Nimmi Gowrinathan, a leading researcher, analyst, and commentator on international gender and violence issues, has joined the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at The City College of New York as a visiting professor. She directs the Politics and Sexual Violence Initiative, a three-year program funded by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. The NoVo Foundation works to transform global societies from cultures of domination to ones of equality and partnership.
Gowrinathan is a former fellow of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery, and the Gender Expert for the UN National Human Development Report in Afghanistan. For more than seven years, she served as director for South Asia Programs at Operation USA, overseeing disaster relief programs. Gowrinathan’s research interests include gender and violence, female extremism, social movements, issues of asylum, ethnic conflict, and the impact of militarization, displacement, and race in Sri Lanka. She is author of the blog Deviarchy and a frequent contributor to national media outlets including Foreign Affairs and CNN.
In this interview with Neighborhoods and Nations, Gowrinathan discusses her mission, the unique role of the public university, and her preference for fluidity within the professional and scholarly roles she occupies.
Would you identify the sum of your work so far as contributing to a mission you’ve identified as your “life’s work”? What motivates you?
My work has always been driven by a quest for social justice for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Within that, the work that I anticipate to require the entirety of my life, which demands both my emotional energy and intellectual curiosity, centers on understanding the politics of marginalized women. I am constantly reinvigorated by the everyday resistance of women around the world to all forms of repression.
Tell us about the Politics of Sexual Violence Research Initiative and its place at the Colin Powell School. How do you plan to use your resources on campus to engage students and the broader public?
The Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative is designed to better understand the impact of sexual violence on the individual politics of women, both within the U.S., and in select cases around the world. Beyond conducting research to better inform policy and humanitarian formulations on sexual violence, this initiative is intended to create a global network of women scholars engaged in political activism, research, and advocacy–beginning with the young women at City College. The Colin Powell School has been very supportive, and I hope to use this initiative to contribute a unique political project to the engaged scholarship already underway there, as well as to draw in students for events, research, and through select courses I will offer over the next few years. The Initiative also hopes to build important links between existing social movements (Black Girls Matter, the Last Girl) to create far-reaching political movement that addresses the root causes of violence against women.
What are your thoughts on the role of the university with regard to human rights matters–such as sexual violence across the globe or, say, Stop and Frisk in NYC? Does the public university have any major responsibilities other than to educate its students?
I think the public university, and particularly one with the unique demographic make-up of City College, has an obligation to engage in public debates that affect and shape the lives of its students and its community. While providing a space for student-driven activism, at an intellectual level the university should provide an environment where diverse opinions and new ideas can be presented, challenged, and adapted to support movement-building in many directions.
You are both an activist and a scholar, and you’ve worked as an NGO director, human rights advocate, policy analyst, and journalist: do you see clear divisions between the work you’ve performed within these roles? Do you see yourself primarily as any one player? How do you shift between spaces–are there any specific challenges you face?
I don’t see clear divisions within my work, and I think a fluid approach to my intellectual life and the roles I play has allowed me to create a unique voice and contribution to multiple conversations. I have met young women around the world who are torn between competing identities (Somalian-American/Activist-Scholar) and who are socialized into trying to fit into one role or the other–rather than embracing the value of a space I have called the “inside-outsider.” The challenges I faced were early on in my academic career, where there were often accusations of bias. However, as I have built a career around the exact tensions we have been taught to avoid, I have found that the variety of roles I play allows each to contribute to the other in insightful ways. My own unorthodox approach to my intellectual and professional work can be an example for a younger generation frustrated with the roles available to them, proving that there is no one way to engage in the issues that you are passionate about.
Tell us about your involvement in the Vice Media documentary series on women in/at war. You’ve said that, in sharing women’s stories, you want to “challenge perceptions in academic and policy spaces, while pulling out the richness of their narratives.” How might the Vice series contribute to that goal, or do you see this as a new frontier?
The Vice media series Women at War will begin this month, and hopes to draw out the stories of women that stick with you when conducting intellectual research. The narratives are all drawn together within a special project that will allow one or two big ideas to be revealed in each mini-documentary, with a clear through-line that reveals the complexity of women’s politics as their lives are shaped by violence. This project may not shift academic discourses, but it has been proven that ending sexual violence requires a significant shift in attitudes towards and perceptions of women. Recent films like India’s Daughter reveal the entrenched cultural perceptions of an older generation of men, however Vice News has proven the ability to reach millions of young men and women around the world–providing a distinctive platform through which to tackle the difficult task of dismantling patriarchy in all its many forms.