Lezbehonest about Queer Politics Erasing Lesbian Women

This post is the second in a series of essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. The first is available here. I have written about lesbian erasure because I refuse to be rendered invisible. By raising my voice in dissent, I seek to offer both a degree of recognition to other lesbian women and active resistance to any political framework – het or queer – that insists lesbians are a dying breed. If women loving and prioritising other women is a threat to your politics, I can guarantee you are a part of the problem and not the solution.

Dedicated to SJ, who makes me proud to be a lesbian. Your kindness brightens my world.


lesbian_feminist_liberationLesbian is once more a contested category.  The most literal definition of lesbian – a homosexual woman – is subject to fresh controversy. This lesbophobia does not stem from social conservatism, but manifests within the LGBT+ community, where lesbian women are frequently demonised as bigots or dismissed as an antiquated joke as a result of our sexuality.

In the postmodern context of queer politics, women whose attraction is strictly same-sex attraction are framed as archaic. Unsurprisingly, the desires of gay men are not policed with a fraction of the same rigour: in a queer setting men are encouraged to prioritise their own pleasure, whereas women continue to carry the expectation that we accommodate others. Far from subverting patriarchal expectations, queer politics replicates those standards by perpetuating normative gender roles. It is no coincidence that lesbian women are subject to the bulk of queer hostility.

Along with the mainstreaming of fascism and the normalising of white supremacy, the last few years have brought an avalanche of anti-lesbian sentiment. Media content hypothetically geared towards and written by lesbian women informs us that we are a dying breed. Feminist resources questioning whether we even need the word lesbian, op-eds claiming that lesbian culture is extinct, puff pieces claiming lesbian “sounds like a rare disease“, and even commentaries arguing that lesbian sexuality is a relic of the past in our brave and sexually fluid new world – such writing deliberately positions lesbian sexuality as old-fashioned. It actively encourages the rejection of lesbian identity by confirming the reader’s understanding of herself as someone modern, someone progressive, if she is prepared to ditch the label. Just as patriarchy rewards the ‘cool girl’ for distancing herself from feminist ideals, queer politics rewards the lesbian for claiming any other label.

Discouraging lesbians from identifying as such, from claiming the oppositional culture and politics that are our legacy, is an effective strategy. Heather Hogan, editor of the allegedly lesbian publication Autostraddle, recently took to Twitter and compared lesbian resistance of lesbophobia to neo-nazis. Hogan herself is a self-described lesbian, yet positions lesbian feminist perspectives as inherently bigoted.

Queer keyboard warriors led a campaign against Working Class Movement Library for inviting lesbian feminist Julie Bindel to speak during LGBT History Month, filling the Facebook event with abusive messages and harassment that escalated to death threats. That Bindel considers gender as a hierarchy in her feminist analysis is enough to have her branded “dangerous.” The newly-opened Vancouver Women’s Library was subject to a campaign of intimidation by queer activists. VWL was pressured to remove feminist texts from their shelves on the grounds that they “advocate harm” – the majority of books deemed objectionable were authored by lesbian feminists such as Adrienne Rich, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Sheila Jeffreys. One does not have to agree with every argument made by lesbian feminist theorists to observe that the deliberate erasure of lesbian feminist perspectives is an act of intellectual cowardice rooted in misogyny.

Lesbian sexuality, culture, and feminism are all subject to concentrated opposition from queer politics. Rendering lesbians invisible – a classic tactic of patriarchy – is justified by queer activists on the basis that lesbian sexuality and praxis are exclusionary, that this exclusion equates to bigotry (in particular towards transgender men and women).

Is Lesbianism Exclusionary?

Yes. Every sexuality is, by definition, exclusionary – shaped by a specific set of characteristics which set the parameters of an individual’s capacity to experience physical and mental attraction. This in itself is not inherently bigoted. Attraction is physical, grounded in material reality. Desire either manifests or it does not. Lesbian sexuality is and has always been a source of contention because women living lesbian lives do not devote emotional, sexual, or reproductive labour to men, all of which are demanded by patriarchal norms.

lesbianA lesbian is a woman who is attracted to and interested in other women, to the exclusion of men. That the sexual boundaries of lesbians are so fiercely policed is the result of a concentrated misogyny compounded by homophobia. Women desiring other women, to the exclusion of men; women directing our time and energy towards other women, as the exclusion of men; women building our lives around other women, to the exclusion of men; in these ways lesbian love presents a fundamental challenge to the status quo. Our very existence contradicts the essentialism traditionally used to justify the hierarchy of gender: “it’s natural”, that becoming subservient to a man is simply woman’s lot in life. Lesbian life is inherently oppositional. It creates the space for radical possibilities, which are resisted by conservative and liberal alike.

Lesbian sexuality is freshly disputed by queer discourse because it is a direct and positive acknowledgement of biological womanhood. Arielle Scarcella, a prominent vlogger, came under fire for asserting that as lesbian woman she “like[s] boobs and vaginas and not penises.” Scarcella’s attraction to the female body was denounced as transphobic. That lesbian desire stems from attraction to the female body is criticised as essentialism because it is only every sparked by the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics. As lesbian desire does not extend to transwomen, it is “problematic” to a queer understanding of the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality.

Instead of accepting the sexual boundaries of lesbian women, queer ideology positions those boundaries as a problem to be overcome. Buzzfeed’s LGBT Editor, Shannon Keating, advocates the deconstruction of lesbian sexuality as a potential ‘solution’:

“…maybe we can simply continue to challenge the traditional definition of lesbianism, which assumes there are only two binary genders, and that lesbians can or should only be cis women attracted to cis women. Some lesbians who don’t go full-out TERF are still all too eager to write off dating trans people because of ‘genital preferences’, which means they have incredibly reductive ideas about gender and bodies.”

Lesbian sexuality cannot be deconstructed out of existence. Furthermore, problematising lesbian sexuality is in itself problematic: a form of lesbophobia. Lesbianism has been “challenged” since time immemorial by patriarchy. Throughout history men have imprisoned, killed, and institutionalised lesbian women, subjected lesbians to corrective rape – all as a means of enforcing heterosexuality. Old school lesbophobia operates with a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, the price of social acceptance (read: bare tolerance) that we allow ourselves to be assumed heterosexual, straight until proven otherwise. Not a threat.

‘Progressive’ lesbophobia is altogether more insidious, because it happens in the LGBT+ spaces of which we are ostensibly part. It asks that we jettison the word lesbian for something soft and cuddly, like Women Loving Women, or vague enough to avoid conveying a strict set of sexual boundaries, like queer. It asks that we abandon the specifics of our sexuality to pacify others.

The Cotton Ceiling

The Cotton Ceiling debate is commonly dismissed as “TERF rhetoric“, yet the term was originally created by trans activist Drew DeVeaux. According to queer feminist blogger Avory Faucette, Cotton Ceiling theory aims “to challenge cis lesbians’ tendency to… draw the line at sleeping with trans women or including trans lesbians in their sexual communities.” Planned Parenthood ran a now notorious workshop on this theme, Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling: Breaking Down Sexual Barriers for Queer Trans Women.

cc-workshop

The sexual boundaries of lesbian women are presented as a “barrier” to be “overcome”. Formulating strategies for encouraging women to engage in sexual acts is legitimised, sexual coercion whitewashed by the language of inclusivity. This narrative relies upon the objectification of lesbian women, positioning us as the subjects of sexual conquest. Cotton Ceiling theory rests upon a mentality of sexual entitlement towards women’s bodies that is fostered by a climate of misogyny.

Lesbian sexuality does not exist in order to provide validation. No woman’s sexual boundaries are up for negotiation. To argue as much within queer discourse recreates the rape culture produced by het patriarchy. That gaining sexual access to the bodies of lesbian women is treated as a litmus test, a validation of transwomanhood, is dehumanising to lesbian women. Framing lesbian sexuality as motivated by bigotry creates a context of coercion, in which women are pressured to reconsider their sexual boundaries for fear of being branded a TERF.

Refusing sexual access to one’s own body does not equate to discrimination against the rejected party. Not considering someone as a potential sexual partner isn’t a means of enacting oppression. As a demographic, lesbian women do not hold more structural power than transwomen – appropriating the language of oppression for the Cotton Ceiling debate is disingenuous at best.

To put it bluntly, no woman is ever obliged to fuck anyone.

Conclusion

Lesbian sexuality has become the site upon which ongoing tensions surrounding sex and gender explode. This is because, under patriarchy, onus is placed firmly upon women to provide affirmation. Gay men are not called bigots for eschewing vaginal sex due to their homosexuality. Loving men and desiring the male body carries a certain logic in a cultural context built around the centring of masculinity, in a queer setting. Conversely, as the female body is consistently degraded under patriarchy, women desiring women is regarded with suspicion.

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” – Audre Lorde

Lesbians have faced the same old combination of misogyny and homophobia from the right and are now relentlessly scrutinised by the queer and liberal left: that we are women who are disinterested in the penis is apparently contentious across the political spectrum. Social conservatives tell us we’re damaged, abnormal. The LGBT+ family to which we are meant to belong tells us that we’re hopelessly old-fashioned in our desires. Both actively try to deconstruct lesbian out of existence. Both try to render lesbian women invisible. Both suggest that we just haven’t tried the right dick yet. The parallels between queer politics and patriarchy cannot be ignored.


 

Bibliography

Julie Bindel. (2014). Straight Expectations.

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender

Audre Lorde. (1984). Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Woman and Loving. IN Sister Outsider

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. (2015). Sex and Gender: A Beginner’s Guide

Adrienne Rich. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence

 

 

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Le sexe, le genre, et le nouvel essentialisme

Sex, Gender, and the New Essentialism is now available in French! Many thanks to TradFem for the translation.


Un bref avant-propos : Ce texte est le premier d’une série d’essais sur le sexe, le genre et la sexualité. Si vous êtes d’accord avec ce que j’ai écrit, très bien. Si vous n’êtes pas d’accord avec quoi que ce soit dans ce texte, c’est aussi très bien. Quoi qu’il en soit, votre vie restera intacte après avoir fermé cet onglet, indépendamment de ce que vous pensez de ce billet.

Je refuse de me taire de peur d’être associée au mauvais type de féministe. Je refuse de rester silencieuse au moment où d’autres femmes sont harcelées et maltraitées pour leurs opinions sur le genre. Dans l’esprit de la sororité, ce billet est dédié à Julie Bindel. Il se peut que nous ayons parfois certaines divergences d’opinion, mais je suis très heureuse de son travail pour mettre fin à la violence masculine infligée aux femmes. Pour citer feue la grande Audre Lorde : « Je suis décidée et je n’ai peur de rien. »

________________________________________

Quand je me suis inscrite pour la première fois en Études de genre, mon grand-père m’a appuyée; il était ravi que j’aie trouvé une orientation dans la vie et acquis une éthique de travail qui ne s’était jamais matérialisée au cours de mes études de premier cycle. Par contre, il s’est dit stupéfait par le sujet. « Pourquoi avez-vous besoin d’étudier ça? », demanda-t-il. « Je peux te dire ceci gratuitement : si tu as des *parties masculines, tu es un homme. Si tu as des *parties féminines, tu es une femme. Il n’y a pas beaucoup plus à en dire. Tu n’as pas besoin d’un diplôme pour savoir cela. »(* Les conventions sociales empêchaient mon grand-père et moi d’utiliser les mots pénis ou vagin / vulve dans cette conversation, ou dans tout autre échange que nous eûmes.)

Ma réaction initiale en a été une de choc: après avoir passé un peu trop de temps sur Twitter, et avoir été témoin de l’extrême polarité du discours entourant le genre, j’étais consciente qu’exprimer pareilles opinions dans les médias sociaux risquait d’exposer son auteur à une campagne de harcèlement soutenue. Puis, comme il était blanc et mâle, je me suis dit que si ‘ai mon grand-père septuagénaire devait s’aventurer sur Twitter, il resterait sans doute à l’abri de ce genre d’agressions, qui sont presque exclusivement adressées à des femmes.

Par ailleurs, le fait d’entendre ce point de vue exprimé avec une telle désinvolture dans le jardin où nous étions ensemble, constituait une échappée des tensions caractérisant le monde numérique, la peur qu’éprouvent les femmes d’être stigmatisées comme étant du « mauvais genre » de féministe et lapidées publiquement en conséquence . Cet échange m’a poussée à considérer non seulement la réalité du genre, mais le contexte du discours entourant le genre. L’intimidation est une puissante tactique de censure : un environnement régi par la peur ne se prête ni à la pensée critique ni à la parole publique ni au développement des idées.

Jusqu’à la fin de sa vie, mon grand-père est demeuré béatement ignorant du schisme que l’idée de genre a créée dans le mouvement féministe, un fossé qui a été surnommé les guerres de TERF. Pour les non-initiées, le mot TERF signifie Radical Feminist Trans-Exclusionary – un acronyme utilisé pour décrire les femmes dont le féminisme critique le genre et préconise l’abolition de sa hiérarchie. La façon dont on devrait aborder le genre est sans doute la principale source de tension entre les politiques féministe et queer.

LA HIERARCHIE DU GENRE

Le patriarcat dépend de la hiérarchie du genre. Pour démanteler le patriarcat – l’objectif de base du mouvement féministe – il faut aussi abolir le genre. Dans la société patriarcale, le genre est ce qui fait du masculin la norme de l’humanité et du féminin, l’Autre. Le genre est ce pourquoi la sexualité féminine est strictement contrôlée – les femmes sont qualifiées de salopes si nous accordons aux hommes l’accès sexuel à nos corps, et de prudes si nous ne le faisons pas – alors qu’aucun jugement de ce type ne pèse sur la sexualité masculine. Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les femmes qui sont agressées par des hommes sont blâmés et culpabilisées – elle « a couru après » ou « elle l’a provoqué » – alors que le comportement des hommes agresseurs est couramment justifié avec des arguments comme « un homme, c’est un homme » ou « c’est fondamentalement quelqu’un de bien ». Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les filles sont récompensées de penser d’abord aux autres et de rester passives et modestes, des traits qui ne sont pas encouragés chez les garçons. Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les garçons sont récompensés de se montrer compétitifs, agressifs et ambitieux, des traits qui ne sont pas encouragés chez les filles. Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les femmes sont considérées comme des biens, passant de la propriété du père à celle du mari par le mariage. Le genre est la raison pour laquelle les femmes sont censées effectuer le travail domestique et émotionnel ainsi que la vaste majorité des soins, bien que ce travail soit dévalué comme « féminisé » et par la suite rendu invisible.

Le genre n’est pas un problème abstraite. Une femme est tuée par un homme tous les trois jours au Royaume-Uni. On estime que 85 000 femmes sont violées chaque année en Angleterre et au pays de Galles. Une femme britannique sur quatre éprouve de la violence aux mains d’un partenaire masculin, chiffre qui s’élève à une sur trois à l’échelle mondiale. Plus de 200 millions de femmes et de filles vivant aujourd’hui ont subi des mutilations génitales. La libération des femmes et des filles de la domination masculine et de la violence utilisée pour maintenir cette disparité de pouvoir est un objectif féministe fondamental – un objectif qui est incompatible avec l’acceptation des limites imposées par le genre comme frontières de ce qui est possible dans nos vies.

« Le problème du genre est qu’il prescrit comment nous devrions être plutôt que de reconnaître comment nous sommes. Imaginez combien nous aurions plus de bonheur, combien plus de liberté pour exprimer notre véritable personnalité si nous ne subissions pas le poids des attentes de genre … Les garçons et les filles sont indéniablement différents au plan biologique, mais la socialisation exagère les différences, puis amorce un processus d’autoréalisation. » Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

Les rôles de genre sont une prison. Le genre est un piège construit socialement en vue d’opprimer les femmes comme classe de sexe pour le bénéfice des hommes comme classe de sexe. Et l’importance du sexe biologique ne peut pas être négligée, en dépit des efforts récents pour recadrer le genre comme identité plutôt que comme hiérarchie. L’exploitation sexuelle et l’exploitation reproductive du corps féminin sont la base matérielle de l’oppression des femmes – notre biologie est utilisée comme moyen de domination par nos oppresseurs, les hommes. Même s’il existe un très faible nombre de personnes qui ne s’inscrivent pas parfaitement dans la structure binaire du sexe biologique – les personnes qui sont intersexuées – cela ne modifie pas la nature structurelle et systématique de l’oppression des femmes.

Les féministes critiquent la hiérarchie du genre depuis des centaines d’années, et avec raison. Lorsque Sojourner Truth a déconstruit la féminité, elle a critiqué la misogynie et le racisme anti-Noirs qui façonnaient la définition de la catégorie de femme. Se basant sur ses prouesses physiques et sa force d’âme comme preuve empirique, Truth a observé que la condition de femme ne dépendait aucunement des traits associés à la féminité et a contesté l’altérisation des corps féminins noirs qui était requise pour élever la fragilité perçue de la féminité blanche au statut d’idéal féminin. Son discours « Ain’t I A Woman? » (Ne suis-je pas une femme?) est l’une des premières critiques féministes connues de l’essentialisme de genre; Le discours de Truth était une reconnaissance de l’interaction entre les hiérarchies de race et de genre dans le contexte de la société patriarcale raciste (bell hooks, 1981). Simone de Beauvoir a elle aussi déconstruit la féminité en affirmant que « l’on ne naît pas femme, on le devient ». Avec Le Deuxième sexe, elle a soutenu que le genre n’était pas inné, mais qu’il créait des rôles que nous sommes socialisé-e-s à adopter conformément à notre sexe biologique. Elle a souligné les limites de ces rôles, en particulier celles imposées aux femmes en raison de l’essentialisme de genre, l’idée que le genre est inné.

Comme l’a fait remarquer Beauvoir, l’essentialisme de genre a été utilisé contre les femmes pendant des siècles dans une tentative d’entraver notre entrée dans la sphère publique, de nous refuser une vie indépendante de la domination masculine. Les prétentions d’un manque de capacité intellectuelle des femmes, de leur passivité inhérente et de leur irrationalité innée étaient toutes utilisées pour restreindre la vie des femmes à un contexte domestique au nom du principe que c’était l’état naturel de la femme. L’histoire démontre que l’insistance sur l’hypothèse d’un « cerveau féminin » est une tactique patriarcale utilisée pour maintenir entre les mains des hommes le suffrage, les droits de propriété, l’autonomie corporelle et l’accès aux études. Vu la longue histoire de misogynie basée sur des a priori concernant un cerveau féminin, le neurosexisme (Fine, 2010), en plus d’être scientifiquement faux, est contradictoire à une perspective féministe.

Pourtant, le concept d’un cerveau féminin est une fois de plus mis de l’avant – non seulement par des idéologues conservateurs, mais dans le contexte des idées politiques queer et de gauche, que l’on présume généralement être progressistes. Les explorations du genre en tant qu’identité, par opposition à une hiérarchie, reposent souvent sur la présomption que le genre est inné – « dans le cerveau » – plutôt que socialement construit. Par conséquent, le développement de la politique transgenre et les désaccords subséquents sur la nature de l’oppression des femmes – ce qui en est la racine et comment la femme est définie – sont devenus une ligne de faille (MacKay, 2015) au sein du mouvement féministe.

FÉMINISME ET IDENTITÉ DE GENRE

Le mot transgenre est utilisé pour décrire l’état d’un individu dont la perception personnelle de son sexe diffère de son sexe biologique. Par exemple, une personne née avec un corps de femme qui s’identifie comme un homme est qualifiée de « transhomme ». Une personne née avec un corps d’homme qui s’identifie comme femme est qualifiée de « transfemme ». Être transgenre peut impliquer un certain degré d’intervention médicale, pouvant inclure une thérapie de remplacement d’hormones et une chirurgie de réaffectation de sexe. Ce processus de transition est alors entrepris pour aligner le moi matériel avec l’identité interne d’une personne transgenre. Toutefois, parmi les 650 000 Britanniques qui entrent dans la catégorie transgenre, on estime à seulement 30 000 le nombre de personnes ayant effectué une transition chirurgicale ou médicale.

Le terme trans a d’abord décrit les personnes nées hommes qui s’identifient comme femmes, ou vice versa, mais il est maintenant utilisé pour désigner une variété d’identités ancrées dans une non-conformité de genre. À ce titre, l’étiquette de trans comprend aussi bien l’identité non binaire (quand une personne ne s’identifie ni comme homme ni comme femme), la fluidité de genre (quand l’identité d’un individu est susceptible de passer du masculin au féminin ou vice versa), et le statut de « genderqueer » (quand un individu identifie à la fois au masculin et au féminin ou à aucun de ces deux pôles), pour ne citer que quelques exemples.

L’antonyme du concept de transgenre est celui de cisgenre, un mot utilisé pour désigner l’alignement du sexe biologique et du rôle de genre assigné. Le statut de cisgenre a été qualifié de privilège par le discours queer, en désignant les personnes cis comme une classe d’oppresseurs et les trans comme les opprimés. Bien que les personnes trans soient indéniablement un groupe marginalisé, aucune distinction n’est faite entre les hommes et les femmes cis en considération des manifestations de cette marginalisation. Pourtant, la violence masculine est systématiquement responsable des meurtres de transfemmes, un motif tragique que Judith Butler identifie comme étant le produit du « … besoin des hommes de satisfaire aux normes culturelles du pouvoir masculin et de la masculinité ».

Dans l’optique queer, c’est le genre auquel on s’identifie et non l classe de sexe à laquelle on appartient qui dicte si on est marginalisé par l’oppression patriarcale ou si on en bénéficie. À cet égard, la politique queer est fondamentalement en contradiction avec l’analyse féministe. Le point de vue queer situe le genre dans l’esprit, où il existe comme identité auto-définie de façon positive – et non comme hiérarchie. Du point de vue féministe, le genre est compris comme un moyen de perpétuer le déséquilibre de pouvoir structurel que le patriarcat a établi entre les classes de sexe.

« Si vous ne reconnaissez pas la réalité matérielle du sexe biologique ou son importance comme axe d’oppression, votre théorie politique ne peut incorporer aucune analyse du patriarcat. La subordination historique et pérenne des femmes n’est pas apparue parce que certains membres de notre espèce choisissent de s’identifier à un rôle social inférieur (et le suggérer serait un acte flagrant de blâme des victimes). Elle a émergé comme moyen permettant aux hommes de dominer la moitié de l’espèce qui est capable de porter des enfants et d’exploiter leur travail sexuel et reproducteur. Nous ne pouvons pas comprendre le développement historique du patriarcat et la persistance de la discrimination sexiste et de la misogynie culturelle sans reconnaître la réalité de la biologie féminine et l’existence d’une classe de personnes biologiquement féminines. » (Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about sex and gender)

Comme la théorie queer s’articule sur la pensée poststructuraliste, , elle est par définition incapable de fournir une analyse structurelle cohésive d’une oppression systématique. Après tout, si le moi matériel est arbitraire dans la définition de la manière dont on ressent le monde, il ne peut alors être pris en compte dans la compréhension d’une classe politique quelle qu’elle soit. Ce que la théorie queer n’arrive pas à saisir, c’est que l’oppression structurelle n’est pas liée à la façon dont un individu s’identifie. Le genre en tant qu’identité n’est pas un vecteur dans la matrice de domination (Hill Collins, 2000); que l’on s’identifie ou non à un rôle de genre donné n’a aucun rapport avec la position que nous assigne le patriarcat.

LE PROBLÈME AVEC LE CONCEPT DE « CIS »

Être cis signifie « s’identifier au genre qui vous a été assigné à la naissance ». Mais l’assignation des rôles de genre basés sur les caractéristiques sexuelles est un outil dont se sert le patriarcat pour subordonner les femmes. L’utilisation des limites imposées par le genre pour définir la trajectoire du développement d’un-e enfant est la première manifestation du patriarcat dans sa vie, et c’est particulièrement préjudiciable aux filles. L’essentialisme qui sous-tend l’a priori que les femmes s’identifient aux moyens de notre oppression repose sur la conviction que les femmes sont intrinsèquement adaptées à cette oppression, que les hommes sont intrinsèquement adaptés à nous imposer leur pouvoir. En d’autres termes, classer les femmes comme « cis » équivaut à de la misogynie.

Dans l’optique postmoderne de la théorie queer, l’oppression des femmes en tant que classe de sexe est reconfigurée comme un privilège. Mais, pour les femmes, être « cis » n’est pas un privilège. À l’échelle mondiale, la violence masculine est une des principales causes de décès prématurés des femmes. Dans un monde où le féminicide est endémique, où un tiers des femmes et des filles peuvent s’attendre à subir la violence masculine, être née de sexe féminin n’est pas un privilège. La question de savoir si une personne née femme s’identifie à un rôle de genre particulier n’a aucune incidence sur si elle sera soumise à des mutilations génitales, si elle aura du mal à accéder à des soins de santé génésique, ou si elle sera ostracisée quand elle aura ses règles.

L’on ne peut se désengager par identification personnelle de d’une oppression qui est matérielle à la base. Par conséquent, l’étiquette de « cisgenre » n’a peu ou rien à voir avec le lieu qu’impose le patriarcat aux femmes. Présenter le fait d’habiter un corps féminin comme un privilège exige une méconnaissance totale du contexte sociopolitique de la société patriarcale.

La lutte pour les droits des femmes s’est avérée longue et difficile, avec des avancées réalisées à grand prix pour celles qui ont résisté au patriarcat. Et ce combat n’est pas terminé. L’évolution significative de la reconnaissance des droits des femmes, provoquée par la deuxième vague du féminisme, a entraîné un mouvement délibéré de ressac sociopolitique (Faludi, 1991), qui se répète aujourd’hui dans la mesure où la capacité des femmes à accéder légalement à l’avortement et à d’autres formes de soins de santé génésique sont mis en péril par la généralisation d’un fascisme conservateur partout en Europe et aux États-Unis. Les intersections des enjeux de race, de classe, de handicap et de sexualité jouent aussi leur rôle dans la définition des façons dont les structures de pouvoir agissent sur les femmes.

Pourtant on voit aujourd’hui, au nom de l’inclusivité, les femmes être dépouillées des mots nécessaires pour identifier et ensuite défier notre propre oppression. Les femmes enceintes deviennent des « personnes enceintes ». L’allaitement devient le « chest-feeding ». Les références à la biologie féminine sont traitées comme une forme d’intolérance, ce qui interdit, sous peine de transgression, d’aborder directement les politiques entourant la procréation, la naissance et la maternité. En outre, neutraliser le langage en en supprimant toute référence au sexe n’empêche ni ne conteste pas l’oppression des femmes en tant que classe de sexe. Effacer le corps féminin ne modifie pas les moyens par lesquels le genre opprime les femmes.

L’optique queer place attribue fermement aux gens s’identifiant comme trans la propriété du discours sur le genre. En conséquence, le genre est maintenant un sujet que beaucoup de féministes tentent d’éviter, malgré le rôle fondamental joué par la hiérarchie dans l’oppression des femmes. Les invitations à boire de l’eau de Javel ou à mourir dans un incendie s’avèrent, sans surprise, une tactique de bâillon efficace. Les blagues et les menaces – souvent indiscernables les unes des autres – au sujet des violences contre les femmes sont couramment utilisées comme façon de supprimer les voix dissidentes. De telles agressions ne peuvent être considérées comme une violence à l’endroit de dominants par des dominés. C’est au mieux une forme d’hostilité horizontale (Kennedy, 1970), au pire une légitimation de la violence masculine contre les femmes.

La politique identitaire queer ne tient pas compte des façons dont les femmes sont opprimées en tant que classe de sexe; elle fait parfois l’impasse à leur sujet de façon délibérée. Cette approche sélective de la politique de libération est fondamentalement déficiente. Dépolitiser le genre, en adoptant une approche acritique des déséquilibres de pouvoir qu’il crée, ne profite à personne – et surtout pas aux femmes. Seule l’abolition du genre permettra de se libérer des restrictions qu’il impose. Les chaînes du genre ne peuvent être recyclées en poursuite de la liberté.


BIBLIOGRAPHIE

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). Le Deuxième sexe

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: La guerre froide contre les femmes

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender

bell hooks. (1981). Ne suis-je pas une femme? Femmes noires et féminisme

Florynce Kennedy. (1970). Institutionalized Oppression vs. the Female

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. (2015). Sex and Gender: A Beginner’s Guide

Sojourner Truth. (1851). Ain’t I a Woman?


 

Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

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Weiße Menschen, die “Weißen Feminismus” kritisieren, halten weißes Privileg aufrecht

Exactly 18 months after it was originally published, White people critiquing “White Feminism” perpetuate white privilege has been translated into German by the radical feminist collective Die Störenfriedas. I am profoundly touched that these women considered it a worthwhile use of their time and energy. It is something of a surprise that my earliest blog post continues to do the rounds in feminist discourse, and I hope that German readers find it useful.


 

Wenn du online in feministische Diskurse eingebunden bist, ist es wahrscheinlich, dass dir ein bestimmter Begriff aufgefallen ist, der immer geläufiger wird: Weißer Feminismus. Manchmal wird sogar ein Trademark-Logo zur Unterstreichung hinzugefügt. Der Begriff „weißer Feminismus“ wurde zur Chiffre für ein bestimmtes Versagen innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung; von Frauen mit einem gewissen Grad an Privilegien, die es versäumen, ihren marginalisierteren Schwestern zuzuhören; von Frauen mit einem gewissen Grad an Privilegien, die über diese Schwestern hinwegsprechen; von Frauen mit einem gewissen Grad an Privilegien, die die Bewegung auf die Themen ausrichten, die innerhalb ihres eigenen Erfahrungsspektrums liegen. Ursprünglich wurde der Begriff Weißer Feminismus von Women of Colour benutzt, um Rassismus innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung zu thematisieren – eine notwendige und berechtigte Kritik.

Auch wenn weiße Frauen durch die auf Misogynie (Frauenverachtung) aufgebauten bestehenden sozialen Ordnung auf persönlicher und politischer Ebene benachteiligt sind, sind sie auch Nutznießerinnen von institutionellem Rassismus – ob sie das wollen oder nicht. Sogar Frauen mit dezidiert anti-rassistischen Grundsätzen können nicht einfach aus den Vorteilen eines weißen Privilegs aussteigen, angefangen von der größeren (wenn auch immer noch zu geringen) Medienpräsenz weißer Frauen, über eine größere Lohnlücke für Women of Colour bis zu der deutlich erhöhten Wahrscheinlichkeit von Polizeigewalt, die die Lebenswirklichkeit Schwarzer Frauen bestimmt. So funktioniert weißes Privileg. Wir leben in einer Kultur, die durch Rassismus geprägt ist und in der ein großer Teil des Reichtums unseres Landes aus dem Sklavenhandel stammt. So wie Misogynie braucht es viel Zeit und Bewusstsein, sich Rassismus abzutraineren. Es ist ein Lernprozess, der für uns niemals wirklich abgeschlossen ist. Women of Colour, die Rassismus innerhalb der feministischen Community anfechten, geben uns allen die Möglichkeit, uns bewusst von Verhaltensweisen zu lösen, die innerhalb des weißen rassistischen Patriarchats belohnt werden.

Der Begriff Weißer Feminismus wird allerdings nicht mehr ausschließlich von Women of Colour benutzt, um den Rassismus anzugehen, dem wir begegnen. Neuerdings ist es unerlässlich für weiße Feministinnen geworden, anderen weißen Feministinnen, deren Meinungen sie nicht teilen, vorzuwerfen, sie verkörperten weißen Feminismus. Weiße Menschen haben damit begonnen, andere weiße Menschen anzugehen für … ihr Weißsein. Ohne Scheiß. In einem neueren Beitrag für das Vice Magazine beklagt Paris Lee ironischerweise, dass “weiße Feministinnen die größte Medien-Plattform haben”. Künstlerin Molly Crapable, die sowohl über eine Plattform als auch ein beträchtliches Einkommen verfügt (es sei denn, Samsung groß zu machen, war ein Akt der Nächstenliebe), nutzte Twitter um die die Ansichten “schicker weißer Ladys” wegen ihrer Privilegien abzutun. Nun, aus meiner Sicht hier schauen Molly und Paris ziemlich bequem aus.

Statt die Stimmen von Women of Colour zu stärken oder ihre Plattform zu nutzen, die Intersektion von Race und Gender aufzuzeigen, hat eine Reihe liberaler weißer Feministinnen die Kritik an Rassismus gekapert, um ihr eigenes Image als progressiv aufzupolstern – als das der richtigen Art Feministin, nicht einer Weißen Feministin. Aber die Analyse von Rassismus durch Women of Colour innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung zu vereinnahmen, entspricht genau dem Verhalten, das durch die Schaffung des Begriffes “Weißer Feminismus” verhindert werden sollte. Weiße Menschen, die “weißen Feminismus” kritisieren, halten weißes Privileg aufrecht. Das eigene Image über die von Women of Colour angeführten anti-rassistischen Kämpfe zu stellen, ist bestenfalls narzisstisch und schlimmstenfalls rassistisch. Diese Aktionen stützen die Ansicht, dass der von Women of Colour erlebte Rassismus eine Nebensache und nicht ein Hauptanliegen innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung ist.

Weiße Frauen, die den Begriff “Weißer Feminismus” als einen Knüppel benutzen, um sich gegenseitig niederzumachen anstatt als Aufforderung, ihren eigenen Rassismus zu hinterfragen: das ist angewandtes Weißsein in Reinform. In ihrer Eile, “Privilegien reinzuwaschen“, werden weiße Feministinnen zu der gefürchteten Weißen Feministin, in dem sie die Begriffe ihrer marginalisierten Schwestern zu ihrem persönlichen Nutzen aneignen und zweckentfremden.


 

Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

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Sex, Gender, and the New Essentialism

A brief foreword: This is the first in a series of essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. If you agree with what I have written, that is fine. If you disagree with any of the following content, that is also perfectly fine. Either way, your life will go on undisturbed after you close this tab irrespective of what you think about this post.

I refuse to remain silent for fear of being branded the wrong type of feminist.  I refuse to remain silent as other women are harassed and abused for their views on gender. In the spirit of sisterhood, this post is dedicated to Julie Bindel. Our views may not always converge, but I am very glad of her work to end male violence against women. In the words of the late, great Audre Lorde: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”


 

When I first enrolled as a Gender Studies student, my grandfather was supportive – delighted that I had found direction in life and developed a work ethic that had never quite materialised during my undergraduate years – yet bemused by the subject. “What do you need to study that for?” He asked. “I can tell you this for free: if you’ve got *male parts, you’re a man. If you’ve got *female parts, you’re a woman. There’s not much more to it. You don’t need a degree to know that.” (*Social convention prevented my grandfather and I from using the words penis or vagina/vulva in this conversation, or any other we shared.)

My initial reaction was shock: having spent a bit too much time on Twitter, having witnessed the extreme polarity of discourse surrounding gender, I was conscious that expressing such opinions on social media carried the risk of becoming subject to a sustained campaign of harassment. Then again, being white and male, I reasoned that – were my septuagenarian grandfather to venture onto Twitter – he would be likely to remain safe from this abuse, which is almost entirely directed towards women.

All the same, hearing that perspective spoken with such casualness as we sat in the garden together was a world apart from the tensions contained in digital space, the fear women carried of being branded the ‘wrong sort’ of feminist and publicly targeted as a result. This exchange pushed me to consider not only the reality of gender, but the context of gender discourse. Intimidation is a powerful silencing tactic – an environment governed by fear is not conducive to critical thought, public discourse, or the development of ideas.

Until the end of his life my grandfather remained blissfully unaware of the schism gender has created within the feminist movement, a divide that has been dubbed the TERF wars. For the uninitiated, TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist – an acronym used to describe women whose feminism is critical of gender and advocates the abolition of the hierarchy. How one should approach gender is arguably the main source of tension between feminist and queer politics.

The Hierarchy of Gender

 

Patriarchy is dependent on the hierarchy of gender. To dismantle patriarchy – the core objective of the feminist movement – gender must also be abolished. In patriarchal society, gender is what makes male the normative standard of humanity and female Other. Gender is why female sexuality is strictly policed – women called sluts if we allow men sexual access to our bodies, called prudes if we don’t – and no such judgements are passed on male sexuality. Gender is why women who are abused by men get blamed and shamed – ‘she was asking for it’ or ‘she provoked him’ – while the behaviour of abusive men is commonly justified with ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘he’s a good man, really’. Gender is why girls are rewarded for being nurturing, passive, and modest, traits that are not encouraged in boys. Gender is why boys are rewarded for being competitive, aggressive, and ambitious, traits not encouraged in girls. Gender is why women are considered property, passing from the ownership of father to husband through marriage. Gender is why women are expected to provide domestic and emotional labour along with the vast majority of care, yet such work is devalued as ‘feminised’ and subsequently rendered invisible.

Gender is not an abstract issue. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK. It is estimated that 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales. One in four British women experiences violence at the hands of a male partner, a figure which rises to one in three on a global scale. Over 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation. The liberation of women and girls from male dominance and the violence used to maintain that power disparity is a fundamental feminist goal – a goal that is incompatible with accepting limitations imposed by gender as the boundaries of what is possible in our lives.

“The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations… Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialisation exaggerates the differences, and then starts a self-fulfilling process.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

Gender roles are a prison. Gender is a socially constructed trap designed to oppress women as a sex class for the benefit of men as a sex class. And the significance of biological sex cannot be disregarded, in spite of recent efforts to reframe gender as an identity rather than a hierarchy. Sexual and reproductive exploitation of the female body are the material basis of women’s oppression – our biology is used as a means of domination by our oppressors, men. Although there are minority of people who do not fit neatly into the binary of biological sex – people who are intersex – this does not alter the structural, systematic nature of women’s oppression.

Feminists have been critiquing the hierarchy of gender for hundreds of years, and with good reason. When Sojourner Truth deconstructed femininity she critiqued the misogyny and anti-Black racism shaping how the category of woman was defined. Using her own physical prowess and fortitude as empirical evidence, Truth observed that womanhood was not dependent on the traits associated with femininity and challenged the Othering of Black female bodies required to elevate the perceived fragility of white womanhood into the feminine ideal. Ain’t I a Woman is one of the earliest known feminist critiques of gender essentialism; Truth’s speech was an acknowledgement of the interaction between hierarchies of race and gender within the context of white supremacist patriarchal society (hooks, 1981).

Simone de Beauvoir too deconstructed femininity, stating that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” With The Second Sex she argued that gender is not innate, but provides roles into which we are socialised into adopting in accordance with our biological sex. She highlighted the limitations of these roles, in particular the limitations imposed upon women as a result of gender essentialism, the idea that gender is innate.

As de Beauvoir observed, gender essentialism has been used against women for centuries in an effort to deny us entry to the public sphere, life independent of male dominance. Claims of women’s inferior intellectual capacity, inherent passivity, and innate irrationality were all used to restrict women’s lives to a domestic context on the basis that it was woman’s natural state. History demonstrates that insistence upon a female brain is a tactic of patriarchy used to keep suffrage, property rights, bodily autonomy, and access to formal education the preserve of men. Owing to the long history of misogyny resting upon assumptions of a female brain, in addition to it being scientifically untrue, neurosexism (Fine, 2010) is contradictory to a feminist perspective.

Yet the concept of a female brain is once more being advocated – not only by social conservatives, but within the context of queer and leftist politics, which are generally assumed to be progressive. Explorations of gender as an identity as opposed to a hierarchy often rely upon the presumption that gender is innate – “in the brain” – and not socially constructed. Therefore, the development of transgender politics and subsequent disagreements over the nature of women’s oppression – what lies at its root, and how woman is defined – has become a faultline (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement.

Feminism and Gender Identity

 

The word transgender is used to describe the state of an individual whose personal understanding of their own gender does not align with their biological sex. For example, someone born female-bodied who identifies as male is referred to as a transman. Someone born male-bodied who identifies as female is referred to as a transwoman. Being transgender can involve a degree of medical intervention, potentially including hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery, a process of transition undertaken to bring the material self into alignment with the internally held identity of a transgender person. However, of the 650,000 British people fitting under the trans umbrella, a mere 30,000 are estimated to have made any surgical or medical transition.

The term trans initially described those born male who identify as female, or vice versa, but is now used to denote a variety of identities rooted in gender non-conformity. Trans encompasses non-binary identity (when a person identified as neither male nor female), genderfluidity (when an individual’s identity is liable to shift from male to female or vice versa), and genderqueerness (when an individual identifies with both or neither masculinity and femininity), to name just a few examples.

Converse to transgender is cisgender, a word used to convey the alignment of biological sex and ascribed gender role. Being cisgender has been framed as a privilege by queer discourse, with cis people positioned as the oppressor class and trans people as the oppressed. Although trans people are undeniably a marginalised group, no differentiation is made between the cis men and women in consideration of how that marginalisation manifests. Male violence is consistently responsible for the murders of transwomen, a tragic pattern Judith Butler identifies as being the product of “…men’s need to meet culturally held standards of male power and masculinity.

From a queer perspective, it is the gender with which one identifies as opposed to the sex class to which one belongs that dictates whether one is marginalised by or benefits from patriarchal oppression. In this respect, queer politics are fundamentally at odds with feminist analysis. Queer framing positions gender in the mind, where it exists as a positively self-defined identity – not a hierarchy. From a feminist perspective, gender is understood as a means of perpetuating the structural power imbalance patriarchy has established between sex classes.

“If you do not recognise the material reality of biological sex or its significance as an axis of oppression, your political theory cannot incorporate any analysis of patriarchy. Women’s historic and continued subordination has not arisen because some members of our species choose to identify with an inferior social role (and it would be an act of egregious victim-blaming to suggest that it has). It has emerged as a means by which males can dominate that half of the species that is capable of gestating children, and exploit their sexual and reproductive labour. We cannot make sense of the historical development of patriarchy and the continued existence of sexist discrimination and cultural misogyny, without recognising the reality of female biology, and the existence of a class of biologically female persons.” – Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about sex and gender

As queer theory is built upon post-structuralist thought, by definition it is incapable of providing cohesive structural analysis of systematic oppression. After all, if the material self is arbitrary in defining how one experiences the world, it cannot then be factored into the understanding of any political class. What queer theory fails to grasp is that structural oppression is not connected to how an individual identifies. Gender as an identity is not a vector in the matrix of domination (Hill Collins, 2000) – whether or not one identifies with a particular gender role has no bearing on where one is positioned by patriarchy.

The Problem with ‘Cis’

 

Being cis means “identify[ing] with the gender you were assigned at birth.” But the assignation of gender roles based upon sex characteristics is a tool of patriarchy used to subordinate women. Having the limitations imposed by gender used to define the trajectory of their development is the earliest manifestation of patriarchy in a child’s life, which is particularly damaging for girls. The essentialism behind assuming women identify with the means of our oppression rests on a belief that women are inherently suited to that oppression, that men are inherently suited to wield power over us. In other words, categorising women as ‘cis’ is misogyny.

Through the post-modern lens of queer theory, women’s oppression as a sex class is repackaged as a privilege. But, for women, being ‘cis’ is not a privilege. Globally, male violence is a leading cause in the premature deaths of women. In a world where femicide is endemic, where one third of women and girls can expect to experience male violence, being born female is not a privilege. Whether or not a natal female identifies with a particular gender role has no bearing whether she will be subject to female genital mutilation, whether she will struggle to access reproductive healthcare, whether she is ostracised for menstruating.

It is impossible to opt out of oppression that is material in basis by means of personal identification. Therefore, the label of cisgender has little to no bearing upon where women are positioned by patriarchy. To frame inhabiting a female body as a privilege requires a total disregard for the sociopolitical context of patriarchal society.

The fight for women’s rights has proven to be long and difficult, with advancements achieved at great cost to those who resisted patriarchy. And that fight is not over. Significant developments in the recognition of women’s rights brought about by the second wave of feminism were deliberately met with socio-political backlash (Faludi, 1991), a pattern currently repeating itself to the extent that women’s ability to legally access to abortion and other forms of reproductive healthcare is jeopardised by the mainstreaming of conservative fascism across Europe and in the United States. Intersections of race, class, disability, and sexuality too play roles in defining the ways in which structures of power act upon women.

Yet, in the name of inclusivity, women are being stripped of the language required to identify and subsequently challenge our own oppression.  Pregnant women become pregnant people. Breastfeeding becomes chestfeeding. Citing female biology becomes a form of bigotry, which makes addressing the politics of reproduction, birth, and motherhood impossible to directly address without transgressing. In addition, rendering language neutral of any reference to sex does not prevent or challenge women being oppressed as a sex class. Erasing the female body does not alter the means by which gender oppresses women.

Queer framing locates the ownership of gender discourse firmly with those identifying as trans. As a result, gender is a topic many feminists try to avoid in spite of the hierarchy playing a fundamental role in women’s oppression. Invitations to drink bleach or die in a fire are, unsurprisingly, an effective silencing tactic. Jokes and threats – often indistinguishable – about violence against women are commonly used as a means of suppressing dissenting voices. Such abuse cannot be considered “punching up”, the oppressed venting frustration at the oppressor. It is at best horizontal hostility (Kennedy, 1970), at worst a legitimisation of male violence against women.

Queer identity politics fail to account for and at times wilfully ignore the ways in which women are oppressed as a sex class. This selective approach to the politics of liberation is fundamentally flawed. Depoliticising gender, adopting an uncritical approach to the power imbalances it creates, benefits nobody – least of all women. Only the abolition of gender will provide liberation from the restrictions it imposes. The shackles of gender cannot be re-purposed in the pursuit of freedom.

 


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1952). The Second Sex

Susan Faludi. (1991). Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender

bell hooks. (1981). Ain’t I a Woman?

Florynce Kennedy. (1970). Institutionalized Oppression vs. the Female

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. (2015). Sex and Gender: A Beginner’s Guide

Sojourner Truth. (1851). Ain’t I a Woman?

 

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Dear Shappi: An Open Letter on the Jhalak Prize

jhalak-2016

Dear Shappi,

I am looking forward to reading Nina is Not OK. I like your comedy very much, and am of the view that comedians have a gift for addressing the darker elements of life, so am keen to see how you highlight issues surrounding addiction and sexual assault through Nina’s story. Until the Jhalak Prize longlist was released, I hadn’t known about your novel but am very glad to have discovered it. Since last February – for almost an entire year – I have been anticipating that list and the selection books it would introduce me to. You see, I love nothing more than a good book. And the list has not disappointed!

chasing-the-starsMalorie Blackman is Children’s Laureate for very good reason – her books are impossible to put down and, for all the lessons they contain, never verge on moralising. After David Olusoga’s Black and British documentary series, which was rigorously researched and so full of heart, I can’t wait to read his book on the history of Black people living in Britain. Speak Gigantular had been on my wish list since friends raved about the beauty of Irenosen Okojie’s writing – I downloaded it as soon as the Jhalak Prize longlist was announced, and it is a delightful book. Then there is the treat of new books by unfamiliar authors: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Kei Miller, you.

The longlists of book prizes are like manna from heaven for bookworms. The quality of the books assured by the panel of judges, a great reading experience is pretty much guaranteed. For bookworms, prizes are like the literary equivalent of being gifted an all-inclusive holiday at a five star hotel. We know that these are books with the power to move, to provoke thought, to inspire feeling. These are books that will capture our hearts and quite possibly break them. These are books that will captivate our minds, stay in our heads long after the last page has been turned. The Man Booker, the Costa, the Bailey’s – each year, we bookworms look forward to those lists the same way we look forward to birthdays or bank holidays.

bare-litI was there at the Betsey Trotwood when the Jhalak Prize was announced. It was the launch party for Bare Lit Fest, Britain’s first literary festival centred entirely around the writing of Black and Asian authors. It was a weekend filled with brilliant books and the politics of liberation. Instead of the same old talk about change or resignation to the flaws of the publishing industry, this was action that promised results. Media Diversified and the founders of the Jhalak Prize had put their money where their mouth was. So had we, the people who bought tickets to attend and books once we were there. And that was really exciting to be part of.

What stayed with me about Bare Lit was that not one single person of colour apologised for or questioned their seat on a panel, the legitimacy of their work being showcased. Along with new friendships and a suitcase full of books, I took a piece of that confidence back home to Glasgow. As people of colour we are forever expected to justify our successes, our voices, and even our very presence. We’re forever fighting this assumption (on the part of white people) that anything we achieve is down to the colour of our skin and not the merit of our work. The spectre of tokenism casts a shadow over the accomplishments we earn. And I’m really sad to hear that this concern over giving “ammunition” to racists caused you to withdraw from the Jhalak Prize. Being longlisted was a huge achievement and you deserved to own it. That Nina is Not OK is your first novel made it all the more impressive.

The tokenism/merit binary has a lot to answer for. It plays a key role in upholding racism in society. When people of colour don’t get ahead, it’s because we don’t work hard enough or just aren’t good enough. When people of colour do get ahead, it’s all down to positive discrimination. How hard we graft, the barriers we face with our work – these are never given the same scrutiny. Due to your stand-up I know you have come up against those barriers too, lost a role in a sitcom because the production team decided against casting an Iranian woman for the part of a nanny in a British series, and so I don’t blame you for how you handled being caught in a situation that has so many difficult layers.

nina-is-not-okThe reason given for your withdrawal from the longlist was fear of alienating your audience. This is difficult to understand because surely, like all the other people who found your book through the Jhalak Prize, I am part of that audience. If anything, being shortlisted for a literary award broadens your audience by encouraging more people to read your books. Why reject the grounds for our interest in your novel? If the Jhalak Prize amounts to tokenism, our interest in the books listed is tokenistic too – a reductive view to take, given the superlatively high standard of the books on offer.

Appreciation of good literature is what the Jhalak Prize is all about. And books by writers of colour – no matter how brilliant – are far less likely to get the appreciation they deserve. Men named Dave are statistically more likely to make it onto a best-seller list than any man or woman of colour. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, with under 1 in 10 of its employees identifying as people of colour – this impacts not only on whose stories are told, but the extent to which their promotion is prioritised and their authors supported.

The only audience likely to be alienated by Nina is Not OK being longlisted for the Jhalak Prize are white people who feel threatened by any direct celebration of the talents of people of colour – the sort of white people who reduce people of colour succeeding to tokenism rather than acknowledge the grounds on which that success is deserved. You worried that a white girl reading your book might think “oh right, so you’re not with me” because of your book being among nominations for the Jhalak Prize. But being with that white girl – having words with the potential to speak to her – is not and should not be at odds with any acknowledgement of your Iranian heritage. Good stories have universal value. “Should a reader be aware of someone’s ethnicity?” The alternative is that the reader assumes you are a white woman.

Obscuring your ethnicity might enable readers to pick up your book open to the idea that its content will be relatable, but it does nothing to unpick the perception that books written by white people speak universal truths and books written by people of colour are of limited relevance. If a reader picks up Nina is Not OK because they are intrigued by the premise, but puts it back down again because the author is Iranian, that amounts to racism.

good-immigrantYou spoke of the limitations imposed on immigrants in explaining your withdrawal, the hostility that immigrants face in Britain today. Nikesh Shukla, co-founder of the Jhalak Prize, edited an anthology on that very theme: The Good Immigrant. In that collection Darren Chetty’s essay draws from his experience as a primary school teacher, recalling a conversation in which two young pupils explain to one another that stories are only about white people. He analyses the prevalence of the idea that books are by and about white people, the implications of internalised racism in determining how Black and Asian children understand their position in the world. It is powerful stuff, and I highly recommend The Good Immigrant if you haven’t yet read it. By challenging the notion that a story must be by or about whiteness to be legitimate, we also challenge the underlying logic that dictates ownership of stories is white: the assumption that we are Other.

In spite of rather than because of your withdrawal from the Jhalak Prize longlist, I remain a part of your audience. However, as both a passionate bookworm and a Black woman, I now feel alienated because this decision makes it seem as though you value the comfort of your white audience above the engagement of Black and Asian readership. I do not feel as though you value me as a reader, or anybody else the Jhalak Prize has brought to your novel. Leaving the longlist was not a neutral act. It carried the potential to discourage just as surely as you imagined being present on the longlist might.

Your work is your property, under your control as creator. And that’s fine. I wish you every future success, Shappi, and hope that your writing continues to receive critical acclaim. And I leave you one final question about audience: is reaching white people who engage with your work in spite of their racism really more important than reaching people of colour who engage with your work from a place of solidarity?

Yours in sisterhood,
Claire

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Why I Reclaim the Night: Being a Black Woman in Public Space

A brief foreword: Forth Valley Rape Crisis invited me to speak at Reclaim the Night in Stirling. A friend editing a zine, Why I Reclaim the Night,  for RTN Nottingham and London asked for contributions. Both prompted this reflection.


I’m writing this on the train home. Legs tucked carefully to one side. Eyes down, even when I’m not looking at the notepad, because I don’t want any man to use his entitlement to female attention to translate an incidental glance into an invitation to talk. I get the train back from Glasgow around this time of evening a few times every week. It’s a familiar environment. I’ve spent thousands of hours in identical carriages. But I never let my guard down. I don’t let the rocking of the train lull me to sleep after a busy day, like the man opposite has.

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Now the weather is turning, the nights are drawing in. It gets dark earlier every day. I prefer Glasgow in the summer, and not just because it rains less. I feel safer when it’s light. If a man begins to follow me, gets too close, he will be easier to spot. Other people are more likely to notice and intervene. In the dark, walking through the city, I am vulnerable. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’m afraid a man will rape me. 3 million women and girls across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking, or other forms of male violence every single year – the threat of male violence is very real. When men call to me on the street, when men touch me against my will, I am terrified. So I hurry from place to place, taking care not to linger beyond any specific purpose, and waste not a second in walking back to the train station.

Like anyone else, I am keen to get home – out of the cold, back to reliable wifi and lounge trousers. But I don’t want to miss the train because I don’t want to hang around the station for 40 minutes. If I am waiting, a man will approach me despite every last atom in my body willing him to stay away. The book, the headphones, the rigid posture – none of these things rid him of the delusion that my time and personal space are rightly his for the taking. He will sit beside me, press his leg against mine, nudge my foot. He will ask where I’m heading, if he can join me. He will, more often than not, ignore me when I ask him to please leave me alone. The station staff have always disappeared by this point, are as difficult to catch as smoke.

You would think getting on the train would be a relief after that – the brightly lit carriages, the security cameras, the presence of a conductor. But it isn’t always. The man who slid his hand up my thigh. The man who curled around me, using my body as a pillow on the last train home despite me begging him to please, please, please stop – none of my pleading made a difference, and he only stopped when another man told him he was out of order. The man who asked me if I liked taking big Black cock (white men have this sick way of fetishising Black bodies and sexuality). The man who tried to follow me into the toilet. The man who will be next. They are all threats.

Sometimes, when I am trying to be as inconspicuous as possible when you are the only Black woman on the train, I wipe off my lipstick. I don’t want any part of me to stand out, to attract a second glance. In these ways I fold myself up, make myself smaller, in the hope of avoiding male attention – always unwanted. My entire relationship with public space is defined by a need to be near-invisible in the hope I will be lucky enough to escape male violence. For so many women, it is the same.

But being invisible isn’t a solution: if it’s not me, it will be another woman harassed or hurt by men. And that is unacceptable. I refuse to be silent when other women are at risk. I’m not the only one in danger – every woman is – and that injustice fills me with rage. The idea of us all being made small because of men, that makes me furious. That anger keeps me challenging patriarchy when despair makes me want to give up. So does the support and encouragement of other women.

That’s why I’m going to speak at Reclaim the Night in Stirling: to use my voice and say that this is unacceptable. To march with other women, to stand up and be counted as their sister, to take up a space in which I’d be afraid without other women by my side.

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For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity

A brief foreword: this is the conclusion to my series of essays on race and the feminist movement. Parts 1, 2, and 3 can all be accessed here. The following knowledge was acquired at great personal expense. Use it how you will. Dedicated to every woman – Black, brown, and white – who has sustained me through sisterhood.


Whenever I discuss racism in the feminist movement, this question is invariably asked as a result: white women wonder “what, specifically, can I do about racism? How can I create solidarity with women of colour?” It’s a complicated question, which I have been considering closely for over a year now, and there is no one simple answer. Instead, there are many answers, of which none are static and all of which are liable to shift in relation to context. The reality of the situation is that there is no quick fix solution for the hundreds of years’ worth of racism – racism upon which our society was built, its hierarchies of wealth and power established – that shape the dynamic between women of colour and white women. That imbalance of power and privilege colours personal interactions. It creates the layers of justifiable mistrust that women of colour feel towards white women – even (perhaps especially) in a feminist context.

Altering that dynamic in which race exists only as a hierarchy, building sustainable forms of solidarity between women, is going to require persistent self-reflection, effort, and a willingness on the part of white women to change their approach. Here is my perspective on the practical steps white women can take to challenge their own racism, held consciously and subconsciously, in the hope that it will create the potential for them to offer real sisterhood to women of colour.

“The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.”
Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

Acknowledge the differences brought about by race. Do not define women of colour by our respective ethnicities. Equally, do not pretend our lives are the same as yours. Not seeing race means not seeing racism. Not seeing racism means allowing it to flourish, unchecked. Start by recognising our humanity, seeing women of colour as self-actualised people with insight, powers of critical thought, and – that which is most often neglected in this conversation – feelings. Begin with examining how you think about women of colour, and build from there.

Gatekeeping and Authority

Many problems are perpetuated by white women positioning themselves as gatekeepers of feminist discourse, authorities uniquely qualified to determine what is and is not Proper Feminism. It is no coincidence that women of colour’s contributions, in particular commentaries addressing racism or white privilege, are frequently dismissed as a distraction from the main feminist concern, i.e. issues which have a directly negative impact upon white women.

The tacit assumption that a white woman’s perspective is more legitimate than ours, more informed, that if women of colour simply learned more about a particular issue then our outlook too would become nuanced, is persistent. Underpinning that assumption is the belief that white women are the guiding experts of the feminist movement, women of colour in a position of subservience. The same situation unfolds in the context of class politics, with working class women dismissed as uninformed when their feminist perspectives do not align with those of middle class women. Reinforcing these hierarchies is the greatest hindrance to solidarity between women.

White women have a habit of arbitrating what is and is not feminist in a way that centres white womanhood, positions it as the normative standard against which female experience is measured. If white womanhood is standard, Black and brown womanhood become deviant forms by definition – a paradigm which contributes to women of colour being Othered.

Feminism is a political movement devoted to the liberation of women from oppression. Some of that oppression is gendered. Some of it is racialised. Some of it is class-based. Some of it relates to sexuality. Some of it concerns disability. And within these categories, there is always the potential for overlap. A failure to acknowledge the intersection of identities ensures that the most marginalised women will continue to be oppressed – not a feminist objective by any set of standards. Responding with “this isn’t your moment, guys” when women of colour address racism is a direct contradiction of feminist principles. Expecting women of colour to remain silent for the greater good, i.e. for the benefit of white women, is not an inherently feminist act. The idea that there is a time and place for acknowledging a form of oppression experienced by women undermined the principles upon which the feminist movement is built. White women need to stop derailing critiques of racism and instead listen to what women of colour have to say on the subject.

There is an unfortunate pattern of white women framing themselves as the enlightened saviours, men of colour as savage oppressors, and women of colour as passive victims of an oppression stemming purely from men falling within our own ethnic group. This model acknowledges that women of colour experience gendered violence whilst simultaneously erasing the racialised oppression to which we are subject. Furthermore, it denies the reality of white women belonging to an oppressor class – a deft and disingenuous manoeuvre that absolves white women of their role in maintaining systematic racism. If the problem of racism does not exist, it need not be discussed. If racism is not discussed, white women may continue to benefit from it unimpeded.

For inter-racial solidarity to exist within the feminist movement, the question of ownership must be addressed. Time and time again, white women behave as though the feminist movement is their exclusive property, something with which women of colour may join in but never lead in establishing discourse or action. This approach not only erases the crucial role women of colour have historically played in the feminist movement, but denies the possibility for future collaborative efforts to occur on an equal footing.

White women who want trust and solidarity with women of colour must first consider how they position women of colour in their minds, how they conceptualise us – do you see us as sisters, or someone to whom you pay lip service without ever properly listening to? Are we a central part of feminist struggle, or a box-ticking exercise? Honest inward reflection is essential. Analyse how you think of us, critically explore why that might be, and work from there.

Feminist Organising

Are you planning a group for women? Creating a feminist event or space? Building a feminist network? Every gathering of women creates new possibilities for the feminist movement, one of which happens to be an opportunity to improve upon the dynamic of race in a feminist context. With collective organisation, there is a question which white women must ask themselves: are there women of colour in this group? If not, there is a reason. It is all very well talking about how women come together as friends or a set of activists sharing a particular goal, but the way in which that group was formed did not take place inside a social vacuum. It happened in a society where women of colour are racialised and Othered to the point our womanhood is perceived as fundamentally lesser. As a result, our grasp of women’s political issues and therefore feminism is perceived as inferior.

For example, the stronger my commitment to Black politics, the more my feminist credentials are policed by white women caught up in two fallacies: first, that it is impossible to care about multiple issues simultaneously, second, that the politics of liberation can be neatly divided because no overlap of identities need ever be taken into account. The perception that my support for Black liberation must come at the expense of my support for women’s liberation, diluting my feminist politics, misunderstands the essence of how both sets of politics were established and the fact that they are inherently connected through Black women’s lives.

If there are no women of colour involved in your feminist set, consider how that came about and subsequently how it can be addressed. What about your way of organising, your content, your feminist praxis, could be alienating? Critical self-reflection is by no means a comfortable process, but it is a necessary one for solidarity to be possible. A key element of this subject is the way in which white women behave towards women of colour.

Treating women of colour as an exercise in diversity as opposed to authentic members of the team betrays a form of racism in how we are conceptualised. Our skills, knowledge, and commitment to women are not considered the natural state of affairs in a feminist setting in the same way that white women’s contributions to the group are. The assumption that we can only ever be present as a means of filling quotas conveys an obliviousness to our humanity. Set aside that line of thought. Look for our value as individuals in the same way you are automatically inclined to look for it in a white woman, and you will grow accustomed to seeing it. Unpick your racism with the same vigour you unpick internalised misogyny.

It is important that there are women of colour involved at an organisational level, as part of the team designing your events and campaigns. Let go of the paternalism that assures you, as white women, you are in a position to speak for all women.

Behaviour

The most obvious point: do not be racist, in word or in deed. One way or another, it will come to light. If you are saying something about women of colour in a private context that you would not voice in a public context, consider why it is that you differentiate between the two settings – the answer usually relates to white women not wishing to appear racist. Appearing racist has, paradoxically, become more taboo than racism in itself.

And if your racism is addressed, do not treat this as a personal attack. Do not be the white women who makes it about her own hurt, the white woman who cries her way out of accountability for her actions. Reflect instead upon the magnitude of the hurt dealt to the women of colour subject to that racism – I guarantee it is so painful that your own discomfort is small by comparison. Give women of colour experiencing racism the empathy you would extend to a white woman experiencing misogyny.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Do not remain silent when your friends are racist. Do not look the other way. Do not pretend that nothing has happened. Your silence makes you complicit in that racism. Your silence normalises that racism, is part of what legitimises that racism in a mainstream context. It’s not easy to confront someone with whom you are close, someone with greater power or influence than your own. But the right thing isn’t always easy to do.
Lastly, do not grow complacent. In a recent interview with Feminist Current, Sheila Jeffreys lamented the rise of identity politics, which she conflated with intersectional praxis, claiming that because men never got caught up in being expected to do everything, women shouldn’t either. This attitude is not atypical among white feminist women. However, Jeffreys’ perspective begs the question: since when did radical lesbian feminism model itself after the behaviour of men? Feminism is not a race to the bottom, it is a radical political movement. And that involves some intensive critical thought – a consistent of challenging of structural oppression that is not selective, but thorough.

It will not be comfortable. It will not be easy. But it opens up whole new avenues of support and sisterhood between women. Solidarity that will sustain and nourish all women as we work towards liberation.


Bibliography

Bilge, Sirma, & Hill Collins, Patricia. (2016). Intersectionality.

Grewal, Shabnam. ed. (1988). Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women.

King, Martin Luther. (1968). The Trumpet of Conscience.

Parker, Pat. (1978). Movement in Black.

 

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Race, History, and Brexit: Black Scottish Identity

A brief foreword: the following was delivered at Glasgow Caledonian University on the 25th October, 2016, as part of Black History Month. The subject was Race, History and Brexit: Exploring the politics of erasure and documenting the experiences of Black and minority ethnic communities in Scotland post Brexit.

I was proud to speak alongside Dr Ima Jackson and Dr Akwugo Emejulu – both due to their scholarship, and because it was the first time in my career I had sat on a panel composed entirely of Black women.


 

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I am Black. I am Scottish. To some, it’s obvious that the two are not mutually exclusive. To others, Black Scottish identity is a contradiction in terms: either you’re of this place, Scottish and therefore white, or Other, Black. Rest assured, the two fit together – admittedly there are tensions, but those mostly arise from the expectations of other people (read: white people) rather than any aspect of what it actually is to be Black and Scottish. The plurality of Black identity often gets lost in how this discussion is approached, because constructions of national identity are so often treated as binary and static.

“Where are you from, originally?” Five words that plague people of colour across Britain. It’s essentially code for “if you’re here, then why aren’t you white?” When I was a child that question left me feeling sick, scared. I dreaded it, and have developed something of a sixth sense for when it’s coming. What caused me discomfort was that it positioned me as Other, and was often asked because white people couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a Black child belonging in an otherwise white family. Now, having grown up and inhabited this world as a Black woman for 24 years, I have a much thicker skin when it comes to micro-aggressions. But people still ask it. Random strangers still feel entitled to ask that, completely out of the blue, their curiosity outweighing basic courtesy.

That question can’t be separated from what it is to be Black and Scottish. It’s an indicator of how white people consider Scottishness, what can and cannot be Scottish. The underlying assumption around which the question is framed is that Scottish identity is inherently white. So please spare me the justifications that it was “small talk” or “friendly interest”. It’s the politics of us and them playing out on a local scale. The greater the incredulity directed towards my Scottishness, the harder it is for the person asking where I’m from to imagine that the categories of us and them aren’t necessarily poles apart.

Always, people are perplexed when I answer with my hometown, on the west coast of Scotland. This doesn’t compute. And that puzzlement grows when they ask, searching carefully for a combination of words that doesn’t sound racist, where I came from “before that”. The amount of truth I share depends on how salty I’m feeling that day – the maternity unit of the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow or, if they try their luck yet again, my mother’s uterus. Talking explicitly about female biology and birth is a great way to return the discomfort – that horror of women’s bodies so often coincides with casual racism.

My Scottish identity is incompatible with their vision of Scottishness. The idea of me having been born “here”, grown up “here”, is fundamentally at odds with their idea of what it is to be Scottish, a vision of Scotland in which the whiteness of natives is ubiquitous. And yet I did grow up “here”, which is why the cognitive dissonance surrounding Scotland’s approach to the politics of Brexit and national identity is so clear to me.

There is a colossal rift between this image of a progressive Scotland committed to social justice and the reality of a Scotland in denial over its colonial legacy. The People Make Glasgow – that’s been our city’s slogan since the Commonwealth Games. Which people, though? Who did make Glasgow? Glasgow merchants of the 18th century amassed fortunes on the back of the slave trade, and slave labour in colonies used to produce tobacco, sugar, and rum. The GOMA, St. Andrew’s in the Square, whole sections of Merchant City – so many of those beautiful buildings were built from that wealth. Wealth created through the exploitation and abuse of Black people. Glasgow wouldn’t exist as we know it without the wealth amassed through slavery, colonialism. That stunning architecture is treated as a source of national pride, but what made it possible is to the shame of Scotland as a nation.

But we don’t like to talk about that. I remember learning about the Empire in school. It was romanticised to the point that the ethics of white people profiting from the slave labour provided by Black people were never unpacked in the classroom. The horror of Imperialism was completely glossed over, the implication being that “civilisation” and a railway system in India made it fair exchange. Of course, making these atrocities palatable for children involves a tacit denial of Black and brown humanity – if British paternalism (and I do include Scotland in that) was overall beneficial, a benign presence across the Empire, then colonial subjects were primitives in need of guidance from white rationality. This construction relies on depicting us as Other, less human than the civilising force of whiteness.

My mum took me to the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre when I was a kid. At the time, it was just another day out. We saw where he lived, learned that he was a missionary and explorer. Livingstone is even framed as something of a hero for his opposition to the slave trade. That he sought to challenge slavery through “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization” – ridding the continent of barbarism and working towards more efficient ways for Britain to exploit African resources – was largely overlooked. I had intended to revisit the centre before this event, but it is closed for refurbishment.

I don’t recall any specific attention being given to the African men and women on whose lives David Livingstone impacted. His reliance on the slave labour he allegedly stood against, that hypocrisy, wasn’t really considered. The stories of Black men and women were so invisible that I was puzzled by the sticker book I got from the gift shop. It was about a little Black girl who lived in a village, and what did little Black girls have to do with David Livingstone? Still, it was the only sticker book I’d ever got with a Black character, which was so exciting that this line of enquiry receded in my ten year old mind.

None of this history receives due critical exploration. It’s left to fester, and the ways in which Scotland’s history of profiting from slave labour, being a part of Imperial expansion, is largely unaddressed. Existing attitudes cannot be divorced from the historical context that brought them into being.

The narrative of Scottish exceptionalism erases the atrocities of slavery, absolves the Scottish conscience, and allows us to imagine this country as being a fundamentally fairer place than England. The politics of Brexit are not new, and Scotland – in spite of having voted to remain – is not exempt. Scotland has been a part of a context in which that xenophobia and racism has flourished, unchallenged.

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Young Feminist Summer School – AGORA ’16

A brief foreword: this is my account of attending Young Feminist Summer School in Brussels from the 7-11th of September, 2016. My place was very kindly sponsored by Engender. Text originally posted here, on the European Women’s Lobby site.


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Before

My name is Claire. I am a feminist – specifically, a feminist of the Black and radical variety. I live in Scotland, where I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with the Glasgow Women’s Library for almost two years, and blog as Sister Outrider. In the year since I started blogging, I’ve written about intersectionality, how race operates as a dynamic, racism in the feminist movement, and white privilege. In addition, I run feminist workshops and speak about Black feminism at events; although writing has been crucial to me finding voice as a feminist, my priority is improving life for other women – women of colour in particular – and that requires deeds as well as words. So I applied to AGORA ’16 Young Feminist Summer School in order to learn more about how to bridge the gap between feminist theory and practice, between ideas and reality.

Feminist Summer School. Those three words promised everything about which I am passionate: learning, feminist politics, and an opportunity to work with brilliant women. Fifty places were open to young women from all across Europe, inviting us to Brussels for five days to learn how best our activism can bring about change. One of those places is mine. Young Feminist Summer School was organised by the European Women’s Lobby, the largest network of women’s organisations in the whole of the EU. Having read about the extraordinary achievements of my fellow attendees, the strength of their commitment to women’s liberation, it is clear that this project has so much valuable knowledge to offer about feminist campaigning, organisation, and projects.

It still doesn’t feel real. My plane tickets are booked, the boarding passes printed, and yet I can’t quite believe that I’m going to Brussels in September. I applied to AGORA ’16 at the beginning of the year – the deadline fell on the same day as my university required applications for PhD research proposals to be submitted and coincided with the funding application, too. Although things got a bit hectic (translation: staring at the computer screen and questioning the meaning of life, the wisdom of my professional choices), this turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise because, being so very stressed about my future, it didn’t occur to me to be nervous about whether or not I’d be accepted into Young Feminist Summer School. I had simply thought, best case scenario, AGORA ’16 would be a nice way to spend the time between finishing the dissertation for my MLitt in Gender Studies and starting my research degree. And it will be.

Confession time: my application was totally last minute. I sent the email within a half hour of the deadline, indecisive until the eleventh hour. This is because I wasn’t sure that I’d have enough to offer the programme to be a deserving candidate. Silly, in retrospect – there’s nothing to lose by applying. And yet… Young Feminist Summer School had been popping up on my Twitter feed for weeks, being shared again and again by women I respect both in a sisterly and professional capacity. It looked so wonderful – a way to develop feminist praxis, meet and learn from young women all around Europe, and go to Brussels, a place which I had never visited before.

One of my fellow Glasgow Women’s Library Volunteers, Louisina, talked so enthusiastically about how much her daughter had enjoyed and gained from attending the first Young Feminist Summer School in 2015. Feminist Summer School looked so brilliant that it became almost intimidating. Was I good enough, accomplished enough, to apply? And then I thought about how much impostor syndrome holds women back. I asked myself whether a straight white man with my skills, experience, and enthusiasm would ever question his right to such an opportunity. The answer: don’t be ridiculous! And so I send the form.

Full credit for this budding confidence goes to Glasgow Women’s Library. Spend enough time in women’s spaces, and you start to believe that anything is possible. All of the qualities other women see in you grow slowly visible to your own eyes, shape your self-perception, and gradually eclipse self-doubt. Through recognising the talents of other women, your own as you become part of the team, you subconsciously begin to unpick the layers of misogyny that were hidden away in the depths of your mind and develop a justifiable faith in your own capabilities.

My feminist praxis is intersectional, which means that I consider hierarchies like race and class alongside gender in my analysis of power structures and approach to feminism. In the run up to Young Feminist Summer School I have also been wondering how, as a Black feminist, I would fit in a European context. Here in Scotland, in Britain, it can be something of a struggle getting people to think about racism in the same way they think about sexism, to acknowledge that the two are connected. There persists an idea that race matters less than sex in determining women’s experiences, a perspective which completely overlooks the realities faced by women of colour. How that conversation generally unfolds in other parts of Europe, it is impossible to guess – I am very much looking forward to finding out, to hearing from women whose experiences are different to my own.

There is no way to know what a project as new as Young Feminist Summer School is going to be like, to predict how I will find being in a new place and meeting so many new people. But all of those possibilities are exciting. I am proud to be going, and delighted that this year my home country Scotland is represented by two women of colour. It is the ambition of the European Women’s Lobby’s vision for building a better future, the creativity of their approach in bringing young feminists together to learn from each other, that make Young Feminist Summer School such a thrilling prospect. I look forward to AGORA ’16, and to everything that will follow in the work of my fellow participants.

During, Part 1

agora-1

I am not anxious about Young Feminist Summer School. Throughout the journey from my quiet coastal hometown to Glasgow, from Glasgow’s familiar buzz to the remote beauty of Edinburgh, I am free from the acute panic that typically plagues any journey to an unknown destination. In both a direct and philosophical way, this novel peace of mind is due to my enthusiasm for ideas, for translating feminist theory into practice. The night before AGORA I was on the phone with a friend, and we stayed up until about 3.30 in the morning talking about the tension between identity politics and structural analysis in the politics of liberation. It was one of those intricate, intense conversations to which a good night’s sleep is sacrificed without a second thought. Now, some 12 hours later and thousands of feet above the earth’s surface, I am physically too tired to experience anxiety. (Note to self: experiment with sleep deprivation before all significant undertakings…) At AGORA ’16, I expect to meet like-minded women. Though we have never met, I anticipate finding a similar passion in my fellow feminists.

Here in Brussels, on my first trip abroad in the capacity of feminist, I begin to think about national identity. Walking through passport control, I froze for a moment, uncertain of whether I could still queue as an EU citizen in the wake of Britain’s referendum, until Nadine told me it was valid for another 2 years. The practical implications of Britain leaving the European Union are still emerging, an endless string of unfortunate consequences. When the time eventually comes to change my passport, I wonder what will replace it. A woman after my own heart, Nadine has also suggested we Tweet our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a selfie of the AGORA ’16 Scottish contingent. I like this idea. After the Black woman who ran the Ireland Twitter account for a week was sent torrents of racist abuse (as in the UK, Black can only ever be safe if it is considered other to the ’’us’’ who belong and make up the fabric of society), it feels important to show how proudly two women of colour are representing Scotland.

The air-conditioned bus into the city, with its tinted windows, is cool and quiet, allowing for introspection. I am a Scottish feminist. I am a Black woman. Here, in a different context, it’s a fresh opportunity to consider how those things fit together. I flew here with two women also involved in Scottish feminist organisations, and I myself am part of Glasgow Women’s Library. The three of us have worked together before. For the first time, I see how I fit into the nexus of Scottish feminism – rather than trying to define myself, my work, against it, I see now that they fit under the umbrella of Scottish feminism.

It can be disproportionately white, back home. Whenever I go to feminist events, I am consciously looking for women of colour. Are we a part of the audience? Are we represented on the panels? Are women of colour involved behind the scenes in feminist organising? If a feminist space or event is entirely white, it is quite simple: I do not belong in that context. No feminist setting that does not value and listen to what women of colour have to say is relevant to me – how can anyone fit into a group where they are ignored, made irrelevant as Other? In Scotland it feels like something is changing for the better. Our new Poet Makar, Jackie Kay, is a Black lesbian woman. At GWL we have established Collect:If, a network run by and for creative women of colour. Dr Akwugo Emejulu convened the Women of Colour in Europe conference in Edinburgh last weekend, highlighting the academic and creative contributions of voices marginalised altogether too often. That same weekend Lux screened a documentary about Audre Lorde, The Berlin Years, at Glasgow Film Theatre and it sold out – people cared about Lorde’s life, her significance. All these things give me place, knit me a little closer into Scottish feminism.

From bus to train, we venture into Brussels. I take a particular delight in asking for ’’un voyage, s’il vous plait’’. The ticket is quite different from those in Scotland. Trundling my case behind me, I am an obvious tourist. Upon getting stuck in the accessible ticket barrier, I envision spending the rest of my life in that perspex box before managing to escape. Emerging from the metro is like stepping into another world – so different to my native Scotland. The sky is blue, the streets cobbled, and the architecture distinctly European. On our way to the Mayoral reception there is so much to feast our eyes on, and the scent of freshly cooked waffles is near-impossible to resist, but it is well worth it upon arrival.

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The town hall is exquisite. It looks more like the Vatican than a municipal building, and I am in awe. Upon entering the reception, I am given a cool glass of champagne – so refreshing after a long day. It is significant, I think, that among the first to approach me and introduce themselves of the Summer School attendees are my fellow Black women. This recognition is so welcome – being in a totally unfamiliar environment can get unsettling. Without preamble, we delve into a fascinating conversation: the state of the UK Labour party, Black identity across the diaspora, how “diversity” only extends so high in organisations, the ways in which Black women do and do not relate to one another… It’s exhilarating.

The achievements of these women are extraordinary, and it is a privilege to be among them, energised by their enthusiasm and the breadth of their vision for engineering social change. This conversation, under the fresco decorating the town hall ceiling, is all that I had been hoping for and more. Everything that I have planned with my own work seems possible – a very promising start to Young Feminist Summer School. We head back to the hostel, buoyed by so much feminist company as we traverse the streets of Brussels. Later that evening, as my roommate curls up in bed reading Patricia Hill Collins, I realise AGORA ’16 is exactly where I am meant to be.

During, Part 2

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Feminist Summer School exceeds my every expectation. Our first session sets the tone for everything that follows, establishing our core values: to speak with intention, to listen with attention, and be mindful of the group. As we share collective responsibility for the conversation and how it impacts on our fellow participants, everyone tries to be particularly conscious of the needs of others – an early lesson on how to successfully translate feminist principle into practice, the value of which becomes apparent as the day continues. This element of care enables honest and open discussion, and truly creative thought flourishes. Critics of safe spaces perhaps do not always see how, in certain circumstances, they enable rather than hinder discussion. And there is no end of challenge to our opinions, even those closely held – as one participant observes, “there are many feminisms here, not one feminism.”

We are all curious about our sisters: where their experiences match our own and where their experiences are different. Our contexts are diverse in this group – 49 women representing 22 countries – and there are factors of race, disability, sexuality, class, faith, language, etc. shaping our individual lived experiences in a vast number of ways, so that curiosity is pressing.

There are many shared concerns, particularly the malaise that sets in with the popular misconception that we have achieved equality now, that we don’t really need feminism any more, a falsehood that enables the erosion of advancements that have already been made towards equality. This perception that equality exists erases ongoing social inequalities. The rise of fascism in Europe, of right-wing politicians propagating misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, and anti-immigration rhetoric is also causing a palpable worry that transcends borders. We discuss how austerity disproportionately impacts women, the intersection of disability and gender politics that is overlooked in so much of the feminist movement, and how in conservative countries – even in Romania, where the procedure is legal – abortion and other aspects of reproductive healthcare are made so difficult to access.

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During the lunch break, these conversations continue at an informal level, women seeking out women whose perspective has resonated with them or overlaps with their own cause. I step into a discussion about the politics of Black women’s hair – how wearing it natural creates assumptions of radical politics in the vein of Malcolm X, and relaxing results in a whole host of assumptions about the politics of respectability. Through the conversation, parallels are drawn between the warped perceptions connecting Black women’s hair with our politics and the similar implications projected onto hijabi women.

During the afternoon sessions there are three workshops to choose from, two of which we can attend, offering real insight into the European Women’s Lobby’s campaigning. The first I attend is Whose Choice? A workshop on prostitution, the sex industry, and why the European Women’s Lobby endorses the Nordic Model, which is to criminalise purchasing sex (almost always done by men), not selling sex (almost always done by women) with a view to ending demand. This subject is particularly contentious in the feminist movement, with a divide between those who focus on the significance of individual choice and those who consider the context in which choice is made. Pierrette, our facilitator, creates an environment that is conducive to respectful discussion – as a result, we feel unafraid to share our perspectives, even when they are contradictory at points. It is a constructive way to learn from one another. With umbrella organisations it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint a specific set of beliefs, and I gain a new respect for the European Women’s Lobby because they have a clear set of principles through which prostitution is acknowledged as a form of male violence against women in their analysis and campaigning.

Then we move on to Yes Means Yes, a workshop on sex education and consent. The European Women’s Lobby are starting a project to promote healthy attitudes towards sexuality. It is an area about which most of us are passionate and Nadine, my fellow Scottish candidate, does this professionally. As always, the quality and the depth of knowledge in the room is impressive. This makes me hopeful: it is only through education that we can change attitudes towards sex, consent, and subsequently behaviour. As many as three million women and girls are victims of sexual assault or other forms of male violence against women. It is endemic. But we have the ability to change that.

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Every moment filled with learning, Young Feminist Summer School is an exciting experience – but it is also tiring. So we go out into the city to unwind during the welcome party and get a sense of Brussels. It is a beautiful city, though I will never get used to the traffic. Despite the chaos of the roads, there is something fundamentally peaceful about Brussels. The balconies and bridges are so very picturesque, the architecture distinctly European. Yet, in some ways, Brussels is reminiscent of my home city: Glasgow. It has a friendly atmosphere. Le Space confirms that initial perception. There is wine and good food. On the bookshelves, I find George Jackson’s prison letters and pour over his words to Angela Davis. One of Zadie Smith’s less known short stories, The Embassy of Cambodia, sits between volumes of French literature. This is my type of bar.

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All the same, it has been a very long day. And I am still hungry. Three of us slip out in search of that renowned Belgian cuisine: chips. Becca is the strategist, orchestrating a methodical sweep of these unfamiliar streets. It is not long until we are rewarded. The chips are hot, delicious, and melt in the mouth. Bliss for three euros. It is no disrespect to AGORA ’16 that I consider this moment one of the highlights of my trip. When we return to the bar, someone has added chalk art to the walls. “Feminisme et Frites” – the perfect combination.

During, Part 3

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Visiting the European Parliament is one of the highlights of Young Feminist Summer School. Despite having been up late the night before for the party, there is a buzz about the group that carries me through the tiredness. We get up early for breakfast, double check that we have our passports, and it is time to go. The parliament building is visually stunning, a modern fusion of glass and chrome. All the flags on display, the variety of languages on every sign, convey a politics of unity and consensus that resonate with me, reflect the purpose behind the AGORA ’16 group.

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Ahinara, one of the Young Feminist Summer School attendees, delivers a talk on the European Union’s significance to her, describing her time writing about the institution as a journalist and then interning from the EU upon realising its power for enacting social change. Her enthusiasm and knowledge chipped away some of the mistrust I feel towards large bodies of government. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house” – in broad terms, my view was that the state existed as a fundamentally patriarchal and colonial institution and, as such, was fundamentally an oppressive structure. But the words of another attendee have been playing over in my mind concerning the European Union: “government has the power to liberate as well as oppress.” We learn from each other constantly during AGORA.

The next session is inspirational. Malin Bjork and Soraya Post, two MEPs active on the femme committee, come and speak to us. That the Young Feminist Summer School is worth fitting into their busy schedules is striking: I feel aware that not only of our existing achievements, but our potential for enacting change in the future, give us real significance as a group. Hearing Malin and Soraya discuss their politics and careers is uplifting, as their careers make clear that driving meaningful social change can be possible. Soraya’s words in particular chime with me: she is the first Roma woman to be elected as an MEP, and the intersection between race and sex shapes her politics. Soraya’s perspective is fully humanitarian, and this is in no way a cop out of claiming the label feminist: she fights for the humanity of Roma women and men, women around the world, to be recognised. The basic definition of human that shapes Soraya’s humanitarian politics does not stop at white and male – as is too often the case – and her passion for justice is wonderful to behold.

Soraya and Malin belong to different parties. They hold different perspectives, particularly with regard to the mainstreaming of gender. What strikes me is how their disagreements are in no way a barrier to them working together constructively, making the world a better place for women and girls. Many governments, especially the British Parliament, could stand to learn a great deal from their methods. Setting aside political point-scoring and one-upmanship not only brings integrity to politics, but brings about meaningful results.

I wasn’t prepared for how powerful an experience visiting the European Parliament would be. For the British women among the group, it is a poignant moment in the wake of Brexit. In the past, I have been ambivalent about the European Union – so concerned with reform that I didn’t necessarily appreciate the social good that it has brought about. It feels sad that I have only fully appreciated Britain’s membership of the European Union when we are on the cusp of losing it. The macho, isolationist politics of sovereignty have cost us a great deal.

That afternoon we begin learning about Appreciative Inquiry – far more exciting than it sounds. This session is, at heart, about stories and the role they play in providing us with self-definition. Storytelling is broken down into a process of three parts: storyteller, harvester, and listener. In groups of three, we take turns in each role and learn first-hand the ways in which narrative is shaped by those bearing witness in addition to the person telling the story. Sitting in the courtyard with Anna and Milena, the fountain splashing gently behind us, I am content. We share a great deal. It is good to listen. It is good to be heard.

Next, we meet local feminists involved in campaigns around Brussels, representing three organisations: Isala, the House of Women, and Garance. Isala is a team of volunteers working to prevent women in prostitution from becoming isolated, to stop society from turning a blind eye to their exploitation. Garance teaches self-defence in order to increase women’s agency against male violence, with the core aim of making women and girls feel safe, strong, and free as we occupy public space. The House of Women is, in some ways, reminiscent of Glasgow Women’s Library: it is motivated by empowering women in very practical terms. They seek to emancipate women through teaching new skills, encouraging independence, and advocate an openness that enables women to take up the public space to which we are entitled – as Adrienne Rich said, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” Hearing about their work helps us to break outside the Brussels bubble of political power and consider how the threads of feminist activism weave together to form what is a global movement.

As Soraya Post says, “you have to take your place in the room, set the agenda.” And the participants of AGORA ’16 are ready to do that. We prepare our own workshops and invite our fellow feminists to attend. The expanse of knowledge present and available in the room is extraordinary. From feminist podcasts to instructions on grassroots organising, a range of practical skills are covered. With discussions on the role choice plays in feminism and how to be a white ally to women of colour, the distance between feminist theory and practice is bridged with finesse.

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The next morning I facilitate a workshop on intersectionality and co-existing identities in the feminist movement with Rosa, a Brazilian feminist with a flawless undercut and keen insight into geopolitics. The honesty women bring to the group is humbling, and I am profoundly touched that they are prepared to share so much of themselves in the discussion. The personal is political, a truth unavoidable when considering intersectional feminism. Running workshops is a very rewarding experience. I received facilitation training from Glasgow Women’s Library, who are always keen to upskill their volunteers, and have been putting on workshops since. It is a wonderful thing, to be able to do what you believe in. Afterwards, I go to a workshop facilitated by Hélène of Osez le Féminisme in which we share strategies for activism. My own plans for Sister Outrider slide into sharper focus.

We spend the afternoon at Amazone, where almost twenty women’s organisations hold office space. I decide to write, reflect, and take some time for myself in their sumptuous garden. Nearby, an impromptu workshop runs. It is a peaceful place. We return in the evening for our final party – bold lipstick and a black dress turns out to be a popular look. I am described as “witchy” – exactly the aesthetic I was striving for. Though we are openly critical of the beauty standards to which women are held, there is a lovely discussion about our lipstick choices, the ways in which our female friends have used it as a means of encouragement and support, a way to help us find little moments of joy. My own lipstick, Vintage Red, carries enough such history that every application brings me a measure of daring.

The wine flows, and so too does the conversation. It is lovely to be young, to be surrounded by other women as the night draws in, and to have the freedom of moving through Brussels as une femme seule. On such evenings, it feels as if anything is possible. And for the women of Young Feminist Summer School, it is.

After

My intention for Young Feminist Summer School had three parts: 1) Learn about effectively bridging the gap between theory and activism. 2) Support other women in their learning and be part of collective growth. 3) A bonus objective – have fun and meet new people. AGORA ’16 brought me all of these things and more.

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In the space of five days, in the company of fifty women, my feminist politics have developed in ways that defied prediction. And I have grown a little more self-assured. After getting off the plane at Edinburgh Airport, returning home, I waited for the confidence AGORA brought out in me to fade – early on in the Summer School, I ceased questioning my right to speak as part of the group and the validity of my contributions – but it didn’t. The magic of Young Feminist Summer School lingers, continues to do its work. On the flipcharts papering the wall, a post-it note perfectly sums up why that is: “You will never walk alone! Because all AGORA will always support you.” That support has brought with it a degree of self-belief that continues to thrive.

Agora is a Greek word meaning marketplace – a public space in which not only goods but ideas were exchanged. And that sharing of ideas was exactly what we accomplished. That reciprocal learning was the highlight of Young Feminist Summer School, seeing the extraordinary depth and variety of knowledge other women brought and answering it with my own. And I became more aware of what it really is to be part of a collective unit, too – how powerful it is to be in a group of women, the way each and every one of us shapes the dynamic. This is something I have done in my home context, for a range of purposes, and found infinitely rewarding. That it is possible in an international setting too makes the world seem even more full of possibilities.

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Young Feminist Summer School has also acted as an antidote to the Imposter Syndrome that shadows me through every achievement. In secondary school, I was certain that my university place would fall through. It didn’t. After completing my undergraduate degree, I was terrified I wouldn’t qualify to study for the Gender Studies MLitt. I did. This summer I was more than slightly concerned that the university would write to explain that offering me a place to undertake a research degree had actually been part of an elaborate practical joke. It wasn’t. Yet it never occurred to me to assume the inevitability of success. But, during AGORA, I found the courage to mention my PhD plans when people asked about my career and life. Nobody was surprised or disbelieving. They even thought my project – researching Black feminist activism in the UK – sounded exciting, worthwhile.

Something about the way these women responded to my ambitions, saw my hopes for the future as legitimate, enabled me to do the same. After Young Feminist Summer School, I didn’t let myself hesitate before talking about my PhD plans when asked – at a party filled with other feminists, at the Collect:If network for creative women of colour, with curious family friends, I mentioned my intention of undertaking further study. The more I spoke of those plans to other people, the more real they began to feel. The doubt was there every single time, but speaking about my studies made it a little more possible to see myself through the eyes of the women I was speaking to. Gradually, it got easier to ignore the voice of imposter syndrome and see success as the natural product of hard work and skill.

Looking back on Young Feminist Summer School, the thing that stands out most is how our politics shaped the way we treated each other, our dynamic as a group, and our relationship with public space. The compassion and trust within the group enabled real sisterhood. It also made being away from home, in another country previously unvisited, less intimidating than it otherwise could have been. Walking through the streets of Brussels as a group of fifty feminists was an adventure. Being together with other women, laughing and unafraid as we explored the city at night, was as much a novelty as a treat.

AGORA was a totally enriching experience: I am richer in travel, knowledge, experience, and – best of all – richer in friends. Since we left Brussels and returned to Britain, the UK AGORA group have stayed in regular and close contact. It’s a lovely support network, a group of understanding and encouraging feminist friends. We all have projects on the go – watch this space – and are planning to meet up again very soon, which is really exciting. I am grateful that Young Feminist Summer School brought us all together.

Daring to apply for AGORA ’16 is one of the best decisions I have ever made. It renewed my commitment to feminist politics at a time when I was growing weary. It reminded me of the joy found in working together with women to better the world around us. It gave me a positive vision for a feminist future. It let me be part of something so much bigger than myself. Watching my AGORA sisters grow and gain confidence over five days, consistently encouraging others to do the same, was a real honour. And being part of Young Feminist Summer School is an experience I will carry gladly for the rest of my life.

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BBC Woman’s Hour – Misogynoir

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I appeared on BBC Woman’s Hour to discuss misogynoir, Black feminism, and Black women’s experiences of online abuse. Their producer contacted me following the publication of Self-Care or Speaking Out? A Black Feminist Dilemma. It was an honour to be invited, to receive an opportunity to speak about a subject that is ignored altogether too often. The other interviewee was Natalie Jeffers, a truly phenomenal woman, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter UK.

Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, Olympian Gabby Douglas, and Michelle Marie, a black woman who took over the official Ireland community twitter account last week have all been inundated with racist abuse. Jane talks to Claire Heuchan a Black radical feminist from Scotland and Natalie Jeffers, co-creator of Black Lives Matter UK.

The segment starts at around the 21.40 mark. It was recorded on August 22nd and aired on August 31st, 2016.

Listen here.

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Filed under Black Feminism, Race