Kohl Journal: From Positionality to Messiness, Archiving Feminist Struggles Online



Not all publications are printed and the online format has its own politics. Ghiwa Sayegh talks to us about Kohl, the journal she co-founded, which features feminist texts and artworks from “the margins,” but also continuously questions the place we occupy, as well as the necessary imperfection of such positionings.

Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research is a queer, feminist, open access journal produced in Beirut, Lebanon, since 2014. It is the main publication of Intersectional Knowledge Publishers. All of its content is available in both English and Arabic, and it is published exclusively online. In June 2015, I was readying myself to transpose the content of the very first issue to its medium of publication. I had never worked with blank website templates, but I managed to upload the whole issue manually, including every single article and its translation, giving it shape with whatever scarce resources were available to me back then. Little did I know that we would continue to do so for the following six issues. This was but a minor stumble that preceded colossal hurdles we would encounter in our digital fight throughout the years. Despite the many ethical and political considerations the medium itself brought about, it took us years to clearly position ourselves as linking arms in the struggle for digital access and justice. But there was something about raw, manual uploading that echoed the labor of publishing feminist content that is neither readily available nor evident.

That first issue, in its content, did not necessarily reflect the political project we would eventually come to envision. It was more concerned with acts of reclaiming, with “margins” responding back to “empire,” from its reactionary politics to the injustices of access and resources we face vis-à-vis a “western” counterpart. But the onset of such a publication was disruptive precisely because of its locality, and it is this alternative mapping to the sites of knowledge that we have since retained. From reclaiming, we shifted to a documentation mindset. Although these are not mutually exclusive, the slow, less visible labor of building a feminist archive (as employed by Sara Ahmed in her 2017 book Living a Feminist Life) is not as sparkly as direct acts of reclaiming can be. It will neither make headlines in mainstream media nor be the subject of exoticizing pieces of sensationalist journalism because it proposes a consciously political alternative to them.

Sayegh Funambulist3
“Bodies and Borders” / Illustration by Rawand Issa (2016) specifically for issue 2.2 of Kohl.

The labor put towards a feminist archive, in its here and its now, becomes an act of resistance to fixed localities and temporalities. Within this framework, contexts are no longer defined by borders imposed by nation-states, but instead become informed by common histories and overlaps in political imaginings. The binary of West/East is faulty, not only in the transnational struggles it obscures, but in its limitation when it comes to contexts that are not bound by geopolitics alone, such as the struggle for digital justice. In the same vein, the race for immediate, short-term outcomes at the expense of other struggles (or single-issue organizing) is limited in both its temporality and scope; not only does it treat the symptoms rather than its root issues, it also corners its actors into major political compromises. Working towards a feminist archive, although not outcome-oriented, is an outlook at political imaginaries and at historicizing the personal as struggle.

To publish (or to archive) the Struggle with a capital S demands the consideration of struggles in their plurality. The accumulation of political moments against empirical and context-specific realities sediment and obstruct at times, silencing histories. Other times, it is this accumulation, whether by repetition or disruption, that holds the potential for countercurrents and alternative histories. The imprint it leaves is ideological and deeply subjective; a feminist archive, therefore, is informed by the personal and political imaginings of its archivists, as well as their context and communities. As a result, with intersectionality as praxis, the bigger picture cannot be dissociated from the ways in which struggles move against each other, rather than visualizing it as a singular whole made of separate units.

With time, Kohl’s content informed and was informed by the imaginaries of its contributors and communities. Despite being dynamic and multidirectional, the process of anchoring Kohl in a struggle and context was far from the sanitized myths that surround publication: it was particularly messy, chaotic and uncertain at times. Despite its academic appellation, the journal attempts to challenge and push the boundaries of what is considered “legitimate” knowledge. In 2016 and 2017, we published two consecutive issues on bodies, borders, and migration. Issue 2.2 featured a transcribed conversation among migrant domestic workers and activists living in Lebanon, as well as three testimonies that were narrated as oral history.

Sayegh Funambulist1
“Persephone” / Ink on paper, illustration by Monica Basbous (2012)used for the cover image of Kohl’s first issue.

In September 2017, I boarded the same flight as a migration activist and friend. I was on my way to a meeting about making a feminist internet, while she was being deported from Lebanon. The gap that already existed between my “citizen” privilege and her precarious disposability widened with the NGOization of a globalized feminist movement I somewhat belonged to. However, the meeting, hosted by the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), proved to be a beacon of hope in the face of a non-profit sector turned sloppy and self-righteous. Not only did it help me locate Kohl’s struggle as part of the fight for a feminist internet, but its medium of publication became the means as much as the end. To dismiss the discursive practices of archiving and knowledge production as non-empirical would also dismiss other forms of textual communication and shaping discourse via social media and other platforms, as documented by Jac sm Kee in “Making a Feminist Internet: Movement Building in a Digital Age” (published by www.genderit.org). With the notion of embodiment in the offline as well as the online, parts of ourselves become politically discursive. We embody our own fragmented memories and histories, and they both become resistance.

Reflecting on the meeting, Jac sm Kee stresses on “the need to think about feminist digital infrastructures not just as technical responses, but a response that subverts the current logic capital of technology and access.” In the same vein, a publication such as Kohl is not a mere medium: it is a political project. This project cannot be reduced to its content or what it visibly “presents” to the world. Kohl had the possibility to become independent from institutions, and bring that vision to life by materially testing it out. However, by doing so, we ran the risk of reproducing institutional failure to change and contributing to victim discourses. In that case, to claim a feminist archive would be debilitated by a structure that weighs it down. The structures that we create for ourselves, therefore, need to understand power as a constant conversation and to leave room for messiness and renegotiation. As for meta-structures that sustain intersecting systems of injustice — from the infrastructure of the internet to the powers that regulate the flow of capital, bodies, and resources — they need to be fought against, dismantled, and reimagined rather than be considered mere supporting mediums and responses.