Workshop Report: Women and the Transregional Circulation of Knowledge, 1800–1950

By Tika Ramadhini and Thiago Pinto Barbosa

From 20 to 22 June 2019, the Explorative Workshop “Women and the Transregional Circulation of Knowledge, from 1800 to 1950” was held at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. It was convened by Heike Liebau, Tika Ramadhini and Thiago Pinto Barbosa (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient).

The workshop took the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a relevant timeframe to discuss women and the circulation of knowledge. This period witnessed the increased development of science and technology, the global movement of objects and people, and colonialism. What did women produce and circulate in transregional movements, and how did they transform them? What role does transregionality play in the situatedness of women and the knowledge they produced? How did gendered practices shape knowledge production and what gendering effects can be perceived in its circulation and reception? The workshop contemplated and engaged with these questions. The workshop sought to explore conceptual discussions that could expand our understandings of how gender and mobility shape processes of knowledge circulation among women. It examined these themes and questions from diverse disciplinary perspectives,  including anthropology, science and technology studies, art and literary studies, theatre and performance studies, pedagogy, history, philosophy, and archival studies.

The workshop started by collecting impressions on two texts suggested for discussion, namely Donna Haraway’s Situated Knowledges[1] and Paola Bertucci’s The In/visible Woman[2]. During this brief brainstorming session, there were various issues raised by the participants, such as what knowledge production actually stands for and how it is gendered, as well as issues about the authority and hierarchy of knowledge, the agency of women in knowledge practices, and the underrepresentation and exclusion of women in science. Different participants brought up the issue of in/visibility, not only in terms of how women strategically in/visibilize themselves to produce and circulate knowledge, but also in the sense of sources, namely through the question of how to work with the invisibility of women in the archives. Finally, the discussion touched upon power and gender relations and how they affect our own productions of knowledge.

Women Scientists and Knowledge Outputs

The first day began with a discussion on the topic of female scientist figures in the panel, ‘Women Scientists and Knowledge Outputs’. In the first part of the panel, Johanna Ziebritzki (Heidelberg University) and Amurabi Oliveira (Federal University of Santa Catarina) presented their cases of two female Jewish scientists who, in the first half of the 20th century, moved across regions and produced knowledge about the societies they travelled to. One of these artists was Stella Kramrisch, who moved from Europe to India. Through her “epistemic agency”, she hybridized methods in art history, levelling Indian art with European art genealogies. Ziebritski brushed upon the hierarchy of knowledge, alluding to the different access given to female and male artists. The other artist was North American anthropologist, Ruth Landes, who produced a today canonical but, back then, disputed ethnography on gender and sexuality in Bahia, in which she highlighted the powerful role of women and queer men in the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé. Using historical ethnography, Oliveira argued that the critical refusal of Landes’ thesis had to do with her positionality as a woman in the field, which is confirmed by the fact that her contemporary male colleagues reached similar conclusions but received no critique. Julia Roth’s (Bielefeld University) commentary called attention to the problem of the essentialization of womanhood and positionalities and suggested the use of Floya Anthias’ notion of “translocational positionality”.

The second part of this panel revolved around the figure of Indian anthropologist, Irawati Karve (1905-1970). Thiago Pinto Barbosa discussed Karve’s transregional movement between India and Germany and how her shifting positionality also resulted in different research outcomes. While in Germany she challenged racial theories in craniometry, in India she applied them to the study of castes and tribes. In India, although she was outspoken about women’s oppression, she (like most members of her upper caste group in that time) was silent about caste injustices. Urmilla Deshpande (Independent writer, USA) read two excerpts from her novel project, which explores the subjectivities of Karve’s life and work in Berlin. Among the participants, a question was raised on the relation the topic to current debates on decolonializing knowledge. This was then followed by a discussion stimulated by Razak Khan (University of Göttingen), who suggested to rethink the relationships between fact, fiction and fieldwork in more complex ways. On this thread, participants discussed different modes of historical writings (scientific and/or fictional-based-on-facts) and on the use of literature as historical sources. While reflecting on the possibility of collaboration between scientists and novelists, Deshpande and Barbosa insisted on the commitment of science to truth but still recognized the transformative possibilities of non-scientific creative narratives, especially when these are informed by real stories and address current issues.

Women’s Education

The second panel dealt with the topic of women’s education. Divya Kannan (Shiv Nadar University) presented a paper about British female missionaries in Travancore, South India. Kannan demonstrated how their moralising agenda intertwined with motives of evangelism and colonialism, and then raised the question of how far the concept of transregionalism could help to understand processes of knowledge circulation. Jana Tschurenev (Humboldt University Berlin) examined the involvement of Indian women’s organizations in transregional knowledge circulation and how pedagogical ideas for early childhood care and education travelled. Tschurenev argued that Indian women’s organizations were active agents for circulating pedagogical innovation in the twentieth century by means of creating a platform for women’s movement, international networks, and gaining expertise from European and American universities.

Johanna L. Peterson (University of California, San Diego) talked about the educational and professional trajectories of Wadad Makdisi from Baghdad. Peterson’s paper examined how education facilitated the movement of women and how school became a site of interconnections to create and spread conceptions of nationhood and citizenship. Peterson argued that to conceptualise a women’s movement, one needs to look away from linearity and instead, illustrate it through a ‘knitwork’. Tika Ramadhini (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient) presented a paper about the agency of Jawi women who migrated to Mecca in the early twentieth century, with a focus on Nyai Khairiyah Hasyim, who opened a school in Mecca. Ramadhini showed how Khairiyah Hasyim was an active agent for circulating transregional knowledge by applying different strategies as she moved from one place to another, relating to her positionality in different settings. 

In the discussion that followed, commentator Ulrike Freitag (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient) raised  a number of questions for debate: How far have we gone with conceptions about writing about women? What would happen after we have written women back into history? The discussion also brushed upon the limits of women’s agency, which is often seen through either an apologetic or romanticized approach. Kannan and Tschurenev highlighted the importance of stressing the political agency of women in historical processes, arguing this is still relevant vis-à-vis today’s continued exclusion of women from political spheres.

Imperialism and (De)coloniality

The second day of the workshop began with a warm-up recap discussion. Participants addressed how postcolonial and feminist perspectives have been at the margins of historiography in Germany. Some raised issues of how the mainstream way of writing history might be gendered, how it might continue to haunt us when we write history about women, and ultimately, how we can try to overcome this by making the gendered biases evident.

The morning panel was composed of two cases dealing with women in Turkey andthe Ottoman Empire. Rüstem Ertuğ Altınay (Sabanci University) presented on Turkey’s use of fashion shows as a diplomatic strategy to transmit a positive image of Turkey, associated with modern development and ethnic harmony, and at the same time promote an image of Turkish femininity in accordance to these principles. Altınay demonstrated how the diplomatic fashion show used the female body as a space for circulating knowledge, and further complicated discussions of the female body in transregional knowledge circulation. Altınay argued that women did not always contribute to a transregional circulation of progressive knowledge, but, as we can see in this story, certain images of femininity were articulated and promoted in nation-building motives. In her presentation, Müge Özbek (Kaç University) discussed the role of women companions of Ottoman civil servants and army officers and their role in the production of spatial knowledge in different corners of the empire. These female companions of colonial civil servants had the possibility to write autobiographical texts through their opportunity to travel and meet new people when with their husbands. Özbek discussed travel writing as a site of knowledge production, especially the female companions’ travel writing, which presented gendered understandings of empire. The discussant, Hilal Alkan (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient/ASH Berlin), underlined how practices of embodiment might take a particular stance for particular political projects. Questions about the tension of agency and structure were raised in the discussion. While Özbek argued for the attention to women in a more complex and nuanced Ottoman historiography, Altınay commented on different interpellations about the participation of women in those fashion shows, such as the desires of consumption, the need of cash from the USA, but also about marketing and nation-building. He stressed how nation-building projects might push for certain subjectivities in regard to ideal citizens, as well as in gendered ideal types.

In the afternoon, Muhammad Buana (University Gadjah Mada) and Jahnabi B. Chanchani (University of Michigan) presented two cases dealing with the role of women in projects of decolonization, the first in Indonesia and the latter in India. While Buana presented the intriguing case of how two Malay-descendant princesses at Tanete Kingdom preserved a cryptic Arabic-Bugis script that dealt with anti-colonial resistance, Chanchani explored issues of translation in the poet Sarojini Naidu’s work dealing with Indian nation-building.  The discussant, Rasha Chatta (Forum Transregionale Studien/SOAS), chaired the following session, in which she, based on Buana and Chanchani’s cases, emphasized and contemplated the importance of circulation in the production of knowledge. In various cases, some knowledge might not be circulated, and this occurs quite frequently with knowledge produced or transformed by women actors.

Scientific Networks

The last panel dealt with scientific networks. Irina Nastasă-Matei (University of Bucharest) started her presentation by addressing the invisibility of women in academia in Romania, and then focused on the case of Humboldt Fellowships and how not sponsoring female students under Nazi Germany had shaped international academic networks in gendered ways. Amelia Bonea (University of Heidelberg) presented her investigation on Rutiran Sahni, the wife of Birbal Sahni, a well-known paleobotanist in British India. After the premature passing away of her husband, she was responsible for nurturing the transnational scientific networks of a key earth science institute in India. Bonea commented on the gendered-ness of fieldwork-based science, and called attention to how wives of male scientists have contributed to different scientific activities not placed on the spotlight, like collecting samples, typing, and correcting papers. In the discussion chaired by Ergun Özgür (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient), participants related Bonea’s comment to the figure of Bronislaw Malinowski, the social anthropologist: He was not solely responsible for promoting and standardizing a research method that was extremely difficult for women (ethnography). His wife, Elsie Masson, had an extremely important role in his writings, but this was never publicly acknowledged by him.

Afterwards, artist/researcher, Anuja Ghosalkar, presented her lecture performance “I, He, Her”, with support by performer, Kiran Kumar. It started with an exercise in which participants had to ask each other very personal questions in pairs and then were asked to recite them to the other participants. Then, the performance juxtaposed Kumar’s readings from the autobiography of actress, Durga Khote, the “first film actress from a respectable family to act in films” (as the opening line of her autobiography states), with Ghosalkar’s own performance, Lady Anandi. Lady Anandi dealt with Ghosalkar’s own experience as a female actress in male-dominated theatre spaces and the story of her great grandfather, Madhavrao Tipnis –a female impersonator in late 19th century Marathi theatre. In the discussion that followed, commentators Nazan Üstündağ (Forum Transregionale Studien) and Franziska Roy (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient) touched again upon questions about the relationship between fiction and non-fiction. Üstündağ praised Ghosalkar’s juxtapositions (of biography and autobiography, of the perverse and the dignified) as a good narrative strategy to tell complex stories, and argued for going beyond causality-centred narratives in historiography. Roy contended that the current  rise of the right-wing calls nevertheless for a commitment to telling true stories – and to flying the flag of science. In disagreement, Üstündağ argued that the re-articulation of political narratives by (far-right-wing) political groups is nothing new; we should not be as obsessed with truth as we have been before.

In the final discussion, participants reflected on the relationships betweenpower, knowledge and not-knowing. Botakoz Kassymbekova stressed that historical knowledge is not only about the reconstruction of past, but it is also of the present. Moreover, history is not only always viewed from the lens of the present, but also our expectations from and for the future. On similar lines, different participants emphasized knowledge making as a dialogue and process. Reconnecting with the opening discussion, participants highlighted the importance of reflexivity as a productive, empowering way out of (gender relation-imposed) self-doubt. Moreover, participants underlined how history can be flooded with hopeful messages, and how rewriting both transregionalism and women in history can be politically transformative.

[1] Donna Haraway (1988): ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’. In Feminist Studies 14 (3), pp. 575-599.

[2] Paola Bertucci (2013): ‘The In/visible Woman: Mariangela Ardinghelli and the Circulation of Knowledge between Paris and Naples in the Eighteenth Century’. In Isis 104 (2), pp. 226-249

Citation: Workshop Report: Women and the Transregional Circulation of Knowledge, 1800–1950, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.10.2019,

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