Over 600 people gathered in the 6th floor auditorium at the McIntyre Medical Building on Oct. 4 to attend “Complaint as a Queer Method: Dismantling Institutions” featuring Sara Ahmed as a keynote speaker. Ahmed is a world renowned feminist scholar who has authored books in feminist, racial, and queer studies. The talk opened with brief speeches from organizers Charlene Lewis-Sutherland, Meryem Benslimane, and Alanna Thain.
Thain gave a short biography of Ahmed and highlighted her work concerning discrimination against minority groups and how power is enforced or challenged in everyday life and institutions. She described a morning seminar with Ahmed, and the joy she felt when reading Ahmed’s book Living a Feminist Life.
“When I read Ahmed’s works, […] I so often feel like I am dancing with the text the way you do as a child, standing on the toes of someone who is showing you the moves,” Thain said.
Ahmed then took the stage by explaining that the purpose of her work is to dismantle the discrimination found in everyday life. Her goal is to change university policies that are ineffective at protecting people from injustice.
Filing complaints is presented by institutions as an effective way to make changes; however, Ahmed pointed out a significant gap between how organizations represent the process of making a formal complaint and how it is experienced by those who are making the complaint.
“[To file a complaint] involves becoming an ‘institutional mechanic’, figuring out how to actually get the complaint through the system,” Ahmed said. “Because of the difficulty [of] getting [them] through, complaints often end up being about the system. Something that looks linear on paper can actually be quite circular.”
According to Ahmed, another important part of complaining is the process of going through doors. These doors can be both literal, in the sense of going in for meetings, and metaphorical, in the case of minorities being shut out.
“Complaints [always] happen behind closed doors,” Ahmed said. “But you know that no matter how much you do [to be heard], there are doors that remain closed to you. Something or someone [else] is pulling the strings, but you don’t know what or who. So this gap between what does happen and what is supposed to happen remains.”
Ahmed provided examples from 40 anonymous female students who were subjected to sexual harassment at the hands of professors and an Indigenous professor who was relentlessly bullied by her white colleagues.
The majority of the testimonials she collected came from universities in the United Kingdom and were all dismissed by the institutions that were responsible for protecting their staff and students. Ahmed finished her talk by reminding the audience that forgotten complaints do not need to be a cause for despair.
“The filing cabinet can be seen as an institutional closet [that] preserves things,” Ahmed said. “We can leave something of ourselves behind by complaining. A complaint can let others [in the same position that you were in] receive something from you, even after you are gone. Complaints are writing on the [ walls of the institutions]: we are here, we did not disappear.”
Julia Bugiel, audience member, shared her enthusiasm about the speech.
“It was an incredible talk,” Bugiel said. “I think the lengthy applause [at the end of the talk] speaks for just how much everybody in this room enjoyed their time with someone who is so poetic and also such an insightful presenter who is so knowledgeable [about the institutional systems she discusses]. I think the things that are happening in Canadian media and politics are not divorced, they are very much linked to [the material discussed here tonight].”