Tag Archives: gender studies

Celebrating Sisterhood for Black History Month 2023

October is Black History Month, which recognises and celebrates the invaluable contributions of black people to British society. This year’s theme is ‘Saluting our Sisters’, which pays homage to black women. Read the remarkable and inspiring story of Dr Jan Etienne, Honorary Research Fellow (Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences) who shares some of her earlier experiences through to her current work in black feminist research.

Dr Jan Etienne

Who is Dr Jan Etienne?

Jan is a distinguished Academic and Honorary Research Fellow, in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Birkbeck. She is the author of several academic publications, including the following books: Learning in Womanist ways: Narratives of first generation, African Caribbean women (2016) (UCL Press); Communities of Activism: Black women, higher education, and the politics of representation (2020) (UCL Press); Doing contemporary womanist research (2023) (LPP) and Decolonising the higher education academy; decolonial feminist approaches (forthcoming).

She is a graduate of the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and Chair of Birkbeck’s (Womanism, Activism, Higher Education Research Network  where she leads a 22-member strong international team of decolonial feminist activists working together with community activists to promote black women’s activism in higher education research. This research network is supported and funded by the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

Jan says, “Collaboration with black women on anti-racist work in education is everything, together we are stronger and collaboratively we can make things happen.  This is what celebrating sisterhood feels like to me.

The people who have inspired me along the way include fellow pupils, community activists, teachers, and lecturers who collaborate with me, as well as students from whom I learn a great deal.

I am committed to securing our spaces in higher education to enable us to breathe and heal, in a climate where there is often mistrust and rage.  However, it is essential that we collaborate with our fellow anti-racist educators, to learn, act and change.”

Outside of Birkbeck, Jan is Editor for the Gender Studies Collection at Lived Places Publishing,  an international education publishing house, based in New York.

Jan was awarded the 2022 Womanist Ethnography prize by the Centre for Womanist Ethnography research from Vanderbilt University at the 5th Annual Womanist Ethnography Conference (Nashville, Tennessee, USA) for her work in promoting and developing black feminist ethnographic research in higher education.

She says: “I believe in promoting the voice of black women activist educators, in collaborative participative research for social justice.  For me it is the most powerful educational development in the fight to end systemic and structural racism.   Like black women on the frontline of community activist work, ‘we are collaborators, we are leaders, we are negotiators, and we are finding ways to overcome!’   Spaces to share our lived, first-hand experiences are invaluable to help deliver effective anti-racist programmes in higher education.”

Early life in activism

Dr Jan Etienne

Jan shares, “My earliest awareness of activism was as a working-class pupil attending Rokesley school in Hornsey, North London.  At first, I was victimised, and alone – until the journey home, where a seemingly invisible group emerged, powerful.  Here, other girls like me came alive as we walked, talked, and shared our pain.  In such times, we listened to each other’s voices, and developed ideas in conversations with each other – in solidarity and in sisterhood.

I listened carefully to the words of those who inspired me in this small group.  Their commitment to doing something ‘for all of us’ remained with me and set me on my own path to liberate my ways of thinking and doing.  Those hurried conversations were taking place ‘alone’ but ‘together’ as we strategized on how we might best cope with what we knew as racism and sexism.  Being black, female, and on our way home to attend to family chores, we became bolder, stronger, braver, and prepared to face the world.

“Clinging to our sisters for survival was everything.  Today it is still everything.”


Upcoming event

Jan will host this year’s Womanism, Activism, Higher Education Research Network conference on Tuesday 31 October, 1.00 – 4.30pm. The theme under discussion is: ‘Sharing good practice in doing Black feminist research for community’.

Read more details and book tickets for the online conference, here.

Further information

View Birkbeck’s Equality and Diversity initiatives.

Read the oration for Dr Jan Etienne.

Find out more about Birkbeck’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Learn more about Birkbeck’s history and its diverse communities.


My experiences of a year abroad as one of the last Erasmus students in the UK

Johanna Frank is on a year abroad studying BA Film and Media as part of the Erasmus programme. In this blog, Johanna shares how she is finding her year abroad and living in student halls.

Johanna Frank

When the application period at my home university, the Leuphana University Lüneburg in Germany, opened for the Erasmus programme, I jumped at the opportunity to study in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. I knew a number of people who had been on the Erasmus programme, and no matter who I asked, their answer was always the same: the exchange was the best experience they’d ever had – intercultural exchange, a new city, new country, more people than you could count and a whole new way of experiencing studying.

I was happy when I found out I had been accepted onto the programme, and now here I am, one of the last Erasmus students in the UK, as with Brexit, the UK government pulled out of the Erasmus programme. The UK government has since created the Turing Scheme, a replacement for the Erasmus programme, which provides funding for international opportunities in education and training across the world.

It’s been interesting comparing the UK to Germany; the academic system in the UK is not that different to Germany. But evening studies are very new for me and as an early bird I’m still struggling a bit to find the energy to contribute to the seminars. It is another experience! During the day, I mostly discover London and the area around my student halls. I got a membership in the local gym, found a job at a small coffee shop around the corner and see my friends every day. I’m part of the Birkbeck badminton team, which is a lot of fun. I also got a Student Art Pass which makes it possible to enter a lot of exhibitions and museums for free and in my remaining time on my year abroad I plan to discover as much as possible.

This term, I am looking forward to the modules ‘Principles of Layout and Design’ and ‘Gender and Sexuality in Cinema’. I am especially curious for the latter! At my home university, I am taking modules to receive the Gender Diversity Certificate. The certificate is one of the elective profiles at the university. It is for students wanting to commit their complementary studies to learn in-depth about one certain topic. Gender studies, equality and feminism are not only at my university an important and present topic, the whole city, Lüneburg, is super open and questions patriarchal structures. I’m taking the seminars on a voluntary basis as I’m really interested in the history and recent developments of feminism. Coming to London, it was weird at first, as I didn’t feel the same spirit of “let’s change the system”. But that is why I’m even more excited for the module, just to see how other students think and how present the topic is in their daily lives.

Further information


Mariyeh Mushtaq: Life in London as an international student

Mariyeh Mushtaq was awarded the Great India scholarship to study MA Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck. She was also selected as one of the recipients of the Birkbeck/International Student House Accommodation scholarship.  In this blog, Mariyeh shares what it was like settling into life at Birkbeck.

I decided to apply to Birkbeck because of the range of courses it offers, particularly in the field of women’s and gender studies. One of the main reasons I chose this university was the ample financial support it offers to international students in the form of scholarships, bursaries and fee-waivers.

As an international student applying for an MA at Birkbeck, I was intentional about applying for a scholarship. I came across the Birkbeck/ISH Scholarship when I was searching for accommodation on the Birkbeck website and was directed to the International Students House website, where I learnt about this partnership and the criteria for application and selection.

Being a Birkbeck/ISH Scholar has truly facilitated my learning and growth in a much broader and holistic way. I do not have to worry about of the financial implications of living in London and at ISH I have met fellow scholars and residents from all over the world that I have been able to forge meaningful relationships with, both academically and culturally. As a student of social sciences and humanities, I feel learning about other students’ cultural experiences has enabled me to open my mind to new possibilities and approaches in my own research.

There are so many great things about staying at ISH. Firstly, it is located in the vicinity of Bloomsbury area so it is only a short walk from the Birkbeck campus, and the beautiful Regents Park is only a three-minute walk away. But ISH is more than just a student accommodation, it is an international community of people and it actively facilitates interaction and cooperation among its residents through regular events and activities. Throughout the school year, I regularly attended ISH events, where I had the opportunity to interact with fellow residents and enjoy delicious food! I organised film screenings and discussions which provided a common space for students from different academic backgrounds to come together, share their opinions and hear from others. At the annual garden party, I got an opportunity to meet Her Royal Highness Princess Anne and exchange a few words about my stay at ISH and my studies at Birkbeck. I was also involved in filming a video about ISH which was screened at the event and later shared on the ISH website.

Getting used to an entirely different system of teaching and learning was a bit stressful in the beginning. I was a little apprehensive about the readings and the lectures in general.  My course tutors helped familiarize me with the process and reassured me through my frequent in-person meetings with them. Birkbeck organises regular study-skills workshops; ranging from academic writing skills to coping with student life in London. Attending these proved extremely helpful in terms of coping with my workload and gave me the confidence to conduct my own research. The library induction familiarized me with the relevant sections of the library and put me in touch with my subject librarian for guidance and support.

Coming to London as an international student was my first time abroad. Before travelling to London, I was anxious about many things as most international students are. Immediately after arriving here I met so many different people. It was a little overwhelming at first, but given the homely vibe of ISH, I was able to overcome my anxiety and start interacting with everyone quite quickly. London is a big and busy city, similar to home. Even so, dealing with the culture shock was difficult because it was a sudden change, from the food to the overall life here.

Having spent a year in London, I’d advise prospective international students to spend more time with their family before leaving their home country, and look forward to meeting and making a new family before you go!

Further information:


Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.