16 days, 16 calls to action against gender-based violence

16 days, 16 calls to action against gender-based violence

Catch up on the final day of our collaborative blog with the Australian Human Rights Centre, University of New South Wales and Ambedkar University Delhi. And another chance to read our 16 wide-ranging posts.

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https://16daysblogathon.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/16-days-16-calls-to-action-against-gender-based-violence/
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People on the move, people on the run: displacement and security through a South Asian feminist lens

4By Meenakshi Gopinath, Shilpi Shabdita and Diksha Poddar

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.”Hannah Arendt, We Refugees(1943)

Each year, millions of people are forcibly displaced at astonishing rates from places they have regarded as home in search of shelter, safety, and freedom. As per United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) records, an unprecedented 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced around the world. Despite the swelling numbers and the magnitude of their trauma, they have generally remained in the periphery, not just in terms of spatial location but in terms of public consciousness.[1]Increasingly now, compelling visuals and testimonies of displaced communities from across the world have ignited an international outcry over the human cost of the migration crisis. This includes disturbing image of the lifeless body of a toddler washed ashore in Turkey while fleeing Syria in 2015 which was widely publicized with hashtags of ‘humanity washed ashore’.

Among displaced communities worldwide, possibly the most persecuted are those who are stateless, living on the margins of society, pushed to the ‘oblivion of rightlessness’[2]and most vulnerable to exploitation. They are seized within the protracted cycles of displacement and precarity, where “today’s IDP is tomorrow’s refugee, tomorrow’s refugee is day after’s economic migrant.”[3]And therefore, it will be insufficient to understand statelessness through the prism of state and law.[4]This article critically explores the interaction between displacement and security from a feminist lens, in South Asia.

The Rohingya in the South and Southeast Asian region, living in precarious situations as ‘Asia’s new boat people’, are one of the world’s most persecuted stateless communities. In recent years, the mass exodus of over 4,00,000 Rohingya from Myanmar reignited an international debate in South and Southeast Asia on issues of displacement, statelessness and the rights of refugees. Almost a year has passed and the plight of the Rohingya remains largely unchanged as they languish in inhuman conditions in the ‘camps’ and replete with everyday indignities, threats, fear, erasure of personhood, and the sustained violence of marginalization that epitomize the half-life of statelessness.

Within Myanmar, ethnic and national identities have effectively merged and intersected with political disempowerment and economic impoverishment of vulnerable communities. These issues are nestled within the context of Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s historical linkages, porous borders and shared pasts, which are increasingly overlooked as the borders of these interdependent states increasingly hostile and inhospitable.

In mainstream narratives in India, the Rohingya are often described as a ‘threat to security and national interests’, ‘Muslim Bangladeshi infiltrators’, ‘illegals’, ‘victims’, or are attributed responsibility for adversely affecting strategic bilateral relations with Myanmar. The turbulent history of the region, coupled with the post-9/11 regime of securitization and the increasing currency of the discourse of terrorism and concurrent rise of Islamophobia, have combined to make the plight of the Rohingya precarious in ways that are difficult to redress[5]. Further, there are systematic efforts in the region to sanitize states by creating an ideal notion of citizenship narrowly defined by three attributes—Male, Monolithic and Majoritarian[6]. In this context, there is a need to exhort sensitivity towards the complexity inherent in issues of displacement and statelessness by moving beyond the paradigm of ‘security’ and reimagining a new vocabulary rooted in values of human dignity, interdependence, dialogue, respect for diversity, and compassion. Therefore, in South Asia, how can we begin a process of ‘Restorying’ and redefining the conceptual vocabulary of security, and move outside the framework of state and law[7]?

Prof. Shiv Visvanathan’s reflections on the limits of policy raise several pertinent questions. “Policy often destroys language, it objectifies the other person, it has no language for suffering or memory. When we say what is our policy, the moment of violence has already begun.”[8]What are the experiences that lead people to feel stateless, homeless, disadvantaged? How do we rehumanize the ‘other’? Where do we listen for the silences in narratives? How do we bear witness to the symbols of everyday resistance and resilience of displaced communities? How can we shift away from characterizing forced migrants as silent victims and move towards privileging narratives of the displaced to combat their state of voicelessness and restore agency? What is our language for memory, longing, belonging, the body and suffering?

In this context, there is a need for states to explore creative avenues of engagement at the regional level for the protection of stateless populations.

[C]an there be a policy for hospitality, a policy to be kind? … The pertinence and the impossibility of the question suggest for us, of course, the need for a dialogic approach to the issue of care and hospitality. New rules can be built only on such dialogic awareness that will tell us of the need for continuous conversation within the country and internationally; among shelter-seekers, shelter-givers, and the institutions of care and justice, including public and community bodies.[9]

This invites an iconoclastic recovery of the ideas of security — of what it means to be secure, what it means to be human, and above all, whether citizenship can frame the canvas of humanity.

Link to video: http://wiscomp.org/events/people-on-the-move-people-on-the-run-displacement-security-and-gender-in-south-asia/

About the authors:

Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath is an educationist, political scientist and writer. She is Founder and Director of WISCOMP and has served as the Principal of Lady Shri Ram College For Women, University of Delhi for 26 years.

Shilpi Shabdita is currently Program Associate, WISCOMP and holds a Masters’ degree in International Peace Studies from University of Notre Dame, USA.

Diksha Poddar is working as a Consultant with WISCOMP. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

[1]Paula Banerjee, “Editorial”, Forced Migration and Displacement Peace Prints South Asian Journal of Peacebuilding(New Delhi: Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace), Vol. 4, No. 1 (2012).

[2]Hannah Arendt, The Origin of Totalitarianism(New York: Schocken Books, 2004), 353-5.

[3]Rita Manchanda at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 15-16.

[4]Ranabir Samaddar at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar,People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 13-14.

[5]Madhura Chakraborty et al., The Rohingya in South Asia: People Without a State, ed. Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury and Ranabir Samaddar (New York: Routledge, 2018), 110.

[6]Paula Banerjee at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 18-19.

[7]Ranabir Samaddar at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 13-14.

[8]Opening Remarks by Prof. Shiv Visvanathan at a WISCOMP Roundtable titled (Re)Storying Kashmir: Exploring Possibilities for Constructive Partnershipsin New Delhi on 25 October 2017.

[9]R. Samaddar (ed.), Refugees and the State: Practices of Asylum and care in India, 1947-2000(New Delhi: Sage, 2003), 60.

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International 16 Days Blogathon collaboration

Last year, we participated in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence with a series of blog posts. This year, we are partnering with the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney and Ambedkar University Delhi to bring you a blogathon over the full 16 days, 25 Nov – 10 Dec 2018. The theme for this year’s UN 16 Days campaign is #HearMeToo. We have created a special website which will publish the blog posts every day and act as an archive beyond the 16 days of the blogathon.

The first post, 25 Nov, introduces this year’s project and provides more context around this year’s campaign. It was written by Fiona Mackay (University of Edinburgh), Louise Chappell (University of New South Wales), and Krishna Menon (Ambedkar University Delhi). You can read it here: https://16daysblogathon.wordpress.com/2018/11/25/day-one-introduction/

The second post, 26 Nov, was written by Laurel Weldon, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. Weldon writes about the ongoing need for world-wide activism to eradicate violence against women. You can find an extract below, and the full blog post here: https://16daysblogathon.wordpress.com/2018/11/26/day-two-no-room-for-complacency-the-ongoing-need-for-world-wide-activism-to-eradicate-violence-against-women/

Extract from: No room for complacency: the ongoing need for world-wide activism to eradicate violence against women, originally published on 16daysblogathon.wordpress.com

Over the past few decades, feminist activity has spread to more than a hundred countries in both old  (street marches and ), and new forms (e.g. the exploding digital activism of the #metoo movement).  This past success, however, does not justify complacency about the inevitability of progress on women’s rights, which continues to be strongly contested around the world. Indeed, the spread of feminist activism has increased the frequency of state repression specifically focused on women’s organizing; and transnational campaigns funded by donors in rich countries have pushed opposition to what they call “gender ideology,” sponsoring initiatives to resist and roll back attitudinal and policy changes in women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and related areas.

Across the world we are witnessing an atmosphere of backlash to efforts to address broader gender equality efforts and campaigns to address violence against women and the LGBTIQ community.  Resistance to progressive schools curricula designed to improve acceptance and awareness of gender inequality and LGBTQ rights has emerged in Peru on the Con Mis Hijos No Te Metas (“don’t mess with my kids”) campaign, and is a phenomenon in Colombia, Mexico, France, Poland, and Canada and Australia. In the USA, recent reports indicate the Trump Administration is seeking to remove the word “gender” from UN documents and domestically, erasing LGBTQ people from websites and other government documents.

At the same time, funding for women’s initiatives is declining. Development assistance targeted to women has declined 20% overall. Similarly, funding from the USA, a major source of funding for women’s organizations worldwide, has also declined. This decline means a loss of material support for women-focused initiatives, including vital resources for anti-violence against women initiatives.

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Criminalising the Client: Institutional Change, Gendered Ideas and Feminist Strategies

In 1998, Sweden was the first country in the world to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, but not the sale of sex. The law represented a new prostitution regime that problematised power relations in prostitution as inherently gendered and hierarchical and made the male buyers of sexual services responsible for the act of prostitution. The Swedish case is critically important to the study of gendered institutional change and has been of empirical interest and global debate.

Using the feminist institutionalism approach to the analysis, Criminalising the Client offers new insights to the Swedish case and provides a new analytical framework for micro-level analysis of institutional change that addresses the struggle for meaning, institutionalization of new gendered ideas, and the (strategic) actions of feminist actors.

We invited the author, Josefina Erikson (Uppsala University) to tell us more about the study. The book is part of the Feminist Institutionalist Perspectives Series (Rowman Littlefield International).

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Sometimes radical shifts occur which alter existing rules and norms in society in a way which have major implications for gender equality. When Sweden criminalised the purchase of sexual services in 1998, without criminalising the sale of sex, such a crucial shift took place. The new law was a manifestation of a new way of perceiving and approaching prostitution; power relations in prostitution were seen as inherently gendered and hierarchical and (male) buyers of sexual services were made responsible for the act of prostitution.

Recently there has been a renewed interest in the Swedish case since several countries have followed suit and criminalised the client; for example Iceland (2009), Norway (2009), Canada (2014), Ireland (2014) and France (2016). The point of departure of my book is that the Swedish client criminalisation constitutes an instance of gendered institutional change. Regardless of normative considerations—the ban has received critique as well as praise— the ban is indeed an intriguing case from a gender perspective. The case is thus not only topical and of great interest in itself, it can also provide new knowledge into the dynamics of gendered institutional change, for example it gives the encouraging insight that radical change can in fact be the result of gradual, slow moving processes.

Inspired by feminist institutionalism [1] and frame analysis [2] (the book develops a novel analytical approach to gendered institutional change that can account for gendered ideational changes as well as actors’ strategies, and the interaction between ideas and actors.The usefulness of this new analytical approach is demonstrated in a rich empirical analysis of the Swedish political process between 1970s and 1998 when the client was criminalised. Over the course of these years the ideas of client criminalisation developed from a marginalised idea expressed by a few individuals, into a new institution (set of rules and norms). Our story begins when the demand for criminalisation was first raised outside parliament by feminist organisations, and it continues inside the parliament as women legislators from different political parties repeatedly advocated for criminalisation. While the resistance in parliament initially was strong, these new ideas gradually gained broader support and influenced actors’ understanding and strategies in favour of increased support for client criminalisation. Important steps included the creation of a consensus that prostitution was a problem in itself, the introduction of a gender perspective, and support for a causal story “blaming” clients. During the same period, the established social understanding of prostitution as a structural socio-economic problem rooted in poverty became more and more questioned. In the end feminist strategies played an important role for the final outcome.

The book’s main empirical finding is that the sequencing of frames—whereby the institutionalisation of an overarching abolitionist frame needed to be prior to the institutionalisation of a gendered frame— was decisive for the outcome in various ways. For example, it delimited the resistance. Another key factor for the final outcome was the commitment of female MPs from various political parties, including non-socialist parties, who worked across party lines in coalitions and the use of discursive strategies, for instance broad inclusive problem framings.

My work does not support previous claims that demands for client criminalisation emerged in the 1980s and had radical feminist roots [3]. On the contrary, the demand for client criminalisation arose from other sets of ideas and actors. For example, the demand to criminalise the purchase of sexual services was, from the very beginning, framed in terms of an unequal and hierarchical gender relation in the act of prostitution, although it was not framed as violence against women. In addition, women within a number of political parties were the most prominent advocates, not radical feminists.

In terms of theory, the book furthers our understanding of gendered institutional change in general and more precisely in demonstrating the endogenous process by which an individual idea becomes an institution. Various mechanisms at work within processes of gendered institutional change have been identified, of which sequencing, consensus concerning the framing of the problem, and gendering of the discourse appear to be the most important. In respect of strategies for promoting gender-equitable change, the findings indicate that lessons from other institutional contexts as well as inclusive framing strategies are significant. Finally, the development of a dynamic frame analysis is an important methodological contribution to feminist institutionalism insofar as it specifies analytical tools for analysis of gendered institutional change at the micro-level.

The book inspires scholars to bring in the role of ideas in the analysis of gendered institutional change and encourage a continued theorization on how gendered ideas and institutions interact.

Footnotes

[1] Krook, Mona Lena, and Fiona Mackay. 2011. Gender, Politics and Institutions:Towards a Feminists Institutionalism. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palsgrave Macmillan; Mackay, Fiona, and Georgina Waylen. 2014. “Introduction: Gendering “New” Institutions.”  Politics & Gender10 (04):489-494.

[2] Schön, Donald A., and Martin Rein. 1994. Frame Reflection. Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books; Lombardo, Emanuela, Petra Meier, and Mieke Verloo. 2016. “Policymaking from a Gender+ Equality Perspective.”  Journal of Women, Politics & Policy:1-19.

[3] Dodillet, Susanne. 2009. Är sex arbete? Svensk och tysk prostitutionspolitik sedan 1970- talet. Stockholm/Sala: Vertigo; Ekberg, Gunilla. 2004. “The Swedish Law That Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services. Best Practices for Prevention of Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings.”  Violence against women10 (10):1187-1218; Gould, Arthur. 2001. “The Criminalisation of Buying Sex: The Politics of Prostitution in Sweden.”  Journal of Social Policy 30 (3):437-456.

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Naghma Abidi on ‘Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives’

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.

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On the Collectivity of Feminist Pedagogy: Reflections on Feminist Sharing in Delhi

Blog post by Dr Lisa Kalayji


Some months back, I picked up Sara Ahmed’s eagerly-awaited most recent book, Living a Feminist Life. Opening it to the first page, I found the dedication:

‘To the many feminist killjoys out there doing your thing: THIS ONE IS FOR YOU.’

For several minutes I sat with the book open to that page, taken aback by how much it had moved me, and trying to figure out why. On reflection, it makes perfect sense. Feminist killjoys – and feminist teachers – operate largely in apparent isolation. We’re out there ‘doing our thing’, unyieldingly intruding on patriarchy’s otherwise smooth operation. It’s rich and rewarding labour, but labour nonetheless, and it’s often met with resistance, derision, ostracism, and sometimes much worse. We fight on anyway because it needs to be done, but the feeling of being an isolated feminist antagonist is lonely and exhausting.

When I read that dedication, I was immediately struck by a mental image of all of the other feminists out there, and just how vast a network we are. We each know that the others are there, doing the feminist work, pushing on patriarchy’s stubbornly solid walls, but that knowing is often not felt. For the most part, we don’t know who these other feminists are, where they are, or what they’re doing. We can’t see them, touch them, or hear their voices. We just have to keep pushing, and trust that the others are there pushing alongside us, even if they’re too far down the length of the wall for us to see them. Occasionally, though, there is a fleeting instant when our awareness of one another’s presence  – of the vastness of the feminist army – is really felt. Reading Ahmed’s dedication, I thought of all of the others holding that same book in their hands, strong and determined but weary from the long feminist fight we’re each fighting, each a one-person cell in a web too great to readily fathom. As individuals we do important work, but what makes feminism an unstoppable force in the world is that we are absolutely everywhere. That great web is indestructible and full of power and energy, reverberating with the passion, cumulative insight, and wilfulness of agitators, educators, and freedom fighters.

Fast forward a few months, and the Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives team is meeting for the first time in Delhi. We had only about a week together, which couldn’t possibly be enough time, but we made the most of it, sharing ideas, papers, reflections, travels, meals, and happiness. On one intellectually explosive day, we presented papers to one another and other interested attendees, and convened a roundtable discussion of our team as well as a range of other feminist educators. It would be difficult to convey the enormity of what a single conference room contained that day. Around a long conference table, and with a packed-out second layer surrounding it, was an assembly of feminist titans. By that, I don’t refer to the notoriety of some of those present (though some were widely recognisable), but rather to the immensity of wisdom, experience, conviction, and insight accumulated amongst the group present.

We shared reflections on feminist teaching and learning, and the challenging and ambivalent negotiations and travails that we each face in practising them. We were reminded that many of our students are led to feminist classrooms by deeply personal journeys, and of the incongruity of our responding by handing them overwhelming reading lists of esoteric theoretical texts. We heard about the difficulties of persuading women to pursue and finish their educations, and the disappointing concessions to patriarchal discourse that it sometimes requires. We examined the challenges of teaching anti-feminist men in a feminist classroom, and of being a pro-feminist man in educational spaces which mark feminist education as the sole purview of women. We explored productive and inhibitive forms of feminist and anti-feminist discomfort in pedagogical spaces, and sat with the encouraging but dissonant acceptance that ease and comfort are unlikely signs of transformation – feminism was never meant to be an easy ride. We shook our heads in frustration, laughed with glee, and nodded with fervent affirmation as we recognised one another’s feminist pedagogical journeys in our own.

What has most stayed with me after the event, though, was one particular narrative we heard near the end of the almost three-hour long session. After many interventions around the question of what we collectively called the ‘resistant subject’ – the mind which draws away from the threat of a burgeoning feminist consciousness – we were told about a young man in a feminist classroom who, after weeks of wrestling with feminist learning, submitted a revelatory essay at the end of the term. It began, ‘Let us imagine…’ before going on to engage in the vital practice of radically envisioning a more feminist world. There are infinitely many things to say about feminist imagining and what it enables us to do, but in the satisfied exhaustion of a long and enriching day, what most struck me was what this feminist teacher had to say next: She reflected that if our teaching leads to a student submitting an essay which opens with the phrase ‘let us imagine’, then ‘we’ve done our job’.

In that moment, the feminist super-network invoked in Sara Ahmed’s striking book dedication was present, not just through the experiences and reflections we had shared, but through the acknowledged collectivity of the pedagogical enterprise: ‘we’ve done our job’. Most of what we do as feminist teachers is, of course, teach. We enter classrooms, teach and learn, and are perpetually astonished at how much our students teach us. We, in collaboration and negotiation with students, do the on-the-ground intellectual, emotional, and relational work of bringing about the feminist world which we hope to co-imagine with them. But we do a lot of that work in isolation from each other, embedded in our classrooms and usually unable to see one another. With so many brilliant feminist minds gathered in a single room, the invisibility of the vast web of which we’re all a part was broken. We saw and felt the already-known reality that many of the thoughts, ideas, trials and tribulations, victories, defeats, frustrations, ambivalences, and pleasures that we each experience are ones that we all experience.

In our individual classrooms, compartmentalised and separated by university departments and national borders and the brute force of empire, we are collectively forging a groundswell of feminist consciousness. Political transformation cannot be stopped by walls or borders or boundaries, and though we always know that, the physical co-presence that our meeting in Delhi afforded us enabled us to palpably feel that knowledge, and to engage in a form of exchange which will fuel our pedagogical work and better enable us to continue the transformative feminist project that we, and our students, have embarked upon.

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Just a joke? #MeToo, Internet humour and feminist killjoys

2018-04-11 18.25.53Maja Brandt Andreasen is an AHRC- funded PhD student in feminist media studies at the University of Strathclyde. Her research project investigates rape discourse on humorous websites with the Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo movement as the case study.


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The #MeToo movement remarkably created a shift in the public debate where victims were considered truthful and where sexual abuse was discussed as a systemic problem. At least that’s the impression I got from the mainstream media and my left-wing, feminist Twitter feed. However, when looking into social media sites that encourage users to share humorous responses to current events, I get a very different impression of the reactions to sexual abuse. Through my PhD research I look at memes about #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein case on websites that encourage users to have fun and that “want to make the world a happier place”. My question is, though, who exactly is invited into this humorous space and who is excluded? You guessed it, this is of course a question of gender. The websites I’m analysing prove to be androcentric and heteronormative discursive spaces where users never mention their gender because they are always assumed to be male (and white, and heterosexual, and young, and able-bodied etc.). Should a female user reveal her identity she will be the target of abuse for having broken the unspoken rule of androcentrism, echoing the popular Internet trope “There are no girls on the Internet”.

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Image text: From Maja Brandt Andreasen’s data set.

As Judith Butler points out, language has the ability to injure us, to impose harm on us and is therefore not merely a harmless instrument of communication (Butler 1997). Similarly, I would argue that there is no such thing as harmless humorous discourse. It is never “just a joke” because our discursive spaces are always a product of our social, cultural and historical reality. When harmful or hurtful humorous discourse, such as dismissive memes about rape, is trivialised because it is “just a joke” it functions as a distraction from the structural problem with rape culture. A meme comparing Weinstein to Jabba the Hutt or a picture of a sock with the words #MeToo reveal a long line of assumptions about victims and abusers. In this example Weinstein is characterised as inhuman, as “other”, as something monstrous which distracts from the structural problem of sexual abuse. The truth is that sexual abuse isn’t limited to separate instances but is something most women experience to some extent, exactly what #MeToo pointed to. Also, comparing a sock (presumably used for masturbation) to a victim of sexual abuse not only ridicules the #MeToo movement, it also trivialises sexual harassment, abuse and rape.

What the sock image also reveals is how these humorous discursive spaces online function as androcentric communities. The humour is by men and for men which then often means that women are the punch-line of the jokes. As mentioned above, the consequence for female voices on these online spaces is verbal abuse. Humour here becomes a tool for inclusion and exclusion with a male producer of humorous content on one end of the spectrum and a female voice of disruption on the other. Female disruptive voices are dismissed and deemed humourless, in fact the trope of the humourless feminist is a favourite in these communities that consider themselves as a sort of freedom fighters in the feminist war against free speech. Again I ask: who exactly has access to freedom of speech and who is limited by it? Sara Ahmed (2010) refers to this disruptive feminist voice as a “feminist killjoy”. This is the person who protests, who speaks up and disrupts the spaces of joy and happiness which are only reserved for some and which marginalises and excludes others. I find the feminist killjoy to be an incredibly powerful, encouraging and empowering image when dealing with humorous rape discourse online. Victim blaming, rape myths and trivialisation of rape thrive in these spaces and I for one am not going to dismiss perpetuation of rape culture as “just a joke”. I wear my Feminist Killjoy t-shirt with pride. And by the way, I have an excellent sense of humour.

 

Works cited:

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” The Scholar and Feminist Online 8 (3).http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/ahmed_01.htm.
Butler, Judith. 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Perfomative. London: Routledge.

 

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