Caring About Feminism, Caring as Feminists

Dr Roxani Krystalli is a Fletcher alumna (MALD 2014; PhD 2020) and a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the University of St Andrews, where her research and teaching focuses on feminist peace and conflict studies, and on the politics of nature and place. Dipali Anumol is a PhD candidate and MALD graduate (MALD 2019) focusing on feminist activism, social change and interpretive methods. Both have been committed to the expansion of opportunities to learn about and practice intersectional feminism at Fletcher, and they participated actively in collaborative movements to create and expand such spaces at Fletcher and beyond. Taking up an invitation from the Ginn Library, Dipali approached Roxani to discuss how feminist questions have shaped their research and teaching. Here is their conversation:

Dipali: What got you interested in gender and feminist international relations (IR)? 

Roxani: I was interested in feminism as a concept, a movement, and a practice before I knew about the academic study of it within the broader field of world politics. It’s hard to trace it to a single moment – rather, it was a series of events that sharpened my feminist curiosity. I had worked as a practitioner in the fields of peacebuilding and humanitarian action prior to coming to Fletcher (and alongside my graduate studies), and I had noticed that gender – not only as an identity, but also as a vector of power – shaped people’s experiences of violence, peace, and (in)justice. Gender invites us to zoom in: when we read a newspaper headline about “peace arriving in Colombia,” where did that peace come from and who truly gets to experience it the moment a peace accord is signed? When we hear about continuing acts of violence, which harms are legible and which experiences are left out of the picture? 

Academically, the work of the feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe and the writing of bell hooks breathed life into me when I started exploring these questions. I loved not only what they wrote about, but also how they thought and wrote: by embracing uncertainty and subjectivity, by developing (rather than quashing) a unique voice, and by taking life experiences of world politics seriously, as opposed to just focusing on official, parliamentary, electoral politics.

Dipali: I agree with you - I think I felt it before I actually knew what it was and how you could study it. I recall moments growing up where I realised my brother and I were different, in terms of what was expected of us and what we could do. India is deeply patriarchal, as are most societies, but it wasn't until I was at university that I started to see how gender is power and power is gender, and how this affects global politics. Whose stories do we hear? Who gets to narrate their experiences? Who do we listen to? Who is considered an expert? 

I don't think there is a feminist scholar who isn't inspired by Cynthia Enloe! I would also add Audre LordeNaila Kabeer and Sara Ahmed as inspirations. They've helped me unpack assumptions that are central to the traditional Western-centric male-dominated canon of international relations and political science. 

What questions animate you currently, when it comes to gender? 

Roxani: Both the questions that gender invites us to ask, as you point out, Dipali, and the authors you cited as influential really resonate with me as well. In terms of the feminist questions that currently animate me: After many years of working on questions of violence and injustice, I am really drawn to feminist approaches to care. Narratives of love and care have always emerged organically in my work with people affected by armed conflict – indeed, I used to write about them on my blog, Stories of Conflict and Love – but until recently, I had not put those narratives at the center of my academic work. This is an oversight that I am reflecting on, and I imagine it as an omission steeped in power, and in ideas of which kinds of stories are taken seriously within the academy and, more broadly, in our understanding of violence and peace. At the moment, I’m thinking with my brilliant colleague Philipp Schulz about how centering love and care reorients our approach to conflict, peace, and justice. The work of Marie Berry and Milli Lake on the politics of love and Joan Tronto’s writing on the ethic of care is keeping us good company in our exploration. 

What feminist thoughts, concepts, or questions are nourishing you at the moment?

Dipali: While I'm exhausted by the constant barrage of violence and hate in the world, I'm finding nourishment in the resultant activism. Wherever you look, women and minorities are organizing and protesting – in India, the UK, Hong Kong, Myanmar. Voices that we didn't think were worthy of being heard are making sure they're being heard. They're taking up space and pushing for change. 

I love the move towards looking at care. We don't focus on those moments of hope and joy enough. As Rebecca Solnit and Audre Lorde note, joy and care are subversive and sustain activism. An ethics of care is vitally important to how I want to approach my research and writing as well. One of the welcome changes COVID-19 has brought is the opening of conversations of care and well-being in academia. 

How are you practising care right now? In class and personally?

Roxani: In the (online) classroom this semester, I have committed to making space to talk about care as a feminist practice. Sara Ahmed has written about feminists needing to assemble a ‘survival toolkit’ and I encourage my students to think about the texts, relationships, and practices that enable them to survive and thrive (with some of them even writing their final essays on this subject). I also share with my students some of what nourishes me, even if it seems, on its surface, to be separate from the subject matter of feminist theory. I have begun each of my recorded lectures this spring with a Blossom and Birdsong update, in which I share with the students what is growing in my garden or nesting nearby and flying overhead. This practice invites us to pay attention to the world, to notice beauty, and to share that which sustains us. Or, as the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”

Dipali: I love the notion of a feminist killjoy survival toolkit. It affords the opportunity of thinking about texts that resonate but also goes back to your point about centering care. And texts, relationships, activities that nourish us don't necessarily have to be academic or serious. 

The Blossom and Birdsong update sounds lovely! I do think there are lessons to take from it - as you said, it asks us to pay attention and to notice. For so long, IR has told us what is worthy of attention and what isn't. Noticing and paying attention allow us to look past the mainstream, to see beyond the frame set for us. I think poetry and fiction allow that too, which is why I find myself needing to read every day. I've always thought that reading allows you to see books as windows and mirrors – a mirror to yourself and a window to the world. In a time where we're isolating (because of the pandemic), I think reading offers connection. Isn’t that what we all want – care, connection, joy and hope?