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Karina Eileraas, Women's Studies

  • By Jacqueline Tasch, Patricia Jordan
  • Published Aug 1, 2001 8:00 AM

"In every job experience I felt that I wasn't being true to myself, and I was on a quest to find out what that truth was going to be," says Karina Eileraas.

Eileraas is now a graduate student in UCLA's Women's Studies Department. But she found her way there only after working for a consulting firm, taking postgraduate courses in French at Northwestern University, doing a stint at a law firm and going back to consulting.

What made the search so difficult is that Eileraas has always loved many things. Starting at Wesleyan University as a premed student, Eileraas "considered every major on the books" before settling on three: international politics, women's studies and French. The first two helped her answer some of the questions that the politically activist environment at Wesleyan had raised in her mind. The last made use of French language skills going back into childhood, and her love of French culture and theory.

Women's studies was her favorite field because of its blend of theory and practice. But until recently, Ph.D. programs were rare. In fact, UCLA's Women's Studies Department accepted its first Ph.D. students last fall. That was just in time for Eileraas. Her mentor from Northwestern, Francoise Lionnet, had also found her way to UCLA as chair of the Department of French and Francophone Studies.

At UCLA, Eileraas seems to have found her heart's desire. "I'm finally studying what I really love to study," she says. "It's not a parenthesis or an add-on; women's studies is the main thing." She has come to understand that a career in academia can meet her need for political activism: "You're exposing people to knowledge that is not only empowering, but that also changes their mind-sets in some ways, or at least forces people to confront the beliefs they hold and to envision ways in which they might make a difference in the world."

In terms of her studies, Eileraas is on a fast track. With her work toward the M.A. already completed at Northwestern, she is preparing her dissertation proposal on Algerian women novelists. This interest was sparked at Wesleyan, where Eileraas earned high honors for a thesis on nationalism and sexuality in the Algerian revolution of 1954 to 1962.

For her Ph.D., she plans to explore "the ways in which women of the Middle East and Asia have been looked at by the 'Oriental' colonizing gaze." Writers like Assia Djebar subvert that gaze in their works, "playing with the critical space between images," Eileraas says. Rather than simply rejecting Orientalist depictions as "false," Djebar and other Algerian writers "employ those fantasies in their autobiographies in order to create powerful counter-memories of Algerian history and female sexuality."

Her guide on the road to dissertation will be Lionnet, who describes Eileraas as "a true intellectual with a penetrating intelligence" who balances that force with "a highly developed social conscience. She's fluent in French, she's a superb writer, she's a perfect interdisciplinary person," says Lionnet. "Her interests match perfectly with what is available here."

Eileraas seems to agree. "The most interesting thing is that since I made the decision to come to UCLA, I haven't asked any more of the agonizing career questions," she says. "I've found vital ways to combine what I really love with professional ambitions."