Decolonising Knowledge Around Gender and Sexuality – 30.11.2018 London

Decolonising Knowledge Around Gender and Sexuality

A day-long conference organised by the Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration (CTDC) ( and Kohl: A Journal for Gender and Body Research ( The conference was held on 30th November 2018 at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Audio recording of two sessions:

  1. Opening Session: Disturbing Binaries around Knowledge Production.

Participants: Dr Nour Abu-Assab, Dr Nof Nasser-Eddin, Roula Seghaier and Ghiwa      Sayegh.


2. Closing Session: What Does it Mean to Decolonise?

Participants: Dr Nour Abu-Assab, Dr Nof Nasser-Eddin, Roula Seghaier and Ghiwa      Sayegh.



Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration (CTDC) (

Kohl: A Journal for Gender and Body Research (

Book description – Lesbiennes de l’immigration (2018)

Lesbiennes de l’immigration. Construction de soi et relations familiales

Editions du Croquant, 2018

Salima Amari

The condition of North African origin women is rarely evoked outside of heterosexuality. Addressing the issue of Maghrebi origin lesbians allows us to engage with a category in all its diversity, often reduced to a classic scheme of domination and submission to men and heterosexuality. How do social relations of gender, race, and class influence the social construction of lesbianism? The author goes beyond analyses based on binary confrontations and proposes a reflection based on the complexity of gendered social relations, particularly in the context of North African immigration. Documenting the aforementioned complexity through several interview excerpts, she makes space for the women, far from fantasy.

Based on a life story survey of twenty-one lesbians and a field observation (supported by thirty-one informal interviews), this book aims to report on the social construction of lesbianism in the context of intersectionality of social relations of gender, class, race, and sexuality. Its main purpose is the analysis of “lesbian career” and family relationships through the study of cross-paths as women of North African descent and as lesbians. What is the process by which these women construct lesbian pathways in a migratory and post-migration context? The main research hypothesis is based on the idea that these lesbians act on two fronts: that of self-construction on the one hand, and the management of their family relationships, which they often try to preserve somewhere else. This research is the first of its kind engaging with the issue of lesbianism in Maghrebi immigration in France. It proposes an enabling analysis to update the mechanisms of oppression and resistance strategies of women who undergo multiple dominations.

The results of the research allow us to assert that in the face of socio-familial heteronormative constraints, many North African lesbians and of Maghrebi descent prefer filial and family loyalties while continuing to live their lesbian affective and sexual lives. They thus push back the family expectations of heterosexual marriage and maternity by making themselves available to the various domestic and administrative tasks of their parents. By studying in detail the different educational and academic backgrounds of the respondents, this work reveals links between self-construction as lesbians and certain choices of school and university orientation. Indeed, the choice of sectors and places of study is indicative of the desire of the majority of these lesbians to permanently associate both geographical distance and relational proximity. Thus, by choosing to study the Arabic language and Islamic studies in places far from their parents, they make the choice of individual autonomy while showing an interest in parental culture. Access to higher socio-professional positions than parents also allows for financial and residential autonomy that makes lesbian relationships possible.

The analysis of the relations of the respondents in terms of gender, that is to say as girls / women within their families, allows to better understand their social and family behavior in terms of sexuality, that is to say as lesbians. Thus, from the awareness of their homosexual orientation to the various future projections of lesbian conjugality and parenthood, lesbian careers are marked by a number of obstacles. The constraint to heterosexuality is accentuated by religious and family pressures related to the social expectations of heterosexual marriage and maternity. In these conditions, the leeway of lesbians depends on several criteria: age, social class, socio-family environment, relationship to religion and the degree of financial and residential autonomy. Some lesbians therefore decide to move away from the parental home for professional reasons or to pursue their higher studies taking advantage of this geographical distance to live an affective and sexual lesbian life. Others find themselves faced with the obligation to first go through the heterosexual marriage (real or convenience with a Maghrebi gay man) and sometimes maternity to meet family expectations before divorce and start  a “second life” as lesbian with more serenity.

Finally, the analysis of the majority of life stories shows “parallel lives” between self-building as lesbians and the management of family relationships – especially parenting. Thus, apart from a few exceptions of outing or coming-out to family that resulted in family breakdowns, all lesbians encountered during this survey chose not to display their lesbianism in certain areas (close and extended family, school, neighborhood and the medias). They continue to be closely attached to their parents. This does not preclude alternative forms of coming out as the everyday expressions of their homosexuality or the use of “strategic lies” as presenting the lesbian partner as their roommate. These lesbian careers are built either on family breakdowns or unstable equilibrium between lesbian lives on the one hand and family relationships on the other.

Lesbiennes de l’immigration offers an analysis of diverse aspects such as the process of constructing lesbian pathways with experiences of coming-out, couple life and motherhood, and the relationships that lesbians have with their families and religion. Beyond the norms of “sexual modernity” and heterosexual norms, we can ask, are lesbian immigrants re-inventing new ways of being post-migrant lesbians?

Salima Amari holds a doctorate in sociology from Paris 8 University. She is a member of the Center for Sociological and Political Research in Paris (CRESPPA-GTM) and Assistant Professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Available in French from the following link / Ouvrage disponible sur le site de l’éditeur (frais de port offerts), cliquer ici :






Book Review – Spirit Desire: Resistance, Imagination and Sacred Memories in Haitian Vodoun (2018)

Spirit Desire Cover.jpeg

Sokari Ekine, Spirit Desire: Resistance, Imagination and Sacred Memories in Haitian Vodoun (2018)

Reviewed by Alexis De Veaux

Sokari Ekine’s Spirit Desire, Resistance, Imagination and Sacred Memories in Haitian Voudoun is not meant to be just another coffee table specimen. The series of photographs “made” by the Nigerian British, self-described black queer feminist photographer Sokari Ekine, beginning in 2013, in Haiti, usher in the photographer’s recently published book. As codified by Ekine, the sixty-six photographs (two thirds of which are black and white prints) document ritual, ceremonial, and everyday practices in multiple Haitian spiritual communities known as “lakou.”

In an interview prior to the book’s publication, Ekine corrected my use of the phrase “photographs taken by.” “Taken by”connotes a set of strategies outside her own, an absence of the spiritualrelationship between the photographer, seeing,imagination, and history. “Taken” implies an absence of reciprocity. In the quest for reciprocity between and among black diasporic populations impacted by transhistoric phenomena- enslavement, colonization, trauma, imperialism, racial/sexual/gendered violences, and displacement among them-Ekine’s photographs urge us towards ways of “seeing.” Seeingis different from, is not, looking at.

The photographs articulate Ekine’s visual knowledge ofrasanblaj.  According to Gina Athena Ulysse, in Haitian Kreyol, rasanblajtranslates as “assembly, compilation, enlisting, regrouping (of ideas, things, people,spirits. For example, fe yon rasanblaj, means to do a gathering, ceremony, a protest). In this work, rasanblaj recognizes an assemblage of living entities (mental, human, spiritual) conjoined with resistance. Ekine’s description of her work as “queer assemblage,” deploys a radical usage of the term “queer;” one that troubles western notions of LGBTIQ identities; that recognizes the transcendent life between the visible andthe invisible; calls forth multiple intersecting identities framed by multiple, often simultaneous, diasporic and geographic realities; gestures toward emergent possibilities of and for the imagination; and thrives on traditions of resistance and love.  Ekine’s “queer assemblage,then, becomes radical photo-making;a disruptive, shifting of the gaze away fromthe poverty pornof visual narratives representing Haitian bodies and Haitian spiritual practices, specifically Vodou, and toward celebration of, and the seeing of, the persistence of blackness. Here the desire is less for simplified positivereadings of blackness; as Toni Morrison speaks of writing to make the white gaze irrelevant,so too does Ekine makephotos that render the white gaze unimportant. As Ekine sees, we see: blackness turns away from that which denounces its power, does not mirror it, and proclaims itself both oppositional to and dominant over. Laying claim to what she termsthe speculative and the subversive,” Ekine’s aesthetic of makingphotographs is constituted not by who is queer, but by what is queer; as queeris the interaction between human and spirit, between the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible, between possibilities.

As such, Ekine’s “photo-makingstands alongside that of black diasporic women writers whose works are, as Carole Boyce Davies allows, aspects  of a growing collage of uprising textualities’….works [that] exist more in the realm of the elsewhereof diasporic imaginings that the precisely locatable. Much of [which] is therefore oriented to articulating presences and histories across a variety of boundaries imposed by colonizers [] thereby working on the side of those resisting injustices.

This is what I see in the cover photograph,Breath.The photo appears to be of the embrace of two women. It appears to be of the white cloth framing their black bodies; framing their gaze into each other. The glint of earring. Their alikeness.  Appears to be of their centrality to the photo, for there is only them, this headshot. I am transported by the madephoto; not back in time but across multiple times. Because I am seeingand not merely looking, the photograph marks a contemporary moment but its fluidity makes it a portrait of the history of black bodies transported to the so-calledNew World;of bodies that made of the abject trauma of this New Worlda living home for spirit. It is not their breath the photographer helps me to see. It is not whois breathing, but what. In the ritualized moment of Haitian Vodou, in the coming of the lwa, the god(s), what is breathing. 

Ekine’s attraction to black and white as primary colors for making photographs can be read as photographic vocabulary; but it can also be read as an intentional political aesthetic. In speaking of his own use of three different kinds of black paint to articulate the figures in his paintings, the visual artist Kerry James Marshall recently stated, The idea [] is that blackness is non-negotiable in those pictures. Its also unequivocal-they are black-thats the thing that I mean for people to identify immediately. They are black to demonstrate that blackness can have complexity. Depth. Richness.When I read Marshall, I hear him saying counterpublic.”  I hear him talking of the space beyond the orbit, the trajectory, of the dominating narrative. Ekine’s photograph, Jean Baptiste and Spirit Dog(although rendered here in color) resonates with the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s idea of the black interior,that space that is, black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination [] a metaphysical space beyond the black public everyday toward power and wild imagination that black people ourselves know we possess but need to be reminded of. It is a space that black people ourselves have policed at various historical moments. Tapping into this black imaginary helps us envision what we are not meant to envision: complex black selves, real and enactable black power, rampant and unfetishized black beauty.

This is what I see: not just the portrait of a human and a dog. Not just a human gaze into the camera that is mirrored by a canine gaze away from it. Yes, the human and the canine gaze differently to us, but also the same in the photographers lexicon. In the photographers lexicon, spirit is madeknown across the stereotypes of human hierarchies, across the prisons of uninspired imagination. The brim of Jean Baptistes hat extends beyond his head; on the right side in particular, it extends on the same side as Spirit Dogs ear extends beyond his head. The hat and the ear are both “listening.” In the photographer’s “seeing,the two species-members, inhabitants of the lakou- are present for their photographic moment andalert, listening, to what is not visible.

Jean Baptiste and Spirit Dogcan be read into the idea of black portraiture as a counterpublic.  As a counterpublic, black portraiture can signify not simply its tension with white photographic studies of blackness and black bodies, but the desire for a reparative imagination, making more whole how we see the subjectivities of black diasporic peoples. It is the enduring presence of black bodies, the presence of breath, of spirit emanating between us, because of, and for us that situates our lives in the impossible and the possible, simultaneously. Portraits such as Breathand Jean Baptiste and Spirit Dogannounce themselves as alternate public spaces, as aspects of alternate realities; they exist not in opposition to white supremacy, solely, but alongside it, governed by spiritual, cultural, and social laws and traditions within which its inhabitants orbit. In Ekine’s “photo-making,I enter the realm of the metaphysical.

And this is what I am brought to see: the black bodies of Haitian Vodouizants as conjurations of desire; desire driven not by human need but by the need of spirits. In the photo “Liquid,” I am arrested by the spirits strength, its ability to enter, to take over, to possess a Vodou practitioner.  I am arrested by the transformationalforceof spirit desire.I “see” the spirit that takes her, erect in her outstretched arm. It is virile, demanding, it is both female and male. I “see”her love spirit. I “see” how spirit loves, how spirit love is fierce, disturbing, ugly even, and beautiful. I “see” the water she merges with mutate her legs and they become not-human; they become water. I “see” the water she arises out of become human. I “see” the human become spirit. I see the photograph, the noun, “Liquid,” become a verb, “liquify.” In Ekine’svisual rasanblaj, I “see” how blackness traffics in the impossible.

Water is spirit. And it is also home to spirit. It is the oceanography of our rhizomatics, the spread of our roots as black diasporic bodies, across continents and realities. Water is the cohesive evidence of how black diasporic cultures are rooted in cultural practices of what Ekine identifies as the Africas.Just as we do not come from a single transatlantic crossing (arguably, we do not yet know the full extent of the numbers of ships that sailed captured Africans away from home; or today, how many times how many black diasporic Africans make a transatlantic crossing as they journey to and return from countries of the west), just as we do not come from a single Africa,we do not come from a single practice of spirit water; we have called these practices Yoruba, Santeria, Candomble, baptisms, Vodou. But we do transmit our understanding of the power of water as spiritual cleanser, as necessary to the right relationship of ourselves to the spirit we are inhabited by and the living spirit of all life-of which we are only particles. In a series of four photographs,SodoSous,” the photographer participates in a well-known spiritual pilgrimage to the waterfalls, where Haitians pay homage to the lwa, such as Erzulie and Damballah, and where Vodouizants bathe in the sacred waters. Ekine reveals her complex identities as photo-maker and Vodou practitioner; allowing us to “see” her, and therefore what is human, as visible and not visible, as she merges with spatial aesthetics of the natural world, of rock and water and time, her physicality barely there, beneath the water weight, the frightening, unfettered force of it, over her; and the water that is being splashed on her by the mambo, Edeline, and with which she is being cleansed.

Sokari Ekine favors black portraiture. And her work raises questions: what is a portrait of black bodies? How do such portraits operate as sensual realities, as the space of the spiritual in black diasporic lives? How do our images of blackness construct spaceas an axis of the real and the imagined? How do our images read as both noun and verb? The art historian Dr. Salah Hassan offers a way forward. In his theory of the loci of aesthetics,Hassan describes the loci of aestheticsas filled, active space, locations in which black diasporic peoples deposit and invest cultural knowledges (ie music, dance, body painting, language, speech, dress); this space is what we also recognize by the term black expressive culture. In Ekine’sremarkable photos, freedom itself is a locus of aesthetics. Freedom arrives in the hem of skirts, in the fingertips, in the pliant backs of supplicant black bodies. Freedom is the walls of the lakou, is belief, the belief in the walls to protect against the absence of belief. Freedom arrives in the light in the ceremonial room. And in the sound of that light. It constitutes and materializes the “invisible,”the spirit, so that we are not just looking; we are seeing.

 — Sokari Ekine is a Nigerian British photographer based in New Orleans, USA. She has had major exhibitions in Berlin, Brazil, New York, and New Orleans. You can contact her through her website at

— Alexis De Veaux, PhD, is internationally recognized as a writer of fiction and nonfiction. The author of numerous works she is widely published and her work appears in a number of anthologies and publications. Most recently she is the author of two award winning volumes, Warrior Poet, A Biography of Audre Lorde (2004) and the novel, Yabo (2014).


Author website:

Queer Rights, Section 377, and Decolonizing Sexualities

Nishant Upadhyay

Last week the Supreme Court of India began hearings on the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code – a repressive act introduced during the British rule of India, dating back to 1861, which criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.” The section goes back to the English Buggery Act of 1533 introduced by Henry VIII in England. Similar laws can be found in over 30 countries, all ex colonies of the British empire.  In 2013, an earlier ruling of the Supreme Court deemed the section as valid and constitutional. This judgement went against the 2009 Delhi Court judgement, where the Court read down Section 377. The 2013 judgement in effect recriminalized homosexuality and stated: “both pre and post Constitutional laws are manifestations of the will of the people of India through the Parliament and are presumed to be constitutional.” Homophobia in “postcolonial” India was thus justified as rooted in precolonial and colonial processes. It seems highly likely that this time the section will be declared unconstitutional and homosexuality will be decriminalized to usher India into the league of other liberal and progressive countries where homosexuality is no longer a criminal offence and same-sex marriage is legal. While this hopeful judgement will be “decolonial” in intent, there are other contradictory processes at play which are not so decolonial in praxis.

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The current hearings are in response to petitions submitted to the Supreme Court by gay celebrities. Using their privileged backgrounds, the elites have filed petitions asking court to decriminalize homosexuality. Demands for “privacy in the bedroom” are being made on behalf of/for respectable, elite, dominant caste, cis-gay Indians. These petitions mark a clear disjuncture from the last few decades of queer activism across India. While there are many critiques to be made of the dominant caste, cis, urban-centric queer movement, the “victory” of 2009 marked a significant moment in articulation of queer rights in India, as activists, more or less, centered intersectional analysis for freedom in the public against cis-heteropatriarchal violences. But now the activists and their work has been sidelined in the face of gay celebrities.

Along with the assertion of neoliberal respectability politics, there has been an escalation in dominant caste right-wing Hindu (Hindutva) articulations of queerness and claiming of superiority to Muslims and caste others. On social media and online blogs, gay bhakts (supporters of the current Hindu fascist PM of India, Narendra Modi) are rejoicing that their great leader is finally going to “liberate” them from the colonial clutches. In the last few years, there have been notable examples of dominant caste Hindu voices being openly casteist and Islamophobic, like examples1, 2 and 3. However,the post-2014 rise (when Modi’s Hindutva party Bharatiya Janta Party [BJP] came into power) in right-wing Hindu gay voices is deeply troubling. Needless to say, BJP is presenting themselves as silent on this issue, while simultaneously maintaining deeply heteropatriarchal, homophobic, and transphobic positions. In fact, in 2017 India rejected UN resolution on abolishing death penalty for queer people, and more recently, the government has dropped “sexual orientation” from workplace discrimination guidelines.

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To fight violences against queer, trans, hijra and other gender non-conforming communities, Hindu scriptures are often used as a proof to demonstrate how Hinduism was/is accepting of peoples of diverse genders and sexualities. Canonical works by authors like Devdutt Pattanaik illustrate queerness by invoking ancient Hindu scriptures and mythologies. However, what is claimed as Hindu texts and culture late is dominant caste culture, making caste foundational to understanding this assertion of Hindu queer, hijra, and trans friendliness. Obfuscating casteist structures of Hinduism to read for queerness and transness in Hinduism (read as synonymous as Indian) reproduces brahminical casteist violences. To claim Hinduism is queer and trans friendly is not only an oxymoron but also a deep ideological erasure of caste violences. Dominant caste queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks who locate their queerness through these scriptures and mythologies as cultural/historical praxes are complicit in these caste violences. This is not to exempt liberal/progressive/secular/atheist dominant caste Hindus, as I/we/they are equally complicit in brahminical violences irrespective of our relations to Hinduism.

In a recent article, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS– Hindutva parent organization of the BJP) member claims: “It is a fact that ancient Indian attitudes and mores were receptive to the idea of homosexuality.” Citing RSS’ acceptance of homosexuality (one RSS leader claimed that homosexuality should be decriminalized but maintained that it is a “psychological case”), the author asks Muslim and Kashmiri leaders to change their positionality on homosexuality. Another article claims that finally under Modi gay Indians will be decriminalized and feel less discriminated from “left liberal” queers as “people from the Hindu Right wing are routinely made to shut up by the ‘Left liberals’ as they would crack jokes about Modi.”These articles demonstrate what Hindu-pinkwashing or saffronwashing looks like.   Dominant caste queers can so easily deny occupation of Kashmir, Islamophobia, and brahminical caste violences, but believe that BJP and RSS can liberate them.

Last year, US-based Hindu American Foundation (HAF) came out with a solidarity statement with LGBTQ communities demanding inclusive and equitable representation in California’s school textbooks. Since 2005, HAF has been at the forefront in seeking changes to the history and social science textbooks to depict Hindus and Hinduism positively. HAF contends that talking about gender, caste, religious, and class violences in India makes Hindu students vulnerable to racism in schools. Along with asking for unbiased representation of Hinduism in textbooks, they collaborated with the FAIR Education Implementation Coalition to advocate for more LGBTQ inclusive curricula in Californian schools. In a policy brief, “Hinduism and Homosexuality,” HAF proclaims that Hinduism is LGBT friendly religion and allows for equal rights for people of all sexualities and genders and supportive of same-sex marriage. Blaming colonialism for homophobia in India, they call for an acceptance of LGBT peoples within the Hindu society. This alliance with (mostly white) LGBTQ groups is troubling given how HAF has been asking for Hindu inclusion from a casteist brahminical stance and seeking to sanitize as Hinduism of its violence practices.

Denying caste, gender, and religious violences, while propagating a myth of queer, hijra, and trans friendliness is part of the same ideological framework. Following global anti-Islamophobic homonationalist formations in the US, the UK, Israel, and elsewhere, Hindus are also mirroring these processes. This allows them to construct themselves as “modern”, “progressive”, and accepting of queer and trans peoples, what we can call as homohindunationalism. Responding to HAF’s solidarity statement on the killing of queer activists in Bangladesh in 2016, genderqueer Bangladeshi activist Farhat Rahman writes: “In doing so, it cynically uses queer Muslim deaths, in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, to justify and uphold American imperialism. HAF is not concerned about homophobia and transphobia as evidenced by its utter silence on the violence and extremist conditions faced by minorities in India.” This allows HAF and gay Hindus to align themselves with other Islamophobic global powers to assert their superiority to Islam. Thus, homohindunationalism is rooted in Islamophobia as well as in brahminical supremacy.

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Dalit feminists have long shown the critical intersections of caste, gender, and sexuality. Centering the intersections of caste, gender, and, sexuality, Dalit and Bahujan queer, trans, and hijra writers argue that sexual/queer/trans liberations are impossible without the annihilation of brahminical heteropatriarchal caste structures(Dalit Queer Pride, Surya, Dhrubo Jyoti, Akhil Kang, Moulee, Living Smile Vidya, V. Angayarkanni, Grace Banu, and many others). While many of these activists and writers work within/alongside queer and trans movements in India, they have shown how these movements have maintained dominant caste hegemony by centering urban upwardly mobile dominant caste queer cis-men identities, and invisibilizing all caste oppressed peoples.Living Smile Vidya, Dalit trans artist and activist,writes: “Our gender identity is linked to caste in such a way that it is impossible to separate the two at all. We talk about the difference in our caste and class background … We also critique Brahminism and vegetarianism which is linked similarly in inseparable ways in India.” Similarly,at the Delhi Queer Pride in November 2015, Dhrubo Jyoti, queer Dalit activist and journalist, declared: “We bring caste up because caste is everywhere and in my everything. Caste is in my shirt. Caste is in my pant. Caste is in my sex. Caste is in my being and Caste is in every part of you too!”

As a diasporic (knowing well that 377 actually doesn’t affect me directly given my diasporic location) brahmin queer non-binary person, what I take from these works is that caste cannot be separated from any assertion of gender and sexual identities. My experiences of gender and sexual marginalization are produced and simultaneously protected through my caste privileges. In other words, homophobia, hijraphobia, and transphobia is not just a byproduct of British colonialism in India but also a manifestation of brahminical cisheteropatriarchal structures. Endogamic practices are central to brahminical hetropatriarchy that seek to maintain caste boundaries through gender and sexuality. Queer and trans struggles in India cannot be articulated without foregrounding the convergences of caste and colonial violences. As much as the punitive law needs to go, we can hope, as Moulee writes that the present Supreme Court case will only “de-centralise the queer movement” to make visible “the forgotten fights” of queer and trans peoples in India. Decolonizing the law, state, and sexuality would also mean annihilating caste and brahminical notions of sexuality.


345054cf-802a-4d59-b158-2f95c1368856 Nishant Upadhyay teaches gender studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Their work can be found in WSQ, GLQ, Feminist StudiesFeral Feminisms, and Sikh Formations.