WGSS scholars explore indigenous culture, international feminism

Barbara Gurr, assistant professor in residence in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, speaks during “WGSS, Feminism and the Future: Celebrating New Scholarship” at Homer Babbidge Library in Storrs, Connecticut on Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. (Grant Zitomer/The Daily Campus)

Feminism has become such an integral part of modern culture that it almost does not need to be named, but it is important that academics persist in studying the topic said Nancy Naples, director and Board of Trustees distinguished professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut.

Naples, alongside four colleagues, spoke about her recent experiences in the department Monday evening at “WGSS, Feminism and the Future: Celebrating New Scholarship” in Homer Babbidge Library. She said editing “Border Lines,” a collection of essays about political and sociocultural boundaries between states, was an opportunity to advance the feminist philosophy of giving voice to the voiceless.

“There’s no stars in this book, if people read the list of contributors most of them are brand new assistant professors or even some graduate students,” Naples said. “There’s something about finding new work that hasn’t been discovered that I felt very important.”

One story that stood out to her was a Pakistani women’s protest in 2007 against the presence of massage parlors and adult entertainment stores in the capital of Islamabad. While the burka-clad young women were originally dismissed as “chicks with sticks” by Western media, they quickly began kidnapping prostitutes, burning books and assaulting policemen with large bamboo sticks.

Naples said the protest challenged the common stereotype of the passive Muslim woman and questioned how womanhood is defined across cultures.

“What’s really fascinating to look at is how this action was understood from the West and how it was intended by these women,” Naples said. “You have these women with a very strong presentation of self in these images.”

Françoise Dussart, professor of anthropology and WGSS at UConn, discussed self image through the lens of Australian art history. Dussart -- who recently organized an exhibition of indigenous art in Quebec, Canada -- said much of the work displayed during her presentation focused on themes of individual and communal healing.

“For me, the curator, this work represents anchors, footprints, stories through which we catch a glimpse of other ways of grasping the world, other ways of seeing the world,” Dussart said.

She said authenticity was at the core of her curation process. Australian indigenous art isn’t about kangaroos and boomerangs, but about relationships with the Earth, the ancestors and the world itself.

Exploration of indigenous culture continued with assistant professor of WGSS Barbara Gurr’s reflection on her time spent in a Native American reservation early on in her first pregnancy. When she left the community, Gurr said she was confronted with the reality of indigenous women’s limited access to healthcare.

While Gurr was able to have a healthy child with the aid of an OBGYN and birthing center the women who had supported her didn’t have such options. Later in her career, Gurr would return to study indigenous women’s access to healthcare, ever aware of her status as a privileged outsider.

“Having to work through all of that was actually really powerful, and really joyful in an unexpected sort of way,” Gurr said.

While “WGSS, Feminism and The Future” covered a broad range of topics, Naples said the department as a whole faces a structural dilemma: it is not permitted to hire its own professors. Instead, WGSS has to partner with another discipline at UConn to hire academics who will serve both departments. In effect, Naples said, every hire nets her department half a professor.

“Until we can change that, until we can identify and handle our own faculty, we are at the mercy of what the disciplines are doing and how they are accepting feminism scholarship,” Naples said.


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.