Women and the Transregional Circulation of Knowledge, from 1800 to 1950 – Interview with Heike Liebau, Tika Ramadhini and Thiago Pinto Barbosa

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the Explorative Workshop “Women and the Transregional Circulation of Knowledge, from 1800 to 1950”, which will take place on June 20-22th at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. We have been talking to the conveners. Dr. Heike Liebau is coordinating the research unit “Trajectories of Lives and Knowledge” (2014-2019) at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. Tika Ramadhini and Thiago Pinto Barbosa are both Research Fellows at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient.

How did you come up with the idea to study women’s production of knowledge from a historical perspective?

Heike Liebau is coordinating the research unit “Trajectories of Lives and Knowledge” (2014-2019) at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Heike Liebau: As coordinator of a research unit at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin called “Trajectories of Lives and Knowledge” (2014-2019), I was very happy to support Tika and Thiago’s idea of an explorative workshop on women and the transregional circulation of knowledge. The main aim of this research unit is to explore the intersections of life trajectories and the conditions and practices of knowledge production. The protagonists of the individual projects within the unit mostly belong to colonial and postcolonial societies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East – and they are mostly male. Including a gendered aspect and having projects on female individuals and their experiences to practices of knowledge production opens up new perspectives on the respective societies and social processes by raising different questions on the access to knowledge, the aims of knowledge production and the ways of distributing knowledge. 

Thiago Pinto Barbosa is a Research Fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Thiago Pinto Barbosa: For a long time, I have been interested in understanding how scientific knowledge transforms across time, and how it influences and/or is influenced by ever-changing social and political discussions. I am particularly interested in how peripheral perspectives can contribute to knowledge formations that bring about some sort of social progress. While I was conducting research on the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics – a Berlin-based research centre that specialised in race research – I stumbled upon the special case of one of its scientists: Irawati Karve. She was an Indian anthropologist who conducted research on race and human skulls. However, unlike all her German colleagues, she concluded that there were no racial differences in skulls, as she did not find correlation between race and skull shape. So I was struck by the question: how come that this person, a female Indian anthropology student back then, was the only one, out of dozens of scientists, to challenge the dominant discourse on race? I then started to think about the different factors that might have informed her standpoint, and I think that being a non-Western female researcher would have played a key role in her divergence from her colleagues in Berlin, who were mainly white, European men. I believe that exploring the historical role of women in science is key to understanding the relations of gender and knowledge production today.

Tika Ramadhini is a Research Fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Tika Ramadhini: Going to learn Islam in the Haram (the Great Mosque surrounding the Kaba in Mecca) is a popular practice among people of the Muslim world, including Muslims from Southeast Asia, who have been a part of this practice since its early years. Many books have been published about the scholarly connection between Southeast Asia and the Haram, but they have almost exclusively talked about male actors. Therefore, I was surprised when I found women names in the archives, who also resided in the Haram for learning and teaching in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I thought the idea was unthinkable until I realized that some of these women were even influential to the educational field of their homelands upon returning. This encouraged me to problematize this case of women in this global south connection, and to comprehend how gender might have influenced the circulation of knowledge.

Why is a transregional approach important for the topic?

HL: One of the major aims of the research unit “Trajectories of Lives and Knowledge” is to explore entanglements between actors from societies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, as well as their contacts with Europe. Focusing on individuals with translocal life trajectories, we do not necessarily refer only to the physical movement of the protagonists, but also to the exchange and use of ideas that travelled, and to their involvement in transregional (not necessarily global) networks. Working on contexts like anti-colonial struggles, religious movements, exile, wars or academic developments, on the one hand, demands us to go beyond national boundaries, but, on the other hand, also challenges the notion of an all-encompassing “global”.

TPB: I am looking at a phenomenon that is global, namely, the formation of racialized knowledge. Therefore, thinking about it translocally and transregionally is imperative in order to come to comprehend its global scope.

TR: The focus of my research takes place in a period of rising global interconnectedness. Just as the idea of separate identities is not plausible, I do not believe in separate knowledge. When one talks about the start of education for women in Southeast Asia in the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, I think it is beneficial to examine it through a transregional perspective. It was the time when the global movement of people, including women, was increasing, and when colonial power reached its peak, affecting the daily lives of the mixed communities in the metropoles and colonies. Entanglement is a vital factor to be discussed, as the ideas that circulated around women’s education was not simply formed inside or imposed from the outside world, but rather emerged from entangled encounters.

What are the methodological and/or conceptual challenges for scholars who want to study the female production of knowledge?

HL: A major challenge one immediately thinks about is, of course, the lack of documents and the invisibility of women in many of the archival sources that historians of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries deal with. But we need to think of questions like: Why female actors are not or less present in these documents? If they appear, how are they presented? Why are they overlooked by researchers? If we ask these questions, we immediately have to develop follow-up questions, which then lead us to debates that include gender aspects in considerations of economic conditions, political power relations, and in the role of religious and cultural norms within processes and practices of knowledge production.

TPB: The historiography of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century science has focused on its big names, who are mostly men, and this might have many reasons. Women in science were largely overlooked. Now, when we do historical research about lesser-known individuals, especially women, we are faced with the immediate difficulty of finding sources. Besides the official archives one has to explore other sources. In my case, oral history was the solution, but this was one that came with challenges too: like every archive, people’s memories are of course limited and selective. Conceptually, I think that only now – thanks to important feminist contributions from the 1980s onwards – we are coming to understand the role of gender in the making of knowledge. There’s still, however, a lot to discuss.

What was the most surprising moment of your research?

TPB: Getting to know more about this historical figure, Irawati Karve, and her personal views involved many surprises. One of them was meeting her granddaughter, Urmilla Deshpande, a fiction author, with whom I am now collaborating. She is writing a novel about an Indian female anthropologist in the late 1920s in Berlin, inspired by her grandmother.

TR: Many surprises happened during my research trips. One of them was when I was in Makkah looking for archives related to my focus of study, Khairiyah Hasyim. I was introduced to a family who founded a school for girls in Makkah in the 40s. The school was managed by five sisters and their mother, who turned out to be a colleague of Khairiyah Hasyim. This has helped to illustrate a more vivid idea about female teacher’s networks in Makkah.

How does your gender influence the way you study women’s knowledge production?

TPB: As a male-identified person, I cannot draw from my personal experience in order to understand what it must have felt like for Irawati Karve to be a woman in the male-dominated academic circles that she was a part of. And my gender positionality is also accountable for the fact that I came to grasp this problem a little late in my research process. Nonetheless, reflexivity is key. This awareness is pushing me forward to carefully look at how gender – among other power-related markers – informs a scientist’s situatedness and influences knowledge outcomes. I must say that I am especially thankful to the insights of my female and non-binary colleagues!

TR: Being a woman myself, I find my research almost cathartic. My gender positionality probably influenced me in realizing different power dynamics, obstacles, and challenges that women like Khairiyah Hasyim have had to face when studying or teaching abroad. During processes of researching and writing, I cannot help but to relate myself many times to the trajectories of the lives of the women in my project. I see my own experience as a continuation of these centuries of practices and use it to help grasp the relationship between gender and knowledge production.


Citation: Women and the Transregional Circulation of Knowledge, from 1800 to 1950 – Interview with Heike Liebau, Tika Ramadhini and Thiago Pinto Barbosa, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.05.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18717.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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