Power of Feminist Teaching: overcoming binary narratives

Illustration: Kopf mit Schriftzug- The Power of Feminist Teaching

Feminisms are vast and various. In fact, feminisms are multiple.[1]

Building a feminist academic and research culture is evidently an important route for feminist narrative shaping. The existing patriarchal constructions of academia must be recast through a feminist lens for centering the intersectional experiences of the individuals involved in the teaching-learning continuum. This then also upends the power dynamic and hierarchy that permeate a traditional teaching-learning set-up. For building a feminist pedagogy based on feminist praxis, a singular definition of feminism is inadequate and even reduces the complexities of feminism(s) itself. This then begs the question- how do we learn feminism and can it be learnt?

The fourth webinar held on 28th February thus focused on the need for feminist teaching as a route for overcoming binary narratives and explored feminist pedagogies. The discussion featured Agnieszka Graff, public intellectual and activist and a professor at the University of Warsaw. The discussion was moderated by Vandita Morarka, the Founder and CEO of One Future Collective, a feminist social purpose organisation based in India.

The evolution of the concept of gender and feminism

Discussions on sex and gender and related oppression, which were considered synonymous concepts, have been at the forefront of the feminist movement. The ‘natural difference’ between the sexes (reinforcing a binary perception) was used to explain away the entrenched inequality. Gender, by nature, is a very rooted social construct. Agnieszka indicates that,

Gender is a regime which is obsessively binary and dictates gender stereotypes and expressions.

How much of gender is then rooted in the individual and how much is socially constructed? This dilemma of perceiving gender as either constructionist or essentialist permeates the feminist movement too. Constructionist feminism stipulates that the gender of an individual is socially constructed and questions the self-determination power that people possess. The essentialist feminism argument believes gender to be rooted in the individual.

Gender inequality is also a symptom of capitalism and colonisation that further entrench the concept of the binary. All these systems replicate each other. This then begs the question- Is gender intrinsic or enforced (as a result of colonisation)? Feminism too is a symptom of these oppressive systems, having been born in an ecosystem that is unequal by design. So, even while practising feminism, it is crucial to be aware of this and constantly strive to challenge these systems.

Although patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism collude to strengthen existing forms of discrimination, it is also important for us to be wary of this argument. Vandita highlighted that often, colonialism takes the blame for all forms of discrimination that may even pre-date colonialism.

There is a tendency to blame everything on colonialism, without the willingness to delve deeper into the origin of the discrimination itself.

Feminism is thus constantly evolving and expanding to best serve the needs of the people that create and sustain it. It thrives on this tenet of cross-movement solidarity and collective liberation and so, the awareness that overcoming gender oppression cannot have a singular strategy has been operationalised. As we live and create change in what is termed the ‘fourth wave’ of feminism, a comprehensive understanding of feminism today necessitates an intersectional analysis and therefore, intersectionality cannot be an afterthought. Hence, transfeminism cannot and must not be considered as a betrayal of the feminist movement.

Emotions fuel feminism and new forms of expression emerge, which also foster collaborations with other movements.[2] As newer concerns such as digital safety and mental health enter the fray, feminism continues to grapple with one of its oldest concerns- who all and what all issues must it encompass? Whose feminism is it anyway?

The inevitable plurality of feminism

No two feminist struggles are the same given the various contexts within which they occur. A plural definition of feminism- ‘feminisms’ is preferred to capture the fact that feminism is not a single-issue struggle. The plurality of a person-centered movement such as feminism is inevitable for it is built for and constituted by people. The irony however remains that there is often a sense of proprietorship that people feel the liberty to exercise ‘over’ feminism.

Multi-issue feminisms are crucial since they acknowledge and act upon interlocking systems of oppression. However, the globalisation of feminism has meant the packaging of feminism in Western theory and vocabulary. This has meant creating new narratives for reconciling and mediating the binaries- as in, reconciling the public and the private for instance, which were considered two distinct circles of influence. Postcolonial feminist discourse thus emerged in response to Western feminism’s apparently global applicability.

Can feminism at all be a global movement then and is there any merit in attempting to unify these various practices of feminism? It is undeniable that perhaps the root of feminist movements across the globe is gendered oppression, although how this manifests could differ. This relates to the explanation of an intersectional feminist practice proposed by panellist Shams in the third webinar of the series. To quote Agnieszka,

Feminism is not dogma.

The plurality of feminism is thus rooted in intersectionality which offers the distinctive relatability and contextual adaptability to feminism. It is this experiential nature of feminism that has enabled it to reach people. It thus makes for a lens through which we are able to assess our own experiences and see them for what they actually are. For example, in countries outside the USA, Black Feminism is more relatable as people are able to identify themselves and the people they know in it. In fact, often global feminist movements are analysed using the basis of Black Feminism which upended the very notion of universal feminism.  

Becoming a feminist

Whether one is born a feminist or becomes a feminist poses an interesting dilemma. This also begs the question of whether it is even possible to learn feminism. Agnieszka added that it is perhaps possible to only learn about feminism so as to make it our own. There is no guide or checklist of things to do to become a feminist; it is in its truest sense a ‘becoming’. It is a continuous process of learning, unlearning, and recalibrating while being aware of one’s own positionality. There are just various sparks that ignite feminism. Observing discriminatory practices within homes and micro-communities often kindles feminist thought and praxis. Conversations with different individuals and stakeholders too can prove an effective tool for feminist narrative-shaping. Feminism could also be introduced to people via cross-movement collaborations since interlocking systems of oppression have a ripple effect. For instance, it is possible for people to discover feminism at a disability justice rally. Literature and popular culture can also help ignite feminist sparks of change. Furthermore, the public broadcasting of intellectual work also has the potential to germinate new feminist thought. For instance, participants from this webinar referenced works of feminist writers globally while sharing what kindled their feminist thought and practice.

Feminism as a theory and practice has the potential to become intergenerational learning, as in, a feminist parent raising their child with feminist values, and it is pertinent to restore this feminist power in future generations.

These mediums of germinating feminist narrative shaping also cannot be prescribed since what medium touches the hearts and minds of people cannot be predicted or dictated.

Feminist teaching

In reality, feminist teaching and activism do not exist as two neatly separate aspects of feminism. They borrow from and feed into each other in multiple complicated ways and keeping them separate only serves to help our distinct understanding of these concepts. So, feminist teachers can perhaps not ‘teach’ feminism but teach ‘about’ it as intersectional feminists. The multi-pronged understanding of intersectionality is crucial here, as highlighted in an earlier section of this article. Teaching feminism translates into the willingness to be uncomfortable with ambiguity since the socio-political and economic veins of each of the feminisms intersect each other. Each strain of feminism emerges in its unique context and tracing their histories becomes crucial for self-reflection.

In reference to what narratives are used by the panellist to coalesce diverse feminist strains of thought, Agnieszka offered some suggestions. The fundamental cultural construct in a country’s cultural history must be incorporated into feminist teaching. In the American context, for instance, this cultural construct would be race. Along with gender, this cultural construct can be used to undertake an intersectional feminist analysis. While teaching feminist theory, the contexts of the authors must be acknowledged since it has a direct impact on the work itself. Furthermore, engaging with counter-narratives to feminism in feminist teaching also becomes important so as to not create feminist echo chambers.

The goal of feminist teaching thus is not to prescribe feminism, but instead, to facilitate different ways to contend with, practise and teach it. This creates space for feminists to organise and collectivise which can also affect people in the moveable middle. And it is essential that this happens because this is no longer a minority issue that can be snubbed. Anti-feminist movements, which have even proliferated the internet, rob people of their right to possibilities under the garb of what is ‘natural’. As potential changemakers, that is a world that we cannot and must not settle for.

If you liked this article and would like to read more articles in this series, please check here.

The discussion was held primarily in English with the facility of interpretation in Spanish since the panellists and participants participated in the discussion from across the globe. This was also in full cognisance of the fact that interpretation might prove inadequate in translating experiences and/or context-specific realities accurately.

Resources shared during the discussion

  1. The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary by Ann Snitow
  2. Sisterhood is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology by Robin Morgan
  3. Book by Agnieszka Graff co-authored with Elżbieta Korolczuk: https://www.routledge.com/Anti-Gender-Politics-in-the-Populist-Moment/G…


[1]  Feminisms – in the plural – as a politics of love | openDemocracy

[2] Auli'i Cravalho made a powerful red carpet statement to bring attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women: 'I felt a responsibility.'