We need to talk about Diane Abbott. Now. (EXPLICIT CONTENT)


Diane Abbott is a star. An exemplary women. A brilliant politician. A non-nonsense politician, and a true leader.

JACK MONROE

This is not a recipe. I wrote this as a series of tweets today and readers asked for it as a blog post, so here it is. Our politics may differ, so feel free to skip straight back to the recipes if that’s what you’re here for.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT DIANE ABBOTT.

Right one of us political writer people needs to do this and it looks like it’s me. Grab a seat. I wanna talk about Diane.
Diane was first elected as an MP in 1987, the year before I was born. She has been dedicated to serving the British public for longer than I have even been alive. Hold that thought. Understand it.
Diane was the first black woman to have a seat in the House of Commons. She MADE HISTORY. Her father was welder, her mother a nurse. How many working class kids do we have…

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Cop on Comrades


Feminist Ire

We are a group of activist women from a wide variety of backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Last week, a good number of the left-wing men we work and organise with seriously disappointed us. These men – our friends, our fellow trade unionists, activists, writers, organisers, and artists – shared and commented on a reductive and damaging article written by Frankie Gaffney, which was published in the Irish Times.

We live in a world where our advantages are tangled up with the things that disadvantage us – some of us are working class, some queer, some of us are poor, some of us come from minority ethnic groups or have disabilities or don’t enjoy the security of citizenship. As well, some of us have had a multitude of opportunities in our lives while some of us have had to fight our way through. It is an obligation on…

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Decolonising the academy: the only way forward: 1


An eye-opener of a sojourn?

My recent visit to Canada, to attend the two largest academic events in political science in francophone and Anglophone Canada, was an eye opener, and a stark reminder of the ways in which racial, socioeconomic and political hierarchies operate in academia. It was also a fulsome confirmation of the ways in which knowledge production takes place in the field of international politics. The near-totality of research work on peace processes, power-sharing, peacebuilding, conflict management, IR theory is, pace a handful of rare exceptions, all done by cis white people in the global North. After a few months of field work in x and y location in the global South, they structure their arguments, present papers at conferences, publish in scholarly journals and academic publication houses, and the knowledge they produce thus becomes the ‘status quo’ knowledge. It is this body of work that serves as ‘the’ reference to their very powerful and influential Western governments, supra-national bodies and, appallingly, to the large majority of governments in the global South. To the so-called urbane, Westernised ‘civil society lobbies’ in countries in the global South (especially in deeply divided societies), the work produced by cis white academics in the global North is, no kidding, the word of God. This academic lobby also seeks, in its own micro-aggressive ways, to demean, if not undermine and relegate to the margins, the work of academics from the global South, especially those who uphold positions different to their own. This is something I have felt, and have had to put up with, all my PhD work since 2008. At one point, it was so toxic that I seriously considered abandoning the whole thing, and taking a different path. I ultimately resorted to a ‘middle path’, running away from the university where I was doing my PhD to another country, to teach in a different university system for a couple of years.

Eurocentric ways taken for granted?

Many cis-het-white folk in international politics academia who ‘specialise’ on locations in the global South, take their tremendous positions of privilege for granted, take pride in them, and do not see anything questionable in them. This is largely because the heavily unequal world we live in has been kind to them, and placed them in the highest position of privilege. In the large majority of cases, they never take a second to question their positions of enormous privilege. As one international relations academic said to me at the CPSA conference dinner, she did not see ‘anything wrong’ in the fact that knowledge production in IR and world politics is near-exclusively done by the cis-het-white scholar from the global North.

A global South perspective?

To me, a transwoman, Sri Lankan, with a Franco-British education and leading an existence of exile, everything about this structure is most fundamentally wrong. People simply assume that an x number of months’ fieldwork in x or y country, and ‘advocacy’ for the apparent ‘welfare’ of marginalised communities in x or y country in the global South, make them experts and frontline scholars in that x or y country. In the panel in which I presented, not ONCE did any of the cis-white presenters admit their positions of privilege, that their ‘whiteness’ is their biggest passport and asset to engage in research in the global South. That especially in the African continent, a black scholar (irrespective of their nationality or level of access to bits of white privilege) carrying out research into deep-seated socio-political divisions is prone to have a much tougher ride than the white academic. They take their privilege for granted, and expect the world to respect their privileged position, without questioning the inherent inequalities, duplicities, inconsistencies and sheer violence in the system that puts them in their positions of privilege. One IR scholar told me that during her PhD programme, she benefitted from two very prestigious scholarships (high-profile foundations — one named after an infamous former Canadian Prime Minister and another with generous money), and that her PhD programmes was a comfortable, financially secure venture. She even purchased a flat in the city where she completed her PhD, all while being a graduate student. In the other end of Canada, attending another conference, I met a tremendously intelligent, multilingual, and in the truest sense of the term, very smart academic, who happened to be from a country in central America. She is an international student in Canada, and has two young children, and gets only one grant that involves a much lesser sum, despite her family charges, academic credentials and professional experience. She has to fight for every single thing, has no access to healthcare (and hence has to purchase private health coverage), and purchasing her own property is not an option, to quote her own words ‘because we are foreigners [with temporary residence] in this country’. The cis-het-white explanation would be ‘of course that’s very normal. It’s like that everywhere. It is different for foreigners/much harder for foreigners in any country). I beg to differ, and fundamentally disagree.

It is not so hard for the cis-white scholar from North America who pursues a PhD in Western Europe. I have come across so many people in that category, and in comparison with the foreign scholar from the racialized, non-white global South, they have a relatively smooth ride. They are immediately accepted in academic circles, made welcome, and after PhDs, access grants and positions with less red tape. Even the tough immigration bodies treat them in a fairly straightforward way.

The burdens of the Southerner?

All this changes for the scholar from the global South, who studies in universities in the global North — especially in the social sciences. They have to prove themselves harder, justify their existence, and undergo fierce and simply violent regimes of control imposed by colonial structures in place. The International Office in Queen’s University Belfast, for instance, was, I say it out loud, the most unwelcome body I’ve ever come across in my entire academic and professional parcours, which involves three countries other than my own, three different university systems, two ‘international’ languages, and providing undergraduate and postgraduate teaching solutions that were highly appreciated by my students 99% of the time (except in conservative and bigoted student circles in a province with its own trajectory of hatred and occupation). If a white postgraduate student were treated that way, they would have had so many channels to voice their opposition, make their voice heard, build support networks, cry their eyes out, and get added value to their white tears, which have a very high market value and selling price.

Duplicities in research structures?

This is also the case when it comes to publishing and research grants. Sometime back, I had an appointment with the director of a research institute specialised in conflict transformation, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. At the time, I was considering carrying out a research project in Myanmar. The first thing this person said was something along the lines of “when it comes to Sri Lanka, that’s fine because I see that you are Sri Lankan, but the question arises as to your expertise or knowledge about Myanmar. Have you been there?” I bet that the reaction would have been fundamentally different had I been white. If I were cis-white and if I said “oh yea, I spent three months doing some travelling in Myanmar, and then in Laos and did some interning/volunteering with such and such [Western, cis, very largely heteronormative and essentially white supremacist] x or y NGO in Yangoon, I bet that the same person’s reaction would have been very different. The fact that I have developed strong networks among Buddhist networks in Myanmar, have developed links with several academic institutions in the country, were all irrelevant to him. Had I been white, I doubt it if any such question would have been asked in the first place. I have met some senior academics who manage multi-million pound projects focused on countries on which they have no concrete research specialisation whatsoever. They certainly do not speak the local language, and in one such project, the academic demi-god employed ‘research partners’ in local universities in every country, paid them to do the work, and translate the research findings into English, and then the demi-god sits and writes a book based on those findings. If this is the carry on that research funding bodies perceive as laudable and deserving of research grants, this alone is proof of the extent to which such bodies are discriminatory, obsessed with whiteness, seeing the white academic (read cis white male academic) as more capable of ‘managing’ multi-national, multi-million-pound research projects. In another university in mainland Britain, an anthropologist who apparently ‘specialises’ in all things Sri Lankan has developed a long tradition of bringing in Sri Lankan PhD candidates to work under his supervision. There have been next to no cases in which his students have strongly disagreed with or challenged the said academic’s work. Basically, everybody agrees with what this academic demi-god has to say! Western (very especially Western European) academic circles working on locations in the global South provide the most poignant examples of patronage politics and neo-colonial politics of knowledge-controlling.

Decolonising: the top-most priority?

There’s no denying that ‘whiteness’ is a reassuring force in academia in the social sciences — very specially in international politics and IR. Whiteness reassures hiring committees, reassures publishers, and committees making decisions on research grants. In focusing on white-privilege-related duplicities in the academy, the point I am trying to make is that it is absolutely crucial to ‘decolonize’ academia. As Professor Achille Mbembe recently noted, the Eurocentric canon is one that attributes truth only to the Western way of knowledge production. The central importance attached to the Eurocentric academy has resulted in creating structures of hierarchical domination and control. It is generally taken for granted, for example, that it is a privilege for someone from a country in the global South to carry out their higher education in a ‘good university’ in the global North. In the New Commonwealth, for instance, being educated in the UK, especially in Oxbridge and other prestigious universities, is strongly associated with upward social mobility and social status. From day one, people are trained to look up to the West, Western universities, Western ways of life etc. and consequently hold every other form of non-Western knowledge production, way of life, academic structure and languages as of a lesser value than everything Western. Some white academics in Western universities take pride in this structure, and thrive on it. For many British universities, this structure of hierarchical domination forms a tremendous source of income, charging very high tuition fees from students from outside the European Union. At yet another level, in many countries in South Asia, for instance, an education in what is termed as ‘international schools’ (where the primary medium of instruction is English) is systematically considered as more prestigious and ‘useful’ and ‘valuable’ than being educated in a national language.

If one is to take a more equitable and decolonizing approach, it is very important to question and challenge these colonially established structures of education. As opposed to some superficial observers, this by no means implies a total rejection of existing university and knowledge production mechanisms. The priority lies in engaging in a sincere and collective interaction on challenging these dominant currents in knowledge production and education. How can more equitable structures be put in place, and white supremacy in academia be addressed? How can increased value and equality be accorded to non-western modes of knowledge production? What about making scholarship accessible to people across continents, languages and economic circumstances? Most importantly, how to accord non-Western modes of knowledge production their pleine place in secondary and tertiary teaching? How best can the dominant positions of Western languages in knowledge production be challenged? What can be said about changes already taking place, such as what some scholars describe as the rise of ‘Eastphalia’?

These are all challenging questions, and it takes a great deal of forthrightness, sincerity, and a strong willingness to critically question one’s positions of privilege if any constructive answers are to be found at all. This is where a transfeminist approach to decolonising can be extremely relevant, and provide a useful analytical tool in critiquing the ways in which things are done, and highlighting the importance of change. A transfeminist perspective is marked by a strong emphasis on equality, inclusivity and critical engagement, and the advocacy of social justice (which, despite the apparent commitment of some academic bodies, cannot be realised in the absence of a strong emphasis on non-western modes of knowledge production, and critically questioning the privilege of the white western academy, and creating spaces in western academic institutions where critical voices from the global South are given spaces for academic reflection. Apart from initiatives such as the University of Colour, based at the University of Amsterdam and perhaps the global South chair at the Centre d’études mondiales of the Fondation maison des sciences de l’homme in Paris, there is very little emphasis in the European academy to seriously engage with non-Western approaches to knowledge production, and delve into perspectives from the global South. Yet another research body that engages in useful work is the Alice project at the University of Coimbra. Very often what one comes across are structures in which the scholar from the global South is compelled to comply by dominant practices, processes of whitening intersectionalities, gets talked over, or forced into intellectual, methodological and professional ‘compliance’. There’s work to be done in further conceptualising ideas such as that of a ‘pluriversity’ — process of knowledge production that is open to epistemic diversity, that Achille Mbembe has developed. Indeed, there’s a lot more to write on this issue, and to quote Robert Frost, ‘miles to go before I sleep’.

To be continued.

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Sibéal conference 2016: Roundtable on social transformation


Below is a transcript of my short presentation at a panel on social transformation, a highlight event that took place at the 2016 annual conference of Sibéal, the Irish Feminist and Gender Studies Network, held at the National University of Ireland in Galway on 18-19 November 2016. Watch my presentation here.

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My name is chamindra weerawardhana. I am a trans woman of colour, living in Ulster, or as I prefer to say, the unceded territories of traditional Ulster. I come from a Franco-British academic and professional background with some ten years of regular university teaching experience, including stints with United Nations bodies. Currently i have a research title at Queen’s University Belfast, an extremely neoliberal institution, where headcount and form-filling matters more than real people. Since affirming and moving forwards with my own personal path to gender self-determination, I find myself being shunned by some “high-profile” research centres at Queen’s, people who visibly have a problem with my trans identity, or to be more precise, my trans femininity.

How come it is that in academia, except in small and close-knit queer studies/transgender studies circles, cisgender bodies are considered as an [unwritten] imperative for success? Why am i told that being my true self, and assuming my  trans womanhood reduces my chances of a successful academic career in politics and international relations?

In my country of citizenship, Sri Lanka, yet another island, some people often remind me that options i used to have in pursuing a career in diplomacy or in active electoral politics are now shattered by my trans womanhood. How do you explain the fact that non-cisnormativity, if not non-cis-heteronirmativity represent such a barrier for one’s progress in a chosen field, leaving, little space, to borrow from Mark Twain, to say Jack Robinson?

i am also a trans woman who is a parent of two lovely children, one aged five and the other aged one and half. From antenatal care to primary school, my experience in parenting has been marked by a resolve from many quarters of society to give me ‘the look’, the cisgender gaze – as if to imply, what the hell are u doing here?

in cisheteronormative eyes, my trans womanhood is often seen as an impediment for parenting, let alone good parenting. The attack, at its core, is on my reproductive rights.

This cis heteronormativity is inherently linked to a patriarcal, [cisandtrans]misogynist resolve in society to exercise control upon bodies. what a cis woman, a trans woman, a non-binary person or any other gender plural person decides to do with their bodies and lives becomes the affair of society. This is where i link, in my everyday life and struggles for gender, racial and social justice, the transmisogyny i endure  – – –  and  – – – the foremost challenge for gender justice in present-day ireland – the denial of reproductive justice to cis women, trans men and all other gender-plural peoples.

In my categoric refusal to accept any restrictions that a cisheteronromative society seeks desperately to impose upon me, i follow the wise advice of Audre Lorde, who i sincerely wonder, if she were ever tired and exhausted of being always right. Lorde once said, “i am not free while any woman is unfree even when her shackles are very different from my own”. I am often reminded of this statement when thinking of systemic and underlying political and structural causes of discrimination, especially in the Irish context. the equal marriage law in Ireland was a great feat, yes. the gender recognition act of 2015 was tremendous. however, where is the commitment of concerned parties when it comes to reproductive justice?

This question, to a large extent, sums up the core of the problems inherent in terms of gender justice in present-day ireland. Equal marriage, i believe, was pushed through in a society in which, increasingly, there are powerful cis gay men of influence and wealth. It suits them and their personal agendas.

Reproductive justice and to be precise, the existing restrictions on obtaining a safe and legal termination when a birth giver so requires, is linked to an essentially misogynist class bias. It is not an issue that adversely affects those of the wealthy and influential political class.   

Instead, it is the less economically empowered who suffer, systematically, at the hands of a system that does not want to see them.

For trans and queer people, as Ireland increasingly becomes a welcoming place in terms of legislative provision, and also, increasingly, attitudinal changes, it is very important to constantly remember that trans and queer liberation is never wholesomely realised, in any meaningful way, in the absence of tackling serious issues of misogyny and class bias, and stigma surrounding fulsome reproductive justice to all.

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Transgender policy at QUB: half-baked cake


Queen’s University Belfast has launched a trans equality policy. The press release on the launch quotes three cis-white men, two from senior management and one from the full-time staff of the Students Union, commenting on the policy. One staggering absence is that not a single comment from a trans staff member or student is included in the press release. What are the opinions of trans staff and students about this policy? Were they sufficiently consulted when the policy was drawn?

This writer, the first trans woman to occupy a research title at the School of Politics (and perhaps in the rest of the university) was most definitely not approached. It is this writer’s fervent hope that other trans/queer staff and students were approached, and engaged with satisfactorily when the policy was drafted.

What is indeed commendable is the commitment of the Student’s Union to trans issues at Queen’s. However, it appears that paid employees in the university who are in charge of equality and diversity issues have chosen to release this policy NOT with the welfare of trans students and staff in mind, but as with Athena Swan in mind, to score some cheap points in internal and external evaluations, for form-filling purposes, and perhaps to include in the next Athena Swan evaluation.

As a trans woman who is on a research title, who has been a PhD student at Queen’s and also a Teaching Assistant in the past (and also worked in several universities elsewhere, in France and The Netherlands)  this writer’s take is that this trans equality policy is a very linear, normative one, put together by people with a low understanding of trans issues, trans equality policies launched by other trans-friendly higher educational institutions elsewhere, and by people who wanted a basic guideline for the sake of having it. Just as with Athena Swan, they can then adumbrate ‘sure look how inclusive we are!!!’.

We don’t give a damn! 

To narrate a little anecdote, this writer heard about the Student’s Union’s interest in trans issues and approached the Equality Office, as an additional staff card holder. Having experience in trans equality activism, being familiar with trans identity-related challenges from her own personal lived experience, and most of all, having built excellent networks and solidarities with people involved in launching trans and queer friendly/inclusive policy guidelines in other universities (especially in Canada), this writer proposed her services to the Equality Office, expressing an interest in contributing in any possible way for a future trans equality initiative.

There was no reply for a good while. This writer was not surprised, knowing from her lived experience that Queen’s University does not take international students and staff seriously, unless it involved collecting money, a photo opportunity or a similar tokenising venture. Then, there was a reply. In a message written by a staff member of the Equality Office, the sender of the reply implied either A) they do not understand English, or B) they did not read this writers’ message, or c) they do understand English and read this writer’s message but don’t give a damn about what was said in it.

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This message did not respond, in any clear way, to this writer’s query, if not offer, to contribute in any way to a trans equality policy. Instead, what does this one-sentence email really imply? How can one deduce the message that this sentence carries, and the mentality of people who come up with such responses?

It is simply that this individual, or their office, does not wish to see this writer, or acknowledge her presence in the university structure. It is a clear indicator that they do not consider this writer, a trans woman who is a post-PhD academic with a pan-European education and professional experience, is suitable to contribute to the university’s trans equality policy. Whether the response to the same message would have been the same had this writer been a white local trans woman with the same profile and credentials is an open question.

Trans equality policy with holes in the bottom 

The policy guideline totally lacks a much-needed intersectional focus. It is as if its drafters expected that a group of cis people drafting a policy guideline with ’local’ consultations (read trans support groups based in Northern Ireland) and using politically correct language would suffice. This is simply not true, and is grossly inadequate.

No trans/queer international students!

What the drafters of this trans policy especially forget is the fact that QUB is a Russell Group university. Whether some people who work for QUB like it or not, it is a place with an international staff and very especially student population. Not once does it state a single word about international students and staff, a category that includes highly qualified people who face routine discriminatory and racist and sexist attitudes from border officers, customs officers and even gatekeepers from the local Department of Agriculture  (especially at Belfast airports), and indeed (when it comes to students from countries classified as ‘high immigration ‘risk’ places) from the QUB international office.

When you are trans/ queer and non-white, non-EU and have a passport from the global South, your options can get strictly limited, and in the UK, (and very especially in Northern Ireland) you are bound to face specific challenges. Gender self-determination, or to use [cis]parlance,  ’transition’ can then become an everyday struggle of a specific sort, from being stigmatised even when flying domestically to numerous other everyday challenges and complications. If Queen’s were serious and sincere about having a workable and viable trans equality policy, it would recognise and address the genuine concerns of international staff and students. This trans equality guideline does not make a single reference to intersectionalities of discrimination, especially to protections that the university can make available to ‘protect’ trans/queer international students of colour if they are faced with multiple intersectional challenges – for example, when transphobia (coming from academic and ministrative and/or peer hierarchies) is couched with racial biases. This trans equality policy does not make a single reference to the specific issues of being trans/queer and a person of colour (and an international student/staff member) in the local context of Queen’s and Northern Ireland, and what the university is prepared to do to assist international students and staff, who make a tremendous contribution to the university’s global profile and financial strength.

Insufficient Evocation of Trans Health Issues and Related Challenges in Northern Ireland

The Trans Equality Policy also does not include any guidelines about trans health, which cannot be separated from reproductive health, and indeed, the existing restrictions on reproductive justice in Northern Ireland. Many cis, trans, nonbinary and other gender-plural students coming to Northern Ireland from outside Northern Ireland (including from other constituent parts of the UK) are insufficiently familiar with Northern Ireland’s draconian reproductive health policies, and it is important to include clear guidelines on such issues in a trans equality policy, especially when it targets the student community.

A trans/queer student going through their process of gender self-determination, and especially an international student going through these processes, do not get the information they need to know when reading this Policy Document. It does not sufficiently explain to them how their specific issues and concerns will be diligently addressed and covered by the university’s Trans Equality Policy. Instead, a student reading the recently released document is most likely to feel like eating bland and tasteless food.

Most importantly, this trans equality policy guideline does not provide a single indication of what mechanisms are in place, or will be put in place, to promote trans awareness in the university, and to enhance trans visibility and acceptance (this excludes the ongoing commendable work of the Student’s Union. This writer is referring to the HR Office, Equality & Diversity Office, International Office and other official divisions of the university).

It is not rocket science that a place with its fair share of prejudices and systemic discriminatory dynamics won’t wake up to trans issues out of the blue. It is crucial to link trans equality and justice in the professional and academic spheres with related challenges of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, [dis]ability, accent-related stereotyping, discrimination and microaggressions. It is extremely important to make the trans equality policy relevant to the specific challenges that are faced by international students and staff in the local context of Northern Ireland.

This trans equality policy, as we are talking about a high-profile (and apparently cosmopolitan and world-leading!!!) Russell Group university, is not worth the paper it is printed on. It is, however, great as a propaganda and form-filling venture.

 

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