Critical Pedagogy Symposium: The Emotional Labour of Teaching–A Feminist Critique of Teaching Critical International Law

Critical Pedagogy Symposium: The Emotional Labour of Teaching–A Feminist Critique of Teaching Critical International Law

[Rohini Sen is an Assistant Professor at Jindal Global Law School.]

All the Things We Never Say

International Law is imperial, colonial, capitalist and patriarchal. A vast array of critical approaches to the discipline have laid bare its Eurocentric foundations and insidious continuum. Yet, while much critical scholarship adequately battle the first two conditions, most are eerily silent on the patriarchal moorings of the discipline. The silence is all the more perplexing since critical international law includes feminist approaches which ably interrogates the place of gender (although my writing here is limited to the female experience I think of gender as a spectrum and not binary) in and of international law (and the critiques as well).

It appears that some critical approaches and scholars have not divested themselves of a male frame of reference. Here I speak directly to and of TWAIL comrades. As a post-colonial feminist TWAIL scholar, I speak from within the discipline and the approach. And I do not to take away from the monumental bedrock of TWAIL scholarship and the platforms its denizens have provided. If anything, my provocation is very much a part of my TWAIL inheritance because the approach embraces critique, including of itself. With this caveat, I address the elephant in the room: critical international law, especially TWAIL, does not adequately account for feminist ethos and practice.

Mainstream international law is unreceptive, even hostile towards critical approaches in general. This is not unexpected. However, when it comes to framing a feminist critique of international law and incorporating it in pedagogic practices, TWAIL is equally hesitant. I have alluded to the rich body of work that interrogates international law’s patriarchal mainframe. None of this, however, is authored or referenced in scholarship by the ‘TWAIL men’. Here, I make a distinction between the TWAIL-feminist critique of international law mounted by feminist scholars and the remainder of TWAIL scholarship which mostly seem to be dominated by men. (There are a significant number of women working on, within and with TWAIL who contribute richly to the movement. These women do not necessarily always address the ‘feminist question’ or deal with gender in their work. Through feminist ethos, I speak of practices that go beyond the visibility and participation of ‘gender’ in disciplines and these are not limited to women. Thus, when I say TWAIL and ‘TWAIL men’, I refer to scholarship that is considered canon in the TWAIL lexicon. Despite their incredible intellectual expanse and rigour, they seem to have skirted feminist praxis and the ‘female question’). To be fair, TWAIL is not a gendered critique. It only promises allyship and comradeship with other critical disciplines and critiques of the international legal system. To denounce it for what it never claimed to be is unfair and inaccurate. However, for a movement as encompassing in form and nature, not performing this intellectual-emotional labour of acknowledgement and inclusion is discouraging. And even on counts of allyship to feminist ethos, it appears to somewhat fail.

I do not intend for this post to be a polemic. Neither do I claim to speak for anyone other than myself. However, anecdotal accounts and female safe spaces in academia lead me to believe that I am not alone in my censure of this truanting practice in TWAIL. The most frequently used TWAIL scholarly pieces rarely reference feminist scholarship. Whereas, almost all academic work that foregrounds postcolonial feminism in international law, does so by referencing the TWAIL mainframe.

To be clear, feminist ethos is a dynamic, jurisprudential, lived conduct and goes beyond written scholarship. It speaks to everyday praxis and relationship making through emotional labour and inclusion. For written scholarship, it could mean reparative reading, mindful references and breaking away from normative (I understand this as a European male standard/reference frame. Claims of objectivity can be interrogated on grounds of being Eurocentric as well as chauvinistic.) styles and contents. And for teaching, one may see it as a pedagogic performance of care and awareness of silences and spaces. Talking about teaching entails constantly navigating its human centric design which, unlike scholarship, is an engaged act of trust. This, I suggest, makes the scant conversation on critical pedagogy in the teaching of critical international law an indication of lacking feminist praxis.

Leave the ‘Feminism Bit’ to Women. Again.

The main corpus of feminist critique of international law comes from a range of feminist scholars: white, intersectional, Marxist, transnational and post-colonial feminists. This is generously undergirded and often in tandem with an array of queer scholarship as well. Chinkin and Charlesworth have given us the framework for ‘‘Feminist Approaches to International Law’. Kapur, Nesiah, Otto and others broadened our horizons to the immense possibility of post-colonial feminist critique and queer interventions to the discipline. This rich arsenal of incisive and rigorous feminist scholarship traverse a spectrum of reform, recharge or complete disruption of the patriarchal stench of the discipline. And new, powerful forms of exposition are being added to the discipline through subversive, disruptive platforms by postgraduate students and early career scholars. None of these seems to come from men, however. (B.S Chimni, in his recent work, International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches, addresses this. While belated, this is extremely welcome and cherished.)

The legitimacy and standpoint politics of who can speak and who may speak in critical scholarship is an unavoidable question. Similarly, the expectation and hope of feminist scholarship coming from women is not entirely unfounded. However, what is a practice of agency and assertion has almost become an act of discharging a burden – one that ‘TWAIL men’ escape shouldering or engaging with at every chance. Aside from scarce references in written work, conferences and workshops schedule that single, dedicated ‘gender panel’ rather than a comprehensive assimilation of the ethos into the system. Anecdotally, the accounts range from belated engagement, apology for lack of engagement and evasive declarations of ‘can you direct us to some important feminist texts’. I imagine one locates feminist scholarship the same way one locates everything else in research – by making an effort to find it. There is a wealth of feminist scholarship in international law and otherwise to devour. I am not suggesting, in any manner, that we dilute experiential representation and accounts by and of women. That is sacrosanct to feminist praxis. However, questions of legitimacy cannot absolve demands of:

  1. Solidarity and allyship by using more feminist scholarship in their work.
  2. Incorporating feminist ethos in their teaching and in the academe.
  3. More feminist (performance by) TWAIL men.

One may ask why is more feminist performance by men necessary and how do we counter the risk of men altering, perhaps corrupting the critique? Feminist performance is an act of allyship. Creating and sustaining a space free from male-ness is critical. However, more immersive participation from men is encouraged to reform the discipline and ourselves. Unlearning of the colonial and the patriarchal are intertwined tasks for scholars looking to salvage, disrupt or repurpose Eurocentric international law. This is a relationship of ethics in which our scholarship and our ethical conduct as critical scholars are germane to this project. We cannot realise the full potential of one without the other. And in this, we need better alliyship by way of greater feminist performance by men. Sadly, much like TWAIL’s struggle for a seat at the table with Eurocentric international law (Some want to dismantle the table, if not the room itself ), feminist approaches fight their own battles (and allies) within TWAIL itself.

Feminist Pedagogy: Teaching Critical International Law, Virtually and Otherwise

Despite the scholarship, the teaching of Critical International Law is completely bereft of feminist pedagogy (and queer pedagogy) and practices. This is circumscribed by the fact that the teaching of Critical International Law itself is both rare and circumspect. Feminist pedagogy, and I borrow here from Puri and Shrewsbury, is a theory of care that guides our classroom practices. It is a vision of what education can be and is ultimately looking to transform academia as well. In this space, the classroom is a liberatory environment where the ‘teacher-student and student-teacher act as subjects, not objects’. This is a form of engaged teaching/learning with self and others involved in a continuing reflective process. Diversity, inclusion and expression form part of epistemologies where the process of knowledge making is as vulnerable as knowledge itself.

For Critical International Law, then, the task is to introduce feminist critiques of International Law in a manner that allows us to remain grounded in context and experience. As I have said, much like mainstream international law, TWAIL lends itself to a ‘male’ texture as well. This makes the performance of both those tasks uniquely onerous. In my Critical International Law course titled ‘Many Faces of International Law: Critiques and Limits’ I introduce students to feminist critiques in the third module, following TWAIL. I then use TWAIL and feminist critique as frameworks to interrogate sovereignty along with inidigenous accounts of law, land and the state. Interestingly, even though both TWAIL and feminist critique are discoveries for them, the reception of each differs. They take to TWAIL with alacrity and purpose, immediately making the connection between the discipline and their subject-object selves. Feminist critique however, garners more pushback and fatigue, as if to say – ‘must you make international law about gender as well?’ There is surprise at the possibility of feminist critique of a discipline that claims to primarily deal with states. Even if the individual is the ultimate subject, surely gender is too far removed from the machinations of the nation-state?

Paradoxically, when both frameworks of critique are used to dismantle statehood, the feminist approach performs a better expose of the post-colonial state. In the era of insurgent gender justice, calling out the state’s oppressive male-ness is a more robust practice than locating its insidious colonialism. Perhaps, this is easier to ascribe to the post-colony. Students are quick to spot imperial institutions of Eurocentric international law that are dominated by hegemonic states such as the UNSC, World Bank and IMF. The global south, to them, is almost always an object and rarely an oppressor. When it comes to patriarchy, however, they are ready to hold the state accountable for failure to cater to all other genders but men. This is possible because the Global South is often perceived to be socially and culturally illiberal in comparison to the West. The patriarchal, barbaric image of the ‘other’, namely the global south men as curated by the West reinforces this narrative like no other. The irony of this is not lost on me.

Regardless, this may be an insight into how TWAIL can benefit from adapting feminist praxis in pedagogy. Feminist approaches are, among many things, a continuous performance of emotional labour – of compreheding the other, accounting for missing discourses and knowing the limits to ourselves. While being equally insurgent and disruptive as TWAIL, its ability of holding space allows for better assimilation of diversity and context. It is not that there is an absence of divergent views in feminist thinking. However, they are resolved through a sense of vulnerability, exchanged between the scholar and the subject of knowledge. Usually, in this segment of my course, students spot the similarities and synergies between both approaches (TWAIL and feminist), often asking why they do not speak to each other more often. I will ask the same of TWAIL men.

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

While my foray into the virtual classroom has been limited, the nature of emotional labour has been distinct. In order to locate the right pitch for an online classroom, I have had to account for tone (mine and the students), pronounced patience, intuitively gauging their energy and resetting my teaching methods to our collective performance. Amidst this, we are continually reconfiguring our capacity to learn and adapt. I often use Vasuki’s piece on the veil to show the location of Third World women in relation to mainstream international law. Through virtual pedagogy, I have learnt that identity and politics occupy a differential site in the digital space. While much of digital pedagogy is at the mercy of internet capacity and access, it also seems to be uniquely capacious of diverse and inclusive needs. It reveals to us, yet again, how academia is rife with patriarchy and ableism. Students and faculty with different needs are able to access the classroom with minimal movement. And on two different occasions, both my students and I have been able to circumvent classroom structures to accommodate debilitating menstrual pain – tasks that are impossible to navigate in the physical classroom (This post was completed amidst severe menstrual pain and I consider this a relevant acknowledgement to indicate the gendered nature of academia yet again. It is a part of invisible, unpaid, emotional labour and I am all for subverting normative male spaces). The possibility of all this speaks to me of the potential of feminist ethos in the virtual teaching space.

Translating the labour of a physical classroom into a virtual platform has only affirmed the need for feminist praxis. And, feminist pedagogy intervenes by performing both the task of introducing gender and care while breaking formalist pedagogical approaches. Teaching Critical International Law may involve multiple pedagogies, but a feminist ethos is not optional. Much of the current online teaching is enacting physical pedagogy into virtual classrooms and we are in desperate need for digitally customised pedagogical practices. However, as we learn from the experiences of Critical International Law teachers from across the globe, while virtual pedagogy is indeed limiting, it has potential as well. There is hope in digital pedagogy, should we choose to cater to questions of access and content.

Babatunde Fagbayibo opens us up to the potential of social media as a subversive tool against formalist practices. Sina Etezazian and Pouria Askary urge us to be pedagogically creative in order to best utilize virtual spaces. Noha Aboueldahab tells us of the possibilities of interconnectedness through the internet and fostering critical discussions among students across the Doha and American campus of GU. Amritha Shenoy guides us to the various online tools and resources available to bolster TWAIL interventions. Florence Shako asks us, the teachers, to adopt a beginner’s mindset and learn new digital teaching experiences along with our students. Seokwoo Lee brings to our notice the DILA lecture series which aims to map Asian experience and practices of International law. And finally, Brendan Browne urges us to be critically disposed and carefully evaluate institutional policies and safeguards, even as we embrace and engage with the internet.

My journey with this symposium has been transformative. I have learnt a lot about critical pedagogy and critical international law from my exceptional colleagues. Critical pedagogy in international law, without explicitly claiming to be so, is a harmonization of innovation, interdisciplinarity and repeated disruption of formalist, Eurocentric mainframes. Each account of teaching has given us insight into unique challenges presented by Covid-19 and how we might circumvent them. However, I cannot help but notice that the ones who are most hopeful of internet teaching, despite its severe limitations, are all women!

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Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Themes
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