Feminist Theory and Imperialism Conference

Victorian room ivory and pink with large video screen on the wall and a woman at the podium addressing an audience

On the 30th of November 2022, Duke’s Program in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, in collaboration with the Franklin Humanities Institute and the History Department, convened the ‘Feminist Theory and Imperialism Conference’ as part of this year’s Annual Research Theme. The conference, organized by professors Frances Hasso (GSF, History and Sociology) and Anna Krylova (History, GSF), concluded the fall ‘Feminist Theory and Imperialism’ doctoral/postdoctoral/faculty seminar (GSF 960S) designed and taught by them. The syllabus is available open access (https://franceshasso.net/2022/05/30/feminist-theory-and-imperialism-syl…).

Over the course of twelve weeks, the seminar engaged with the ‘question of women,’ feminism, and feminist theory and praxis, especially in and in relation to non-western locales, beyond the pervasive imperialist logic of the English-speaking, west-centric margins of feminist intellectual production. As participants, we were encouraged to explore the limits and fantasies of western feminisms and feminist theories and their unreflective socio-cultural and ideological reproduction. We used decolonial, anti-imperialist lenses that also considered the geopolitical and material locations of ideas, subjects, objects, and agents.

The Nov. 30 conference included five invited speakers, Elena Gapova, Xueping Zhong, Maya Mikdashi, Serene J. Khader, and Françoise Vergès, whose works we had read and deliberated in the seminar. They explored how the conditions of imperialism and war shape women’s quotidian interactions with gender, sexuality, race, class, labour, nation-states, and coloniality and by extension their feminism, scholarship, and activism. Hasso and Krylova offered their own brief analytical interventions, which crystallized over the course of the seminar.

Foregrounding the gendered phenomenon of war, Elena Gapova, Professor of Sociology at Western Michigan University, gave the first talk, “When the Guns Speak: Feminist Discourses in the Time of Russian-Ukrainian War.” Analyzing online and offline anti-war resistance and initiatives by women and feminists with the outbreak of the February 2022 Russian-Ukraine war, Gapova complicated the dominant narrative to show how such mobilisation and its attached rhetoric is often co-opted by respective states and their media to serve hyper-nationalist agendas.

Xueping Zhong, Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Tufts University, gave a talk titled “Feminist Theory and Imperialism: A Class (and Chinese) Perspective.” Zhong’s intervention charted the classed legacies of tensions between the dialectical categories of revolutionary ‘woman/women’ and de-revolutionized ‘female’ in CCP-led (/post) women’s liberation China. These tensions, she argued, were and are drawn against the matrix of Chinese encounters with western imperialism and liberal feminism and theory. Zhong wondered ‘how feminist theory in the west understands and addresses the issues of imperialism and the anti-imperialist revolutions in the non-western world without having to do so by proxy and if it is possible for feminist theory to contribute more to anti-imperialist struggles.’

Interrogating why and how the figures of the queer and feminist become cynosures in imperial and anti-imperial mobilizations in the Middle East, Maya Mikdashi, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University, discussed the “sextarian” praxis of queer panic that has come to occupy attention in Lebanon in her talk, “Queer Panic: A Feminist Reading of Imperialism and Anti Imperialism Discourse in the Middle East.” Her intervention addressed global and local dynamics and rhetoric regarding sexuality and queerness, including at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. “As queer and trans people, as radical, anti-imperial and anti-national feminists, we are the first to be tokenized, and we are the first to be abandoned,” she argued. Mikdashi proposed that “viewed from Lebanon, simplistic binaries between imperialism and anti-imperialism are not sufficient frames.”

Serene J. Khader, Professor of Philosophy and Women's and Gender Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and Jay Newman Chair in Philosophy of Culture at Brooklyn College, gave a talk titled, “Feminism Isn’t about Freedom.” She drew from her investments as a philosopher to address possible causes of feminist complicity in imperialism from a value perspective. Considering the dominant claim that moral universalism in western feminist thought breeds its complicity, Khader argues that such easy categorisations are non-generative engagements “with literature and practices of women from the global south as well as women of colour in the global north” and that “individual freedom focused feminism [has] a constituent role in imperialism.”

In her talk, “Permanent War and Reviving an International Anti Racist Anti-Imperialist Feminist Peace Movement,'' French historian, writer, and activist Françoise Vergès, speaking through illness, briefly analysed the unmaking and disavowal of life in conditions of permanent war and environmental devastation, as well as fascist, capitalist, militarist expansions worldwide. She called for a “revolutionary peace” that is feminist, internationalist, and anti-imperialist.

By way of conclusion, professors Dr. Hasso and Dr. Krylova separately offered initial interventions that will be the basis of a longer essay drawn from the seminar. Dr. Hasso voiced how the Anglophone locations of feminist knowledge production and its epistemic habits replicate conditions of imperialist hegemony. Dr. Krylova called for a recovery of analytics that were de-radicalized and de-valorized by the “neo-liberal liberation of the humanities” in order to effectively “develop an emancipatory theory for the 21st century”.

The seminar and concluding conference were a space of retrospection where we could - to borrow Dr. Krylova’s remark - scrutinize “how scholars trained in the ‘collective west’ imagine and write about the rest of the world” within the totalizing schema of permanent war and imperialism.


Author Bio:

Arya Alvernas is a 2022-2023 Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Fellow in residency at Duke’s Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. She is also a UGC-Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Culture Studies, University of Kerala. Her research interests include sartorial politics and coloniality in 19th-century Kerala, gender and modernity in south India, and caste and social movements in Kerala.