Naghma Abidi on ‘Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives’

Panelists at the Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives conference

Blog post by Naghma Abidi.

In the moments of now, you are so much involved in the present and it is only when that moment has passed that you appreciate the full essence of it, even the subtle aspects of the experience that you did not realize at that moment that you were absorbing. This is true for the week at Edinburgh that flew by in a wink for me. It was only as I got ready to leave the boundaries of the United Kingdom that I felt the full impact of the time that I had spent with the team of Feminist Taleem.

My journey with Feminist Taleem is filled with several major milestones. It started with my becoming part of the host team for the Delhi workshop. This involved spending an intensive week with the project team members from Ambedkar University Delhi and University of Edinburgh. During this week, I found myself amidst other women who identified themselves as ‘feminists’. I was exposed to a diversity of ideas and experiences, and this exposure initiated a process of reflection. This process reached its height at the February workshop in Edinburgh when we, as a team, met again for a week-long deliberation. My ‘aha’ moment during this week was hitting upon the realization that women academics’ realities are so similar across different contexts in the North and the South.

However, in the run up to this ‘aha’ moment and the Edinburgh workshop, as such, I had been very apprehensive. All project team members were to present an auto-ethnographic paper about their engagement with feminism, and I felt apprehensive while writing my own paper for this presentation. After all, it was a part of me that I was transferring onto paper! A paper to be shared in the public domain would mean making myself vulnerable, and it is never easy in this world to deliberately place oneself in such a position, even if it is among fellow feminists where subjectivity is allowed to emerge. But when Lauren, another project team member and fellow PhD scholar, spoke about her fears during the workshop, I felt like it created a space to openly talk about my own vulnerabilities. It also strengthened my belief that only when we are able to create spaces to talk about our own fears ourselves that we can do the same for others.

In my doctoral research, and in my paper, I was trying to capture my maternal self and within that the essence of my own mother’s presence. I was also curious as to how others like me dealt with their dilemmas surrounding ‘womanhood’ and ‘motherhood’. My research question was: ‘Where does the subjective position of a Muslim mother in contemporary India lie?’ I suspect this subjective position is influenced by an identity that is increasingly seen as the ‘other’ by the majority in the society, in a world that is witnessing multiple instances of what is called ‘Islamic terrorism.’ To pen this ongoing journey as I hold conversations with other mothers is fraught with struggles as it requires oneself to be honest and dig deeper within – like an archeologist who excavates what lies hidden and yet influences deeply the present. It is for this reason that I was apprehensive – there was lots to write but I was struggling to write it, and that is also how the title of my paper emerged, ‘As I Struggle, I Write the Script for My Daughter.’

The underlying theme of our project is creating feminist classrooms, and the workshops in Delhi and Edinburgh truly offered not only formal but also informal feminist spaces where we felt enriched through exposure and sharing of new ideas. I remember the time that I spent with my fellow Ambedkar University students preparing for our visit to Edinburgh. We learnt to work together and got to know each other beyond the mere familiarity of faces seen on campus. Friendships were formed and our sense of togetherness was consolidated during the week spent in Edinburgh. The initial walk around town that Megan and Orla took us on in Edinburgh, and the subsequent feminist tour of the city will be remembered with fondness. In fact, the feminist tours of the city – quite different from the ordinary tours of the city which tell us about the history of a place – were, for me, the best features of both the Edinburgh and Delhi workshops!

At Edinburgh, what made the adage ‘the personal is political’ truly come alive for me was our visit to Professor Mackay’s home. She invited the whole project team over for dinner, giving us a glimpse of her ‘personal space’, and extending such warmth and friendship. I see this as a crucial aspect of our being feminists. When we open different spaces that we live in to include others we acknowledge the possibilities of intersubjectivities, thereby allowing for the existence of different identities and interfaces between them. That evening, all of us talked about our lives and our politics. Personal anecdotes helped build connections. Creativity flowed through music and poetry representing both countries. I think the evening was a demonstration of the kind of feminist space that we talk about creating for others around us, be it our students in the classroom or in our individual groups. From the informal space of the home to the formal spaces during the workshop, each of us was responsible for constructing an environment where we were able to speak because we experienced the feeling of being heard.

Overall, I loved the conversations about our lives and how this gets reflected in our work. It made engagement in the project so much deeper for me, personally. I loved the reflective pieces presented by each project team member, especially those presented by the students (not to say that the presentations of the faculty were not inspiring :)) as each one of them had something that spoke to me about what I experience in my own life. Therefore, hearing and talking about it was a relief. Being paired up with a team member from Edinburgh gave me an opportunity to get exposed to a work domain I was not familiar with. Sarah, who discussed my paper, helped me by asking questions about things I had not noticed, having been so close to my subject. I hope I was able to do the same for her. Reading her paper allowed me to think about ‘bodiedness’ and I was left with curiosity about how it would translate further in her work.

I returned back to Delhi, inspired to engage with my work with renewed energy that only comes in when your soul is refreshed.