Why reimagining women and power now

Ahead of advaya’s upcoming course Reimagining Women & Power, we speak with the host of the course, Anwulika Okonjo, about radical feminism, the importance of a power analysis, the questions animating the course, and what to expect from the course, and why sitting with these questions are so crucial now.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Hi, everyone. Today we're talking about our upcoming online course Reimagining Women & Power with the host of the course, Anwulika Okonjo.

Reimagining Women & Power is an online course happening from Wednesday 21 September to Thursday 17 November 2022. Participants will have access to live weekly online sessions (which will be recorded and uploaded, in case participants cannot join live) and an online learning community. Each week will be accompanied by optional readings, practices and resources for participants to deepen the work at home.

Taught by a coalition of incredible teachers, including prominent historians, activists, matriarchs and indigenous leaders, this nine-week course lead us on a journey of exploring how reclaiming and re-imagining power can mean radically challenging the construction of power in society as a whole, making way for new ideas and ways of relating to emerge and take root.

Tickets are now available at womenandpower.co. You can use the code LIVE20 for 20% off General Admission tickets.

And now to introduce Anwulika. Anwulika Okonjo is the host of the course and our guest for today. Anwulika is a global social impact strategist and communications consultant, especially passionate about working with women-led businesses/organisations and women/youth/African/black people focused initiatives across a broad range of issue areas.

With that brief introduction, I would love for you to tell us a little bit about yourself, and your background, and specifically your connection to advocating for feminist issues. Here we are recognising that "feminist" is a complicated term, which we'll begin to unpack, here and in the course as well—but also understanding that it's a useful term to ground ourselves in talking about the issues that are central to this course...

ANWULIKA OKONJO: I think you're absolutely right about feminism being a complicated term, but at the same time, a good jumping point. That actually kind of reflects the background that I come from.

So I'm from Nigeria, but I grew up in, you know, South Africa and around the world. When I first started university, I didn't really have any real connection to the topic of feminist activism, feminist movements, despite having gone to all girls schools my entire life, and seeing my mom lead women-led initiatives, women empowerment initiatives. It was really in university that I started getting involved in organising, specifically around sexual harassment and sexual assault that women were confronting. During the protests, and within the social movements, and safe spaces that we were in, I was grappling with what I felt was almost kind of a contradiction, with women being incredibly vulnerable, but at the same time, displaying so much strength.

I come from a culture where women have historically been leaders in the home and in the public sphere when it comes to business, but at the same time have been subjected to oppression and seen as secondary to men. So, that's the starting point. But since then I've been catapulted into different communities where it isn't just simply about the gender aspect.

It's also more broadly about the ways that, women, non-binary people, gender non-conforming people are challenging the make-up of our world, and are looking for new ways to relate to each other. While resisting or fighting for their rights, it's also about building new worlds.

That was really, really beautiful, and exciting for me to be a part of. And I think a lot of knowledge that is really useful and relevant has been created within the feminist discourse and feminist spaces. But since then I've sort of also explored a broader canon that is digging into the concept of power, the concept of how we relate to each other, and how we imagine the world around us.

As far as this course goes, what's interesting and exciting about this is getting to explore the stereotypes, and the histories, for women from all over the world, while at the same time, also looking at what happens when we shift the idea of relationship, of power, of community, away from the stereotypical ways that we've thought about it, especially in the Western world. What happens when we put it in the hands of other people or imagine it through the lens of other people, beyond the "masculine"?

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Thank you for sharing that. There's a lot I think, that we could possibly go into there. But I think what's worth noting about that is that the course strays away from typical feminist discourse. I think we're trying, in this course, to really make it relatable, and to talk about these issues in a way that connects back to our relationships and how we relate to each other and how we relate to the world. It feels a lot more ground-up, and even though there are theoretical and analytical approaches, represented by the different academics in the course, there are also teachers coming and speaking from lived experiences, about how to reframe our relationships. So I think it's important to note that this inquiry is not functioning at the purely theoretical level. It feels a lot more embodied.

ANWULIKA OKONJO: Definitely, I think that was a major intention. One, I think there's a community building aspect of it, that we're going to be exploring as we work through power, relationship, things like that. We're going to be building our own relationships with each other. But then also, each of the topics within the course are curated so that we explore a very personal and embodied aspect of this topic, rather than just, like you said, the high-level, sort of political aspect. And as you know, the personal is political. But there's are lots of parts of the course that I'm really excited about, where we talk about ritual, about rerooting relationships... That gives us the opportunity to explore our relationships with ourselves, how have we thought about power, and how's that showing up in our lives? It's going to give both the high-level view as well as the more deeply personal and interpersonal aspect as well.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Going into the official questions for today. I wanted to start with talking about feminism, which we already recognised as a tricky subject, for a lot of reasons, but since this course seeks to generate an inquiry that runs deeper than feminist perspectives, I’d like to ask, what is it that’s missing from feminism, or perhaps the way it is interpreted, that prevents us from accessing the deeper solutions to our problems? There's a sense that this course aims at looking for those deeper solutions that will actually shift things, as you said, in a more personal and inter-personal way, starting from a recognition that these are intimately connected. And everyone has grown to recognise that the mainstream feminist movement hasn't really done that—connect the personal to the societal. From your perspective, why is that the case?

ANWULIKA OKONJO: I think mainstream is the right word, because there are feminist communities that are definitely engaged at a deeper level. In the mainstream, it tends to be so political, in a sense that it removes us from thinking about the personal and soulful aspect of what transformation means or what change means, or what grappling with, or undoing the toxic systems, practices, behaviours that we may have learned and internalised, really looks like. It also ends up getting caught on this question of how do you identify? What is the category that you fit into? Even just the label of feminism can bog people down.

Feminism is a brilliant way to bring people together, especially when you have those key identifiers. But at the same time, we also have to recognise that there are long histories of an imbalance of power when it comes to feminism. It's almost entirely been co-opted by the West. I read African feminists, Global South feminists, feminists from all over the world. But it took a long time to be able to discover those voices and connect with those histories. Even now, there's such an imbalance, even within academia, of who gets to be heard, whose knowledge gets to be shared, what is considered valuable insight, and what is considered "valid", in terms of how we practice knowledge sharing, knowledge creation, and what's "transformative". advaya is about transformative education, right?

What is considered transformative wisdom is very limited in a lot of these [mainstream, feminist] spaces.

So I think feminism is very valuable in a lot of ways, but going beyond it opens up an entire world for people who have not been typically heard. It opens up different ways of looking at history. And it opens up opportunities for a more soulful grappling with these big questions.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Going back to transnational feminisms and talking about creating feminist coalitions, I think it might have been Jessica Horn who was talking about using "feminisms", instead of "feminism", in the plural form, because there are so many different kinds of feminisms. I think recognising that that's the case already begins to shift our perspective. You begin to realise that the soulful is maybe the more powerful thing. White feminism, I think, doesn't come from that soulful perspective, and often operates in that purely social or political space. And it doesn't get deeper.

So the other part of the course, is about power, which is also very tricky, because power is hard to define and also very abstract. To ground us a little, what are the theoretical bases and analyses of power that you draw from? Which thinkers did you read when you were curating the course? And more broadly, how do you view and understand Power?

ANWULIKA OKONJO: Starting from the personal level of thinking about power as women, the first scholar that comes to mind for me is Sara Ahmed, specifically because of the concept of the "Willful" girl, or the willful woman. She illustrates it so beautifully within her books. There's one passage I remember where she talks about how this little girl was misbehaving, and as punishment, they slapped her and then buried her. And even from the grave, her arm was still sticking up. To me, that's an example of asserting your will.

So on a personal level, power as being will, the ability to assert your will, and have it mean something, have it actually move yourself and other things in the world.

Being a scholar specifically in African feminisms, I think about colonial histories especially. I come from a legacy of women who have studied and organised with other women, my grandma was a scholar, she was a professor of sociology and specifically traveled around Nigeria, to work with women in communities and essentially retrace the colonial impositions and document how colonisation had usurped women's power across Africa. So I think, partly it's looking at, what are the ways of relating to each other, that we have had not just as women, but as communities, as societies? And what are the systems or what are the histories that have disrupted those ways of being? This is not to say that anything was perfect before the colonisers came. But it's given me at least, a jumping point for exploring what it looks like for people to live in harmony and have the agency to decide how they live together, and how they relate to each other.

And who else...? bell hooks is definitely a big inspiration for me. I think The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love is a great book, in exploring the masculine side of that, and how we relate to the masculine. Minna Salami, who is part of the course, and is going to be incredible, too. Chandra Mohanty... I'm really looking forward to sharing some of these thinkers, but I think also the teachers that we have within the course are really, really exciting and have so much knowledge themselves, and are going to be able to share like a wealth of resources with the participants.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Talking about Sara Ahmed's work, the killjoy, I think specifically for me was so enlightening. The way she characterises the feminist killjoy is so relatable. It's a very good book to really get into if first of all, you're a man, and thus have never really understood what it's like to be a woman. And of course Sara also speaks from her racialised perspective, her lived experience of being a woman who is not only you know, facing the axis of oppression of gender, but also of class, and of race. So there's all of that being brought in.

ANWULIKA OKONJO: I used to run a book club called Reading to Transgress, based off of Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. One of the first books that we read was Living a Feminist Life. And I really enjoyed our reading activity that she includes in the book, which was thinking about your killjoy toolkit, and I think that actually closely reflects some of the values in this course. One of the things she says is that, we can't carry everything with us in order to move through the world, as women and as people, and so you have to be dependent on the people around you, for them to be carrying things in their toolkit that will help us grapple with the problems of the world and make new worlds as well. And so that killjoy toolkit, for anyone who hasn't read the book, is just essentially like, what are the few things—and this is this is purely conceptual, but—you would carry with you, in order to fortify yourself, or deal with the patriarchal systems, the problems that we come up against when we think about power, and when we think about the issues that feminists typically grapple with.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, and so I guess you spoke about this briefly, when you were talking about your own ancestral lineage, and how your conception of power is very much influenced by your understanding of colonial history. I wanted to build on that a little bit and ask, why should we be bringing in power? And more specifically what does a reimagination of power do individually and then also in our relationships, and more broadly speaking in society?

ANWULIKA OKONJO: So, what does a reimagination of power do for us and society? Again, I'm going to come from a really personal place with this. Coming from Nigeria, one thing that I see all the time is—and this was the main question that I was grappling with when I wrote my thesis, which was about the politics of imagination specifically for young women activists—young women who are activists, who are actively involved in their communities, who are actively trying to change things, feeling so hopeless and apathetic about their ability to actually effect change in a meaningful, deep, systemic way. And I think that that's a common feeling across the world today.

A lot of people feel as though they don't have power, as though they don't have a real ability to effect change even within their own lives, and so much less in the world, because the systems that we exist in are so entrenched and have been here for a long time... people have difficulty imagining beyond them.

We're told this narrative, and it's reinforced through academia, through media, and many different ways, even in society and among each other—that the way that things are is the way that they've always been, and there can be no other way.

Why is reimagining power important? I think power and freedom, or liberation, really go hand in hand. Or rather the conversations about them have to go hand in hand, because first of all, it's a mental exercise to be able to push yourself to a point where you can even think about existing differently, being different, living differently in the world. Starting at a personal level first, and thinking about your immediate context, if that's what's helpful to you, but then working our way step by step, in a way that is embodied, to free our minds up for the idea of difference. When we can do that, we can move to a place where we don't feel really hopeless and apathetic and frustrated.

Reimagining Women & Power is a good course for grappling with that anxiety that we may feel about power, our own power and the power of our of our communities in the world. One of the reasons why I think it was super important to bring in teachers who are from all walks of life and all corners of the world is that the mentalities of power, the mentalities of how much agency people feel they have in the world is also affected by geography, and by history. And also, it's a good way to think differently, because different cultures and different groups of people have had many different ways of relating in society and building community. Sometimes, we just haven't even been exposed to that. So it's important to platform those voices as as a jumping off point for ultimately thinking differently.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I wanted to note also because we have been asked the question, that as much as we recognise that the course as it stands platforms many different speakers from different parts of the world; we also recognise that there are still ways to go, in terms of a diversity of voices. There are many different types of people represented, but in the future, I think we also want to bring in and platform folks who are non-binary, gender non-conforming folks, and those who can speak from the perspective of disability feminism as well. That's definitely something that we will continue to be doing moving forward.

ANWULIKA OKONJO: When we were curating the course, that was definitely the intention. And the good thing is, this is a starting point. There's plenty of opportunity to engage those voices, in many different ways. And I think, hopefully, within the participants, those perspectives will also be represented. I really am looking forward to seeing who comes to the table, because I think one of the things I love the most about advaya courses is how engaged the community is, and how much you learn from everyone who is technically a participant, but who ends up being your teacher as well, because there's such a wealth of knowledge within the community. Everyone sharing resources, things like that. So I anticipate that this will probably be the same with this course. I encourage people to join, even if it's to share your own perspective with the rest of the community.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I saw that someone has asked about whether there'll be scholarships to take part—and all of our advaya courses have a bursary scheme. This bursary scheme for this course is being sponsored by Be The Earth foundation. Finances shouldn't be a barrier to participation, so if you feel like you can't afford the course, please apply for a bursary or purchase the concession ticket. And with the bursary scheme, you can pay as you wish for the course.

But going back to my question, who should attend this course? And not so much who specifically, in terms of age, and how they identify, and where they're from, but more about what kind of person should be signing up for the course? When people look at the course, they might think it's a theoretical inquiry, and so then they might think they have to have some sort of background in feminist thinking...

ANWULIKA OKONJO: This is definitely not supposed to be a course for highly academic people. You really don't have to have any knowledge on this topic whatsoever. The main thing is that you should be curious about questions like how do we relate to each other? What does a harmonious society look like? What does it mean, for me to have personal power and agency in the world? If you're curious about narratives, stories and history, I think you'll find this course really engaging. We will talk about myths from different points in history, myths that are prevalent about women and womanhood.

But you don't have to be a woman, you don't have to identify as a woman. You can identify as anything, because ultimately, this isn't just an inquiry about womanhood, it's about relationship.

It's about thinking differently, the concepts of masculinity and femininity, which are extremely fluid concepts that we're going to grapple with and unpack and get to define for ourselves.

There's going to be like a lot of freedom within the course, as we're learning to explore these ideas at a personal level as well. And we have these collective enquiry sessions, so that completely moves away from the lecture format; there will be talking, journaling, as well. So if you're looking for a really reflective and connected space to explore new histories, new ideas, and you have no prior knowledge or background, that's absolutely fine.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Are there any sessions that you would like to highlight, that you're personally looking forward to?

ANWULIKA OKONJO: The two that I probably am most excited about personally are: one, when we get into the relationship part of the course, I think it's going to be really, really great. It's the second part of the series, we are going to be exploring women's collectives, and global solidarities, and then also reclaiming self. And so we're looking at the interpersonal, and collective power, and then we're looking more at our selves, our relationships. I'm really excited to hear about people's experiences when when we get to those parts, about what people's experiences have been with building relationship with women, or with gender non-conforming people? What have people's relationships to the concept of power, and to masculinity and femininity been? And how, at this point, during the course, are your ideas starting to shift? That will then bring us into the next part which is about place and practice, which is going to be a lot of embodied practice and things like that. That second half really will set us up for some really rich conversations.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Amazing. And so on that note, I will invite folks to join us on the course, and you can get tickets at womenandpower.co, and take 20% off with LIVE20. You can find all the details about the sessions, about the teachers, and the course framework, and how it's structured, all on the website. Thank you so much, Anwulika, for joining us today on the live. I'm really excited for the courts to start, and also for the other lives that will be happening with Pat McCabe and Riane Eisler, who are teachers on the course. So, for those listening, you can also look forward to those lives, which we will be hosting.

ANWULIKA OKONJO: Thank you. And feel free, anyone, to reach out if you also have questions for me.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Bye, everyone. Thank you!


Anwulika Okonjo

Anwulika Okonjo is a global social impact strategist and communications consultant, especially passionate about working with women-led businesses/organisations and women/youth/African/black people focused initiatives across a broad range of issue areas.

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