend to be, especially in the West. I ended up going into Sociology on a whim, my high school counsellor back in the day suggested it to me and I felt like it aligned more with my passions and interests in decisive real-world action than English Lit and History.
Specifically with GENDER.ED, I’ve always been interested in gender and sexuality studies ever since I began to question my own gender and sexuality way back in the beginning of high school. And, you know, as I became involved more and more with the activism sphere of queer activism and general activism –I felt that GENDER.ED brought in two interests that I have.
For the internship itself, I felt like I had some qualifications for it since I had worked in publishing before – not formal publication, but rather my high school yearbook. Seeing how gender and sexuality studies is considered within academia; one thing that interested me was that there were a lot of people of colour in GENDER.ED which I found exciting –
Rhea: Oh, thank god – can I say that? Can I interrupt? That was a huge reason why I joined! My department doesn’t have full-time South Asian faculty, and I think that I’m just missing that. It feels very affirming to know that they are managing and that they are in positions of power, and that is actually quite inspiring. I want to be in that space just to feel some sense of home and comfort and hope.
Sheher: I fully agree. My courses feel predominantly white — I mean Edinburgh in general is very white. So, one of the reasons why I really wanted to sign up; I was thinking “okay, they are going to be very intersectional.” Because, sometimes, especially when there’s white people in power the race question always kind of takes the back seat, or it becomes quite condescending in my experiences. So, I was like, at least with this intersectionality, intersectional feminism, takes the forefront of GENDER.ED and I really wanted to work in this kind of environment.
Also, Rhea, I was wondering: how did you first get interested in feminist activism and scholarship?
Image: Rhea Gandhi, GENDER.ED’s PhD Assistant
Rhea: Well, first and foremost it was my mother. She is an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful woman who raised me to question everything that was taught to and expected from me. She helped me think critically and with compassion – a real gift in this world. I also learnt by example through her and also through the other women I was around at the time. My grand aunt was one of the first feminist activists in India during the freedom struggle. My whole upbringing has been firebrand feminism from all the women in the home. They were all very capable, incredible – not all, but many women in the family – and they were very inspiring women. I didn’t even see their approach to things as “feminism” growing up, since it was just my way of thinking about the world. Those were also the kinds of books I was exposed to and the kind of thinking that I felt resonated with my experience and so that’s where I started.
What about you?
Sheher: For me it was kind of similar, but my mom’s side of the family – especially my mom and my grandfather, my mom’s dad, they’re quite feminist. My grandfather, especially at the time, considering Pakistan and how conservative it was, was really adamant about women’s rights especially with women around him, to uplift and empower them.
But what really got me into feminism is actually my mom; she’s such an intelligent, brave woman who has taken everything thrown at her with such grace. If she didn’t totally understand something, she’d engage with it, and she taught me to prioritise and formulate my own opinions and thoughts when it comes to anything and everything, and is never afraid to engage in critical, difficult conversations. So, when I started questioning my own sexuality and gender – I obviously knew about those things, but it’s the way my mom totally accepted it!
Rhea: That’s really in our backgrounds!
Sheher: I know! It was that kind of unconditional love that told me that “okay, I could delve more into this”. Especially in school, coming from Pakistan I’ve always been very much involved with equality and equity, and with school I always felt really excited to engage with our activism groups and any sort of volunteer groups.
Rhea: Sounds like me! My school didn’t have anything, I was the one that started all of it!
Sheher: That sounds so cool! But, yeah, it was just that – there wasn’t any one specific inspiration, I just think that I got really lucky in being in environments that helped foster that passion.
Rhea: I completely resonate with that. It is luck, because within South Asian communities, where we’re brought up – and, of course, I would say India and Pakistan are mildly different – but the patriarchy is so alive in those countries that to exist is a rebellion in many ways. So, I think we really lucked out in having that family support which is what most people have to end up doing alone or seeking in other forms. Which is what my work is also about; most people have to come into their own while in conflict with their families.
Sheher: That part sounds so interesting, actually, because when I have conversations about this with people here, it’s really hard for them to understand where I’m coming from unless they also come from collectivist background themselves.
I was reflecting on something feminist that I’ve done that I’ve been really proud of. I don’t think there’s any one specific feminist thing – you know, when you think of feminism, even I’m guilty of it sometimes, there’s a very narrow view of what feminism actually is, which is these big mass movements and collective actions. But, feminism can also encapsulate small every day actions that build up over time, which I think I tend to do more often.
Actually, I didn’t start ‘proper’ activism until I came here to Edinburgh. Living abroad most of my life, I haven’t been able to participate as prominently in movements because of my Pakistani passport. In Edinburgh, as well, when I started joining queer activist groups and societies, I tended to do more behind the scenes support like organizing or spreading the word around, because I’m always very consciousness of the status of my nationality, and what that might entail in terms of law enforcement, especially in a country that is not kind to its POC and minority populations.
But, a lot of the time, what I consider my activism to be is starting conversations on thoughts and ideas that are normally not discussed or considered taboo like gender and sexuality spectrums, mental health, etc. I also try to raise a lot more conversation and awareness around queer POC in my circles, since that’s a narrative that is often overlooked in queer activism, especially in a white-majority place like Edinburgh.
Rhea: I think that, as we’ve been talking, I’m wondering what activism looks like and I think I’m quite passionate about the idea of relational activism – I mean, I’m a therapist – and I think about the ways in which I make it an integral part of my work with clients. I do see my work as a therapist as activism, especially because I’m working with vulnerable populations, and it’s very often women and the queer population, and for them it’s mental health and family issues and things like that, so it’s quite complex.
I do view therapy as a political tool, and I do think about it as an activist space. I think I’m quite proud of how I’ve been able to integrate that in my work, and so it becomes a part of my profession and everyday life.
Sheher: That’s a fantastic response – I really agree. I think therapy is a very political tool, isn’t it?
Rhea: I think that, but it’s not traditionally. I think the problem with the traditional ideas of therapy is that they have been visualized as apolitical but, actually, when you contextualize everything, it’s political. But it takes a certain way of thinking to really lean into that, and not be afraid of it.
Sheher: Yeah, I agree with you, even in my own experiences of therapy, and talking with my therapist – I don’t know – it’s like you’re questioning the way things are currently, and you’re also not only aiming to change and understand yourself, but as you work on yourself, you’re also working on the world around you, in a way, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Sheher: I also forgot to mention, another reason why I involved myself in feminist activism is because of my twin sister!
Rhea: You have a twin sister?
Sheher: Yeah, I have an identical twin sister, her name is Meher Bano, and she’s a really strong figure in my life. I like to think that she’s more outgoing than me, and she’s a really strong person; she’s going into human rights law, which I think is fantastic. She’s also the current Women’s officer in her law society, and within the women in law subcommittee in her college, which is brilliant.
She’s always been that one person I can talk to freely about everything, and bounce ideas and thoughts off of each other and just talk about anything and everything. So, she really facilitated my growing fascination in gender and sexuality studies and vice versa. Because sometimes it’s scary to talk to others about those things.
She’s also queer! She was the first one to come out to our parents, between the two of us, and it was incredibly brave of her. I just had to mention that!
Rhea: No, I’m really glad you did! What do you hope to learn while working with GENDER.ED?
Sheher: I think one thing I’d like to learn, which I’m already beginning to see, is the breadth of gender and sexuality studies. Just because, I’m an undergrad, and I don’t have a lot of formal experience in this, and in my free time I try not to think about university. Even looking at the GENDER.ED blog and reading the posts, it’s really refreshing to know that it’s not at all what I had expected initially.
Rhea: I hope to work outside of my small department, really. I love my department, to be honest, and I feel like I’ve made a small home there that I don’t want to get out of at all. So, what I’m trying to do is also push outside, because my work overlaps with politics and post-colonial theory, I do need to experience other ways of seeing, because mine is very relational and internal focused, and I need to see how it works in other fields, how these ideas are approached and researched. So, that’s what I’m looking for.
Sheher: Yeah, I also think, in a similar vein, because my Sociology Project is focused on gender and sexuality in South Asia, I feel like being able to take a part in GENDER.ED’s space and operations can help facilitate how I approach my research and general interests.
So, I think that’s all I can say for now! It was really lovely getting to sit down and talk with you, Rhea! I really look forward to working with you in the coming months!
Rhea: Of course, I also enjoyed this talk! I’ll be seeing you soon!