Claudia Hirtenfelder
Claudia Hirtenfelder

Talking ourselves to knowing a new tomorrow

What is knowledge to you? I mean, really, what is it? Is it something that is encapsulated in a document or is it a fractured, partial view of the world? Is knowledge finite and infallible or structured and unchanging?

We don’t often reflect on how we know the world but if you were to sit for a brief moment and think about how your ideas and thoughts about what is right and wrong, appropriate or not have changed over time you will soon realise the temporality of knowledge.

You will realise that knowledge, especially when it comes to our social relations, can be fickle and biased. You will also then note that it is here, in these fussy, difficult to define faultlines of knowledge where change is most hidden and shows it’s most potential

Recognising the ambivalent nature of knowledge has, for me, been a learning experience. I continue to, daily, grapple with how my worldview is shaped by socially informed ideas about who belongs where and why I think that is. I constantly challenge what I take for granted, what I think I know and try to wrestle with the uncanny feeling that a lot of my country’s history, as well as my own social standing, have shaped this knowledge!

My encounter with feminist and gender studies has been this awakening, both for me and for many of my friends and families. No longer do I see men greeting me as “sweety” as an indicator of a nice anecdote but rather as part of a much broader structure where women are often infantilised despite being professionals in their own right.

Coming to grips with the many and fractured ways in which our society is gendered, racialised and classed is a difficult, oftentimes turbulent experience. Having my knowledge, and what I thought was “normal”” constantly challenged is exhausting. But it is also exhilarating!

My husband and I are both examples of change. In the four years since I started working in gender matters and delving into the nuances and frictions within feminist theory we have both seen our ability to generalise wane and our criticism of assumptions heighten. My husband now openly calls himself a feminist whereas five years ago we both cringed at the word, feeling it only represented bra-burning women who hated men.

Our views have changed so much and we are slowly becoming the change we want to see in the world through the way we speak about people and how we react to those who are thought of as different, non-heteronormative, or queer. We are literally examples of how sharing ideas and knowledge in conversation can have deep-rooted, far-reaching, and life-changing consequences.

I share this with you because recently I was asked about whether Gender Summit Africa would be “just another talk shop”. I took offence to the question. What does that mean? Just another talk shop?

“Talk shop” has become a quick way to side-line the importance of debate and to abject the significance of having people in one room sharing ideas which could change the face of our world. “Talk shop” makes talking and debating sound as though it is not fruitful, not useful — and that is simply not true.

Sure, I have been to one too many conferences where people are more concerned with being polite than challenging one another but I have been to even more where the debates at the lunch table are enriching and challenging, where more than once I, or others around me, have said “Huh, I had never thought of it that way” and I have no doubt Gender Summit Africa will do exactly that!

We are too quick to ask about what document or policy will emanate from a gathering, too ready to place a high level of significance on some arbitrary output so that another arbitrary box can be ticked. We are also too ready to say “No, this won’t be a talk shop”.

Talk shops are exhilarating, knowledge-sharing spaces where if each person left the room feeling their world a little more off kilter it would be a better place. If we all learnt to be a little less certain of what we think we know and a little more open to the fractured lines of knowledge, maybe we would find solutions that challenge the very fabric of what the Earth looks like today and forge a yet to be known, new, and exciting tomorrow filled with less inequality, more purpose and complex thinking.

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