On Day 2 of 16 Days of Activism we interview project co-director, Katie Edwards.
Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?
I’m Katie Edwards and I’m a Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Institute of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS).
What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?
I co-direct the project with my friends and colleagues Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland) and Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds). Caroline and I had talked for a while about developing a project or network around the Bible and sexual violence but our ideas didn’t take shape until we raised them with Johanna and other fabulous academics at a research day at Leeds and there The Shiloh Project was born.
How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?
I’m grateful every day for my job. It pays the bills. It gives me a voice and a platform – both extremely precious things – and there are few jobs that support you to develop and disseminate your ideas. For example, Johanna and I are funded to work with really brilliant colleagues and collaborators in Botswana and Lesotho next year, after receiving funding to visit the Universities of Botswana and KwaZulu-Natal earlier this year. I’m keenly aware of the opportunities, status and privilege I have because of my job. Nevertheless, academia can, in pockets, be a competitive and unkind world and it’s not immune from the structural issues that affect the rest of society. Universities continue to struggle with serious problems of institutional racism, sexism, ableism and classism, despite public-facing diversity narratives. Before I started work in Higher Education I imagined that universities were a different, nobler space, less affected by inequalities and therefore harassment, sexual assault and bullying than other places of work. I was, of course, naive. Universities and academia remain highly protective of hierarchies, and we’re slow, and sometimes unwilling, to respond to clear inequalities in gender, race, class and disabilities in our institutions. This is a context, then, that helps to maintain a culture prone to harassment and bullying of junior colleagues, in particular. The Shiloh Project is in part, as well as being a shared area of research, a response to the culture of tolerance around harassment and bullying in HE that helps to support and perpetuate it. The vast majority of women have experienced sexual harassment at work and I’m no different. From my first full-time job working at a brewery at the age of 18 when the middle-aged ‘Business Development Managers’ took bets to see which one could get me to have sex and return with evidence, to my first permanent job in a university when a senior male colleague took photos of me with his mobile phone from across the table while I was trying to tell him about my research priorities for the next year. After a few further similar episodes with the senior male colleague, and with little support or guidance from colleagues who knew what was happening, I approached a very senior female colleague in the same institution to ask her advice. As a new member of staff on a probationary contract, in a precarious personal financial situation, I was scared for my and my family’s livelihood. The senior prof told me to never report sexual harassment because it would follow me for life but it was highly unlikely to impact the perpetrator. Her advice was that I should be ‘more charming’ to my then line-manager. Like everywhere else, academia can be isolating, especially when you’re facing harassment and bullying from people in positions of power. In light of our various experiences, the directors and members of The Shiloh Project wanted to create a supportive and inclusive research community and be visible, vocal and united in our stance against sexual violence, assault, harassment and bullying.
How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?
Johanna’s absolutely right that religion is often absent from discussions around gender activism and we aim to address that gap. The Shiloh Project has a range of expertise from Meredith Warren’s work on sexual violence in the Classics and the New Testament to Valerie Hobbs’ research into rape culture in church communities and I think we can make an important contribution to existing and future discussions around activism against gender-based violence.
What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?
Next year is a busy one! Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and I have a series of three edited volumes on religion and rape culture coming out with Palgrave Macmillan. Johanna and I will be developing our research project in Botswana and Lesotho and there’ll be a Radio 4 programme connected to our work on The Shiloh Project. I’m also working on a book looking at constructions of whiteness, purity and female sexuality and how these contribute to rape culture. I’m just really delighted to be part of this project and to work with such a fantastic group of people. My work, and friendship, with Johanna and Caroline gives me energy and motivates me to be bolder, more confident and more honest in my research. Something that took me a long time to come to – I spent much of the first few years of my time in academia feeling quite scared and wary of the culture I saw around me and my voice within it. I’m grateful to this project and to colleagues such as J. Cheryl Exum (University of Sheffield), Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds), Deryn Guest (University of Birmingham), Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), Vanita Sundaram (University of York), Dawn Llewelyn (University of Chester), Rachel van Duyvenbode (University of Sheffield), Emma Tomalin (University of Leeds), Richard Newton (Elizabethtown College) and Musa Dube (University of Botswana) whose work and activism inspires me every day.