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What is in a name? Applying critical race and feminist lenses to make knowledge production processes visible

KamnaPatel21 September 2017

The ‘positionality paragraph’ is a ubiquitous part of many a doctoral thesis and journal paper. It tends to list a series of identity attributes that cover the gender, age, nationality and possibly race of the author. The meaning coded into these represent an assumed shared understanding between reader and writer, whereby there is an unspoken invisible communication that suggests one’s gender (for example) affected access to respondents, influenced data analysis and in turn affected the claims one makes of data. The invisibility of epistemological reflexivity drives these bland assuming paragraphs and hides the insidious workings of gender and race particularly in the production of knowledge.

Researcher and respondent at a housing relocation site in Ahmedabad, India

Researcher and respondent at a housing relocation site in Ahmedabad, India

In my paper, What is in a name? How caste names produce situated knowledge, published in Gender, Place and Culture last week, I make visible the reflexive process that reveals the role of gender, race and caste in creating partial and situated knowledge of housing tenure in India. Through the use of three vignettes, two on fieldwork encounters and one on comments from an anonymous reviewer, I examine expectations of knowledge coded in my name and their effects on access to respondents, the disclosure of data and subsequent claims to validity. The paper utilises Bourdieu’s concept of doxa – a pre-reflexive intuitive knowledge – to untangle the effect of names on the research process and on knowledge production. It also applies a critical race lens to problematise the separation of epistemological reflexivity from discussions on positionality.

While I hope all readers will gain something from the paper, it is written for feminist researchers of colour who conduct research away from ‘home’ to help guide us to think through the ways in which we are situated as researchers and the identities to which we are subjected within research that services the western academy. The position from which I reflect and the conclusions I draw are largely absent in the field of critical feminist work on positionality, which is overwhelmingly written by and for white western feminists.

As I write in the paper, “The central purpose of the article is driven by Aisha Giwa’s (2015) critique that most discussions on positionality in research centre on the western academy and the positionalities of white feminist western researchers, and her subsequent call for epistemological reflections on methodology from scholars of colour which might provide different ways of thinking through positionality in fieldwork. Giwa’s discussion touches much larger points that I try to engage with through this article though not directly in this article: the positioning of black and brown bodies in geography research particularly, as research subject in a place and rarely research producers; and for those black and brown bodies that produce knowledge, discouragingly limited conversations about race, culture, epistemology and positionality in social science research, including an acknowledgement that a relationship exists between them and what this relationship might look like.” My paper is a small contribution to a large challenge.

References

Giwa, A. 2015. ‘Insider/Outsider Issues for Development Researchers from the Global South.’ Geography Compass 9(6):316-326.

Patel, K. 2017. ‘What is in a name? How caste names produce situated knowledge.’ Gender, Place and Culture. Doi.10.1080/0966369X.2017.1372385

MILEAD Fellows: Exemplifying Feminist Leadership at the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women

AshleyHernandez6 April 2016

On March 16th, 2016, when I arrived at my first event for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations headquarters in New York, I realized something very profound. As a social development practitioner, this is one of the few times I’ve experienced young African women as the primary narrators of issues affecting African women and girls in their countries and communities.

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MILEAD Fellows after their panel for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations

The Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa (Moremi Initiative) hosted the session entitled “Enhancing Young Women’s Voices for Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development: A Multi-generational Dialogue with Emerging African Women Leaders”. As the girls on the panel presented, the aim and the focus of the Moremi Initiative became clear to me. The organization “strives to engage, inspire and equip young women and girls to become the next generation of leading politicians, activists, social entrepreneurs and change agents”. This is achieved through the MILEAD fellowship (Moremi Initiative Leadership and Empowerment Development), which selects young women ages 19-25 from various African countries and the Diaspora to sharpen their leadership skills via trainings, mentorship, networking and resource mobilization. The twenty fellows showcase members of different cohorts from 2009-2015, and represent more than 15 countries attracting a wide audience including 2011 Nobel Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee who supports the organization and provides mentorship to the fellows.

While reflecting on this experience, I had a strong sense that an essential ingredient in successfully bolstering African women and girls as change agents is the organization’s emphasis on transformative, feminist leadership. So, I had to ask myself, “what defines this kind of leadership, anyway”? My definition is derived from authors like Srilatha Batliwala (Batliwala, 2010), who believe that it requires engagement with power, politics and values. I will now outline the ways in which I believe the Moremi Initiative cultivates this type of leadership.

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MILEAD Fellows celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala

 

  1. Moremi, Power and Politics

On the surface, Moremi Initiative may appear to be another leadership program. Yet, what makes it formidable is that it is not soliciting African women’s participation in predefined projects affecting them and their communities. Instead the organization acknowledges that African women and girls hold the solutions and must define and set their own agendas. To this end, Moremi Initiative equips fellows with the tools, resources and the space to negotiate their own narratives’ and set the agenda for social change in their regions, countries and communities. Fellows get connected to powerful institutions while being provided with a dynamic support network and training to chart their course as emerging leaders. With these new skills, fellows are able to effectively articulate and advocate for the issues that affect them, their peers and women and girls broadly. One of the fellows who spoke at the CSW event identified this as one of the most important components of the program. Elizabeth Jarvase from South Sudan explains, “After joining the Moremi Initiative, I have represented South Sudan more than three times internationally, simply because ‘Moremi’ gives young African women space to develop and grow; it creates opportunities, and it provides the tools and skills needed to focus and advocate for our different causes with passion and integrity”. One of my favorites moments at the panel entailed Elizabeth putting forth a discussion on the human rights abuses related to the current civil war in South Sudan. She then eloquently asked the audience to reflect on how we can use our knowledge, abilities and power to end the suffering of women and children in this crisis.

 

  1. Moremi, Politics and Value: embedding women’s empowerment in social justice

One of the aspects I revere the most about the Moremi Initiative is the way in which feminism is treated as an integral part of social justice work in Africa. After one of the MILEAD trainings, a fellow reflected, “I also got enlightened on the term feminism which interested me a lot because of its concepts. I also got to know that it is a very good term, and in my own understanding I have come to define feminism as having equal rights and opportunities between men and women” (Winnie, 2015). Many of the girls in the program come from diverse backgrounds and advocate for an array of issues ranging from youth empowerment to clean water, not all are overtly related to gender. Yet the choice to introduce and engage with definitions of feminism is both political and indicative of a value that upholds gender equity. I believe this is essential to achieving a type of leadership that places African women at the forefront of social change.

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MILEAD Fellows with Moiyattu Banya, host and volunteer AWDF USA board member, celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala.

 

  1. Moremi: creating resilient leadership and values through inter-generational mentoring

Another objective of the MILEAD program is to “build intra and inter-generational solidarity that cuts through borders”. I witnessed this while attending the 15th anniversary gala celebrating the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and it was magnetic to see the confluence of generations in the same space. Described as being “at the forefront of the African women’s movement, AWDF supports the work of African women’s organizations and activists throughout the continent” (Siyonbola, 2016). The organization boosts of a dynamic and pan-African network, which is why Moremi Initiative prioritizes bringing fellows into these spaces to ensure the building of bridges across generations. This not only maintains the legacy of African women’s leadership, but also engenders the emergence of fresh new ideas and issues from younger generations.

I want to conclude this reflection from a place rooted in my own personal history and experience. I am a non-African woman, raised in the United States. As an ally, I believe one of the best ways I can support the Moremi Initiative is nurture deeper relationships and leverage opportunities to grow, and acquire relevant knowledge and skills about Africa, women and girls. When all is said and done, for me it is important to always be conscious that this platform is ultimately about the voices and decision-making of African women and girls.

After all, this is what moved me most about the Moremi Initiative’s participation at the 60th session of CSW: many individuals, including allies, partner organizations and donors aided in getting the fellows to New York. Yet the stories heard in the room that morning — the topics of discussion — were all determined and articulated by bold, visionary, resilient and emerging young African women leaders.

More information on Moremi Initiative can be found on their website, and you can also check out their Facebook page.

 

References:

Batliwala, S. (2010) Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud. Crea-Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action. Available at: https://www.justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/feminist-leadership-clearing-conceptual-cloud-srilatha-batliwala.pdf

Winnie, N. (2015) Winnienansumba. [Blog] World Press. Available at: https://winnienansumba.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/24/.

Siyonbola, O. (2016) Incredible Women Don’t Just Happen: AWDF’s 15th Anniversary. Applause Africa. Available at: http://applauseafrica.com/2016/03/18/incredible-women-dont-just-happen-awdfs-15th-anniversary/


Ashley Hernandez is an SDP graduate who is passionate about gender equity.  She is currently working with Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa and volunteered with the African Women’s Development Fund USA for their 15th Anniversary Gala.