Bridging Academia and Activism through Gender Studies

September 25, 2018

"Collaboration between academia and activism, and international cooperation to create long-term solidarity and transformation, is crucial to illuminate these "dark times."”

Ayşe Gül Altınay, Director of the Sabancı University Gender and Women’s Studies Center of Excellence, gave an inspiring talk on “Bridging Academia and Activism through Gender Studies" at Columbia University in New York. The event was co-organized by Columbia Global Centers Istanbul, the Sakıp Sabancı Center for Turkish Studies, the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS); and Women Creating Change at the Center for the Study of Social Difference. The event was opened by Jack Halberstam, Director of IRWGS, and moderated by Jean Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. Receiving large interest, the event was attended by a diverse audience from different schools and departments of Columbia University.

Altınay started her talk with a quote from Hannah Arendt and interrogated on the idea of “dark times” and the ways in which feminism and gender studies be seen as sources of illumination in contemporary Turkey, and the world at large. Introducing the possibilities offered by gender studies today, she discussed the possibilities opened up by bridging academia and activism. She argued that this genuine cooperation between activists and academics lighten the “dark times” and enable a space of co-creation, co-resistance, solidarity, and transformation.

Then, Altınay gave a brief historical overview of the women’s movement and examined the role of academia, particularly historiography, in undermining the role of Ottoman women who were advocating for their own rights in the late Ottoman Empire and early Republican period. As a matter of fact, official historiography ignored Ottoman women’s political activism for a long time. It was only in the late 1980s with the advent of feminism and feminist historiography that this official stance was challenged and women’s activism received academic interest. As such, an unknown history of women’s activism came to light thanks to the work of feminist academics, including the history of the establishment of the Women’s University in Istanbul in 1914, as a result of an organized effort around the journal Kadınlar Dünyası (Women’s World).

Altınay also touched upon the increased intersectionality of activist spheres and academia, giving a number of examples including the feature documentary “My Child” and “Curious Steps: Gender and Memory Walks,” both of which came to birth as a result of such cooperation. In the case of “My Child,” Can Candan from the Film Department at Bogazici University, depicted parents’ stories of LGBTI+ individuals. The documentary further helped families establish a support network to organize and mobilize together for the LGBTI+ cause.  “Curious Steps: Gender and Memory Walks” emerged in the context of an international academic project Women Mobilizing Memory, in 2014, and has since expanded to three neighborhoods, Beyoğlu, Kadıköy, and Balat. Altınay noted that the project paved the way to understand the gendering of memory and the cities we live in, as well as creating a new archive of alternative stories that make visible the contributions and struggles of women and LGBTIs of Istanbul. The Curious Steps project is run by Sabancı University Gender and Women’s Studies Center of Excellence and has reached many people, some of whom have become volunteer storytellers.

She concluded her speech by underlining the importance of collaboration between academia and activism as well as international cooperation to create a long-term solidarity and transformation to illuminate the “dark times.”