Transnational Feminist Solidarities: A Conversation

On April 23, 2019, The Middle Eastern Studies Program held a panel discussion on the politics of transnational feminist solidarities that connect struggles beyond fixed geographic borders and academic disciplines. Focusing on movements for liberation and justice across the U.S., Canada, and the Middle East and North Africa, members of the Syracuse University community were invited to join this conversation about the meaning, implications and challenges of engaged feminist praxis in a time of rising xenophobia and racism.

The panel consisted of Professor Sunera Thobani from University of British Columbia, as well as Professor Carol Fadda, Professor Amy Kallander, and Professor Dana Olwan, three MESP-affiliated faculty members from Syracuse University.

The discussion began with opening remarks by Yüksel Sezgin, Ph.D.,  associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School and director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program. After Sezgin’s welcoming statement, Professor Thobani began her presentation by describing her work as lying at the intersection of activism and scholarship. Her exposition largely focused on the making of a “nation” in Canada, and how indigenous peoples fit within that process. Canada, a liberal democratic state, also has a long history of being a settler colonial society, and a colonial state. Reconciling these two images, argued Thobani, is a task that the country is currently facing. The battle between these two ideas, especially in the post-9/11 world, led to negative consequences for indigenous communities and people of color. Indigenous survival, thus, has been a crucial site of struggle and solidarity within the Canadian context. 

The conversation continued with Dana Olwan, Ph.D., who began her presentation by noting the four sites where she has personally seen solidarity manifest itself. She first experienced solidarity in Palestine, seeing the struggle of peoples fighting against  colonial  settlements.  Her  own  experience  with  multigenerational  migration  exposed  Olwan  to  situations  where  she  witnessed  solidarity  among  minorities  and  colonized  peoples.  In  the  post-9/11  world,  Olwan  experienced  solidarity  among communities of color, especially Muslims, who came under attack from the global war on terror. Finally, she has seen indigenous internationalism, the coming together of multiple indigenous groups in response to the activities of global settler-colonial states. The language of solidarity, explained Olwan, is too often appropriated by states to achieve their own political objectives. Furthermore, throughout history, feminist movements have allowed themselves to be propagandized by states. 

The panel progressed with remarks from Amy Kallander, Ph.D., whose presentation focused mostly on feminism in 1960s Tunisia. Post-independence feminism in Tunisia, explained Kallander, was very liberal and individualistic in nature. The ideology espoused freedom for women in private spheres of life, but not at higher social levels such as labor and politics. Just like the global context of the war on terror has played a role in the repression of minorities around the world, the Cold War had a similar effect on rights-movements in post-independence Tunisia. Kallander explained that her work attempts to examine, historically, the questions of what was accomplished, what kinds of exchanges happened between women, and what these exchanges led to in the 1960s and ’70s.

 The last talk was by Carol Fadda, Ph.D., mainly focusing on the importance of gender politics in imperial feminist policies. Like some of her colleagues on the panel, Fadda stressed the importance of understanding how states co-opt feminist thought to both expand governmental power; and how transnational spaces open possibilities for solidarity, but also for states to use transnational connections to confirm and verify the threat of immigrants and minorities. Furthermore, Fadda highlighted the role of gender politics in major foreign policy decisions that in turn lead to the oppression of minorities, especially Muslims. For example, the racialization of Arab men has been used to justify foreign policy action in parts of the Middle East, under the banner of rescuing Muslim and Arab women.

The panel concluded with closing remarks from the moderator, followed by a Q&A session among audience members and panelists. Students, faculty and community members from the area asked questions and had a lively discussion with all four speakers.