Centre for Cultures of Reproduction, Technologies and Health

Spaces & voices: some notes from Bogotá and beyond

CORTH Blog: 6 November 2017

Liiri Oja

PhD candidate, European University Institute & CORTH visiting researcher
Email: liiri.oja@eui.eu
Website: https://me.eui.eu/liiri-oja/

I recently participated in an international workshop “Beyond Human Rights: Rethinking Gender Equality in Law and Politics” at Universidad de Los Andes (Bogotá, Colombia). Although grateful for being able to take that trip and share my research on reproductive violence I returned from Bogotá with a stream of questions not necessarily on violence, reproduction and human rights, but rather on conferences, voices, academic privilege.

For a researcher based in Europe like myself it was very refreshing to be in a space where neither the topics nor the participants were predominantly from the “global north”. Instead the presentations covered issues of gender equality and social justice in Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia, South Africa. However, throughout my “career of conferencing” during the PhD studies I have noticed how diversity is an exception not a rule. Many voices are constantly missing if not purposefully and systematically disregarded (voices from Eastern Europe, Central Asian, Africa, the Middle East just to give examples). Of course it is humanly impossible to organise conferences that always include everyone, but my question is rather how much effort are we making? Also, conferences are not the only elements in the circles and chains of knowledge production. Who are we publishing with, who gets invited to author a chapter for an edited collection? Or how come in comparative scholarship always the same countries appear as case-studies?

November 2017 blog1      November 2017 blog2

When I think about my own identity then I am convinced that many doors are open to me because with generous scholarships I have become part of elite institutions, which gives me a special access to many otherwise closed spaces. Sadly, it seems that this is the expected route – at prestigious summer schools and conferences I almost never meet someone from Poland, Ukraine or Estonia who is pursuing a degree in their respective country. In other words, someone from Estonia can be successful and part of the global knowledge production, but it needs to happen through certain institutions. A wise friend of mine always tells me that in order to change something we should also be part of the change. Thus I ask (also from myself) what if for the next project, conference, summer school we made a conscious choice to contact researchers and activists from countries and universities that are not the usual suspects, i.e from well-known institutions and established circles.

November 2017 blog3bln bike: https://blnbike.wordpress.com/

Before the Bogotá conference I went on a guided walk with Bogotá Graffiti Tour. Our guide “Jeff the Anthropologist” explained, how street art is still dominated by men since many talented female artists are worried about their safety. This made me think about spaces for women – where can women go? Where do talks about gender and social justice, feminist scholarship really belong? How much risk should we take, how much resistance and opposition tolerate? On the one hand conferences like the one in Bogotá offer a safe space to all people working on feminist projects, which is certainly valuable as it creates a sense of a supportive community despite geographical distances. From my own experience a safe space is especially suitable for early career researchers and students who need constructive feedback, but also strong encouragement that many other academic settings often lack.

On the other hand I cannot help but wonder how much are we preaching to the choir at such events? Talking about feminism with feminists is inspiring and thus vital, but is it enough? How can we keep penetrating those spaces where we are not wanted, where we are perceived and described as “annoying”, “not academic”, “political”, “radical”? Resistance, ridicule and hostility are exhaustive, but it seems to me that being an academic, a scholar is a privilege that should oblige a person to stand up, resist, fight and accept that exhaustiveness. If we think about the people – women, men or children – whose life experiences and stories we are trying to assist with our research on social justice, inequality, violence then they do not have a choice to take safer, friendlier, easier options. Thus, although being a feminist scholar is sometimes more bitter than sweet I truly feel that I must not waste my position of power and privilege on easy tasks, safe presentations, low-risk projects.

Spaces & voices

The award-winning Turkish novelist Elif Shafak framed this idea in a relatable way when someone from the audience once asked her, whether she has considered writing something less political that would not get her into “trouble”. The question was referring to the trial Shafak faced in Turkey some years ago after writing about the Armenian genocide in her book. The novelist paused, then replied that as someone highly educated, privileged and empowered she believes she does not have the “luxury to not be political”.  

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