Call for papers – The Public Sensorium: Gender, Disability, Architecture, and Public Spaces 25-26 July 2017 University of Malaya

This two-day workshop at the Faculty of Built Environment, University of Malaya, aims to bring together scholars and practitioners from different disciplines and fields to examine new and exciting issues pertaining to gender, disabilities, and the public sensorium. We aim to further develop theory and policies for gender relations in public spaces that encompass disability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and age. We are interested in addressing matters of self, being, access, participation, opportunities and equality as a way of informing the values behind public policies for inclusive architectural design and urban planning.

This workshop deploys the concept of the ‘public sensorium’ to develop theory and policies that consider ways of optimising public space usage for all bodies and all abilities. The public sensorium refers to the visible and invisible elements of the body that come into contact with public spaces; seeing, smelling, and tactility that constitute the experience of the self in public space. This workshop asks: what is the significance of human senses in public space? How do public visibility, smells, and touch relate to bodies and gender? How can a consideration of human senses make public spaces more inclusive and enjoyable? With limited abilities and senses what is necessary for a person to enjoy full participation in public life?

The workshop invites papers and panel proposals on (but not limited to) the following themes:

● Gender, disabilities, safety, and risk
● Mobility and public transportation
● Religion/sexuality/family/health and public space (**)
● Urban public space and protest cultures
● Youth cultures and outdoor/indoor public space
● Urban renewal and gentrification
● Poverty eradication policies
● Informal and night-time economies in the public space

** Outdoor public spaces include public parks, squares, theme parks, food stalls
Indoor public spaces include malls, places of worship, museums, art galleries, food halls, markets

Women and girls with disabilities belong to one of the most marginalised and under-represented groups in many societies. Therefore, we especially encourage panel proposals on gender and disabilities from established scholars, practicing architects and public policy-makers, early career researchers, and graduate students.

Selected papers presented at the workshop will have an opportunity to be published in a special issue in a high-ranking peer-reviewed journal.

Graduate students who are presenting can qualify for a travel bursary worth RM100. Please contact the workshop convener Dr. Alicia Izharuddin ( if you are interested in applying for the travel bursary.

Please submit your 250-word abstract to: Dr. Naziaty Mohd Yaacob and Dr. Alicia Izharuddin by 15 April 2017. Accepted proposals will be notified on 30 April 2017.

Workshop registration fees:

RM 200 for full-time/employed (early bird registration)
RM 250 for full-time/employed
RM 100 for part-time/employed (early bird registration)
RM 150 for part-time/employed
RM 50 student rate (early bird registration)
RM 100 student rate
RM 50 walk-in attendee

Payment for the early bird registration fee is 30 May 2017
Deadline for registration fee payment is 30 June 2017

Workshop convener and contact person: Dr. Alicia Izharuddin, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya
Email: Telephone: 03-7967 5447

This workshop is supported by the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education’s Fundamental Research Grant Scheme. It is co-organised by the Faculty of Built Environment and the Gender Studies Programme of University of Malaya.

Reconstructing the deconstructed: some thoughts on transnational feminist activism

The genetic material that connects us people with pre-historic creatures are the hox genes; genes that determine the basic shape of the body – signalling where the front and back, top and bottom of the body of more complex organisms (this includes worms I’m afraid) would be, essentially. Now, the discovery of the hox genes kind of proved what Darwin had wanted to say all along: that we are all related and our evolutionary ancestry can be traced way back in what he had elegantly allegorised as the tree of life. If related in modern genetic terms, the hox genes would be right at the roots of this tree from which further genetic extension (or branches) would go on to create diverse creatures on this earth.

I’d like to see feminist theory as the hox genes of global feminist activism. As unchanging and “un-evolveable” as the hox genes, the basic tenet of feminism (end to oppression based on gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, and class) would form the shape, direction, and ultimately the destiny of feminist politics. Mutations in feminist theory would mean that its perspective on ending oppression will be distorted, and in some cases, as good as dead. From an immutable and intact set of basic theories and goals come the social movements that take on a variety of modes based on historical, geographical, cultural, and religious circumstances, producing what we recognise today as localised and grassroots feminisms around the world.

The idea of a superstructure transnational feminism does not make a lot of sense to me. In fact, I find discussing global sisterhood boring and a little pointless. I attended the Feminist Theory and Activism in Global Perspective conference at SOAS today wondering what it really wanted to achieve, and left the conference still wondering. On the one – more positive – hand, there exists the idea that transnational feminism breeds solidarity. No doubt showing support as an emblem of solidarity is great, but effective activism needs a real understanding of the multiple contexts that influence it. Solidarity alone is not enough.

To be fair, it’s great seeing an international panel of feminist speakers talking about their work and how they can be raised as transnational feminist issues. Issues such as violence against women, working with women in zones of conflict, and postcolonial literature all have transnational appeal, but I find it unusual for feminist academics and activists to seek connections with others who don’t necessarily share the same contextual circumstances that are so crucial in addressing localised hegemonic patriarchy. Is a conference on transnational feminism something like the UN of feminist activism? We all know that the UN is far from perfect.

It seemed a little ironic to me that today’s conference did not include a talk on bridging Muslim and Western feminism, as that appears to be like the hottest topic of all time and basically the ultimate narrative of reconciling two very different feminisms. And so I went home today feeling a little cheated by a pretty bombastic line-up of talks that only rang hollow to me. We know that grassroots feminism is efficient and effective. Tinkering with it by including external intervention that has yet to be proven effective and most certainly complex to manage can distance the site of activism from those who know it best. In other words, why bother?

Freedom and Muslims in Britain

freedom-go-to-hellYasmin Alibhai-Brown’s article at The Indepedent, “Why Muslims will not fight for freedom”, on the absence of Muslims at the recent convention on modern liberty in London was a disconcerting sign. A sign many would read, and not Alibhai-Brown alone, as complete apathy for the greater good:

I suspect the key reason so few showed up is that the word “Muslim” was not held up, a flag to call the brethren out. They ignore campaigns that want redress and progress for a greater good for all because to do otherwise would be to accept that non-Muslims are equals and part of God’s design. Fanatic Wahabi women probably kept away because men – Allah! Allah! – would share the same rooms with them and their seats were previously occupied by male bums. Muslim men who claim to have all knowledge of divine intent would have thought such a “Western” call for action was haram, sinful by definition.

I surmise that it’s brown faces in hijab and skull caps she expected to see at the convention. And if that’s the case then she can be accused of generalising the face of Islam in Britain. There is, however, a grain of truth in her observation: by and large, Muslims care a great deal about Muslim issues.

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"The day I met Amina Wadud" – a critique

American scholar and thinker Amina Wadud

Any self-respecting news editor would know that significant, if not historical events require pretty polished reporting. The star-studded Musawah conference last February on Islamic family law reforms was one such significant event. Organised by Malaysia’s very own Sisters In Islam (SIS), it was something to be proud of. But reading Malaysian journalist Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi’s take on it and her “interview” with Amina Wadud gave me plenty to be embarrassed about. As if faced with a perilous task, she writes about her anti-Amina colleagues, warnings of Wadud’s “standoffish” character, the intimidating books she has to read prior to meeting the writer herself, and the “mouthful” title of Wadud’s conference paper (Beyond Patriarchy Through Gender Inclusive Qur’anic Analysis) – a subject, she describes as “too big to chew”, “unless one is a sociologist”.

Um. Yeah.

Her self-deprecating outlook aside, the article itself, published both in The News Straits Times and the SIS website, is pure fluff. Sadly, this is the kind of journalistic writing Malaysians love to read. Rather than focusing on what Wadud thinks about the future of Muslim women in Malaysia (like herself) or even WHY a Quranic scholar thinks that the Islamic family law reform is so important, the reporter asks about her time in Malaysia when she taught at the International Islamic University between 1989 and 1992, and of course the perennial question about local food:

She still craves fish head curry and roti canai. “The stalls here are the best,” she said. She enjoyed living in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in the early 1990s.

“I’m never one for loud and busy cities. I prefer a quiet neighbourhood. Taman Tun was perfect then. But recently my friend took me there and I discovered this huge shopping mall…” she gestured, quite overwhelmed by how much the area has developed.

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Notes on the Anti-capitalist Feminist Event, London, Valentine's Day 2009

Spending the day talking about Bangladeshi garment worker’s working conditions and sex-trafficking may not be everybody’s idea of celebrating Valentine’s Day. But there I was, rather than getting loved-up by candlelight with Whitney Houston bursting her lungs in the background, I was brushing shoulders with left-wing trade unionists, sex workers’ rights activists, and a rainbow coalition of fellow feminists at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

The Anti-Capitalist Feminist Event: Gender, Race, and Class, appeared to be a successful meeting of hearts and minds. The deluge of attendees were broken up into different workshops of their choice. And what great workshops they were. Suffice to say, I was often torn between a couple of them that coincided with each other. The first workshop that I decided (with some difficulty) to go to was about reproductive freedoms, and it was very good. Rather than debating whether or not abortion was a moral choice, the facilitators – a few of them hailing from Feminist Fightback, one member of Maternity Action, and one who is a founding member of New York City’s Haven Coalition discussed rights to abortion and other maternal care rights from dimensions that I don’t hear about very often – this is largely because the very issue of abortion is too often clouded by the impractical (and very dangerous) moral debates surrounding it.

I was glad that abortion gets mentioned as a race issue because it often gets swept under the carpet. The disproportionately high number of abortion among ethnic minority women in the UK and US can be construed as a kind of unwanted population control and that some babies (read: white and middle-class) are “more valuable than others”, argued Gwyneth Lonergan of Feminist Fightback. Now, being headlined as a feminist event with a special perspective on race and class, hers was an important statement and is a reminder that we still live in a hierarchy that places ethnic minority women (particularly if they happen to be immigrants) firmly at the bottom of the social pile. Equally distressing is the inaccessibility to free (NHS-funded) maternal care faced by foreign women who:

  • have just arrived in the UK, with no proof of settling in the country long-term
  • possess spousal/dependent UK visas
  • are on a work visa that hasn’t been renewed via a points-based system
  • are trafficked into the country

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It's a great time to be a feminist and a Muslim

Originally featured on the BBC today:

Some of the world’s leading Islamic feminists have been gathered in Barcelona for the third International Congress on Islamic Feminism, to discuss the issues women face in the Muslim world.

Some of the women taking part in the conference explained the problems in their home countries, and where they hoped to make progress.

ASMA BARLAS, Author, Pakistan

Religions always come into cultures, they don’t come into abstract and pure spaces. Islam came into a very patriarchal, tribal and misogynistic culture. One of the deepest damages to Islam has been its reduction to “Arabisation”.

Pakistani women protest

Islam is influenced by the culture of the country it enters

I’m not going to say that the Arabs are particularly misogynistic in a way that nobody else is, but I do think there are very particular traits and attitudes towards women that have crept into Islam.

I have a friend who has been studying the interface between what he calls the Persian models and the Arabist models of Islam in the subcontinent and surprise, surprise: the Arabist models are misogynistic, authoritarian, unitarian and the Persian models are much more plural and tolerant.

This is a fight on two fronts – on the one hand we are struggling against the kinds of oppression dominant in Muslim patriarch societies and, on the other, Western perceptions of Islam as necessarily monolithic, and confusing the ideals of Islam with the reality of Muslim lives.

If we read the Koran as a totality rather than pulling out random verses or half a line, that opens all kinds of possibilities for sexual equality.

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