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The ‹Natural Order› on Trial: Negotiating Gender, Race and Empire in Switzerland’s Colonial Entanglements

Colonialism played an integral role in the formation of supposedly natural gender orders both in European societies and abroad. This also holds true for Switzerland, which, despite never having had formal colonies, was shaped by its close links to the colonial world. During the late colonial period, numerous Swiss women and men moved, worked and lived in colonised countries as scholars, missionaries, sisters, doctors, reporters, political activists, spiritual seekers, or businesspeople. More often than not, understandings of social and political hierarchies that they had learned to think of as natural – whether ‹divinely› ordained or ‹rational› truth claims – shifted through their encounters with colonial societies. The panel uses Switzerland’s colonial entanglements from around 1900 to the 1960s as a lens to examine processes of naturalisation or, conversely, denaturalisation of gendered power relations and their intersection with categories such as ‹race›, culture, class, sexuality and religion.

On the one hand, we ask what role gender notions may have played in the decision-making processes of Swiss actors when considering emigration to colonies of European powers. For many Europeans, colonies were seen as places in which the rigid gender boundaries that structured their lives at home could be transcended. The panel then seeks to explore how these women and men perceived and interpreted the multiple intersecting hierarchies of gender, race and empire. What discourses and practices around gender orders evolved in the course of their stays in colonial settings, which continuities and which changes can be traced? Informed by subaltern and postcolonial studies, the panel is also interested in the agency of colonial subjects: How did autochthonous women and men react to Swiss attempts to inculcate European gender architectures, and how were these norms negotiated, questioned, adapted or rejected?

On the other hand, the panel focuses on the repercussions of these encounters in Switzerland and broader European cultures. The stereotypical Manichean allegory of ‹nature people› vs. ‹culture people› in particular was dominant in reports, literature and advertisements about colonies. How was nature gendered and, vice versa, how was gender naturalized in these communications? How did conceptions of gender and nature lead to conclusions about colonial rule, racial orders and emancipation? Moreover, in which way did gender, ‹race› and nature interplay discursively in the promotion, perpetuation and critique of femininities and masculinities in Switzerland?

The panel provides a platform to examine how Swiss actors came to reassess, transgress and/or reproduce ‹natural orders› of gender. Exploring the impact of colonial entanglements on (de)naturalization processes of Swiss gender conceptions allows for the unveiling of their coloniality. The intersectional, entangled historical and postcolonial approach to the topic encourages nuanced and critical discussions on the history of current understandings of ‹natural› femininities and masculinities in Switzerland.

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