Jülide Sezer receives Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize 2023

Jülide Sezer wint Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize 2023

For the fourth time the Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize has been awarded. The winner is Jülide Sezer’s with her thesis titled Sustaining Resistance, Cultivating Liberation: The Enduring Bond of Rooted-Resistance-Companionship between Palestinians and the Olive Trees. The prize was awarded during the diploma Graduation Ceremony of the Research Master Gender Studies on 16 November.

“A remarkable thesis”

Sustaining Resistance, Cultivating Liberation is a very timely thesis and a most insightful, socially engaged scholarly intervention”, the jury wrote in their report. “From a multi-layered critical Gender Studies perspective, the thesis engages with Palestinian resistance as embodied and epitomized by the resilience and resurgence of olive trees, and as such as a multispecies collaboration.”

“Jülide Sezer, the author of this project, has produced what is in many ways a remarkable thesis. Her research takes a creative and original approach, it achieves high academic standards; it speaks to both academic and non-academic audiences; and it is written from both an acute personal sense of urgency, concern, and commitment.”

Moss Berke en Rupsa Nag krijgen een eervolle vermelding bij de Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize 2023
Moss Berke and Rupsa Nag

Two submitted theses received an honourable mention: Moss Berke, Weathering Grief: Alternative Temporalities, Undone Senses and Melancholy Ecologies in Times of Planetary Ecocide and Rupsa Nag, the cut is an echo: departures from visibility. The jury for this edition consisted of Kathrin Thiele (chair), Jamila Mascat, Nicole Phoa, Rabeea Ahmad (former winner of the prize), Louis van den Hengel, and Simone Aumaj.

The jury enjoyed reading all submitted theses, as they offer an exciting view of what constitutes Gender Studies for a new generation. Although the jury encountered a variety of topics and approaches all submitted work had one thing in common: all authors were committed to knowledge production that contributes to social justice and inclusive diversity.

Hélène Phoa Thesis Prize

The Hélène Phoa Thesis Prize was established by the family of Hélène Phoa, who passed away far too young in 2019. She was a graduate of the Research Master Gender Studies at Utrecht University. Nicole Phoa, one of Phoa’s sisters, has been a member of the jury for the first time.

“It was a pleasure to be a part of the jury. It was interesting getting to know the various members of the Gender Studies team and meeting Rabeea Ahmad again. The submissions highlighted the diversity that is and encompasses Gender Studies. The wide array of subjects made for a stimulating selection process and it was very interesting to bear witness of the multivarious substantiations during this process. Again the Gender Studies team made it possible to reward two 'runners-up', as it was difficult to choose one ultimate winner from the inspiring theses this year.”

Interview with Jülide Sezer

Jülide Sezer is the fourth recipient of the Hélène Phoa Thesis Prize. She told us about her winning thesis and what receiving the prize means to her.

How does it feel to receive the Hélène Phoa Gender Studies Research Thesis Prize?

“I thank the Phoa family for supporting Gender Studies scholars by initiating this prize. I am happy that my thesis, which focuses on olive trees’ and Palestinian companionship, receives institutional recognition amidst Israel’s unfolding genocide, ecocide, and epistemicide before our very eyes. In a climate of fear and academic censorship, receiving such an acknowledgment instils hope for the future on both a personal and institutional level. I am grateful for the committee’s decision. This prize is also a testament to the fact that Gender Studies scholars focus on multifaceted violence and injustice. Winning this prize confirms that I must persist in talking and writing about Palestine, a commitment I have upheld since enrolling in the Gender Studies program at Utrecht University.”

What was the topic of your thesis?

“My thesis focuses on olive trees’ and Palestinians’ companionship in the face of Zionist settler colonial occupation and ongoing violence. The resilient olive trees inspired the decolonial and anticolonial resistance concept sumud. Sumud is rooted in Palestinian culture and describes steadfastness and resilience in the face of settler colonial occupation. Many people tend to think that resistance is a purely human practice, assuming that agency runs only through humans so that they can resist domination. Despite being uprooted, burned, and destroyed, olive trees persist in their determination to regenerate life. A single drop of an olive falling onto the soil is enough to give birth to another olive tree. Sumud is an excellent example of Indigenous people’s close and reciprocal relationship with nature. I wanted to highlight what olive trees do in the face of settler colonial violence: They regenerate resistance – resistance of life.”

“Following the olive trees, I critically engaged with Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. I criticised Haraway’s shortcomings in recognising Indigenous people and the conditions of settler colonial violence as an ongoing practice and structure. I expanded the companionship species concept to rooted-resistance-companionship to comprehensively understand the relationality between Palestinians and olive trees in their context of sumud practices under the Zionist settler colonial regime. If companionship is not rooted in the land, it erases Indigenous life. The rooted-resistance-companionship emphasises the indigeneity of both Palestinians and olive trees predating the birth of the state of Israel.”

“My primary interest lies in exposing Zionist terraforming strategies and focusing on the resistance practices of the rooted-resistance-companions in the shared colonial wound of ongoing Nakba. Olive trees challenge our anthropocentric desire to heal a wound; they show us not to escape it but to be resilient and keep growing and sharing fruits. Palestinians who survived the 1948 Nakba and stayed in Palestine still face multifaceted violence, including the interruption of tending their olive trees. The olive trees’ story also tells us that Zionist settler colonial practices disrupted the ecology of the soil by replacing millions of olive trees with non-indigenous pine trees to give an indigenous feeling to European settlers.”

“Olive tree and the Palestinian relationality, the kinship that has evolved into rooted-resistance-companionship demonstrates a form of resilient worldling under the settler occupation. This Indigenous relationality opens ways for recognition of a politics of vitality. If, as Amitav Ghosh suggests, recognising nature’s vitality would initiate empathy and unite us all, in that case, my thesis is a call for transnational and trans-species solidarity.”

What was the research and writing process like?

“Writing about-with-for Palestine is not easy because Palestine is not free. It was exhausting but regenerative at the same time. I cried countless times. Both because I was not confident in what I was doing and because what I was researching was not easy. This thesis is not a finite project; instead, it is a part of my decolonial feminist being against the interconnected injustice that receives my daily attention and surrounds my being. Advocating for decolonisation is an ongoing journey integrated into our everyday lives. Amidst the adversity faced by Palestine and its people enduring occupation, domination, and relentless attacks, staying focused on the rejuvenating power and resilience represented by olive trees posed a formidable challenge.”

“I am so grateful that I have met Dr Mikki Stelder. Their support was the gust of wind I needed in my writing process. I was also accompanied by human and nonhuman companions, for which I am deeply thankful. Reflecting on the challenges faced in 2022 and 2023, I realise that each struggle has contributed to my strength and increased confidence in my commitment to solidarity.”

What does the future hold for you?

“One thing remains certain: I will keep talking about Palestine until both Palestinians and Palestine live freely, with their sky, cacti, orange and olive trees, heirloom seeds, river, and sea. I am committed to learning from nature and leveraging my privilege to amplify the silenced voices of the Earth. Olive trees tell us various (human) stories, including the environmental crisis, ecological co-beingness and belongingness, humans’ parasitic capitalist tendencies, intertwined solidarity and solitude, and regenerating hope and resilience. I am eager to listen and learn more from them, deepening my understanding of what it means to be human.”