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Bridging the Local and Global: Archiving Women’s Collectives in Spaces of Action/Reflection

A project funded by the British Academy Virtual Sandpits Follow-On Funding.

Background and aims of the project

Global governance struggles to engage with locally generated knowledge. As a result, in the global knowledge repository there seems to be a conceptual distance between the global and the local. Examining local production of knowledge disrupts knowledge in global governance and deepens understanding of how to work towards equitable knowledge production in the ‘global (dis) order’. One of the ways to begin thinking about the local disrupting/enriching the global (dis) order is through women’s collectives. Women have organised in ‘collectives’ to achieve shared goals for centuries in formal and informal spaces. Across the world, structural and systemic patriarchy has resisted the recognition of these efforts, thus making the legitimisation and documentation of this knowledge problematic. As a result, the feminist waves are the most commonly known initiatives of women.

The project responds to the fact that (1) the recognition and documentation of women’s collectives is in its infancy stage across the world and (2) narratives that emerge are often from the North with scarce engagement with women’s activism in the South. Both issues are addressed by first documenting and recording the formation of women’s collectives and secondly deeply studying the modalities involved in the creation of ‘collective spaces’ (not limited to place rather, ‘space’ created using multiple mediums including, physical, social, cyber and/or communal) by women. By employing the vocabulary of ‘spaces’ we intend to unlearn what is meant by collectives and seek to redefine concepts in the light of the insights gained from those who experience them (our participants).

Our particular focus is to study the forms and circumstances of collective action in the South. As Santos (2016) reminds us South does not refer to a geographical location, ‘The South is rather a metaphor for the human suffering caused by capitalism and colonialism on the global level, as well as for the resistance to overcoming or minimising such suffering’ (p. 18). We recognise that power asymmetries function on national as well as international scales. Therefore, North and South is used as a metaphor for disadvantage. Thus, Norths and Souths can be envisioned in any one country (Trefzer, Jackson, McKee, Dellinger 2014). Utilising ‘spaces of action’/reflection within this project allows for an exploration of the complexity of how the North/South are constructed across different sites/places. Any conceptualisation of an inclusive and ethical idea of ‘Global (Dis)order’ will need to understand how ideas of ‘order’ utilise conceptualisations of local/global and North/South, as well as including the knowledge gained through people by studying how they themselves have generated order/disorder to form collective spaces for reflection, problem solving and/or action.

An essential starting point for any form of ‘global order’ ideology is to begin at the local. Therefore, through an interdisciplinary exploration of local efforts for creating ‘collective spaces’, this project intends to bridge the Global and the Local through a learning exercise. In bringing together law and education, archives and interviews, reproductive healthcare and education, this project offers a novel way of understanding how collective responses to local/global challenges occur, how we can better record these so as to bridge the local and the global, and how order/disorder is (and can be) understood. For this we pose the question: How do women from the South, create, develop, sustain and use ‘collective spaces of action’/reflection in the UK and Ireland?

In trying to answer this question our sub-questions are:

1. How is knowledge of women’s collectives produced (historically and currently) and how should alternative spaces be taken into account when producing/recording these knowledge(s)? (Phase 1)

2. What can we learn from the creation of women collectives, their aspirations and materialisation of aspirations? (Phase 2)

3. How can global governance begin to unlearn and relearn the ideas about women’s collectivism based on local knowledge? (Phase 3)


Mawani challenges the idea that ‘the archive’ is a ‘repository of historical records and sources’ and instead argues that it is a ‘dynamic, incomplete, and fiercely disputed site of knowledge production [which] carries profound implications for how we write history and approach and understand the past’ (Mawani (2012)). We seek to explore conceptions of archives through two case studies: Northern/Ireland reproductive healthcare and provision of primary education during COVID in Bangladesh and Pakistan communities in the UK.

We challenge traditional conceptions of ‘archive’ by adopting narrative interviews as an alternative method of archival knowledge production. Narrative thinking acknowledges interviews and field notes/observations as sites of narrative production (Czarniawski (2004); Clandinin and Connelly (2000)). ‘Narrative’ means re-telling stories. The idea is to ‘learn’ from people and listen to their experiences. Narrative interviews have three main components: temporal (past and present experiences, as well as future aspirations), their location and physical/psychological state at the time of events they are describing; and social relationships in relation to the events they describe.

Through narrative interviews participants in women collectives will be asked to reflect on their experiences of how a variety spaces were created and instrumentalised to achieve their goals. They will be asked to reflect on the role of silence, formal/informal, private/public, spaces, as well as the role of space for diaspora contribution. This typology helps us to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of archiving women’s collectives operating as part of the Global South in the UK and Ireland:

  1. ‘Silence’: To what extent should archivists respect ‘silence’ and lack of archiving/documentation for the empowerment women collectives (Parpart (2009); Parpart and Parashar, (2020))? To what extent are private and/or confidential platforms important for fulfilling aspirations (telephone conversations, text messages, informal meetings, email threads)? To what extent are physical/non-physical private spaces of action and reflection used to ensure silence? What other functions do those spaces perform? To what extent is anonymity of participants in women collectives key to empowering them to achieve their goals? Is there a responsibility to archive and does silence/anonymity form a tension with archiving women collectives? Do we have to think creatively about alternative conceptions of archiving in this context?
  2. ‘Formal/Informal, Public/Private, Physical Spaces’: Which types of public spaces are instrumental in fulfilling aspirations of women collectives, particularly where (post)colonial dynamics are at play. Informal physical spaces include the ability to access non-urban spaces such as the countryside or small villages. Conversely, they include urban spaces, permission to demonstrate or march in key locations in major cities (Harvey (1973); Fletcher 2020) which may be conditioned by geopolitical circumstances. It explores how taking up space through public art and posters is used. Formal public spaces include the infiltration of formal public institutions including courts, executive, parliament, crucial for achieving goals of women collectives (McNeilly, Enright, De Londras 2020). To what extent are private physical spaces crucial for women’s collectives? Are there challenges to protecting those spaces?
  3. ‘Formal/Informal, Public/Private, Non-Physical Spaces’: How are spaces of action/reflection created through online/social media, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram? How does it present challenges and opportunities for women collectives? ‘It is not only access to resources that affect our experience of space but also micro-social relations that convert spaces into rites of meaning and power’ (Massey 1994, 146). The project considers who has access to social media – is there improved access or can it be excluding? Does it facilitate micro-social relations that can form spaces of action and reflection (Ceuterick (2020)? For example, can hashtags create space (Willis (2020))? Are there challenges or threats presented to women collectives in using this space?
  4. Diaspora: ‘Diasporas, the voluntary or forcible movement of peoples from their homelands into new regions, is a central historical fact of colonization’ (Ashcroft 68-69). ‘Diaspora’ and ‘feminism’ are two problematic areas of post-colonial theory: ‘[E]xpatriate women, naturally endowed with the feminine ability to relate simultaneously to two homes, employ wisdom and compassion to empathize with two different cultures…, and to heal the fractured selves (their own and those of fellow-beings) by synthesizing the moderate and the best in the two cultures. (Valiyamattam 2013, p. 24). ‘Globalization offers unprecedented opportunities for transnational feminist activism, but seizing these opportunities will depend upon feminists' ability to read sameness and difference on a global scale....’ (Bahri, (2004) p. 220). The case studies with which we are concerned involve complex geopolitical, postcolonial spaces within which the diaspora play a complex but significant role. We aim to examine the complex feelings of the diaspora themselves. We also examine how the diaspora are viewed from the perspective of those located in the physical space of action.

Northern/Ireland reproductive healthcare

The reproductive healthcare case study will be conducted with multi-stakeholders from the local, domestic, and international level in relation to an historical moment in two jurisdictions: the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Examination of these two countries/jurisdictions facilitates examination of divergences and convergences in methods of women collectivism that arise in complex geopolitical and post-colonialist contexts. Through interviews, the project will help to uncover how the distinctive constitutional arrangements, and (post)colonialist contexts, affected collectivist tactics, and thereby impacted on documentation. For example, it will examine the contrasting uses of space in holding a referendum in repealing a constitutional provision (Republic of Ireland) versus changing the law through Westminster legislation for Northern Ireland.

Bangladesh and Pakistan Communities in UK Provision of Primary Education during COVID

The education case study examines the provision of primary education during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. Specifically, it examines women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage’s experiences of home-schooling their primary-school aged children in the UK. Through narrative interviews, this project seeks to reveal how women formed communities of practice during the lockdowns. At a moment of uncertainty, it considers women’s experiences of time; what were the rhythms of these days? And, against a backdrop of concerns about children missing schooling and the need for ‘catching up’, this study asks how women enacted their educational desire through their home schooling practices. Building on feminist scholarship, the case study interrogates the place of the home in these educational practices, as private spaces were given over to the public function of making education accessible. 


Jane M Rooney

Dr Jane M Rooney is Assistant Professor in International Law, Durham Law School, and Co-Director of Law and Global Justice at Durham. Jane researches the interactions between different levels and spaces of governance from the international to the local in the field of international human rights law. She contributed legal arguments in the reform of abortion law in Northern Ireland on the division of competence and responsibility for implementation of international human rights obligations across devolved and central governance. Jane is a member of Gender and Law at Durham and a participant in the project on Imagining Feminist Constitutional Futures for Northern/Ireland. In this project, Jane is primary investigator. She investigates the spaces of action/reflection of women’s collectives in reforming abortion law in Northern/Ireland. 


Aliya Khalid

Dr Aliya Khalid has a PhD in gender, education, and development from the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is Lecturer in Comparative and International Education in the Department of Education, University of Oxford. Her work focuses on how mothers in the Global South navigate their agency in highly constrained circumstances. Her areas of interest include capabilities, negative capability, epistemic paradoxicality and the politics of knowledge production. Her research interests lie in issues of epistemic justice and the promotion of knowledges (plural) and Southern epistemologies. In this project, she investigates the spaces of action/reflection of women’s collectives in Pakistan and Bangladesh communities in the UK who provided education to their children during COVID. 



Ruth Houghton

Dr Ruth Houghton is a Lecturer at Newcastle Law School. Her research centres on Public International law and Global Constitutionalism, where she critiques the uses of democracy, constituent power and scale. Dr Houghton utilises feminist methodologies, law and humanities methodologies, constitutional and political theory. Dr Houghton’s work is published in journals such as Global Constitutionalism and the Leiden Journal of International Law on topics including democracy, utopias, manifestos and archiving. She is currently co-editing a Handbook on Global Governance (Edward Elgar, 2022). As part of this project, Ruth will be conducting archival research into methodologies for archiving women collectives and the unique challenges and opportunities it presents.



Kate Spencer-Bennett

Dr Kate Spencer-Bennett is a researcher interested in women’s experiences of education. Her recently completed PhD at the University of Birmingham examined the role of libraries in women’s education and everyday lives. During this time she acted as Editorial Assistant for Paedagogica Historica Journal of the History of Education and taught on a range of courses within the School of Education at Birmingham. Before studying for a PhD Kate was a secondary school teacher of English and Drama.  Kate works with Aliya in investigating spaces of action/reflection of women’s collectives in Pakistan and Bangladesh communities in the UK who provided education to their children during COVID.




Alana Farrell

Alana is a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham, where she is supervised by Professor Fiona de Londras and Ms Máiréad Enright. Her thesis focuses on the impact of law on the sharing of abortion information in Ireland. Her research interests include reproductive justice, the interactions of law and information in the area of healthcare, and histories of activism. Alana works with Jane on the spaces of action/reflection of women’s collectives in reforming abortion law in Northern/Ireland.




Lavinia Kamphausen

Photograph of Lavinia KamphausenLavinia is a DPhil student at the Department of Education, University of Oxford. Her doctoral research explores transnational student activism in the fields of demilitarisation, decolonisation and climate justice, involving a multi-sited ethnography. Prior to coming to Oxford, Lavinia studied Comparative Literature and Media Studies (BA) in Bonn and St Andrews and Intercultural Communication and Education (MA) in Cologne and at SOAS, London. Her research interests include critical higher education research, the decolonisation of higher education and queer temporalities. Lavinia works with Aliya on the spaces of action/reflection of women’s collectives in Pakistan and Bangladesh communities in the UK who provided education to their children during COVID.