Africa: Building the South-South Feminist Archive - an Interview With Ghiwa Sayegh of Kohl Journal

15 September 2023

Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.

My first profound encounter with feminist academic literature was during my postgraduate degree in the UK. I was reading a journal article by Zimbabwean feminist activist Everjoice Win entitled 'Not very poor, powerless or pregnant: the African woman forgotten by development'. In it, Win writes of the erasure of the middle-class African woman from the imaginaries of development and rights work. This woman, as Win observes, is often reminded that development work is about aiding the resource-poor and that her own experiences of patriarchy and oppression are not relevant to this narrative. In the meantime, if she happens to work in the development field, her 'legitimacy' is only realised in her role as mediator, connecting grassroots women and issues to the language and practice of international development. Having had similar experiences, Win's articulations made me feel less alone. I shared excerpts of it on social media and immediately, other young Zimbabwean feminists gathered to share how those words bore witness to their own struggles.

The growth of digitality and digital spaces has offered many African women access to the writings of African feminists that they otherwise might not have had before. Journals like Feminist Africa have been pivotal to this growing consciousness. And so too have less academically oriented digital spaces. There is Holaafrica! which documents queer African women's experiences, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women in which agency rather than academic interrogation shapes the debate around African sexualities and African Feminism which creates space for an ongoing conversation about living feminist lives from an African standpoint. In the past there have been platforms like The Wide Margin, a feminist journal. There was also Her Zimbabwe platform I founded and ran for some years which encouraged young Zimbabwean women's engagement with feminist thought and practice. A feature of all these platforms has been to curate content and exchanges from African feminists across the continent and its diasporas; shaped by a desire to know how we feminists relate or rather do not; this in turn helps us better articulate our own feminisms and attendant identities.

Looking beyond one's physical and even intellectual locale into transnational/regional feminisms has also greatly enriched these practices. South-South feminisms, or feminist exchanges of the global South, have allowed a deepened nuance and diversity for African feminists and feminisms, introducing new thinking, new thinkers and new intersections. In the following interview, I speak to Ghiwa Sayegh, founder and editor in chief of Kohl: A Journal for Body and Gender Research, based in Beirut, Lebanon. A progressive publication published in both English and Arabic, it covers issues of gender and sexuality in the Middle East, South West Asia, and North Africa regions.

I first met Ghiwa some years ago at a convening of global South feminists to discuss feminist digital futures. What was striking was the ease with which we - alongside feminist activists and thinkers from South Asia, Latin America and other regions - seamlessly found ways to connect our varied work in creating digital feminist knowledge.

Kohl also intermittently publishes works from sub-Saharan Africa thus offering a unique contribution to transnational and South-South feminist activism and solidarity. Kohl in its resistance to an Area Studies approach, an academic methodology with roots in colonial epistemologies, is breaking geospatial (digital) boundaries where intersectional feminist practice is often seen as feminists of the global South coming together with those of the global North, versus global South feminists collaborating free of Western dependency. As already mentioned, this serves to create dynamic exchanges and potentiality for feminists whose experiences and knowledge are often missing from mainstream conversations.

This interview is a contribution to these radical forms of knowledge production.

Fungai Machirori (FM): What was the prompting, thinking and vision behind starting a journal like Kohl?

Ghiwa Sayegh (GS): There were many factors to that and they were linked together, but also separate. I remember one of the earlier conversations, even before Kohl was in place. It was among researchers, particularly those who are part of academic institutions. And it looked at the kind of constraints that academic institutions imposed on people who are part of those spaces.

For example, what really shocked me was that publishing in Open Access journals did not contribute towards academic promotion, say from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to full Professor. Similarly, publications in local journals do not count, so researchers who are part of institutional academia must mainly publish in what is considered an 'A-rated' journal, those mainly curated and published in the UK, United States, or Europe. This kind of knowledge production is confined to the academic institutional level.

Also within my own feminist activism, which started way before my academic or research work, what we were seeing, a practice we were not very happy about, was the arrival of white researchers to Beirut to meet with lesbian feminists. They spend a few days gathering data 'in the field' and go back to do the writing of theses, articles, newspaper articles and so on. It meant that we were transformed in the process to mere subjects of interviews, but not subjects of the research, because there was no time or resources put into that community.

At the same time, there was a kind of a collective amnesia more generally in terms of our histories and the activism of our foremothers; even women who organised before and during the civil war were not perceived as part of feminist history. There was a gap between what had been before and what we - as the post-war generation - were trying to do, in a sense.

For me, I realised that a lot is lost because what we have now is a hegemonic narrative that excludes our discourse and history. So the idea was to be able to, on the one hand, counter narratives about us that we have no say in. And on the other hand, to be able to archive and 'storytise' our struggles, through emphasising things that are important to us, even if we do not reach a definite conclusion on them.

Discourse is always contested; it is a site of contestation and also a site of activism. Even if it's not a discourse that represents all the young feminists in Lebanon. The debate should not be for the sake of representation - it would be a locality where we could have and keep those conversations, most importantly as a way of archiving.

Writing is a way of archiving after all.

FM: You mentioned that one of the things that surprised you was finding out that Open Access didn't count towards professional academic growth. How then is Kohl perceived? Are contributions by academic activists in it contributing to the professional trajectory of the academic?

GS: If they work in institutions, I don't think it does and I'm not just talking about Kohl; it is the same with other Open Access platforms as well. But although it does not give you a direct professional 'benefit' at an institutional level, being able to publish on this platform is also a political statement. So I do think that, yes, for many it is a kind of strong political statement - being able to publish in places that are not heavily institutionalised means you are part of a counter institutional movement in knowledge production - in feminist knowledge specifically.

FM: Why do you think it's important for Kohl to have a mix of academic papers as well as op-eds and artivist content? Most journals tend to be academically oriented even though they do have opinion pieces.

GS: I think it goes both ways in the sense that there is a binary between activism and academia. So initially, the idea was to break the boundaries of acceptable standards of research of what goes into a journal and what doesn't. What we are also doing is breaking the idea that academia can only be elitist; written for and by specific people who specialise in certain fields of knowledge, distinct from an activist body of knowledge. While we do get typical academic submissions, we mostly work with activists so we expand the boundaries on both sides of the binaries.

There is a lot of backlash now in terms of what academia is, at least in Lebanon. This is in terms of activists accusing academia of taking over their struggle and not consulting them on certain things. The way this has been employed, from what I have seen, is that it has been a way to silence any criticism classified as academic or not on the ground. This is quite homogenising as many feminist knowledge projects are anti-institutional; we also cannot overlook the struggle of other feminist researchers from within institutions, who are fighting the structures they have to operate under on a daily basis. And this is part of the reason why Kohl started. So I think what we do at Kohl is to really try and push boundaries and reclaim discourse as a legitimate side of raising concerns, but also as a way of doing activism.

FM: You also mention on your website how you are trying to deviate from the NGOised narrative. So on one hand you have this NGOised narrative while on the other, you have an 'academicalised' narrative. Activists sometimes fall outside of both spaces because the NGOised space is not radical enough in some circumstances, and then the academic space uses language that is not accessible to the general audience. So how does that work in terms of keeping focus and not making Kohl a space that is not too academic, but then also not too NGO-ised? How do you mix this kind of meeting of spheres in a way that reaches the intended audience?

GS: This is why we have a very long process of editing. The whole thing takes six months, which is long for us as editors. So we don't just send comments and say do your thing. It's a close follow-up with the authors and we do have long discussions about specific issues, like when they have to tone their jargon down and how to write in a way that is democratic. Another point is how to unpack certain issues that are assumed within the NGOisation discourse, like the idea of success stories on the one hand and victimisation stories on the other, how it is that we can look at these critically and not simply in a way that portrays winners or losers. I think that one of the characteristics or consequences of NGOisation is that the movement itself becomes NGOised through its institutionalisation through funding, reporting and social media advocacy. Focus on image and branding also means that nuanced conversations are swept under the carpet. Through Kohl we are trying to bring them back out.

FM: You mentioned something which is very interesting, which is to democratise language. What does democratic language look like to you given the different power dynamics of language, and of speaking and of being spoken of? And what ultimately would that democratic language look like in a journal like Kohl and in general?

GS: I would say that it would be a language that would deconstruct the image of the intellectual as a kind of an elite who is able to write in a certain way versus the rest of the population. I think what I would like to see is for everyone to have different ways of producing knowledge and not to be confined to this image of an intellectual researcher. On the other hand, among people who already write, I ideally would like to see a style of writing that would be accessible to as many people as possible. I think this is the problem of theory; we have feminist theory that is not accessible to feminists. So democratic language is how we write for each other, and not just write in this academic way, but rather give back to the communities that shape what we are writing into being.

FM: How do you retain your autonomy given that you are also subject to receiving funding to assist with the process of production? Obviously, in order to produce in the capitalist system which we all find ourselves in, we need money. So how do you then retain your editorial independence in producing the journal?

GS: We have two main guidelines in terms of funders. The first one is we don't take money from just anybody. We do not take money from state departments or embassies and we don't take money from any other entity that supports or directly funds the occupation of Palestine. That is one guideline that we have.

The second one is we would not collaborate with a funder who wants a say in the journal's editorial process. This has happened many times before. Many funders have asked us to publish a thematic issue of their choice as a prerequisite to funding. So it's these kinds of difficult choices. But it's also being able to find what would work well with our editorial ethos and not compromise just because we need funding.

This approach is reflected in our struggle to continue as we never have enough funding. Ours is a political choice and we might be more open to exploring crowdfunding in the future, with the possibility of retaining both funding streams at the same time. We are considering donations so that we are not fully reliant on funders.

Of course, mere guidelines of funding do not exempt us from NGOisation. What we try to do is to frequently have open and difficult conversations about power - ours and others' - while working on long term accountability processes.

FM: Beyond journal titles and platforms contributing to feminist knowledge and information, what does the feminist archive look like to you? Also, how do we build it further?

GS: On the one hand, the archive is what you want it to be. I think that on the collective level, we cannot dissociate archive from memory and it is the process of making memory in formats that are legible and recognisable. Because the archive is there, we are not inventing the archive. It is there. It is just how to make it readable and how to transmit it. The written format is not the only way. With the way that technology is moving forward, I think that the written and visual formats are taking over other forms of knowledge transmission and or historicising. So how is it that we can transform the archive to a format that is legible and timeless, but maybe that is not too romanticised? I am talking about a way that will allow it to sustain itself.

FM: That's also where we need to create new language because what is sustainability if we cannot find different terminologies for it? Where do you think this terminology is coming from and why is it so connotative of so many different things and how can we deconstruct that language?

GS: Deconstruction is an ongoing process in feminist knowledge production, it is also a constant debate, especially in terms of language. Is the language imposed or can it be given different connotations? So that is also another discussion that we often have with our contributors.

FM: What about the process of knowledge and information convergence? How do you think we are bringing people from various realms into one space to think: 'this is "our" archive and it's for all of us to partake and engage in'. For a long time, we have been operating as though the archive should be one monolithic thing that should speak to all people at all times. In our organising we have been bringing different people into spaces which don't always work out because people are expecting different things and some people get left along the way. This contrasts with feminist solidarity that tries to bring people from 'different walks of life' into one space. I also think of these spaces as a reflection of the archive where we say we want everyone to have access but then when we do bring people into these spaces, when we do say let's navigate this archive together, it's often very technical and exclusionary. So how do we overcome this?

GS: I think there is no one archive that speaks to everybody, it's okay to acknowledge that. I also think that's part of the major issue with our organising. We are so set on the fantasy of unity in the sense that we have to be united at times of 'crisis' despite differences, as if we are not in a constant state of urgency. In a sense, it is actually a setback for the movement and the archive. I think this also needs to be deconstructed in the sense that solidarity is important but being united uncompromisingly will not do the movement any good.

I perceive the archive in the same way. When I say the archive, I look at the body of knowledge. If we look at the specific contributions of a specific community and try to fit everybody to that, sometimes it is not possible, and that is okay. It does not mean that we should not have a process of self-reflection or of thinking who it is that we are excluding and why. Is it because of privilege or it is because we want to actively be a community that is segregated for one reason or another? I think these conversations need to happen but that does not mean that they would necessarily need to be unified and have an archive produced at a certain moment and time to document them. We, of course, would need to ask ourselves how it is that we stick within our positionalities and how we are contributing in further obscuring the histories of others. So these conversations need to happen but it doesn't mean that whatever we work on needs to be for everybody - sometimes it needs to be intentionally not for certain people.

FM: What is the longevity you see for Kohl? Do you see a time when there won't be a necessity for a journal like it, or is that not something that you factor into your thinking?

GS: I think there will always be a necessity for feminist platforms of knowledge and it's not about the name or the people; it's about being able to offer that space. I don't know if Kohl is going to be here in 20 years, but I hope that what we are doing is contributing to a movement of feminist knowledge production. And that it will serve as an archive for other movements to be able to pick up on later. Whether it will still be called Kohl or whatever they want, or on different platforms, contributing to the movement and the archive is what is most important to us.

Fungai is a writer, thinker and creative whose work sits at the nexus of feminism, digitality and cosmopolitanism. You can learn more about her at her personal website


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