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  • Beyond Rescue:Rethinking Advocacy and Intervention in the Women's and Gender Studies Classroom
  • Sharmila Lodhia (bio)

"For concepts like human rights, Western nations have developed it according to their own customs, culture and notions of what constitutes human rights violations. By calling that a universal principle and trying to apply it to non-Western countries, it's akin to trying to fit a square peg into a circular hole: it won't work and you'll be left thinking that there's something wrong with the peg rather than the hole you're trying to fit it into."1

"Social justice and charitable acts aren't all good if they're done in ways that don't respect the subject."


As an instructor of courses examining women's lives through a transnational feminist lens and a scholar whose research explores the challenge of utilizing the law to address gendered violence, I am deeply invested in the question of how we frame discussions of advocacy in the women's and gender studies classroom.

I design my courses to promote critical thinking and a more nuanced understanding of global interventions being undertaken in the name of "social justice." The significance of why and how we frame advocacy for students was crystallized for me over a series of events which highlighted how certain mainstream and readily digestible models of global activism were being elevated as models of social justice at Santa Clara University (SCU), the Jesuit institution in the San Francisco Bay Area where I teach. The institutional framework of social justice had a significant role in shaping my development of a new women's and gender studies course called Sex, Law and Social Justice: The Politics of Advocacy, which gave me an opportunity to reflect on the sometimes vexed relationship between student learning, transnational feminist knowledge production, legal advocacy, and Santa Clara's particular institutional embodiment of social justice.

This tension initially surfaced for me in 2012 when I was invited to serve on a "Book of the Month" panel at Santa Clara dedicated to discussing Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's 2009 book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book was chosen, I came to learn, in part because of its widespread popularity among readers but also because it was being assigned in a variety of courses across the disciplines, from global business to public health to religious studies. I was invited to offer a perspective on the text shaped by my transnational feminist research and teaching. What interested me at the time were the politics behind the selective embrace of this particular text examining women's [End Page 1] lives in the Global South. What had been included and excluded in Kristof and WuDunn's zeal to advance an uncontaminated narrative about the possibilities of "turning oppression into opportunity" worldwide? It was certainly not the first book to highlight the realities of gendered violence, women's health disparities, and educational inequalities. Why, I wondered, was its particular rhetorical framing of injustices against women singled out as a model for global activism on our campus? What was it about this book that resonated with the university's mission and enabled it to stand as a sort of prerequisite to the community-based learning and global fellowship programs offered by the university?

The role of the text and its relationship to the framing of social justice on campus was further underscored by a university-sponsored visit by author Sheryl WuDunn in 2015. WuDunn's talk focused on her latest book co-authored with Kristof: A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. Though A Path Appears purports to focus more directly on global citizenship and making a difference through activism and philanthropy, WuDunn's talk made clear that her calls to action relied heavily on gross racialized stereotypes and pathological constructions of U.S. women of color and women living in poverty who, according to the author, were more prone to "poor" decision-making and parenting. Extensive formal and informal dialogue followed WuDunn's event. Faculty and students discussed not only the content of the books and the talk, but also the manner in which...


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