Written by Idorenyin Williams
Have you ever thought or dreamed about a place that speaks so much to what you do or intend to do? A place that resonates with your ideals, and vision for the future in so many ways, as it captures the nuances of your research and life’s interests? Life is like a never-ending cycle that keeps rolling and rolling. You never know where it stops. It never stops. Working with OPIRG Kingston and being a part of Alt-Frosh 2023 programming captures this reality.
Huge thanks to Professor Katherine McKittrick of the Gender Studies and Black Studies program at Queen’s University. I was introduced to her work before coming to Queen’s, where she skilfully maps Black geographies and women’s experiences of racial oppression. She offered me a Research Assistant position with the Black studies program and OPIRG Kingston. To me, it was like I killed two birds with one stone. Having to be in the nexus between both groups shaped my experience in ways that are instrumental to my research and future career.
Meeting and working with Maha, the Coordinator of OPIRG Kingston, was a great experience. She works passionately with and for queer and trans folks on liberation and care. At OPIRG Kingston, Maha created a safe and comfortable space for me, as she does with ensuring that the mandate of OPIRG – to foster a critical, equitable and brave space – is upheld.
Who am I?
This question is oftentimes the most difficult one to answer. We are constantly trying to navigate our being, questions of our existence and humanity and resisting systems and structures that seek to dehumanize us. Living and growing in a world where systems of oppression have marked certain bodies and regulate some, raises threatening questions about humanity. Who is human? Am I human? Am I thing? Who am I? These questions make up ongoing discussions about how we continue to navigate spaces, fight systems, resist oppression and try to define who we really are. A task which can never be completed. It’s a never-ending cycle.
My name is Idorenyin Williams, a feminist researcher and activist from the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and currently a second year PhD student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. My research interests are interdisciplinary, as they cut across the areas of Gender and Black Studies, environmental and social justice, Indigenous studies as well as community-based research from a transnational perspective.
The research I do is the most fulfilling thing in my life now. This research came out of my curiosity towards thinking through the dangers of #metoo politics and the possibilities of erasure of the difference in each experience in relation to other intersecting conditions. While the #metoo movement has made incredible effort in highlighting similarities in experiences of sexual violence, it is however, limited its scope to the acts (of violence) rather than put it in relational to other social factors. My research is not a critique of #metoo or its politics, but rather, a move towards contextualizing women and 2SLGBTIQA people’s experiences in relation to resource extraction. I have read many writings and reports on the gendered impact of resource extraction in the Niger Delta as well as other regions in the world. Few of these studies have dealt with the day-to-day experiences of sexual violence against indigenous women, located in or around communities with extractive activities, from a comparative and transnational perspective. My doctoral research titled: ‘Queering Sisterhood’? A Photovoice Exploration of Experiences of Sexual Violence against Indigenous Women in Resource Extraction Communities of the Niger Delta and Northern Canada: Towards a Comparative Study emerges from my subject-position as an indigenous feminist researcher from the Niger Delta region of Nigeria; who has experienced the impact of Exxon-Mobil oil drilling activities in varied ways. This research is driven by my passion for gender justice and an urgent need to take the responsibility to raise the voices of the silenced, the erased, the experiences that are often blurred through academic and research assumptions.
It is not a new story that resource extraction, a colonial project of exploitation and appropriation, puts indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people living in and/or around communities with extractive activities at risk of sexual violence due to risk factors such as influx of transient workers, workplace harassment, state-sponsored militarization, rotational shift work, economic insecurities and violence in intimate spaces. While there is a lot of work done by feminist scholars and policy makers around these issues, there still remain a gap researching the distinct and intersectional experiences of sexual violence by indigenous women and 2SLGBTIQA persons in extractive communities of the ‘Global North’ vis-à-vis the ‘Global South’. This gap is largely due to generalized assumptions that indigenous women and 2SLGBTIQA persons living in or close to regions with extractive activities, experience sexual violence in similar ways and scale. This assumption often leads to the ignoring of difference (gendered, sexualized, racialized, ‘able-bodiedness’ and other positionalities), and also blurs the intersectional experiences of indigenous women in extractive communities in the ‘Global North’ vis-à-vis the ‘Global South’.
In this work, I intend to use photovoice methodology to disrupt global politics of ‘global sisterhood’ in relation to experiences of sexual violence and extractive economies in different contexts. Photovoice is a community-based visual participatory art-based methodology that centres the experiences and voices of research participants as experts and controllers of their stories. It entails using photographed pictures and images to illustrate intersectional and distinct experiences of each participant. Photovoice is a more nuanced methodological commitment that promises to recognize and incorporate differences by race, sex, dis/ability, sexuality, citizenship and national boundaries. Through photovoice, I intend to question normative notions of ‘global sisterhood’ in relation to resource extraction and sexual violence. ‘Global sisterhood’ is rooted in second wave feminist politics of Global Feminism, which states that women’s problems are universally the same and for that reason, pushes for a global fight against sexism and oppression. In this research, I seek to take a different theoretical position that critiques Global feminism. Through the lens of critical transnational feminist theory, I hope to show a more nuanced theoretical commitment that recognizes and incorporates difference in terms of race, sexual orientation, disability, citizenship, ableism, positionalities, etc. into understanding how these social categories shape women and 2SLGBTIQA person’s experiences of sexual violence in relation to resource extraction.
I use the term ‘queering’ on the one hand as identity politics and contextualizing distinct experiences of people who identify as 2SLGBTIQA. On the other hand, ‘queering’ as a way of questioning dominant trends and discourses on experiences of sexual violence as it relates with extractive economies in the Global North and Global South; I am interested in queering hegemonic discourses associated with various constructions and representations of subjectivities which work to blur various (distinct) strands of structures of global histories of sexual and racial violence as well as global politics and capital.
It is my hope that this research, at the end of my doctoral study, will; contribute to scholarly literature on gendered impact of resource extraction; Contribute, transnationally to practices of just recoveries/transitions, imagining community futures oriented towards the care of lands and indigenous peoples; and to emphasize the necessity of knowledge-sharing, reciprocity and collaboration between the Global North and South in dealing with extractive-related cases of sexual violence against indigenous women 2SLGBTIQA persons.
As part of my academic engagement, I am also involved in a SSHRC-funded project; Futures of Care: Community Challenges to Extraction in South Africa and Canada. Futures of Care project is an ongoing collaborative research between Queen’s University, Dedats’eetsaa: the TłĮcho Research and Training Institute, Hotii Ts’eeda: Northwest Territories SPOR Support Unit, and the Society, Work and Politics Institute at Wits University in South Africa. This project is a collaborative project overseen by lovely supervisors; Dr. Rebecca Hall and Professor Allison Goebel, together with Professor Marc Epprecht. In collaboration Northern Canadian partners and South African partners as well. This project revolves around three key thematic areas: Gender and Care, Youth and youth futures and Just transitions/alternatives to resource extraction. My doctoral research, alongside the SSHRC Insight project, will afford me the transnational perspective much needed in my research.
My academic goals, on completion of my doctoral studies, is to translate the knowledge have learned from my doctoral research into publishable articles and presentations that will advance the field of sexual violence studies, in relation to extractive economies in the Global North vis-à-vis the Global South. As part of my activist work, I intend to launch a Not-for-Profit (activism-based) organization in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. This NPO will be participatory and community-based and will deal with issues of gender-based violence in local communities as it relates to extractive economies in the Niger Delta. With the knowledge and expertise gained from my PhD research, the NPO will strengthen reciprocity and collaboration between the Global North and South in dealing with extractive-related cases of sexual violence against indigenous women.
OPIRG and me
Working with OPIRG Kingston as a research assistant has been a journey into discovery for me. OPIRG is Queen’s University and Katarokwi/Kingston’s centre for education, action and research on social and environmental justice. As a research assistant with OPIRG and Black Studies, I led the People’s History Picnic, a public pop-up display featuring content from OPIRG Kingston’s People’s History Project (PHP). The PHP is a collection of local histories of resistance, liberation, and oppression at Queen’s University and in Kingston. The People’s History Picnic was part of Alt-Frosh, an alternative orientation that centres the voices of marginalized students, and is open to all.
Learning about the histories that shape and define Queen’s Kingston to a large extent has really been a challenging yet important experience. I was struck by the erasures and silences provoked by these histories and the questions they all raised about racist institutional oppressions targeted at visible marginalized groups. The work I did with the People’s History Project was to engage with each of these histories on their own specific and distinct terms, being cautious enough not to essentialize some histories nor to erase some, while trying to foreground some. I was particularly concerned about how to talk about Black histories without silencing the voices of indigenous histories and histories of land. How can we talk about women’s histories of struggle, without erasing histories of struggles of 2SLGBTIQA or making the mistake of subsuming them under women’s struggles? How can we talk about marginality, without including the complex experiences of migrants in Kingston?
As you have realized by now, this land holds so much history. A lot of them are complex and difficult to entangle. An intersectional lens helps to try and understand these complexities. Also, while we carry out the enormous task of disentangling these histories to relate with them in their complex distinct positions, it is also necessary to relate to them in relation to each other, to kind of see the cycles of oppression and to begin to map out strategies for liberation.
My experience with OPIRG has really been the much needed first step for my research project and future career. Every good research or academic work must first start from the history of the people, thing, object, place, etc that the study is based upon. So, it is my honor to have been exposed to such rich and great history which I am hopeful will hold my hand all through my research journey and through my academic and activist career.
Arrrgh! So many things are next. I am looking forward to academic and institutional obligations, such as teaching, research, grant writing and applications. Also, planning towards and working on my qualifying exams. While doing all of these, not losing sight of myself, body and vulnerability and to the understanding that I will constantly always negotiate between being an academic as well as a mom of two precious humans – which brings a whole world of possibilities.