CGS Seminar Series Review Blog (Term 1)

By Centre for Gender Studies (SOAS)|December 27, 2017|Blog Posts, CGS Seminar Series|0 comments

Author: Marianne Mesfin Asfaw[i]

The Centre for Gender Studies Seminar Series between September and December 2017, has been an incredibly engaging and thought provoking. With discussions ranging from building feminist epistemic communities to those on right wing women’s performances of violence, the series tackled a variety of themes and did so with an impressive set of speakers. As such, a review of such a varied set of talks requires some in-depth engagement with specific talks to illuminate their impact. While it was difficult to narrow it down, this post will engage with three of the seminars that I found particularly interesting. These seminars are: “Reflections on Leadership and Building Feminist Epistemic Communities”; “Sex and Sexualities: Writing African Women’s Stories” and “On Libya: Constitution Making and Sustaining Rights Movements”.

The first seminar of the series tackled the politics of knowledge production in academic institutions with Professor Funmi Olonisakin based at Kings College London, Dr Danai Mupotsa and Professor Cheryl Hendricks, from the University of Witswatersrand and the University of Johannesburg respectively. The three presenters talked about their experiences of working in academia and engaging with activist movements at their respective universities. A consistent message throughout the seminar was the importance of not only decolonizing the university structure and hiring practices but also decolonizing knowledge production practices by challenging our ideas about who is considered a producer of knowledge and who is merely a subject of research. The speakers also discussed the co-option of activist movements in academic institutions whereby attempts to challenge the university structure are dealt with by committees that are appointed to deal with these issues as isolated cases rather than systemic issues, thereby maintaining the status quo. Professor Hendricks’ presentation grounded the audience by providing a general overview of the various activist movements that took place in South African universities, with a particular focus on the University of Johannesburg. This contextualization was helpful to understanding not only the South African context, but also pointed to similarities in other post-colonial African institutions of higher learning. Dr. Mupotsa’s presentation on her experiences as an academic at the University of Witswatersrand pointed to the challenges faced in sustaining activist movements and the constant co-optation of these movements into the university structure. While both these presentations looked at student movements that then pushed institutions to respond, Professor Olonisakin’s talk shed light on what it means to “internationalise” and therefore transform knowledge at King’s College London and to do so from a leadership perspective. While acknowledging and celebrating the transformative potential of student movements, all three of these presentations noted the importance of community building in order to sustain movements and effect short as well as long term changes.

Shifting gears from the discussions on knowledge production in academia, the Sex and Sexualities talk led by Ghanaian writer Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah focused on perceptions of African women’s sexualities and the ways in which they are produced in and by society. Sekyiamah noted the centrality of women’s voices in the political, economic and cultural narratives about sexualities across the continent. Women’s voices are critical in a context where conversations and policy making decisions are often aimed at controlling women’s bodies and their reproductive rights. Sekyiamah’s blog entitled “Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women” was her way of producing sex positive counter-narratives about African women’s sexualities. Her blog, which is a space for women to contribute stories, both factual and fictional, about navigating sex and sexuality, not only sparked conversations but also allowed for knowledge-sharing and community building that circumvented state and institutional structures that ordinarily restrict these discussions. Her presentation highlighted the power of sharing stories and the importance of platforms for open engagement with issues around gender, sex and sexuality on the African continent. These stories not only shed light on experiences but also highlight the importance of challenging the narratives that sustain the policies that continue to control women’s bodies.

The third seminar presented by Elham Saudi, founder of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, started off with the speaker inviting questions from the audience in order to make the seminar engaging and relevant for everyone in attendance. Having been asked questions ranging from the effects of the Arab Spring, the recent headlines about slavery in Libya and the work being done by her NGO, Saudi elaborated the historical and geopolitical context that led to the headlines that emerged. Saudi’s approach was engaging, thought-provoking and particularly enlightening. In discussing her involvement in the constitution-making process in Libya and engagements with civil society organizations, Saudi highlighted the importance of law as a tool for social change, but also noted that it does not work in isolation. Following the uprising that led to Gaddafi’s removal from power, attempts at making a constitution and codifying certain rights in Libya were at times met with resistance from conservative groups that considered these to be in opposition with Islam and with Sharia law. She also illuminated the ways in which Libya’s history, structure of governance and judicial system all played a part in allowing for the sale and enslavement of black bodies in the country. The role of the European Union, and particularly a memorandum of understanding signed between Libya and Italy regarding the removal and detention of undocumented migrants, was an important aspect of the conversation that Saudi argued is consistently overlooked. She explained that along with domestic factors, international relations also contributed to sustaining the current system in Libya. Her presentation illuminated the importance of contextualizing an issue when challenging and attempting to change the status quo. Saudi noted that while the law is a potentially powerful tool it can only be successful if one is aware of the context in which it emerges and the cultural and societal dynamics at play.

While the themes of these 3 seminars were different, every set speakers used their two-hour time slot in creative and captivating ways. As such these talks called on the audience to pay attention to power structures and how they impact knowledge production whether in academia, policy making spaces or constitution-making projects.

[i] Candidate in MA in Gender Studies and Law

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