Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 1, Issue 2
Spring 2011
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editor, John-Albert Moseley
Layout Design: Nick Appleby

What's in a Photograph?

by Laura Wexler, Professor of American Studies & Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies

Middle East Teach-In Series
Photo taken November 18, 2004, Yale University
The Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, established as a Women's Studies Program in 1979 as an academic, political and pedagogical intervention in the male-dominated academy, is currently seeking to re-define its role within the 21'st century university and its pedagogical responsibility to new academic needs. Yale University's drive to come to terms with a yet to be defined "globalization" and to become an "international university" permeate the University's agenda in multiple ways – as a substantive area of scholarship, as a reality increasingly evident in the composition of our faculty, staff and student body, and as a principle guiding efforts to engage increasing numbers of international scholars and foreign guests in the active intellectual and social life of the university. Although there now are substantial numbers of junior and senior scholars interested in these issues at Yale, more curricular focus could direct fundamental attention to global issues of gender and sexuality as an indispensable category of analysis. The myriad dimensions of globalization, such as cross-border flows of goods, services, money, persons, rights, images and ideas, all have a significant gender and sexuality component. I believe that Yale needs to be committed to understanding these flows as a process – contested, contradictory and still very much under construction – that reflects and reproduces gender and sexuality as a meaningful factor in social experience, critical analysis and policy formation.

When I became Chair of WGSS shortly after 9/11 and the beginning of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed urgent that we shift even more of the emphasis of the program to transnational feminist scholarship. In particular, since "saving woman" was being widely used as a code to justify military intervention, it seemed imperative that we broaden the range and scope of voices that were being heard. Our aim was to design courses and to offer programming, -- speakers, symposia, conferences, workshops and other events – that would help to define a gender and sexuality perspective that was both international and transnational in scope. We wanted to add our voice to support a transnational feminist studies conversation and integrate gender and sexuality into the University's pedagogical, research and policy agendas.

In December, 2003, an interdisciplinary group of four WGSS faculty participated in an international conference on "Gendered Bodies, Transnational Politics: Modernities Reconsidered," hosted by the Institute for Gender and Women's Studies at the American University at Cairo and cosponsored by the Center of the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. The conference, co-organized by Rabab Abdulhadi (Yale Ph.D. 2000), Carolyn Dinshaw of CSGS at NYU, and the Institute for Women's and Gender Studies at AUC, sought "to understand and explore the complexities surrounding gender and sexuality dynamics in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia by facilitating conversations between scholars working in (a) women's studies in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia; (b), transnational feminism; and (c) gender and sexuality studies" and to provide "a space for an epistemological conversation that reexamines the ways in which dominant discourses on modernity and the articulation of social and political space and place – as delineated by political and cultural visions of the postcolonial world order and its boundaries – have critically informed women's and gender studies over the past few decades."

In Cairo we met several leaders of the renowned Cairo Women and Memory Forum of researchers, academics and activists. The Cairo Women and Memory Forum was founded in 1995, and rapidly became one of Egypt's most important NGOs working on feminist issues, serving as a focal point for the exchange of ideas through publication (in Arabic and English), conferences, seminars, cultural events and symposia. Projects initiated by the Women and Memory Forum include the collecting of oral histories, workshops and performances on storytelling, and the creation of a network of researchers interested in gender issues, particularly in relation to history. They work "to advocate and promote the integration of gender as a category of analysis in the study and interpretation of Arab history and the social sciences in general. The long-term objective of WMF's specialized research is to produce and make available alternative cultural information about Arab women that can be used for raising awareness and empowering women." (See http://www.wmf.org.eg/en/about_ngo).

After our return from Cairo, we won an Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund grant to host a two-day workshop at Yale in the fall of 2004 with members of the Cairo Women and Memory Forum, on "Women, Memory and Oral History in The Middle East." We invited a number of the founding members of the group to Yale, including Omaima Abou-Bakr and Hoda El Saady, innovative scholars of early Islamic history based at Cairo University; Hala Kamal, also at Cairo University, an historian who works on social movements, in particular the cultural politics of women's rights in the region; and Hoda Elsadda, a Yale World Fellow in 2003, who helped coordinate the Women and Memory Forum Oral History project, and plays a leading role in promoting gender-sensitive initiatives within academic, legal, cultural and political arenas. Some topics the Yale symposium addressed were: "More Genuine Genders: The Dissemination and Disintegration of Stereotypes;" "Lost and Found in Translation: Local Agents/International Trends," "Social Agendas and the Politics of Language;" "Feminist Fairytales: the Uses of Folklore, Stories and Performance in the Development of a Feminist Discourse (with Performance);" "Women's Own Histories: Methodologies of Oral History and the Politics of Representation;" "Grass root activism and the state."

This photograph commemorates that very exciting symposium. At the end we made plans to keep in touch. These included collaborative course development, remote teaching, and shared research and activist projects. Just as important, we made and sustained personal contacts between members of our WGSS program and members of the Cairo Women and Memory Forum. During the revolutionary uprising in Tahrir Square, I wrote to many of the women who had participated in the symposium. Hoda Elsadda (now teaching in Manchester, England) sent us a message of thanks for our support and for reaching out. She had been in Tahrir Square in Cairo from the beginning of the revolution until Mubark's fall. Although it was a difficult time she was hopeful about the future. Our thoughts have been with Hoda and the others during these momentous events.

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