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8 Critical Conversations and Reproductive Justice (Abby Ferber)
24 Infusing Feminist Disability Studies in Our Teaching
health and vitality of the white race (large numbers of people with disabilities
were killed by the Nazis before they began targeting other populations). Women
with disabilities have a long history of forced sterilization, are often seen as
“unfit” mothers, and are discouraged from having children or not allowed to
adopt children. Like women of color, many women with disabilities face an
ongoing struggle to protect their right to parent. (Frederick 2014)
5. Reproductive Technologies: Many parents feel they are encouraged by the
medical establishment to use ultrasounds and amniocentesis to abort fetuses with
disabilities. Popular language often describes keeping a fetus with disabilities as
“cruel,” “an act of harm,” and contributing to “a drain on society.” Feminist disability scholars and activists argue that we need to reframe issues of fetal health
to include human variation. “The continuing power of eugenic thought in the
U.S. justifies population control measures for women with disabilities and disabled children. The medical establishment pathologizes ‘disabling traits,’ associates these traits with ‘social problems,’ and defines them as targets to ‘cure’ and
‘conquer.’” (Mingus). While many pro-choice feminists argue for the right to
abortion, many disabled feminists question the inherent ableism that surrounds
the social pressure to abort in such cases.
Women with disabilities have embraced and advanced the RJ framework, which
“shifts the discussion away from individual and private family decisions…to a
broader debate about the kinds of services, education, and supports families and
individuals need to embrace disability as part of the human experience” (Jesudason
and Epstein 2011, p. 542). Research on parents of children with disabilities, for
example, refutes the assumptions about raising a child with disabilities as “cruel” or
a “burden” (Piepmeier 2013).
Disability studies scholars have critiqued the traditional pro-choice/anti-choice
political framework because neither “side” fully represents the needs of people with
disabilities. Pro-choice proponents often use disability as a justification for why
women need to have the right to choose abortion. However, once a child with disabilities is born, it is pro-choice activists who advocate for the rights of the mother
and child to have access to quality health care, social supports, etc.
They have also challenged the narrow focus on abortion and individual rights.
For example, the “right to privacy” does not represent the realities of women with
disabilities’ lives. As Mingus points out, “For many women with disabilities, the
right to privacy is not a privileged experience in relation to one’s body. Disabled
women and girls’ bodies have long been invaded and seen as the property of the
medical industry, doctors, the state, family members, and care givers” (2015). This
perspective has been based on able-bodied white women’s needs, and does not
address the differing histories and relationships to the State for women of color and
women with disabilities.
The literature by women with disabilities and feminist disability studies scholars
adds further complexity and nuance to the reproductive justice framework, and a
wide range of other issues commonly examined in teaching gender.
H. Albanesi et al.
As this chapter indicates, the efforts we have each undertaken to work across disciplinary lines to breathe new life into courses informed by feminist disability studies
has only just begun. Although it represents a substantial investment of time, we have
created course experiences that are noteworthy for their richness and rigor. Beyond
the retooling of course content, we have a shared investment in a project that promises to become a critical trend in higher education.
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24 Infusing Feminist Disability Studies in Our Teaching
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Teaching Gender in Other Classrooms:
A View from the Outside
Teaching and learning are informed by their contexts—geographical, political,
religious, national, subliminal, and metaphysical, among others. As a person who is
often placed on the margins, I have taught from the Outside, deﬁned broadly.
Subjectivities of the teacher inform the classroom in as many ways as do the subjectivities of the students. It is when these subjectivities elide, intersect, and/or collide
that a class/course can be electric; it is always charged, especially when teaching
about the subjectivities.1 We are products of our multi-layered contexts; all of these
come to bear how we learn, how we teach, how we pass on the messages as teachers,
and how we receive those messages as students.
Teaching gender (race, culture, et al.) is a pursuit of passion; one that cannot be
free of emotional investment or have a disengaged stance, or so has been my experience. Feminist pedagogy, at its best, is inclusive and reﬂexive in that it weds theory
(knowledge) with activism (all in the classroom are actors, they are at once agents
of change and the changed). Where theory and activism intersect, knowledge is (re)
generated, producing new and multiple discourses.
Traveling the world with my academic and identity baggage, I learned valuable
lessons about contextualized teaching. I set out to teach with great enthusiasm and
passion; I haven’t had the time to process the last 25 years in totality. I was blessed
with students from two continents/three countries who gave me the space to grow,
even taught me how to grow. Teaching gender in the United States in 1990s and
The term subjectivities is used here as a discursive production (subject of the discourse and produced by the discourse); as a (un)consciousness of ‘who I am/who we are’ of cultural identities.
Author acknowledges the simpliﬁcation of this loaded term for the purpose of contextualization
J. Grewal (*)
Zayed University, Dubai/Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
K. Haltinner, R. Pilgeram (eds.), Teaching Gender and Sex
in Contemporary America, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30364-2_25
2000s had a special ﬂavor as cultural studies and feminist theory had both come of
age. In the years immediately following the 9/11/2001 event and during the Iraq
invasion, teaching gender was unpredictable in southwest Asia2; both teacher and
student tread carefully over the potential mineﬁelds. Participating in curriculum
reform of women’s studies and intermittent teaching of gender in northern India
through the 2000s to the present was/is a lesson in watching the sweep of teaching
and learning extend from disappointment to cautious optimism to hope.
Southwest Asia: Teaching Within Limits
For over a decade, I taught at a small liberal arts college in the Midwestern United
States. Teaching gender in classrooms there had an electricity that was comfortable,
insofar as each class was peppered with several unsettling and high voltage discussions. I knew it; it was familiar. Some newer, and eventually enriching challenges to
teaching gender came when the outside shifted geographically and I was (dis)
located to southwest Asia. As an ethnic south Asian from the United States, teaching in southwest Asia has a complexity all its own.3 The context changed and with
it came a re-negotiation of what was even meant by gender: what was the arc that it
included, who was placed within and without ‘gender’, how much was too much,
who was to be read and who left out, what was the nuanced reading of gender that
was acceptable and where did the lines get drawn. Inderpal Grewal and Karen
Caplan, in their inﬂuential text, Scattered Hegemonies, comment that the “material
conditions” of “diverse locations” have to be understood in order to avoid “universalizing gestures of dominant western cultures” (Grewal and Caplan 1994: 17). To
teach in southwest Asia, one would have to be ﬂexible enough to stretch (or perhaps,
to contract) one’s horizon; there was only a small space for my American-style
pedagogy. I discovered that I could add to Grewal’s and Caplan’s caution that some
diverse locations could have immaterial conditions, that is, intangible realities, that
not only resist universalizing commentaries; those intangibles are in fact antithetical
to the western frame of reference. And we have to be awake to such realities when
we export our teaching. To explain this point, ‘race, gender, and class’ would be the
analytical sequence in an introductory humanities/social science class in most
western universities. This sequence cannot be used in southwest Asia because we
would immediately run into concerns over “tradition and culture of Country X”.
(This is a phrase that is legally used whenever something needs to be banned or
Southwest Asia is a geographically speciﬁc term to indicate a portion of Western Asia that lies at
the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. West Asia/Southwest Asia are preferred terms to Middle
East and Near East, both of which are Eurocentric, indicating their geographical location ‘east’ of
Europe. In class I have often queried students, “middle of what, and east of where”; the subsequent
conversation turns to history of colonialism and ascriptive identities.
South Asians in southwest Asia are placed quite low in the (un)ofﬁcial ‘racial’ stratiﬁcation.
(Largely based on nationality, race is a poorly examined concept and reality in the area).
Teaching Gender in Other Classrooms: A View from the Outside
controlled). Teaching gender in a site/location that is suspicious of the complexity
embracing ‘gender’ requires sensitivity, deft comprehension, and a cultural acuity.
Homosexuality is a sin, according to the religious legal code. One observes the
social and cultural crackdown on the lesbians (described as the boy-at problem4) but
nothing similar for gay men. As practitioners of critical thinking in our classes we
would love to engage with this aspect of social control. We cannot. Circumscribed
limits have to be recognized and respected; this, after all, is the context in which one
is choosing to practice teaching.
As a south Asian educated in North America I had lived a full life for a couple of
decades in the comfort of the American academy. Moving to live and teach in southwest Asia, placed me at the bottom of the social rung as a south Asian woman, but
then I was elevated a tad because of the respect accorded to my education. It can be
unsettling for an academic accustomed to free speech and years of practice of freefrom-fear inquiry to teach about gender, re-construct gender roles, question them,
and learn that there exist discursive red lines that are not to be crossed – the ‘sacred’
that cannot be questioned. To illustrate how one recognizes the limits, and continues
to teach with integrity while respecting those limits, the following paragraphs narrate an example.
I was a semester old in my teaching practice at a southwest Asian university so
had rapidly assessed and analyzed my positionality in the very stratiﬁed sociocultural-racial context of the university and the larger environment.5 I must admit to
a certain element of excitement and naiveté when teaching the course Women and
Politics, a class for 12 women seniors. I made several assumptions, the most obvious
being that they would be familiar with (feminist) theory of some sort, that they were
actually interested in engaging with this not-so-obvious to me volatile topic, and
that I could claim authenticity because I had practiced feminist pedagogy. Putting
together the readings, I showed a colleague the selections from Gloria Anzaldua’s
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. I was thrilled, and so sure that I was
bringing to these students a selection of readings with which they would certainly
identify. I believed it was the beginning of a conversation about gender and bound
to elicit thoughtful commentary and a search for the self; something that would lead
to afﬁrmation. Yet, when my colleague saw the readings you would imagine I was
committing heresy to even think about assigning this reading. If I knew what was
‘good for me’, I was not to assign it until I had taken a black marker to certain
‘offensive’ words; I was not to let the students know about Gloria Anzaldua’s queer
theory; I should be careful about what I say about multiple identities, as in, certain
identities are best left unaddressed. I was stunned. My colleague was being helpful
in highlighting certain cultural realities. As I engaged with my consciousness, I
went through a few days of self-reﬂection.
Term is used speciﬁcally to describe young women who cut their hair short, walk with a particular
gait that is not feminine; the word is boy with the ‘at’ indicating a plural in the local language.
I was no stranger to operating as an outsider or interloper; as a woman of color in the American
academy, I was always aware of my positionality ascribed to me.
And so began the struggle within me as a teacher: the intellectual compass went
awry trying to locate true north, the personal went to battle with the political, the
certainties within me began to wane, the struggle within me to widen the scope of
tolerance and understanding in friction with reductionism and positivism that stood
before me. How was I going to teach this class and be honest to my labor?
The answer was in the readings. These were the “safe” and “unsafe” borders;
following Gloria Anzaldua, this class would become the “vague and undetermined
place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary…(where) the
prohibited and the forbidden are its inhabitants” (Anzaldua 1987: 3). Instead of
retreating, I recognized that we could create the borderlands where the conversations
could happen. I also realized that the students’ learning thus far would challenge
how far we could go with the safe and unsafe borders. As the teacher, I had to walk
the space of the borderlands: I had to both respect the culture and traditions within
which I was operating, always careful not be colonial (a curious inverted rendition
of my lived reality as a post-colonial), and yet work to facilitate the learning and
teaching in a manner that stretched the mind beyond the already-learned. There was
a conﬁdence in what I knew to do, but it came up against a cement wall. Suddenly,
I did not entirely know what to do in class. But we labored together. The students
were willing to dance with me in the borderlands. Up to a certain point. We hit the
point of friction with a discussion of marital rape.
“Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates.
Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing
messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incomparable
frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision.” While Anzaldua had
commented on an inner collision when she wrote the above, it was a palpable
collision course on which we had set out as a class. Marital rape became the trope
for the “habitually incomparable frames of reference”; I assumed its existence as an
unquestioning reality (and many of the readers would agree with that statement),
and the students were equally certain that there was no such thing, it was merely a
fabrication on the part of “western thinking” of The Feminists. As the facilitator of
learning I pushed us to scrutinize what this analytical frame of “western thinking”
really meant as a construction. In a sophisticated analysis, the students, of their own
accord, did arrive at counter-constructing “western thinking” as a colonial mind-set
that dismissed Other ways of perceiving and constructing the world. I asked that we
consider “western thinking” not as a monolith; there was some resistance to my
request of breaking down this generalization. Once we had arrived at that examination,
we reasoned that there must be Other “ways of knowing” that were equally viable
and hence circled back to the issue of marital rape. Here I met the wall of “religion
and culture”. And had to retreat. I was not able to get through the notion that while
we may all have religion and culture as informants which create us and our notions
of reality, we can also construct academic alternate realities, if only temporarily to
engage with an idea. The distance increased between the students’ ways of knowing
and my academic training. While I struggled with notions of cultural relativism and
dominant notions of what must be learned, the students became my teachers. They
were accommodating and kind in how they instructed the teacher: ‘you are stepping
Teaching Gender in Other Classrooms: A View from the Outside
into an area into which you are not allowed’, ‘this is the red line, miss, don’t cross
it in this class or any other’, ‘we don’t need to be convinced about marital rape,
miss, because we are taught differently’, ‘you want to believe this idea, you can, but
don’t try this here, miss’.
At its heart, hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (Bell Hooks 1994) advocates that
classrooms be “participatory spaces for the sharing of knowledge” (Hooks 1994:
16). I thought that was what I was practicing. Also, as a teacher I was well-versed
in believing that it was an obligation to challenge the culturally dominant matrices.
I struggled with the local religio-cultural matrices, contextually relevant and powerful, until I realized that I had experienced a truly post-modern moment. Knowledge
fragmented upon examination, the students’ and my subjectivities intersected and
even collided; and, as a result what emerged was a diversity of analysis, each at
once expansive and limited in its own way. Not only did I examine the notion of
“free inquiry”, I also further valued hooks’ suggestion that “everyone’s presence be
acknowledged…be valued” (Hooks 1994: 8). The greatest outcome was that students and teacher alike valued the Other perspective, despite the collisions. Neither
my commitment to free inquiry was endangered, nor was the students’ belief in a
higher cultural authority. I did not endorse those culturally dominant ideas and the
students did not endorse the existence of marital rape. Yet, there was a participatory
space in the classroom in Anzaldua’s borderlands. Anzaldua’s “opposing messages”
were a lived reality for six class periods; both teacher and students understood the
nature of their opposition, grappled with them, acknowledged the limitations of the
message (existence of marital rape), recognized the right of the Other to own the
message, and move on to other powerful ideas and messages. The entire class was
difﬁcult as we negotiated limits every step of the way. What did happen was that as
the teacher I explored limits new to me, and students recognized what they could/
could not question without toppling their received messages based in religio-cultural
constructs. The class became an active ground for conversations across differences
of mentalité, never an easy task. We had actively resisted “the politics of exclusion
based on traditional categories (that could) diminish our humanness” (Anzaldua and
Keating 2002: 2).
I have often wondered, did we or did we not pursue critical thinking in this class?
After my experience, I ﬁnd myself reﬂecting on hooks’ perspective that “(k)eeping
an open mind is an essential requirement of critical thinking,” and that “(t)he most
exciting aspect of critical thinking in the classroom is that it calls for initiative from
everyone, actively inviting all students to think passionately and to share ideas in a
passionate, open manner” (Hooks 2009: 5). The feedback from students in the evaluation documents revealed that together we did practice critical thinking. There was
passion, there was inquiry, there were limits to inquiry, there was initiative from
everyone, and the classroom had ﬂipped without the teacher making it a conscious
decision. We shared our notions of marital rape and women’s ownership of their
bodies. That the students’ analysis did not align with mine is not at issue here;
though, I still wonder about their reluctance to acknowledge its pervasive practice.
The success of the class lies in our ability to have stretched our minds, and opened
ourselves to using the trope of marital rape to access other concerns and matters of
women’s personal being the political, within limits of course. The “opposing
messages” and the “cultural collision” destroyed neither messages nor cultural
beliefs, but produced a syncretic learning experience for the students, which they
indicated in their written and verbal evaluations of the class. Unquestionably, I used
a more nuanced style of teaching in that it shifted away from the stance of ‘changing
minds, changing hearts’ to learning to teach in a manner that recognized its limits.
I constructed a new space for Other frames of reference with which I did not
necessarily agree, but within which I certainly could operate. In the end, it was our
collective conﬁdence in the educational endeavor and compassion for each other’s
perspective/s that overcame the challenges of teaching gender within a context in
which it is conﬂicted and contested.
North India: Moving the Limits
Perhaps I have rationalized the above experience over the years as having happened
with undergraduates and in an autocratic monarchy. The second example for how
contexts inﬂuence teaching and teachers is located in teaching gender in the world’s
largest democracy, India. This example spans 15 years of experiences, and illustrates that certain contexts do provide a space where the limits move of their own
accord. Sometimes one militates against them to move them; other times they can
be challenged. As a visiting scholar from the United States to south Asia at the
Centre for Women’s Studies and Development in a Northern Indian university of
repute, it was educational to learn that there was only a nascent engagement with
what constitutes Women’s Studies. As one examined the curriculum, it became
clear that the developmental phase was at best at the Bifocal Scholarship level or
more likely at Compensatory Scholarship (Tetreault’s Feminist Phase Theory 1985).
What then was I to teach about gender? How was I to teach about gender? It was an
interesting question as I was to teach one class and assist in curriculum reform to set
the master’s and doctorate programs in Women’s Studies into motion. The leadership of the Centre came from a social science discipline and she was trying her best
to introduce women into the university curriculum through, what she deﬁned, as
“infusion method”. It was an embryonic women’s studies program of sorts, housed
in a bicycle shed, rarely rendered any respect by the rest of the faculty. It had a small
following of bewildered but curious students, a single person controlling the vision
of its future, a socio-political environment that recognized and institutionalized
women’s studies centers/programs all across the country,6 and a curriculum that was
confusing in its claims of feminist thought. It was into this environment that I
entered. While I shared my heritage with others at the university, I was placed out6
The public universities across India are under the oversight of a centralized governmental body,
University Grants Commission. It had instituted women’s studies centers throughout the hundreds
of universities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These centers grew organically, or not, over the
Teaching Gender in Other Classrooms: A View from the Outside
side because having lived elsewhere disconnected me from the realities of India.
Where did one begin? Once I had taken several deep breaths, the opportunities were
endless. We had to dream.
I met with two graduate students from other disciplines whose work intersected
with women’s studies; together we began to dream. In class I befriended some
women students to whom I put the loaded yet simple question: what do you want to
know that will help you think critically about issues related to women? It was shyness and some suspicion of my intent (a semi-outsider, as a student described me)
that elicited the expected “women in history, women in politics, women in government, women in independence movement” response. I had to respond with encouraging nods as I couldn’t understand how any of this was any different from what we
were already studying. Perhaps I sought ways in which these young women and
men were looking to acquire the tools to participate in the democratic processes of
their land. Since the curriculum was already set and handed to me, I had nowhere to
go but to transgress it; or so was the conscious choice I made. I noticed a curious
phenomenon: when I was delivering the curriculum, students took copious notes
bent over their books; the minute I diverted away from it, they physically shifted,
locking their eyes with mine, furrowing their brows, raising hands furtively to ask/
answer questions. Together we pushed the limits. With many unspoken words
between us, we knew what we were doing. One of the students said to me, “you are
trying to make us question assumptions, yeah?” I simply said, yeah. Her non-verbals
were all I needed. Taking hooks’ advice to let the topics of learning come from the
students’ experiences, some magic began to happen, especially when it was only/
mostly women in class. With lives that they began to claim their own, their steps
ventured into areas that were personal and political. Arguments, debates, engagement, discussions, sometimes post-class tears: it was all happening. We were alive
to gender teaching/learning. It was too good to last as I was called in and asked to
stop touching subjects such as women’s bodies, sexuality, and third gender. I was
told: “It’s not on the syllabus, is it?” and “In our culture we don’t talk about sex or
gender and sexuality.” Another example of limits placed on teaching gender. I was
given no explanations, only statements explaining limits that brooked no argument.
The larger socio-political context was different and yet one had to wrestle with a
lack of “…the development of the permeable, ﬂexible mentality characteristic of a
democratic cultural climate” (Freire 2013: 19). An analysis of the situation indicated that students, and perhaps others, were still living with a habitual submission
rather than integration with the reality of their circumstances (Freire 2013: 26).
But there was hope in the knowledge that within a democracy there comes a time
when its citizens become active participants in their historical processes. A postcolonial nation needs a little time to make the shift from adaptation to authority to
questioning (even becoming) authority.7 There were Women’s Studies departments
and centers all over the country; at some point the integration with lived realities
Acknowledging simpliﬁcation again, colonial experiences habituate the colonized into adapting
to colonialism. Decolonization of the imagination and hence behavior comes over time when
freedom is internalized.