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Asien-Orient-Institut PRO GED

Sharing Knowledge, Telling Stories ― Transregional and Transgenerational

A short piece by Helena Rust

Helena Rust, M.A.


Under the title “Gender Equality, Diversity and Critique: Transnational Perspectives”, the kick-off meeting of the newly established Consortium for Education and Research (COFER) PRO GED took place at the University of Zurich on February 22, 2019. Bettina Dennerlein, Professor of Gender Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Zurich, and Sarah Farag, coordinator of PRO GED (University of Zurich), presented the history behind PRO GED as well as the project’s main aims. Dennerlein stressed that PRO GED is the result of long-term commitments to collaboration with scholars in the MENA region, as well as a product of the interest in interdisciplinary and transcultural perspectives rooted in the institutional location of gender studies at the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies (IAOS) at the University of Zurich, at the intersection of area studies and the systematic field of gender studies.

In the course of two workshops held at the IAOS, in 2016 on the topic of “Feminism and Theory in the Arab World” and in 2017 on the topic of “Concepts that matter! Terminologies of Women and Gender in Transnational Perspective”, the Swiss Arab Network for Gender Studies GENiUS (Gender in University and Society) was established in order to render long term connections to partners in the MENA region more visible and sustainable. Out of the experience of fruitful cooperation, partners of GENiUS in several institutions of higher education in Switzerland, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon successfully applied to swissuniversities for funding of the COFER PRO GED, which stands for “Promoting Gender Equality and Diversity through Shared Knowledge Production”. Through its devotion to fostering research-based exchange in the field of gender and diversity, in its main objectives PRO GED is closely linked with the activities in the network of GENiUS. However, while GENiUS focused on scientific cooperation among academics working in the field of Gender Studies in and on the Arab region, PRO GED moves beyond this geographical scope and aims at strengthening the cross-regional, transcultural and interdisciplinary exchange on systematic questions related to gender and diversity from a variety of academic settings as well as related practices within and beyond academia.[1]

The roundtable that followed the welcoming notes and introductory remarks brought together a distinguished panel of members of PRO GED partner institutions: Nathalie Amstutz (Institute for Human Resource Management, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland), Connie Christiansen (The Arab Institute for Women (AiW), Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon), Hoda Elsadda (The Women and Memory Forum (WMF), Cairo, Egypt), Moha Ennaji (INLAC Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Fez, Morocco), Marylène Lieber (Institute of Gender Studies, University of Geneva) and Fatima Sadiqi (ISIS Center for Women and Development, Fez, Morocco). It was chaired by Yasmine Berriane (Centre Maurice Halbwachs/CNRS, Paris) who, as a former post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zurich, has played a crucial role in establishing both GENiUS and PRO GED. The panel discussion sought self-critically to discuss the core notions of PRO GED―gender equality and diversity―and the challenges posed by their global circulation and the different ways they are understood and put into practice as analytical and critical tools.

This paper aims at reflecting on a few selected aspects of the rich panel discussion. The first section deals with questions of varied and at times conflicting understandings of the core notions of gender and diversity, as discussed by the panelists. The second and third sections will consist of a more personal account of how the discussion resonates with fields of feminist activism that have preoccupied me recently: firstly, storytelling as a feminist practice and secondly, questions related to a loss of knowledge and memory between generations of feminists.

Contested understandings of gender

Several participants pointed out the diverse and at times conflicting understandings of the notion of gender they encounter in their work. In her research on gender and diversity management in organizational settings, Nathalie Amstutz noticed a gap between academic perspectives which tend to increase the complexity when dealing with terminologies of gender and diversity, and a “longing for simplicity” in the diversity policies of the studied organizations. This gap has an effect on how issues are located and addressed. In the organizations studied by Amstutz, problems are often individualized, while the academic usage of these concepts focuses more on structural and social dimensions. She attributed the observed individualization to an attempt at avoiding political issues. Referring to the humanitarian field in Lebanon, Connie Christiansen referred to another possible source for a loss of complexity. She pointed out, that in development programs talking about gender dimensions “gender quickly becomes women”. While Amstutz indicated the de-politicization of the notion of gender, Christiansen discussed a narrowing of the concept in a highly politicized setting. However, both observations point to an important question: how do we put concepts into practice while maintaining their complexity? This is a concern central to PRO GED, as it aims at enabling a transfer of knowledge between academic and non-academic settings.

Moha Ennaji brought up yet another dimension of (mis)understanding the notion of gender: the level of translating gender and gender studies into Arabic. There is a wide range of terms without a consensus on which one to use. Fatima Sadiqi picked up this thread, recalling the struggle to institutionalize gender studies in Fez. When the government finally granted permission to establish a gender studies program in 2000, it translated gender studies into dirāsat al-aǧnās, the study of genres, which could just as well mean literary genres. This misunderstanding or terminological ambiguity proved to be productive, as it served to make gender studies tolerable outside the academic circle. Marylène Lieber recollected a trilingual conference on traveling concepts in Switzerland, where she observed the conceptual differences conveyed when talking about genre, genero or Geschlecht in French, Italian and German. The question of circulation and translation of concepts and related theories is obviously more complex than what the idea of a Swiss-Arab network implies at first glance. Creating a space for weaving together archives of knowledge and practices seems all the more relevant.

Marylène Lieber and Hoda Elsadda both highlighted the importance of gender as a lens through which to analyze and understand power relations; serving both as an empirical concept, to study how gender structures the social world or to describe how gender is embedded in other power relations such as race, class, religion, and sexuality, but also as a critical concept to undo or transform gender relations. Elsadda especially pointed out that gendered knowledge is knowledge that counters the marginalization of women and disadvantaged groups, and challenges unequal power relations, thereby hinting at the web of interrelations between the concepts of gender, diversity, and inclusion.

Storytelling as a feminist practice

Reflections on language went far beyond the level of conceptual (mis)understandings. Elsadda referred to the Women and Memory Forum’s commitment to the production of knowledge in Arabic and the translation of readers and teaching materials for gender studies courses into Arabic. Understanding diversity as the inclusion of marginalized voices, she made clear that making gendered knowledge available in Arabic is key to countering inequalities in the access to knowledge.

Another aspect of inclusion is closely linked with the formats in which knowledge is produced and circulated, pointing directly to one of the three main objectives of PRO GED, bridging the gap between academia and society. Hoda Elsadda emphasized the importance of coming up with ways of translating specialized knowledge in language and media that are easily accessible to wider audiences. One project conducted at the Women and Memory Forum in Cairo to disseminate concepts linked to gender consisted of writing workshops by a group of feminists, writers, academics and non-academics to rewrite folk tales from a gender sensitive perspective. These were subsequently told in storytelling performances, reaching audiences that normally would not be interested in reading a specialized book on gender.

Other projects that were mentioned revolved equally around the idea of democratization of gendered knowledge: from oral history archives to strengthen the voices of women in the construction of a historical narrative in social history, and theater groups using dramatic performance to convey their ideas of gender relations, to blogs as new platforms more easily accessible than academic publications. Both Elsadda and Sadiqi stressed that initiatives of storytelling, performances and other artistic interventions can be crucial to including marginalized voices and thereby revising the knowledge produced.

Much of the feminist reflections on storytelling revolve around the subversive and critical potential of experience-based storytelling, pushing the boundaries of academic debate to make room for silenced voices. Starting in the 1980s, feminist scholars have sought to theorize how women’s stories of everyday sufferings and discontent can be transformed into feminist knowledge. While storytelling as a practice of feminist knowledge production has also been met with criticism, it is nonetheless a practice of unsettling intellectual styles and habits that are often taken for granted, of finding other forums more adequate to a variety of voices and concerns.[2]

As a fan of science-fiction, I had a different take on storytelling as a feminist practice. I first encountered storytelling as knowledge production through Ursula Le Guin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World and Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs.[3] In more recent publications and talks, Haraway further developed and clarified an idea already present in the Manifesto for Cyborgs: Referring mostly to feminist science fiction novels, she argues that stories do not simply serve to illustrate feminist theories and make them more accessible, but can be read as theories or as world-making texts.[4] What intrigues me about Haraway’s approach is the close link in her work between fictional storytelling and academic research and writing. She embraces an idea of knowledge productionbe it fictional or scientificas a shared, collaborative and never isolated practice, which she characterizes as a game of cat’s cradle or string figures, as “giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and so mostly failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before, of relaying connections that matter.”[5]

Coming back to the question raised by Amstutz and Christiansen concerning the danger of losing theoretical complexity of concepts related to gender equality and diversity: Could the activities of PRO GED serve to explore how, and through which narratives the complexity of concepts can be maintained or increased while remaining accessible and meaningful beyond academia? The literary and artistic projects established in Cairo and Fez could surely serve as string figures to be taken up elsewhere.

The idea of knowledge production as a shared and collaborative enterprise, of course, is neither new nor necessarily linked to the idea of narrativity. However, we still do not have many opportunities to actually engage in such practices, as structural settings of academic work are often at odds with such an approach. If nothing else, imagining academic knowledge production as games of string figures challenges rehearsed formats of academic language and authorship.

Sharing knowledge across generations

The lines of discussion pursued by Yasmine Berriane, a long-term perspective on transformations of the terminologies surrounding gender and diversity as well as examining how these notions are related to specific practices, led many participants to recollect the histories of Gender Studies as a discipline in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Switzerland. Discussing their own role in its institutionalization and in creating curricula, several participants recalled the entanglement of these processes with feminist activism. The historical accounts of Fatima Sadiqi, Hoda Elsadda and Moha Ennaji all entailed the narrative of an irresolvable entanglement of political activism and academic research and teaching. Moreover, they agreed that identifying as an academic and activist does not reduce one’s academic credentials but rather adds to the symbolic capital. For the context of Geneva, Marylène Lieber briefly mentioned the feminist activism that set the background for establishing gender studies in Geneva and more generally in Swiss universities, but unfortunately did not elaborate on this.

In these reflections on transformations and achievements, questions concerning generations were omnipresent, albeit mostly between the lines rather than explicitly. Both Ennaji and Sadiqi, for example, pointed out their surprise about the use of new platforms and strategies for activism created and adopted by younger generations, which they could not have expectedbe it the recent use of social media to open a space to publicly discuss taboo topics, or be it the use of new formats of expression such as blogs and performance art. Nathalie Amstutz most explicitly mentioned generational questions, talking about a gap which impedes the preservation of gender sensitive knowledge and practices within organizations and institutions. She observed that in diversity and gender equality programs of organizations, knowledge and practices are developed and then disappear again, presuming that there might be a generational side to this disappearance or lack of transmission.

Thinking about these and other examples of the subtle presence of generational issues in the panel discussion led me to return to questions that have concerned me recently. As we are organizing a women’s strike for June 14, 2019, in a number of groups and collectives, it is surprising how little we talk about the strike in Switzerland in 1991, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of women across the country. Why do we learn anewwith incredible efforts of time and energy consumedhow to organize ourselves, hardly relying on the skills and experiences of an older generation?[6] The approach chosen by several participants of the PRO GED kick-off panel, of looking back to the beginnings of gender studies programs enabled by feminist endeavorswithin and beyond academia―added yet another, more specific, dimension to my feeling of a lack of generational connection and exchange. In conversations with students of my age and younger, which followed the event, it became painfully clear how little we know about the specificities of our own local histories of academic feminism, how much we do actually feel the “waves” we find so inadequate as a metaphor.[7] Nathalie Amstutz’ observation of empowering knowledge falling into the gap between generations echoed with Audre Lorde’s description of this gap as an “important social tool for any repressive society” and her subsequent call to counter the historical amnesia “that keeps us working to invent the wheel every time we have to go to the store for bread”[8]or every time we organize a strike.

This impression of a memory that runs through our fingers like sand particularly sparked my interest in PRO GED’s thematic field of memory and archives. Self-reflective narratives of our own converging and yet diverse histories and memories of women’s and gender studies in Switzerland and in the MENA region could be seminal to create shared histories not only cross-regionally but also across generations.[9] Keeping this generational question in mind, PRO GED activities could be telling the stories which smooth out the waves.


References (accessed 4/10/2019).

Bertschinger, Dolores Zoé. 2016. “Für eine feministische Öffentlichkeit: Wie wir den Feminismus wieder als Kritik an der Gesellschaft begreifen können.” Widerspruch: Beiträge zu sozialistischer Politik 35 (68): 141–152.

Crameri, Carla. 2019. Willkommen in einex anderex Welt (working title). Diploma Project in Design―Visual Communication at ZHdK, Zurich.

Haraway, Donna. 1985. “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s.” Socialist Review 80: 65–108.

Haraway, Donna. 2013. “SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, no. 3. (accessed 4/8/2019).

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Experimental futures. Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1989. Dancing at the edge of the world: Thoughts on words, women, places. New York: Grove Press.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” In Sister outsider: Essays and speeches, 114–123. The Crossing Press Feminist Series. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.

RosaRot–Zeitschrift für feministische Anliegen und Geschlechterfragen (Nr. 50): Jubiläumsausgabe. 2016. Zurich.

RosaRot–Zeitschrift für feministische Anliegen und Geschlechterfragen (Nr. 54): Cyborgs, Göttinnen, Androiden. 2018. Zurich.

Segal, Lynne. 1997. “Generations of feminism.” Radical Philosophy (83): 6–16.

Sreekumar, Sharmila. 2017. “Equivocations of Gender: Feminist Storytelling and Women's Studies in the Contemporary.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 24 (1): 47–68.

Stone-Mediatore, Shari. 2016. “Storytelling/Narrative.” In The Oxford handbook of feminist theory, edited by Lisa Disch and M. E. Hawkesworth, 934–54. New York, NY, United States of America: Oxford University Press.

Terranova, Fabrizio. 2016. Story Telling for Earthly Survival. Brooklyn, NY: Icarus Films, 2016.

Time Travelling–Moving Bodies as Writing Bodies: Workshop with Clay Dresser and Isabel Gatzke. April 13–14. Zurich: Shedhalle Rote Fabrik.


[1] More on PRO GED’s institutional framework as well as the main thematic fields of interest and expected outcomes can be found online:

[2] Stone-Mediatore (2016).

[3] Le Guin (1989); Haraway (1985).

[4] Haraway (2013); Haraway (2016); Terranova (2016). In my own immediate feminist environment, I notice a revival of Ursula Le Guin’s and Donna Haraway’s theorizing of fictional (rather than experience-based) storytelling as feminist practice. Results of this increased explicit and implicit references to Le Guin’s and Haraway’s work are (among countless other texts and artistic interventions) the issue of the magazine RosaRot (2018) 54 on the topic of “Cyborgs, Goddesses and Androids”,  a workshop at Rote Fabrik in Zurich on “Time Travelling – Moving Bodies as Writing Bodies” as well as artistic projects combining collective storytelling with visual art such as Crameri (2019) Willkommen in einex anderex Welt.

[5] Haraway (2013), without pages, paragraph 5 “Microscopic Symbionts”. This is also expressed in her habit of indicating not only works cited but also conversations with people who inspired her thinking.

[6] There is plenty of archival and published material on the strike of 1991, but no strong tradition of connecting to women who were involved in 1991, of relying on each other. (As the strike is organized in a decentral network of local, regional and work sector-specific women’s collectives, I can only assess this for the collective in which I am active. Other collectives might have a more vivid culture of cross-generational collaboration). An attempt by feminists of my generation to bring the women’s strike to our attention can be found in the feminist magazine RosaRot (2016), celebrating the shared 25th anniversary of the strike and the magazine.

[7] The metaphor of the first, second, and third wave of feminism rather transports divisions between generations of feminists than enabling connections and references. Or if references are made, they are often to dissociate oneself from the previous “wave”, thereby homogenizing a plurality of voices. The metaphor of a movement (or several movements) in wavesimplying low tides in betweenis moreover problematic because it makes our feminist forerunners appear to us as heroines who have achieved the impossible, while our generation now is left on its own to start anew. In the critical reflections on the wave-metaphor the generational image of daughters without (grand)mothers is ubiquitous. See Bertschinger (2016) 144145 and Segal (1997).

[8] Lorde (1984), 117.

[9] For a link between storytelling and history of Women’s Studies see Sreekumar (2017) in which she explores the narrative aspects of the writing of history of the discipline and the implications of labelling it “storytelling”.