Poems, art and song: how our development journal tackled the theme of decolonising knowledge

Gender and Development editors Gender & Development Journal, Power Shifts, Research

The latest issue of the Oxfam-edited Gender & Development Journal embraces poets, artists and community activists alongside researchers as it shines a light on voices, experiences and modes of expression that are too often neglected and silenced.

Collage by Valeria Elizondo Pineda titled “Gender Trajectory’. Source: Andrea Lira, Andrea Barría & Ana Luisa Muñoz-García (2023) Gender knowledge, territorialising the rhizome, and playing with creative methods, Gender & Development, 31:2-3, 661-681, DOI: 10.1080/13552074.2023.2264640

What is “academic” and “legitimate” knowledge? Who should design development programmes? What are the ways we can “destabilise” traditional modes of academic writing (Handforth and Taylor 2016, 628)? Why are we even writing all of this in English?

In the latest issue of the Gender & Development journal, our contributors tackle these and related questions (see this piece by Nithila Kanagasabai tackling the first question) in a special issue on the theme of “decolonising knowledge and practice”. In it, we attempt to centre voices, perspectives, knowledge(s), vulnerabilities, histories and memories that are unheard, neglected, silenced and/or erased through existing power structures. An important aspect of this issue is broadening the forms of expression beyond conventional papers so, alongside articles by researchers, we embrace contributions such as experience-based pieces, photo-essays, artistic expressions and poems.

Our journey as a journal

Tackling decolonisation of knowledge is an apt theme for the Gender & Development journal itself as it approaches two years since it moved from its old home at Oxfam Great Britain to the global South – where it is now hosted by a consortium of six southern Oxfam affiliates: Brasil, Colombia, India, KEDV (Turkey), Mexico and South Africa.

Guest edited by committed decolonial feminist researchers, thinkers and practitioners Julia Schöneberg, Lata Narayanaswamy, Montserrat Algarabel, and Lina Abou-Habib, this special issue reflects critically on “decolonising knowledge and practice”. We try to use the privilege and responsibility that comes with having this space to curate the journal’s content in ways that challenge academic publishing norms.

Contributions in the special issue include pieces from rural and urban Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Oman, Palestine, Senegal, Syria, and Zambia. In this blog, we pick out three key themes.

1. What counts as knowledge? Looking beyond the form and content of traditional papers

The contributions of this issue push the boundaries of traditional knowledge products and have demanded a fresh approach to our editorial processes. So alongside the papers, readers will find poems that tackle the overarching theme of the issue (Thuleleni Msomi; Binsu Susan John and Sara-Maya). The poems speak to the historical oppression and erasure of the voices of women and other marginalised communities, colonial educational systems, and the colonial tendency to ignore knowledge systems and forms of knowledge that are not in English. 

Contributors also use innovative methodologies to examine areas of knowledge and experience that are typically neglected in policy and academic work such as touch, colour and smell (Advaita Rajendra and Ankur Sarin); Katie McQuaid and Desy Ayu Pirmasari’s paper uses inventive methods including setting up a live musical performance with the YouTube link included in the paper, as they explore the links between gender, age and climate change in marginalised urban communities in Indonesia.

The action research by Natalia Reinoso-Chávez, Laura Fonseca, Maria Alejandra Fino, Yasleidy Guerrero Tatiana Muñoz, and Carolina Gómez is rooted in dialogue between researchers and former guerrilla members in Colombia around Buen Vivir (Good Living) values to co-construct community-led knowledge. Other authors ask fundamental questions about themselves and about the people who create academic knowledge: Andrea Lira, Andrea Barría, and Ana Luisa Muñoz-García (see collage above) question who is a gender expert and reflect on how in fact gender knowledge is rooted in many places, where it grows in unpredictable and wondrous ways, like grass.

Articles by Anneke Newman, Judi Aubel, and Mamadou Coulibaly; Lindsay Robinson, Brianna Parent-Long and Lilianna Coyes-Loiselle; Clara Desalvo, Shama Dossa, Boikanyo Modungwa; and Katia Taela present powerful arguments for community-powered and community-centred development programmes that disrupt top-down designs imposed by northern funders and/or former colonial powers and settler nations. Such approaches rarely take into consideration the aims and needs of rural, Indigenous communities and deprive these communities of leading and owning social change.

2. Why English?

The overwhelming dependence on feminist and decolonial work produced in English, particularly “academic” English, is challenged by contributors including Hayma Alyousfi and Rand Sabbagh and Reny Iskander. Lina Abou-Habib, Carla Akil, and Cynthia Chidiac discuss the rapid growth of local feminist knowledge production in Syria and the Southwest Asia and North Africa region. They shine light on the potential of alternative knowledge platforms such as websites, seminar, workshops, publications, and podcasts in producing and disseminating feminist knowledge, and enriching mainstream scholarship and traditional curricula. 

3. Unheard voices and invisibilised knowledge

Pía Rodríguez-Garrido and Juan Andrés Pino-Morán and Shreeti Shubham share visceral accounts of disability and vulnerability to challenge patriarchal and ableist norms embedded in research, infrastructure and the justice system. Ravikant Kisana and Durga Hole reveal the deliberate lack of engagement with caste in prison studies, which results in the further invisibilisation of the voices of caste-oppressed women in prisons in India.

Places where knowledge is stored and curated, such as museums and archives, also come under a decolonial lens. Yuri Fraccaroli and Nadine Panayot draw attention to the labour and emotions that go into curatorial efforts, to the efforts to decolonise museums, and to the deep significance these hold for communities, histories and memories in Sao Paolo, and Beirut. Efemia Chela adds to the “living archive of queer African experiences” in an exploration of the subcultures and experiences of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women and non-binary people in Lusaka. And Diana Ordóñez Castillo shines a light on the role of community museums led by marginalised women in preserving memories of pain, suffering, resistance, collective healing and peace-building in Colombia.

But we are aware of the limitations

We do, however, need to acknowledge the constraints on our best collective, decolonial and feminist intentions. These are driven by a range of factors including strict editorial timelines; prioritisation of the use of academic English language and written text; reliance on traditional editing and reviewing processes; and lack of enough knowledge about the contributors and the challenges that they navigate, with many for instance being precariously employed.

We also need to be mindful about replicating the very power inequities and hierarchies we are trying to challenge. The powerful contributions by Paulina Ultreras Villagrana, Jennie Gamlin and María Teresa Fernández Aceves; and Lindsay Robinson, Brianna Parent-Long and Lilianna Coyes-Loiselle remind us of these risks and urge us to practice this awareness continuously.  

This special issue is thus a small initiative in a sea of collaborative efforts towards decolonising knowledge. We hope it will pave the way towards sustaining relationships and collaborations of care, trust, and future feminist decolonial works beyond this special issue, and lead to a collective of like-minded scholars, activists, artists and thinkers guided by decolonial feminist intentions.


Gender and Development editors

This blog is jointly authored by the Gender & Development editorial team.

This special double issue is guest edited by Julia Schöneberg, Lata Narayanaswamy, Lina Abou-Habib and Montserrat Algarabel and co-edited by Shivani Satija, Anandita Ghosh and Mahima Nayar. In the spirit of decolonial and feminist intentions to make knowledge as accessible as possible, this special issue is currently free to read on the Taylor and Francis website. 

Note from the editors: As we were finalising our editorial work for this special issue of Gender & Development on decolonising knowledge and practice, the state of Israel escalated violence against innocent Palestinian civilians living inside the occupied Gaza Strip in response to the tragic kidnapping and murder of both Israeli and foreign citizens by Hamas on 7 October 2023. The obliteration of Palestinian lives and land we are currently witnessing the delegitimisation of their narratives and experiences, of their historical resistance movements and struggles, the denial of their most basic rights and dignity constitutes a process of dehumanisation and is the latest in the long history of violation of marginalised communities and their way of life by institutions upheld by coloniality, capitalism, racism and patriarchy.

We stand in solidarity with Oxfam and other organisations and collectives who are demanding an urgent ceasefire, complete cessation of violence, and allowing humanitarian aid to reach people in Gaza. As decolonial feminists holding space in the world of journal publishing, we feel it is important to identify how colonial occupation is a feminist issue, specifically in terms of the differential impacts on gendered bodies. War exacerbates sexual violence borne by all but with a likely disproportionate and violent toll on women’s bodies. And yet amidst this violence it is only when we focus on “women and children” that we are allowed to see and feel the death of innocence. Men, and young men in particular, are instead deemed “fair game”, enemy combatants to be taken as prisoners, to be shot at indiscriminately in both Gaza and the West Bank.

A feminist decolonial approach to a just peace necessitates an end to occupation, only after which the wounds of gender-based violence might begin to heal.