Creating feminist spaces at ISS: Learning, thinking and knowing otherwise

Focus on ISS

Starting in October 2017, students at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) organized a series of reading circles to celebrate the contribution of Wendy Harcourt, newly appointed Professor of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development. The main objective of the reading circles was to engage with Professor Harcourt’s work by discussing the themes of body politics, feminist political ecology, the politics of place, and sustainable livelihoods.

Wendy Harcourt’s appointment is a recognition of her academic contributions to the critical thinking of development and it was our goal to engage in a close dialogue around such issues. We held five reading circles facilitated by ISS PhD and postdoctoral researchers, each one guided by different pieces of Professor Harcourt’s work. The selected readings are must-reads for anyone interested in gender, body politics and the environment from a critical feminist perspective.

This article is a summary of the points discussed during the sessions and a collective reflection on the significance of creating and keeping alternative spaces in neo-liberal academia where informal group conversations are a way of learning in their own right. We aimed to create a space where emotions and feelings are encouraged and thought through together, and where participants could analyse theoretical concepts and social justice issues via their own everyday affective embodied experiences. The series of reading circles builds on several earlier efforts to create alternative spaces at ISS where we can candidly discuss personal and political ideas around alternatives to development, diversity, feminist theory and action.

The five sessions were well attended by ISS students, faculty and staff, as well as participants from other Dutch universities. In some sessions we used non-textual forms of conversation, including drawing and collage. These methods allowed us to discuss difficult concepts in a more informal and relaxed manner. By creating a caring space to listen in solidarity and respect, we were able to discuss our personal and intimate experiences in and outside academia, our passion for social justice, and the many political and personal challenges we face in doing research.

‘What is Body Politics?’

During the first reading circle we discussed 'What is Body Politics?’ (2009). This session focused on the importance of the body as a site of resistance and contestation. By asking whose bodies are seen as worthy of scholarly attention and which bodies are producing knowledge about which other bodies, the participants engaged in a conversation around the problem of representation and inequality in academic work and development practice. This led us to talk about science and how, in its attempt to be ‘objective’ and ‘disembodied’, it actually reinforces power relations and inequalities. Participants reflected on how bodies can be sites of oppressions but also of knowledge, how bodies are constructed and by whom, and how the body is a denominator of different types of intersections. We also critically reflected on concrete examples of body politics from our own contexts, such as the pink bus in Turkey, doing research in Europe in a gendered and racialized body, and the #MeToo movement.

Living feminist political ecology

In the second reading circle we discussed the text ‘The Slips and Slides of Trying to Live Feminist Political Ecology’ (2015), which puts ‘the personal is political’ at the centre of the conversation, and discusses how our experiences with the environment are deeply personal and relational. Through the text, we followed Harcourt’s life and her experience with the environment. From being a child in Australia developing a sense of ecological belonging; to growing into a young student involved in environmental and feminist activism; to being a European-based feminist advocate for sustainable development; to the current chapter in her life as a scholar activist involved in community-based environmental groups. The article illustrates how all of these experiences have informed and shaped her understanding of feminist political ecology 
and her gendered relationship with the environment.

The use of drawing in this session enabled the participants to openly discuss concepts such as embodiment, situated knowledges, nature cultures, and labours of love in deeply personal and intimate ways. Immersed in an emotional atmosphere, the participants contributed with their experiences and some of the challenges they face when trying to live a feminist and environmentally conscious life. 

Alternatives to capitalism

The third reading circle discussed the ‘The Future of Capitalism: A Consideration of Alternatives’ (2014). Participants discussed the ‘New Green Deal’, the feminist critiques and alternatives to mainstream economics, and Buen Vivir (Living Well) as the main entry points that Harcourt envisions as alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. In three groups, each representing one of the alternatives, participants shared examples of alternatives to capitalism in other parts of the world and the personal and collective ways these challenge the neoliberal system.

‘Bodies in Resistance’

The fourth reading circle was guided by the chapter ‘Bodies in Resistance: Conversations on Gender, Body Politics and Authoritarian Neoliberalism’ (2016). The text is a contribution to a feminist critique of neoliberalism through five women activists and researchers who are struggling against neoliberal forces. By evoking the voices of these women, Harcourt explores how the coercive, marginalizing and disciplinary practices that neoliberalism inflicts upon subjects are experienced and felt on the body, instigating physical and emotional pain which is too often written out of academic work. 

We discussed how the concept of embodied thinking can help us question and challenge authoritarian neoliberalism. This session was an invitation to think through the body by looking at authoritarian neoliberalism from the point of view of the physical experiences and emotions of anyone engaged in social change and resistance. In the sense that embodied knowledge allows us to make visible the consequences of different systems of oppression in our daily lives through our own experiences, it also has the potential to make visible other narratives of resistance and to open up spaces in academia for other ways of thinking and knowing.

‘Gender and Sustainable Livelihoods’

In the fifth reading circle we looked at ‘Gender and Sustainable Livelihoods: Linking Gendered Experiences of Environment, Community and Self’ (2016). The article brought us to Bolsena, Italy, once an agricultural and fishing town. Multiple economic, social and environmental changes have transformed the dynamics of this town in the last two decades as agribusiness has taken over small orchards and gardens. The soil that was once used for agricultural activities is now fallow and the waters of the lake are contaminated with arsenic. Through the voices and stories of three local women who experienced these changes, Harcourt explores how their lived bodily and environmental experiences shape daily practices of care for themselves and their community.

In reflecting on the stories of these women, we discussed how their efforts, while embedded in socioeconomic and cultural regimes of hegemonic power, are still able to craft sustainable life worlds. We talked about the challenge for researchers to listen with attentiveness to and tell such stories, with their multiple ecologies and complexities, in a simple and clear way. Finally, we discussed how we can avoid positioning nature as passive, asking how we can listen to nature’s stories and how we can write about them. Without finding immediate answers, the collective reflections left us feeling the importance of creating safe spaces for such musings.

During this last session, participants also had the chance to reflect on the impact of the reading circles and to think about the future of the sessions. We decided that the circles will continue and will be opened up to other authors and different forms of productions such as music, theatre, and dance.

As Wendy Harcourt stated: ‘the reading circles were a wonderful experience for me as a feminist activist scholar as I learnt and listened to members of the ISS community reading and reflecting on my work. It was truly an embodied, feminist collective experience; I felt humbled and inspired by the stories shared and they made me realise why ISS is such a special learning space.’ 

In conclusion, we find it important to continue creating these types of spaces as they give us the opportunity to encounter each other as engaged scholars and share experiences in a safe space.

Arla Gruda, Brenda Rodríguez Cortés, Jacqueline Gaybor and Natalia Lozano

Harcourt, W. (2009) 'What is Body Politics?' in Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development, London: Zed Books 2009

Harcourt, W. (2015) ‘The Slips and Slides of Trying to Live Feminist Political Ecology’ in W. Harcourt and I.R. Nelson, Practicing Feminist Political Ecology: Beyond the Green Economy: London: Zed Books (238-259)

Harcourt, W. (2014) ‘The Future of Capitalism: A Consideration of Alternatives’ Cambridge Journal of Economics. 38 (6): 1307-1328

Harcourt, W. (2016) ‘Bodies in Resistance: Conversations on Gender, Body Politics and Authoritarian Neoliberalism’. In C. Burak Tansel (Ed.) States of Discipline Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of Capitalist Order (Transforming Capital). London: Rowman and Littlefield International. (67-86)

Harcourt, W. (2016) ‘Gender and Sustainable Livelihoods: Linking Gendered Experiences of Environment, Community and Self’ special section on Feminist Perspectives on Human–Nature Relations. Agricultural Journal of Human Values (print), 33 (4).


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