Power of Feminist Research: understanding implications in shaping feminist discourse

Event report

The third webinar in this series delved into the adaptation of research into the feminist movement for developing alternate intersectional feminist research methodologies. Existing research methodologies were also analysed from a queer feminist lens given that research and academia are important pathways for narrative shaping. Participant engagement was invited through the Padlet, Zoom polls and Mentimeter.

The Power of Feminist Research

What do we mean by feminist research and who conducts it? How do we ensure that inclusive feminist narratives are depicted in our research?

The feminist movement, which is rooted in questioning existing systems and structures, also seeks to challenge existing research methodologies where male hegemony abounds most often. They are credited with radicalising feminist thought and imagination. This has been possible through the introduction of seminal concepts, theories and solutions for social justice movements, which often then seep into public consciousness. Hence, harnessing and claiming the power of feminist research is critical to the feminist movement, especially for creating alternate research methodologies rooted in intersectional queer feminist politics. However, despite a rich history in academic work, feminist research is also fraught with the binaries of traditional/modern, indigenous/colonial, global/local, and East/West, among several others.

To explore these questions as well as how the ‘researched’ can be involved in research, the third participatory webinar in the series, held on 21st February, analysed the relevance and applications of feminist research and its multifarious possibilities. Shams Radhouani Abdi, affiliated literature professor at the Institut Supérieur des Études Appliquées en Humanités du Kef, Tunisia (ISEAHK) and Evren Savci, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University, participated in this discussion. The discussion was moderated by Vandita Morarka, the Founder and CEO of One Future Collective.

Unpacking feminist research and its relationship with activism

The term ‘feminist research’ does not have a singular definition given the pluralities of feminism itself. Its application is highly context-specific and so it continues to evolve in its many forms and it is rightfully deemed ‘revolutionary’ in the field of social research. However, its diverse forms and applications could lead to the trap of the binary and subsequent othering which could belie its very purpose. The relationship between feminist research and activism is interesting since one forms and informs the other. Feminist research may emerge in a certain sociopolitical context depending on the feminist movements in that space and existing feminist research may be contextually applied to feminist movements. This also seeks to fill any existing gaps in research and activism. The building of research by trusting the gravity and significance of our lived experiences and narratives is a pivotal aspect of feminist research. Feminist theory is born out of our different, messy, ambiguous experiences and therefore enlightening for research. However, our experiences will have to be viewed through the lens of research to determine which of our experiences are solid enough for informing new research methodologies. This practice of invention and ingenuity helps feminist thought thrive, especially when it stands overburdened by patriarchal systems. Here, Vandita highlighted that these points of conflict between what is sought and what already exists become points of generation. They added that,

This reminds me of the principles of design justice which highlight that when we design for margins we end up designing for the ‘centre’.

Feminist research as a new way of thinking

A core tenet of feminist research is thus building it ‘with’ the researched and not ‘about’ them. This also lessens the over-reliance on prevalent feminist thought, which may not be universally applicable. Prevalent feminist thought (considered synonymous with Western Feminism here due to the historical respect and ‘global’ acceptance it has received) too is not a monolithic concept since the identities of the very people that constitute these movements are multi-layered. Western feminist movements have also, for long, paternalised feminist struggles by attempting to dictate the course of other feminist movements. Hence, a ‘breaking away’ is necessitated due to the replication of patriarchal patterns by lots of feminist movements despite the difference in contexts. Local experiences (in this context, Tunisia and Turkey, as mentioned by the guests) cannot be considered homogenous as well and it is this awareness, along with that of our own positionality, that can help evade the trap of binary thought. This also connects to how the concept of the binary is used to maintain and reinforce existing systems of discrimination (the second article can be hyperlinked here). This was best captured by Evren as,

Our categories of thought are exactly that- they will always be an approximation of lived experience.

Integrating intersectionality: a praxis

The panellists also spent some time unpacking the term ‘intersectionality’ before exploring its significance in feminist research. In the Indian context, anti-caste scholar and intellectual, Suraj Yengde wrote that intersectionality is ‘anti-Dalit’ . He claimed that the term’s entry into the zeitgeist also translated into people with caste power using the term to their own benefit by foregrounding only one axis of discrimination which aligns with the dominant perspective (the term originated from the Black Feminist movement). To this effect, Shams highlighted that intersectionality is not a homogenous concept but instead provided their three-pronged understanding of it. Intersectionality exists in the discursive space as a theoretical concept, which can be beneficial, provided it is not reduced to a buzzword. It exists also as a methodology in research to capture different contexts. Within research, intersectionality proves a significant methodology in understanding whose lives and what circumstances can be considered valid enough for research. Most importantly, in Shams’ opinion, intersectionality exists as a practice in grassroots social justice and mobilising movements, even before it entered popular discourse. Shams elaborated that much of the discussion on intersectionality focuses on the individual and therefore overlooks the overarching interlocking structures of oppression. This then ties into how individuals themselves are complicit in systems of inequity. As Shams best put it,

I do believe in solidarity but I would like the solidarity to be informed by the understanding of privileges.

Integrating intersectionality within fields of study that are considered more ‘politically neutral’ also stands to politicise them.

Popular culture as a tool for feminist research

Feminist researchers have been wary of the popularisation of feminist research methodologies and concepts since it could reduce ideas to catch-all phrases in popular discourse since popular culture also imposes its own narratives and psychology. The panellists were also quick to point out that popular culture can also be reclaimed as a tool for feminist research and must not be readily dismissed. The digital space gives people social capital due to its connectivity and community-building capacity. It also provides the means for engaging with different stakeholders, thereby fostering participation. Sharing an anecdote, Shams highlighted the merit of the digital space which is also a result of the instant virality that it can create. In a flash mob that they participated in which had only fifteen participants to begin with, promotions on social media garnered eight times the participation. Although the digital space is shrouded in concerns over data safety, its monopolistic nature, the replication of existing systems of inequity, and its inconstancy, among others, the narrative shaping capacity of the digital space is a force to be reckoned with. This is evident in the use of social media for the proliferation of political narratives and propaganda. Evren also cautioned that,

We must not settle for representation in pop culture instead of representation in politics.

This is not to say that representation in popular culture is not significant, but instead that it doesn’t necessarily translate into representation in other facets of life, which may be equally (if not more) significant for a dignified life. The interrelated concepts of inclusion and inclusivity are contentious since they place the onus on those with the social power to do the inclusion, where instead, power must be taken.

Feminist activism and research methodology usher in a sense of transformative solidarity that can alter the way we think, organise together and align our values. It develops a better and deeper understanding of our own lived experiences to help us pursue feminism long-term. It also reorients the research into a passionate and living entity. This transformative journey is challenging but it can be facilitated through loving kindness. As Shams reiterated,

Our emotions are strong enough to drive both activism and academia

Resources shared during the discussion

  1. Queer in Translation by Evren Savci
  2. An article on the collaborative writing experiences between researchers in the U.K. and Uganda.

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.