International dialogue as jazz of multiple voices

Eske Wollrad

International dialogue as jazz of multiple voices –

Report on the conference "Societies in Transition – Challenges to Women’s and Gender Studies", Oldenburg University, 6-28 to 7-1-2001

"I was amazed to find so few references to internationality and interculturality and almost none to globalization and globality in the profiles of the institutionalized Women and Gender studies." (Sigrid Metz-Goeckel) How do German women’s and gender studies position themselves in the realm of international dialogue in the context of globalization? The conference "Societies in Transition – Challenges to Women’s and Gender Studies" at Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg, Germany, provided one answer to this question. It was organized by the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Women and Gender (ZFG) at the Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg, and conceptualized and directed by Prof. Dr. Heike Flessner and Dr. Lydia Potts. The list of the countries from which the presenters are (United Kingdom, India, Nepal, South Africa, Germany, Hungary, Poland, New Zeeland, Yemen, Jordan and Turkey) clearly revealed that the organizers’ concept did not rely upon the enactment of a Western symphony presenting well-known topics in always new variations, rather, it was about a jazz session, a multivocal joining where each voice introduced its own theme interrupting and remodeling the familiar and, thereby, creating something new.

In fact, the conference hardly could have been more multivocal, since, one the one hand, both female scientists working in the academe and activists and representatives from NGO’s were invited. Moreover, differences were spelled out on several levels: differences with regard to radical socio-economic changes taking place in the respective countries and concerning women differently; differences with regard to the positioning of women and gender researchers and the concepts as well as strategies resulting from them; and finally differences with regard to the practical implementation of these concepts and strategies.

According to the spokeswoman of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Women and Gender Heike Flessner, one of the goals of the conference was to build bridges between differing contexts. In order to achieve this goal what was needed first of all was information about the respective country: for instance, when did the reunification between North and South Yemen take place and how did this radical change effect Yemeni women? It became clear that basic political changes – in Yemen as well as in Hungary, Poland and South Africa – do indeed offer possibilities for women to participate creatively in the process of social remodelation and to consider which institutions and programs are needed and whether Western models of women’s and gender studies are helpful at all. Concerning India and Nepal the most urgent question is how female babies, girls and women can survive at all and which challenges arise from this for women’s and gender studies there.

Differing Self-Perceptions

The conference clearly revealed that the question of self-perception and accountability regarding particular social forces marks different paths women, who are involved with women’s and gender studies, take. Puspa Ghimire-Niraula from Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu (Nepal), emphasized that one goal of the Master’s Degree Program to be established is the creation of experts which can support the women’s movement there and function as change agents. However, according to Gabrielle Griffin (Kingston University/ University of Hull, United Kingdom), hardly any institution of women’s and gender studies in the West (Western Europe and North America) defines the support of the women’s movement as its basic goal.

Western approaches rather aim at the transformation of the male dominated culture of knowledge production within the academe. Silke Wenk (Carl von Ossietzky University) criticized that hitherto the gender perspective has hardly been included in basic research and referred to the danger that women’s and gender studies may degenerate to political counseling. For career-oriented students the "f-word" (feminist) has an increasingly unpleasant taste, as Victoria Grace (University of Canterbury, New Zeeland) reported. Consumerism and hostility toward theory determine the atmosphere at her department, which since spring 2001 is no longer called "Feminist Studies" but "Gender Studies". Grace vehemently opposed the reproach that complex theoretical reflection is inaccessible and irrelevant.

Did the conference confirm the confrontation between the theoretical dedication of Western female scientists on the one hand and the orientation toward praxis of researchers from the East and the South on the other? According to Gabrielle Griffin’s analysis, only the so-called West actually perceives universities and NGO’s as entities separate from each other; she said that local women’s and gender studies often lack transformative politics. Griffin’s point was not a rearticulation of already familiar dichotomizations of research versus politics, theory versus praxis; however, during the conference the controversy briefly reemerged in a way that aroused images of the "practically working tricont-woman" and the "Western female theorist in her ivory tower". Such ideological battles are poisonous for an international dialogue since they produce defensiveness and immobilize productive cooperation. In opposition to that, as organizer Lydia Potts emphasized, the conference aimed at providing space for the articulation of different starting points and for attentive listening. In my opinion it worked because despite a challenging and dense program arrangement the presenters were faced with a concentrated and open forum comprising more than hundred participants.

Critical Interventions: From "Cultural Turn" Toward Economics

Gabrielle Griffin as well as Anne Philips (London School of Economics) criticized the "cultural turn", the shift toward the cultural within Western women’s and gender studies. Philips talked about a shift from redistribution toward recognition: the concept of redistribution is concerned with socio-economic power relations and aims at creating equality, the concept of recognition, however, is concerned with cultural domination and forms of marginalization. This approach aims at the critique of the underrepresentation of the marginalized in politics and practices of democracy. Griffin and Philips criticized the trend of neglecting and ignoring, respectively, economic equality for women.

This insistence on a materialist-feminist analysis constituted the central connection with the concerns of Savita Singal (Haryana Agricultural University, India), Ira Acharya (Micro Enterprise Development Program, Kathmandu, Nepal), Rashida Al-Hamadani (Women National Committee, Yemen) and Rokhsana M. Ismail (Aden University, Yemen). They talked in detail about the material conditions of life of women in their countries, about income and education opportunities, illiteracy and infant mortality. That is to say: their approaches are based on a detailed investigation and visualization of what material poverty in connection with information poverty concretely means in the lives of women. In my opinion these analyses constitute realms of socially relevant feminist knowledge production localized beyond constructions of theory/praxis.

Critical Interventions: Mind the/or Purse?

Sigrid Metz-Goeckel (Dortmund University) called for the internationalization of German women’s and gender studies, linked with deepening perspectives and critical self-reflection. According to her, one challenge consists in thinking "with the mind of the others." And particularly at that point a discussion sparked off. Is it possible to think with the mind of the other? Where are the limits, where are fundamental differences? Do minds, does thinking mark the difference? "It’s not the mind, it’s the purse!" Sheila Meintjes (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa) shouted. So the question is: mind or money? What separates the "West" from the "Rest" is that the former has vast material resources at its deposal (scientists in Nepal, for instance, labor under conditions which are unimaginable for us), that is, at this moment during the conference it became clear that the internationalization Metz-Goeckel called for has to involve a turn away from idealist-feminist positions which afford the luxury to wanting to find their way merely around the minds of the other and, thereby, possibly avoiding the confrontation with the different material basis that constitutes the respective mind contents in essential ways.

The economic power of the West does not only inform international encounters between scientists from different contexts, it also deeply influences the development of gender studies outside Western Europe: for example, gender studies at Warsaw University are exclusively financed by Western foundations, as Bozena Choluj (Warsaw) related. The question of how one has to evaluate Western impact was controversially discussed. Whereas Susanne Schunter-Kleemann (Bremen College) claimed that the European Union (EU) represents a transnational coalition of Western European male elites (" The EU still is a men’s club."), Polish activists expect many advantages for women from Poland’s accession to the EU, as Kinga Lohmann (KARAT Coalition, a network of organizations in Central Eastern Europe) explained.

Critical Interventions: "Tribalism" and the Western Gaze

Quite many Western feminists tend to analyze patriarchal structures in their own country in a differentiated way; on the other hand, they tend to perceive such structures in so-called "third world countries" as monolithic objects. Such tendencies showed up at the conference as well. Josi Salem-Pickartz (Amman, Jordan), a psychologist of German descent, labeled contemporary Jordan society "neo-patriarchy" informed by tribalism, that is, by a structure along the lines of clearly distinctive "tribes" the members of which define blood bonds as being stronger than all other kinds of relationships. According to Salem-Pickartz tribalism is responsible for the discrimination of Jordan women since it keeps women in a subjugated and dependent status. Here, she faced fierce opposition, not only from the part of Yasmin Haddad (Amman University, Jordan), but also from the part of Rashida Al-Hamadani who said that she as well belongs to a tribe which never prevented her from realizing her plans – today she is the general secretary of the Supreme Council for Women in Yemen.

The discussion around "tribalism" clearly revealed how much work still lies ahead of us, particularly with regard to the critical reflection on simplifying concepts of Western provenance. The conference took one step in that direction.

Our Daughters – Our Wealth

The suggestion to assemble all presentations under the umbrella term "violence against women" is obvious, however, the contributions were not only about the analysis of multiple structures of violence and their reorganization in societies undergoing radical socio-political changes. They were also about possibilities of resistance, of encouraging women and enhancing their chances to survive and their quality of life. One of the projects Savita Singal (Haryana, India) took part in conceptualizing is called "Our Daughters – Our Wealth." In a context within which ideas of the inferiority of girls are deeply ingrained and which considers daughters as a burden or as the "wealth of someone else" (the future husband), respectively, it is as difficult as necessary to effect changes. But how? Singal’s project is serious about the claim that daughters represent wealth indeed, since one of the project’s measures consists in significant financial support for parents who can prove that they did not neglect their daughter over a longer period of time.

Samiera Zafar’s (Center for Education Policy Research, Evaluation and Management, Gauteng, South Africa) presentation on girl learners, however, revealed how dramatically limited possibilities of resistance can be. South African girl learners are the ones sitting in "the eye of the storm" of the AIDS pandemic. 4.4 million people are infected already, and 22.4% of all female South Africans are HIV positive. In times of massive budget cuts and a "culture of silence" on the HIV/AIDS problem it is, according to Zafar, extremely difficult to launch effective education and prevention campaigns.

During the conference, the wealth daughters represent was also articulated in a quite different way. Right at the beginning Gabrielle Griffin asked: Where is the next generation? Where are our feminist "daughters"? At least one of them was on the panel: Gamze Ege, graduate of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program and now research assistant at Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara, Turkey. She presented her institution with self-confidence and criticized – among other things – the lack of intense communication between professors and students.

More Jazz! Perspectives of International Cooperation

Next to the presentations assiduous networking took place: the ZFG concluded contracts of cooperation with the Women Center of Training and Research at Aden University (Yemen) and with the Women’s Studies at Tribhuvan University Kathmandu (Nepal). Furthermore, plans for a student exchange with the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (South Africa) as well as with the University of Canterbury, Christ Church (New Zeeland) were hatched. Moreover, possibilities of a scientific cooperation with Eastern European universities were considered. Finally, two follow-up conferences are planed, one on "Self-perception, outsider-perception and solidarity among women" in Amman (Jordan) and another one on "Globalization, women’s work and sustainability" in October 2003 in conjunction with CCS Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar (India).

With this conference the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Women and Gender at Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg has set an excellent standing – both regarding the conceptualization and the perfect organization (for which Ilse Kamke, above all, was responsible). What remains is to hold out a hope that the conference’s critical impulses are also taken up elsewhere and that they strengthen processes of internationalization beyond Western perspectives in German women’s and gender studies.

The conference papers will by published in summer 2002 at Leske & Budrich; the editors are Heike Flessner and Lydia Potts.


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