Giving voice to Rastafari women

Assistant professor of religious studies wins first book prize

December 11, 2019

Assistant Professor of religious studies Shamara Wyllie Alhassan has been named the winner of the National Women’s Studies Association/University of Illinois Press 2019 First Book Prize for her manuscript, “Re-membering the Maternal Goddess: Rastafari Women’s Intellectual History and Activism in the Pan-African World.”

The First Book Prize is an annual competition for the best dissertation or first book by a single author in the field of women and gender studies, with an emphasis on work like Alhassan's that speaks across disciplines. ASU Assistant Professor Shamara Wyllie Alhassan smiling with her book award Assistant Professor of religious studies Shamara Wyllie Alhassan holds her NWSA award. Download Full Image

She conducted preliminary research on her topic as an undergraduate when she studied abroad in Jamaica her junior year and in Ghana the following semester. After receiving her undergraduate degree, Alhassan went back to Ghana as a Fulbright Fellow and completed a documentary film about Rastafari women in the country.  

Rastafari is a Pan-African sociospiritual movement that began with poor and working class black communities in Jamaica during the 1930s, but its roots can be traced back to 19th-century Ethiopianism, Pan-Africanism and ancient Kemetic philosophies. Rastafari has since become a global phenomenon.

“My research, broadly, is about Rastafari women’s livity, which is basically their lived philosophy and the ways that they build communities of social justice transgeographically,” Alhassan said. “Specifically, I work with Rastafari women in Jamaica, Ghana and Ethiopia.”

Alhassan attended graduate school in 2013 at Brown University and conducted the transnational ethnographic work that became the foundation of her dissertation. However, she struggled to come up with her research topic at first. 

“Academia is an exclusive club in terms of who it deems intellectual,” Alhassan said. “Choosing to work with a group of women who have been largely excluded from scholarly engagement was a powerful learning experience. I learned that the academy is interested in studying the human experience from the epistemological perspectives and orientations of white supremacist patriarchy. When the geographic center of reason is shifted and the white supremacist patriarchal orientation unsettled, this poses a set of challenges to the very basis of being an intellectual and the foundation of the academy. The philosophies Rastafari women create help us to question the structures of power and dominance and ultimately move us closer to a more humane world where the humanity of all people are recognized.”

Her first obstacle was trying to prove that the academic construction of who was deemed intellectual and worthy of critical engagement were falsehoods that excluded Rastafari women and other marginalized groups.

“When we look at the broader typography of black women’s intellectual history as well as the black radical tradition or Pan-African movements, we realize that Rastafari women’s contributions to those movements are erased,” Alhassan said. “Rastafari as a movement is barely mentioned but then Rastafari women as a subset of that community are definitely left out of that broader trajectory. So it was my fight to make sure that people really understood that as a scholarly community we can no longer omit entire communities of people because of our own bias or ignorance.”

She chose to write her manuscript in an eclectic, unorthodox way, using nontraditional academic language, which posed another obstacle. But she was determined to write in this way to contribute to a larger body of scholarly work that is trying to trouble the way we think about the way knowledge is produced. 

“It doesn’t have to be one particular way or one particular framework,” Alhassan said. “The way we write must reflect the communities producing the knowledge. This is why the style of my book needed to match the diverse and creative modalities of expression Rastafari women use to produce their philosophies. I tried to allow the craft of writing to reflect the ways Rastafari reason or engage in extended philosophical debate.”

All the hard work ended up paying off. Her dissertation at Brown University, which has now become the manuscript for her book, received the Marie J. Langlois Dissertation Prize for an outstanding dissertation in the area of feminist studies from the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. 

“The bulk of the book focuses on Jamaica, Ghana and the inaugural All Africa Rastafari Gathering in Shashemene, Ethiopia, and the ways Rastafari women develop tools of healing and communal affirmation through their livity and how this helps them navigate the social sphere in these countries in terms of religious discrimination, anti-black gendered racism and different ways patriarchy operates within the Rastafari movement as well as in the broader social context in these spaces,” Alhassan said.

Along with the book, Alhassan is also editing a full-length documentary film to go along with the research. The documentary will feature some of the same women in Alhassan’s book.

“The documentary provides another medium for people to access the embodied and articulated knowledge of Rastafari women,” Alhassan said. “It also serves as a tool for community accountability in that it provides a more immediate materialization of the research than the book. Most people, when they think of Rastafari, they only think about Bob Marley. So the movement is predominantly represented through a masculine image. It was really important to me to produce images that would feature Rastafari women so that we change the way we perceive the movement.”

Overall the book will hold about 60 women’s voices as well as Alhassan’s voice. Even though it sounds like a lot of narratives to juggle, Alhassan doesn’t mind. The project comes from personal investment and it is well worth the challenge.

“The project was really birthed in honor of my mother, who is also Rastafari,” Alhassan said. “Both my parents are Rastafari, but I started the project to try and figure out more about who my mother is, and then through asking questions about her, I found this whole group of women. Then it sort of morphed into this bigger trajectory.”

She feels honored and amazed to have won this first book prize. Even more so, she is grateful to have her work be recognized and hopes it will help pave the way for other scholars who are researching uncommon topics and who have not had the chance to be represented in academia.

“I’m very appreciative because I know there are numerous scholars who are producing amazing work all the time and don’t get recognized,” Alhassan said. “I’m eternally grateful to the communities of sistren and brethren who gave of their time and opened their homes to me, to my intellectual mentors who helped shape my scholarly practice, and to my family who have loved me through this process. This research was born of love and has survived because of love. I hope this award signals the need for increased intellectual engagement with the literature and art of Rastafari communities and sustained engagement with Africana and Rastafari women’s epistemologies.”

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

A soft approach to a hard problem in autonomous vehicles

December 11, 2019

One guaranteed part of dealing with computer systems is that hardware problems happen.

In a smartphone, hardware errors are inconvenient, but not life-threatening. However, if an autonomous vehicle suffers from a hardware failure, it could be highly dangerous. ASU Asscoiate Professor Aviral Shrivastava holds a miniature autonomous vehicle Aviral Shrivastava, an associate professor of computer science and engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, developed software techniques that can help resolve errors in hardware caused by stray cosmic particles. When particularly hard-to-detect hardware errors, called faults, happen in cyber-physical systems such as autonomous vehicles, it’s important to detect and resolve them correctly to prevent property damage and loss of life. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

As autonomous vehicles are “essentially computers on wheels,” it’s important to know when a hardware error might cause accidents, said Aviral Shrivastava, an associate professor of computer science and engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

While he’s dealing with hardware problems, Shrivastava says new software strategies are actually the key to powerful and efficient methods to prevent hardware errors in critical systems.

A fault in our cars

Unbeknownst to many, outer space poses a problem for computing systems here on Earth — in computer systems like the ones that enable autonomous driving.

Cosmic particles are increasingly affecting integrated circuits — the fundamental components of electronics — as circuits shrink in size and the technology advances. An impact from an invasive particle in just the right spot can cause components and software to behave differently. These are known as “faults” and can vary in severity.

Approximately 90% of faults don’t cause any problems and are known as “masked” faults because another part of the system compensates for the error. These faults are negligible for example, some might corrupt something in the computer memory that is never accessed again.

Other hardware faults are much easier to spot, as they can cause the software running on the hardware systems to start behaving in an obviously different way or to stop working entirely.

One type of fault called silent data corruption, or SDC, is the “sneakiest” kind of fault because the system appears to be behaving normally, but its results, or output, are slightly wrong. Shrivastava says they’re the most important type of fault to study and understand because they are “hard to even detect.”

SDCs are especially troubling for safety-critical cyberphysical systems, or computing systems, such as autonomous vehicles, that interact with our physical world. It’s important to be able to work around hardware faults, or at the very least be able to detect that something is wrong.

Because they’re hard to detect, it can be difficult to say what errors are caused by SDCs. Some experts believe an SDC potentially caused by cosmic particles may have led to the unintended acceleration problem in Toyota vehicles that led to a massive recall in 2009.

“Reducing the number of SDCs is a meaningful metric for evaluating the effectiveness of a protection technique,” Shrivastava said.

Back in 2015, the common wisdom was that only hardware protection techniques are “strong enough” to protect against hardware errors, and that software techniques are not effective.

But Shrivastava did not buy this argument. He reasoned that if a fault does not rise up to the software level, then it is not important. So any fault that matters (i.e., faults that change the program output) should come to the domain of software for resolution; and, once it’s there, software techniques should be able to detect it and fix it.

“There is no fundamental reason as to why software techniques cannot be effective,” Shrivastava said.

He saw merit in using software techniques for protection, reasoning that even though hardware techniques may be effective, they only work when the hardware is protected.

On the other hand, software techniques are universally applicable. Anyone can use them on any past, present or future processors. They can even be applied in a piecemeal approach to reduce their overhead in energy usage and cost. For example, you can categorically apply software fixes — such as using them only on safety-critical applications, or even to the specific safety-critical parts of an application.

“This ‘flexibility of application’ is not possible for techniques that are already implemented in the hardware,” Shrivastava said. “Once implemented, they always cause overhead.”

Shrivastava made this his research goal — to develop effective software protection techniques — for his National Science Foundation CAREER Award project.

A software touch fixes hardware problems

Shrivastava and his doctoral students, Moslem Didehban and Reiley Jeyapaul then started evaluating the existing software protection techniques, and soon found they were already able to detect 90% of SDC faults. In general, 90% is good, but when human lives are on the line, 90% just isn’t good enough.

After carefully analyzing the weak points of existing techniques, they started to systematically fix the holes.

Over the course of a six-year NSF CAREER Award project, the research team developed a set of software techniques that are as effective as hardware techniques. They also produced a large body of repeatable evidence to demonstrate their method’s reliability.

“In this project, we were able to develop software techniques that are very effective, and are able to achieve protection comparable to hardware protection techniques,” Shrivastava said.

One method, called near-zero silent data corruption, or nZDC, was published in the 2014 Design Automation Conference proceedings. Shrivastava and Didehban proposed a technique that duplicates program instructions and compares results intermittently to check for errors. nZDC was demonstrated to detect more than 99.9% of the SDCs.

When an error is found, their other technique, Nemesis (described in a 2017 International Conference on Computer Aided Design paper), runs an underlying cause analysis of the error and finds whether it is even possible to fix the error or not. Nemesis demonstrated an ability to recover from 96% of SDCs. For the remaining 4%, it declared its inability to recover.

While replication is a well-known technique to protect programs, the devil is in the details; most previous works have gotten the details wrong. And even a small change can render the protection ineffective. Shrivastava observed that many previous techniques were sometimes recovering incorrectly. It is also not possible to recover from all errors, and a wrong recovery defeats everything. That is why he inserted a special routine to determine if it is possible to recover correctly.

Shrivastava and his team have a strong publishing record of more than 20 conference papers and 12 journal articles on the topic of software recovery techniques, including Didehban and Jeyapaul’s doctoral dissertations and six other students’ master’s theses.

Their results have the potential to impact how autonomous vehicle systems are certified for reliability. A hardware-based fault monitoring technique is currently the only way to get certified.

“I am of the opinion that effective software techniques should also be allowed,” Shrivastava said.

The meticulous nature of Shrivastava’s six-year software research to find the elusive computing errors with new software techniques has emboldened him to urge the research community to value commitment and perseverance over quick results and ROIs.

“It is because of this impatience that so many ‘ineffective’ protection techniques have been proposed,” Shrivastava said. “Research takes a long time, but carefully considering how faults occur and how to best address them can save lives.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering