UKZN’s School of Social Sciences in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London held their Inaugural Virtual Symposium, entitled Contested Spaces: Epistemic (A)Symmetries, Mobilities, Identities.
Chairing the session on Decolonisation and Feminist Voice/s was Professor Maheshvari Naidu who introduced the speakers and fielded the Q and A.
The panel featured UKZN academics and post-doctoral fellows Dr Roselyn Kanyemba, Dr Lubna Nadvi, Professor Vivian Ojong, Dr Sharmla Rama and Dr Amina Yaqin (SOAS).
Kanyemba examined the experiences and complexities facing female students at a Zimbabwean university from a black feminist perspective. ‘The experiences and identities of female students are systematically excluded in Higher Education both historically and currently and are maintained through an institutional culture characterised by male hegemony. There are multiple female voices that confirm Higher Education spaces as a radical site for resistance. A new generation of women is challenging the patriarchal traditions of Higher Education in their own way although the process is fraught with emotional costs.’
Nadvi evaluated the multiple replications of Orientalist forms of knowledge as patriarchy, focussing on the Middle East and North Africa where these modes of knowledge enabled and empowered various forms of enslavement and oppression that are replicated in the history, political science and general social science books used to teach in classrooms across the world.
‘Feminist thinkers (particularly in the Middle East) have been very vocal in challenging these Orientalist modes of knowledge creation as both overt and covert forms of patriarchy that continue to be imposed on reading audiences. They have absolutely no place in the contemporary academic space and must be vigorously challenged and exposed for the damage that they cause to the broader academy,’ argued Nadvi.
Ojong addressed the topic of Decolonising the Church: what should constitute the agenda for African Christian Feminists?. She noted that, ‘An African feminist approach to decolonialising the churches is deemed appropriate as it is important to root women’s lives in their proper context. The backbone of feminism in Africa is a long struggle against Western hegemony and its “leftovers” in culture which have filtered into churches and occupy prime spaces.’ She highlighted some of the inroads made by African Christian feminists in the decolonial project, arguing that, as a tool of colonialism, the Church adheres to biblical principles that continue to promote the oppression of African women. This needs to change.
Rama reflected on the gender curriculum content and pedagogic practice in undergraduate sociology courses in the context of calls for decolonisation, Africanisation and transformation in South Africa, highlighting her experience of ‘revising’ an international first year sociology textbook for South African/African students.
She commented: ‘There are ways in which young people’s voices, experiences, challenges and needs can be rendered worthy of scholarly engagement, particularly marginalised and socially excluded social groups. As a key recontextualising agent and transformative intellectual, an academic can influence curriculum content and transformation, shifts in pedagogic practice and choices about which or whose knowledges are privileged.’
Yaqin examined how Muslim women writers writing about the veil are not just responding to contemporary Islamophobia, but are also in conversation with earlier representations that orientalise Islam. ‘In their attempt to reclaim women’s individual subjectivities within Islam, stories by Muslim women writers have traversed transnational and global geographies from Iran to South Asia, Africa to the United States and the nations of Europe. These narratives often illustrate complementary and competing ideological positions and shifting perspectives representing Muslim women for a global audience.’
A thought-provoking keynote address also formed part of the session and was delivered by Professor Desiree Lewis (University of the Western Cape) and Dr Awino Okech (SOAS). It covered three themes in exploring African-centred efforts to dislodge hegemonic codification: the trajectory of African voices within transnational, postcolonial and global black feminist traditions; the current challenges of identity politics and neo-liberalism; and the potential to craft knowledges for radically re-imagining notions such as “freedom”, “social justice” and “the human”.