Giving voice to Rastafari women
Assistant professor of religious studies wins first book prize
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.
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.”