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Alka Kurian on “Human Rights and Resistance: A Case of South Asia” Course at UW-Bothell

February 1, 2023

Throughout time the degrees and forms of human rights violations have changed but art and culture have always been used as significant tools to demonstrate the resistance to such violations all over the world. The course “Human Rights and Resistance: A Case of South Asia” (BIS 466), offered at UW-Bothell in autumn 2022, examines the international human rights discourse in its inability to respond to the nature of contemporary crisis in the South Asian context. In this regard South Asia Center interviewed Dr. Alka Kurian, Associate Teaching Professor at UW-Bothell Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, to share the motivation behind the creation of this course and its significance in understanding South Asia.

This course was developed with support from the University of Washington’s South Asia Center, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education National Resource Center program.

SA: Tell us about the course and the motivation behind its creation.

Poster from Pakistan’s Women’s March of 2021

AK: At a time when South Asian mediatized images, in particular in the Western world, focus on human rights violations of the region’s vulnerable populations, this course looks at the ways in which cultural production can become a useful tool to promote the human rights regime. It focuses on the politics of South Asian oppositional art – film, literature, poetry, spoken word, photography, poster art, and social media – as powerful modes of resistance. Central to the course were a number of guest speakers who, as artists, poets, writers, and scholars, were invited to directly speak to the students about the urgency of the themes they work on, underlining in the process, the lived reality and effectiveness of oppositional art.

SA: Why is it important that this course is offered at UW Bothell? (As in, Bothell in particular?)

AK: Located on the eastside of Seattle, UW Bothell is a natural choice for large and diverse immigrant communities (including South Asian). This course is targeted at these students, as well as those from the mainstream community, to dispel some of the preconceived and essentialist notions of minority communities as victimized and disempowered.

SA: Who were your guest speakers and what topics did they discuss?

AK: The following guest speakers enlightened the class with their expertise:

    • Homeira Qadari (Afghan author, Independent Writer, Harvard Radcliffe Institute): The forgotten voices of Afghan women in Dancing in the Mosque
    • Arun Patel (researcher, media producer, JNU, India): Protest narratives and translation in poetry, spoken word, songs, and wall art
    • Pramila Venkateswaran (professor, Nassau Community College, and poet): Dalit poetry and translation: Why am I Hindu?
    • Sharmila Seyyid (Sri Lankan novelist and Artist in residence, University of Nebraska Omaha): Writing and activism: Ummath

The guest speakers’ contributions brought these important topics to life. As one student noted:

“I am a UW Bothell student, who took BIS 466, Human Rights and Resistance, this last quarter. Over the course of our class, we had the amazing privilege of having multiple guest speakers. I wanted to share how this experience has been so helpful for me as a student. In our class, we have been learning about activism in South Asia, specifically Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. As interesting and intriguing as the course work is, sometimes it is hard to grasp the true nature of the crises, especially because of our privileged lens of the world. Our guest speakers helped us get a personal look into how these problems were affecting real people. Not only were they able to share their stories, they all had a great amount of knowledge that aligned with our coursework. They were authors, students, and activists who were passionate about these topics and were able to not only present to us but have conversations with students and collaborate on discussions. I have never taken a class where we had these many speakers, and can honestly say it changed the course for me. I hope other students in the future get this opportunity as I believe that the real-world aspect can impact how we learn about these important topics.”

Piper Wilton