Women's Studies professors take part in national conference abroad

Demystifying feminism reveals commonalities between us all

Three Mount Royal professors recently travelled to sunny San Juan, Puerto Rico to attend the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) 2014 conference, themed Feminist Transgressions. The NWSA conference focuses on leading the field of women's studies in educational and social transformation. It regularly draws more than 1,600 attendees and is the only annual meeting in the US exclusively dedicated to showcasing the latest feminist scholarship.

Maki Motapanyane, PhD, assistant professor of Women's Studies, Kimberly Williams, PhD, Women's Studies program coordinator and Sharanpal Ruprai, PhD, assistant professor for the Department of General Education, had all planned separately to attend the November 2014 conference. They were pleasantly surprised to run into other Mount Royal colleagues amongst the 2,000-some other attendees.

Sharanpal Ruprai, assistant professor for the Department of General Education, and Maki Motapanyane, assistant professor of Women's Studies, both attended the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA) 2014 conference in November 2014, along with Kimberly Williams,Women's Studies program coordinator.

"(This conference) is how I stay on top of what's new and up and coming in the field," said Motapanyane, who moderated two panels at the 2014 NWSA conference and was selected to take part in the Women of Colour Leadership Project, an undertaking designed to increase the number of women of colour (including students and faculty) within the field of women's studies and women's centers.

Williams, who moderated a panel and presented on the Women and Gender Studies anthology Feminist Theory Reader (of which she is an editor), said that taking part in conference discussions and panels means she can bring back new and exciting ideas on assignments, reading, activities, teaching and learning, as well as how to approach varying subject matter.

According to Williams, in a day and age when the relevance of feminism tends to be up for debate and is often under attack, a lot of people have been under the impression that the goals of the feminist movement have been achieved. An assumption she does not agree with.

She adds that in her experience, many students can point to occurrences that are clearly contradictory. In fact, students in Williams' Women's Studies classes bring to discussions their stories of violence, insecurity and physical anxiety about their safety, as well as issues about body image.

"(Students) can all point out specific happenstances that point to blatant sexism," said Motapanyane. "But unfortunately, we are conditioned to look at visible signs of gain, such as official federal language around employment equity and the obviously increased number of women enrolled in post-secondary education."

Ruprai adds post-secondaries, including Mount Royal, must now explore how the "new reality" is supported - with more and more women attending, including more women of colour.

Ruprai organized a panel in which she also presented on the burden of religion in Sikhism and how the word "feminist" reacts in relation to the context of being religious. She said that recent incidences such as the high-profile accusations against CBC reporter Jian Gomeshi and comedian Bill Cosby have opened up the doors to an outpouring of discussion about violence against women.

But there's still work to be done.

"There are some that seem to still think that feminism is about not shaving your legs or that you have to hate men. I thought that that rhetoric was finished," she said.

The importance of feminism remains clear to these scholars, who see its significance revealed through reports of everyday incidences of gender bias. As well, feminist teaching practices work in concert with the values and principles that are being emphasized at Mount Royal in terms of education, continued Motapanyane, who noted MRU's concept of Face to Face - which emphasizes individualized attention to students and keeping class sizes small - is integral for facilitating dialogue-based teaching.

"There are so many connections that I see between the emphasis on teaching here and the history of women's and gender studies as a discipline," she said.

Because Women's Studies courses can be taken as part of General Education requirements, classes are a dynamic cross-section of students from all different faculties across campus. They are expected to speak about their life experiences, which are then tied in to the theoretical concepts in their readings.

"This experiential method of teaching is really helpful because with sharing, people learn from each other," said Motapanyane.

Jan 8, 2015 - Michelle Bodnar