It’s time to decolonise feminist knowledge

A crowd gathers in front of a Rhodes Must Fall banner

African and feminist scholars can make active steps to decolonise knowledge production, according to Signe Arnfred from the Institute of Society and Globalization at Roskilde University, Denmark. She was speaking at a University Sussex Development Lecture on 18 February 2016.

The lecture highlighted the close relationship between the colonial process and knowledge production in Africa, right from the establishment of the first western style universities on the continent. ‘These kinds of universities were not really for Africans they were for the settlers,’ she said.

Recent efforts to decolonise education have been boosted by the Rhodes Must Fall movement which began in March 2014 as students protested against a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Rhodes was a British imperialist who helped create the territory of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). The UCT statue was removed in April 2015. The movement to challenge structural racism and remove similar statues spread to universities across the world, particularly in southern Africa. 

In her talk, Arnfred drew attention to the work of scholars who argue that the concepts of race and gender are themselves colonial constructs, including María Lugones and Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí.

Arnfred said that the lines of thinking introduced by colonial powers have continued after independence and pointed to Frantz Fanon’s argument that colonialism has a lasting hold over oppressed people and manages to distort their past. So how can we decolonise our minds, or what Walter Mignolo called 'learn to unlearn'? Where do feminist researchers come in all of this?

Arnfred described the challenges faced by female producers of knowledge in Africa, including dealing with multiple identities as researchers and activists. There is also a third dimension to this: women's identities within their personal lives, perhaps as mothers, daughters or friends. Arnfred suggested that this is where the most interesting thinking could lie, especially as it could be the only element of their identity where they communicate in their mother tongue. 

Arnfred talked about the negotiation between these identities and how they are influenced by where the power and funding is. Donors are also producers of knowledge; they set agendas and research design, encouraging a standardised global language of research. She said that many African feminists are working to redefine how development money should be used. To challenge the ‘colonial matrix’ of power, Arnfred said it was important to try and maintain autonomy from donors and institutions, even deploying donor money for autonomous agendas where possible.

She said that feminist thinking needed to be developed bottom up from the scholar’s own experience. While Western scholars could still be taken into account, their work should be treated with a critical analysis of colonial knowledge. Arnfred said that researchers need to talk to local women, listen to what they say, take their knowledge seriously, and ‘not think we are more clever because we a have been to universities’.

There was a strong feeling in the audience that there should be more south to north learning and Arnfred warned that programmes focused on 'capacity building' that situated northern or western institutions as the 'clever' ones teaching those in the South was the wrong approach. She advocated for a more open minded exchange, leading to mutual learning with north-south collaboration on an equal basis – something which she said is difficult because one will tend to have the money while the other is seen as the ‘receiver’.

Is it possible to decolonise development, or is the concept too implicitly colonial? This question was raised by Andrea Cornwall, head of Sussex University’s Global Studies school. Arnfred said she didn’t know. Poverty and unequal power relationships still existed in the world, despite decades of development work, however she didn’t think it should be abolished all together: ‘Even if I’m sceptical of development and see it as a continuation of the colonial project I think it should be subverted from within.’