Conference Blog: Panel Session VI, Saturday 22 June

Cultural Memory and Transformation

Dr Debbie Withers (Co-ordinator Music & Liberation Project)

Reclaiming, protecting and securing the work of Feminist activists has always been important to the movement and continues to be today, but what does this process look like? Withers discusses the concept of cultural memory and its possibilities in remembering the past whilst transforming the present. However, following the contemporary work of Jack Halberstam advocating a need to forget what does this impasse mean for feminists today? The paper goes on to consider these questions in the context of the digital age as tools such as blogs offer the potential for a more immediate ability to archive and curate these marginal histories. However, as Withers discusses with the previous idea there is a tension with this aspect too as these digital tools also allow human capacity for retention to diminish.

 Sanne Koevoets and Dr Sara de Jong, ‘Teaching Gender with Libraries and Archives: Production, Regimes, and Techniques of Power in Information, Knowledge, and Archivization’

Koevoets and de Jong ask as digital technologies and archivisation collide interrogate the process of compiling and editing a volume of essays in the field of gender studies. Taking a practical approach that draws on theory as well as practice, Koevoets and de Jong consider the politics of archivisation in relation to feminist political and academic concerns. In reflecting on these issues this paper takes the theoretical gendering of space to a new level as it negotiates the complexities of (re)thinking the gendering of particular parts of archives and libraries. Resources that can often be taken for granted by some, the archive provides a powerful tool for facilitating the teaching of, and in, gender. Given the increasing move towards digital archivisation what does this mean for gender scholars? As the digitisation process itself is an undoubtedly political process (with some subjects and material being prioritised over others), the threat emerges that this sector may become overlooked.

Dr Margareta Jolly and Dr Polly Russell, ‘A New Archive of Protest: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project’

In 2013 the British Library is set to unveil a major oral history project which will form part of its (and The Women’s Library) public learning programme as well as providing an invaluable resource for scholars and the wider community. Particularly welcome with this discussion is the ways in which it brings to the fore so many of the issues being discussed more abstractly in the field today to reveal how there is a lived and practical manifestation of key feminist issues. Complimenting the debate surrounding archiving of feminist histories presented by Withers earlier in the session, this talk is a reclamation and celebration of the strength of women’s voices in fighting for liberation and equality. 

 Dr Sheshalatha Reddy, ‘Spectres of History: Rebellion, Resistance, and the Jamaican Woman’

Taking the Morant Bay uprising of 1865 as the historical moment of focus, Reddy discusses the ways in which this event reverberates in culture as a spectre; an event of haunting. Like many of the papers at the conference, the intersection between race and gender comes to the fore as colonial discourses provoke national discourses of anxiety. Reddy discusses two key aspects (that of blood and bodies) to show how these anxieties are embodied and play out across cultural and literary representations. With writers like Andrea Levy (whom Reddy discusses) gaining pertinence in both academic and popular cultural fields this paper provides a timely insight into this particular historical moment. In turn, the paper more broadly offers a means of reading the body as a materialised means of resistance.

Audre Lorde and the Afro German Feminist Movement

Dr Stella Bolaki ‘Audre Lorde’s Legacies for Transnational Activism and Feminist Politics

 Bolaki discussed the panel within the wider context of her book on the Audre Lorde in relation to Afro German feminism. Bolaki talked about  way that Lorde discussed in A Burst of Light: Living With Cancer visiting Germany in relation to the black diaspora. Bolaki discussed the impact that Lorde’s work has had in creating a transnational legacy, linking this to the time she spent in Europe and the concept of a globalisation of consciousness. Bolaki highlighted the way that Lorde encouraged working across differences, whilst also suggesting that black diasporic differences were not homogenous. Finally, Bolaki suggested that Lorde’s work had a global reach. 

Tiffany Florvil ‘Affective Kinshops: Afro- German Women and Audre Lorde’

 Florvil’s paper discussed Lorde in relation to her written correspondence with Afro- German women. Using an exchange between Afro- German Marion Kraft, and Lorde, Florvil  discussed the importance of recognizing commonalities across diaspora, suggesting that there was strength in this sense of global community. Florvil suggested that Lorde encourage Afro- German women to use emotion in their writing. Furthermore, the exchanges between Lorde and Afro German women allowed them to claim space within the African Diaspora whilst also embracing differences 

Dr Dagmar Schultz ‘Audre Lorde- The Berlin Years 1984-1992

 Schultz discussed her film about Audre Lorde: Audre Lorde- The Berlin Years 1984- 1992.  Schultz met Lorde in 1980 at the UN Women’s Conference. Within Germany there was changes within the women’s movement, with many women moving into the peace movement. However, a discussion of anti racism was not happening. Schultz suggested that the film captured the way that Lorde was able to identify with both women and men and the way that she acted as a catalyst for Afro- German feminism. Schultz also discussed Lorde’s analytical approach to cancer and race and her determination to live a joyful life.  Schultz’s film has been show at forty festivals in eleven countries and has been well received with many stating that the film made Lorde feel real to them and there has been an intergenerational appeal. Schultz ended her talk by suggesting that archival activism raised awareness of the past as well as being useful in the present and helping the movement in the future

 Dr Katharina Gerund ‘Transracial Feminist Alliances? Audre Lorde and (West) German Women’

 Gerund’s paper looked at the way that Lorde intervened within white feminism. She suggested that Lorde forged alliances between very different people, influencing attitudes towards race, national identity, heteronormativity and gender. Gerund pointed to the fact that whilst fundamental to the Afro German feminist movement, Lorde was also important to white women and fostered sisterhood. Gerund suggested that although Lorde could be critical of white feminism, this criticism should be seen as an invitation and an impetus towards connection through criticism of white feminism. Gerund pointed to the fact that some white women were unwilling to engage with Lorde and reflect on their whiteness but that Lorde’s relationship with German feminism opened up the possibilities and explore the impact of racist assumptions.

 Visibility, Audibility and Reach: Unconventional Forms of Protest in India

Prof. Ashwini Tambe (University of Maryland, USA), ‘Making the Quiet Case for Divorce: Stree Magazine, 1930-1940)

Professor Tambe presented her research on Stree magazine (‘Stree’ translates as Woman), which was the longest running women’s magazine in Marathi, published monthly from 1930 to 1986 (Professor Tambe has herself been involved in creating a digital archive of the magazine). Stree was an iconic publication, with a readership consisting primarily of intellectual, urban and semi-urban middle class women in Maharashtra (including also a diasporic readership). The type of content the magazine offered was diverse, including everything from short fiction, fashion tips, travel logs, biographies of noteworthy women, photos of subscribers’ babies, patterns for knitting, news reports on women’s movements, information on women’s legal rights, to discussions of religious texts. Although the aim of the magazine was not explicitly social reform, Prof. Tambe argued that the magazine played a significant role in informing debates around women’s rights, and rendering as common sense more progressive understandings of womanhood. In particular, Dr Tambe spoke about the period of 1930-1950, and the ways in which the magazine took up the issue of women’s right to divorce. Divorce was legalised in Maharashtra in 1947, and the argument which this paper made is that Stree had an important role in changing attitudes towards divorce, and influenced a cultural shift within the urban middle class which paved the way for legislation. One of the ways in which Stree affected the dialogue was through its idealised representation of marriage. Rather than focusing on the duties of the wife, the magazine shifted attention onto what it meant to be a good husband. Dr Tambe showed a series of images from the magazine, featuring happily married couples. In each image, the women are the centre pieces, with the man in the picture symbolically positioned in the sideline or below the woman, giving her his full attention, gazing up at her mystical beauty. A companionate and equal marriage was idealised, but the magazine simultaneously emphasised women’s right to divorce if this ideal was not possible because their husband was considered lacking in some way. Dr Tambe presented examples of this from opinion pieces, letters to the editor and legal advice columns. Highlighting the subtle yet significant ways in which Stree shifted representations of (middle class) marriage towards that of a partnership of equals based on true love, including the expectation that women should have the same rights as men, Dr Tambe’s presentation argued that Stree’s  unthreatening and non-didactic approach to important women’s issues effectively sedimented feminist ideas to its readership.


Prof Shruti Tambe (University of Pune, India), ‘Rights through Ration Cards: The Case of Women Domestic Workers’ Associations in Aurangabad, India’

This paper looked at women domestic worker’s (WDW) collective organising in Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Aurangabad is a non-metropolitan site with a mix of populations, including many Muslim women working as domestic workers. Over the last few years, women domestic workers have been increasingly joining unions or other associations advocating for workers’ rights. Dr Tambe’s work examines the mobilisation strategies of WDW associations and unions – especially in the context of Ration Card campaigns – analysing their collective bargaining power in the context of liberalisation and globalisation. These campaigns expanded their membership three-fold in the period 2007-2011. This can be explained as a result of the introduction of new law for the welfare of women domestic labourers in India, which  made it more possible for WDW to advocate for their rights through official channels. Dr Tambe’s work highlights how the current sociological discourse and category of ‘worker’ is problematic and needs to be redefined in order to capture the experiences of WDWs. WDWs in Aurangabad range in ages from 14-60, are mostly single earners and supporters of families, mostly from lower caste, lower class and minority communities. Their average income is below $2 and many of the women live in precarious situations. The campaigns for ration cards have been particularly significant within WDW association and unions. Ration cards are issued by the authorities to people on below poverty line incomes, and gives card holders access to subsidised food. But their significance goes beyond discounted food – all the WDW whom Dr Tambe interviewed stressed the importance of ration cards in legitimising citizenship in the city. Ration cards function as a legitimating form of identification, which can then be used to open bank accounts and access credit, to register to vote, as well as to access health care and pensions. The women were fully aware of how to make best use of the ration card to access different resources, and these were the reasons they gave as to why they were committed to ration card campaigns. On a more negative note, the campaigns for ration cards have had limited success, with only a minimal proportion of applications for ration cards having been approved and issued. However, the campaigns of the WDW associations and unions continue to grow and strengthen, and are part of a process of strengthening a vibrant civil society, which continues to foreground issues of dignity and citizenship of women domestic workers.

Dr Rubina Jasani (University of Manchester), ‘From ‘Randi’ (prostitute) to ‘Rani’ (princess): Politics of Desires and Sexuality in Communal Conflicts’

Dr Rubina Jasani’s paper emerged from her longitudinal ethnographic research on Muslim widows in Naroda Patiya, Gujarat, following the communal violence of 2002, in which 919 women were widowed. Her research explores the experiences of ‘political widowhood’ of Muslim women, with particular attention to the women’s articulation of sexuality and desire. Following their widowhood, there was great pressure on the women to enact a particular public performance of grief and widowhood – they were constructed as embodiments of community honour and as martyrs’ wives. Their lives, movement and bodies were under constant scrutiny, and their personal grief entangled with community grief (the same pressure was not placed on widowers). Part of the requirement of political widowhood was a relinquishing of both sexual and individual identities. However, as the research highlights, such constructions are contingent on time, social class and globalisation. The longitudinal approach to fieldwork meant that the research was able to track changes over time and in different moments in the ways that the widows were able to express and satisfy their desires. The paper honoured the memory of one of the widows whom Dr Jasani came to know through the research, Bibi Babu, who was murdered in 2006 because of her refusal to conform to the pressures placed on the widows to enact a political widowhood, arguing instead that her grief was private, and acknowledging publicly her desire and yearning for companionship. Her death equated the expression of sexuality with extreme danger, meant to teach the lesson to other widows that if you exercise your sexuality then you will die. However, and inspired by Bibi Babu’s courage, Dr Jasani’s research suggests that the widows have continued to negotiate desire, and that the community has gone through different phases in terms of how the widows’ sexual identities have been articulated as well as constructed. During the 2007-2009 fieldwork period, she notes that with the arrival of mobile phones in the slums, there was an increase in flirting and an ability to have secret relationships. And in the 2009-2012 phase of fieldwork, secret marriages were revealed, new babies were born and the establishment of ‘pragmatic companionships’ as well as ‘weekend husbands’ became more possible. Dr Jasani concluded her talk reflecting on how these changes can be explained – can time explain the play of agency? How is agency exercised? She also noted that Islam was often utilised in ways which legitimated desire. Class was also noted as a key variable which affected the women’s ability to exercise sexual agency.

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