A brief foreword: I ask that every woman who reads this essay reflects on how she can better extend sisterhood to women who have less power than she does – and know that I will be thinking on the same thing.
Several white women have recently told me that, for the sake of unity within the movement, issues of racism and lesbophobia should only be discussed in private – if at all. And so I have made a point of writing about both issues publicly, raising what voice I have to full volume, in order to object: both to racism and lesbophobia within the feminist movement, and the idea that either should be hushed up for the sake of appearances. No unity can exist within the feminist movement while women are actively upholding and complicit in the oppression that other women experience.
The whole notion of a private sphere was created to cover up men’s violent & exploitative behaviour, enabling them to avoid accountability and maintain appearances. We can’t now use it in the feminist movement to cover up white women’s racism & lesbophobia. To suppress talk about these issues is to build on weak, unstable foundations: collapse is inevitable. For the sake of future feminist struggle, and women currently pushed to the margins of the movement, we must have open conversation about the structural divisions between women.
I am not particularly open, I just refuse to participate in a notion of privacy that is a curtain behind which I and other women suffer abuse and injustices. – P. J. Samuels
The feminist movement can be a hostile place for the women most in need of its shelter from the forces of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Time and time again, we are shown that our political needs, our safety, and our wellbeing are all of little concern to women holding more power than us. They are often white, middle class, and securely heterosexual women who aspire towards the same grasp on power as white, middle class, heterosexual men. The scope of such women’s ambition for the feminist movement is severely lacking in imagination: when so many women have outlined visions of liberation, parity with men seems totally lacklustre as an aspiration. Even more than imagination, the feminist politics of such white, middle class, straight women is utterly devoid of compassion towards women whose lives do not exactly mirror their own. Feminist principles and empathy both seem to go missing in the Bermuda triangle of whiteness, class privilege, and heterosexuality – that standpoint, it often seems, is where solidarity between women goes to die.
In this context it is a rare but wonderful thing for a white-led feminist organisation to condemn racism, so I wholly support A Woman’s Place UK in their decision to remove a certain woman from their line-up of speakers for the Cornwall meeting. The woman in question has voiced Islamophobic views on multiple occasions and called for the sterilisation of any females who have ever identified as male (many of whom happen to be lesbian). There is cruelty in the contempt straight feminists direct towards lesbian women and, more than that, a deep-rooted fear of what it means to live outside the feminine gender role. And I respect WPUK for taking swift, decisive action when this woman’s behaviour was brought to their attention.
A number of white women have tried to evade the issue of racism by arguing that Islamophobia isn’t racist because Muslims aren’t a race. Let us be clear: Islamophobia is rooted in racism. The world’s second most popular religion, Islam is the foremost faith in the Middle East, North Africa, and a substantial portion of Asia too. Islam is predominantly practiced by people of colour. The Othering and stereotyping of Muslims is fundamentally racialised. And as a Black feminist I stand beside my Muslim sisters in solidarity.
Racists… are excusing their own bigotry by gleefully pointing out Islam is not a race. Whilst it’s true that Islam is a world religion, with Muslims found from Chile to China that in itself does not mean Islamophobia and racism are separated. The West perpetuates a certain type of Muslim when considering Islam, terrorism and the Middle East.
The man will almost always be brown, hooked noise, bushy eyebrows with a beard of some length. A manic look and an open snarling mouth no doubt illustrated to portray a person of hate, spouting bigotry against the ideals of the West.
The woman will almost always be in some form of a headscarf, a niqab or burkha. She will be with 2-3 other women dressed similarly, perhaps looking meek or obedient to suit the western perception that women of Islam are oppressed. – Yasin Bangee
Christianity is inherently oppressive to women, and yet – unlike Islam – white western feminists manage to critique its sexual politics without resorting to racism. White feminists treat hijabi women in particular as an opportunity to play the white saviour, replicating a colonialism that is in no way compatible with feminist principles.
An Exercise in Empathy and Imagination
When women who are white and middle class and straight do harmful things, we in the feminist movement are often encouraged to look the other way. A layer of silence coats their actions, maintained at the expense of every woman who suffers as a consequence of them. Women of colour, working class women, lesbian women – feminists will frequently gaslight us when we talk about the harms we have been subjected to within the movement. This is because engaging with what we have to say would raise all sorts of difficult questions about power, and certain women would be forced to reckon with what it means to be the oppressor, not simply the oppressed – which, when unpacked, has huge implications for their sense of self as well as their way of practicing feminism. For them, it is both comfortable and convenient to look the other way. And when WPUK spoke up, a lot of women did choose to look the other way. As that evergreen meme goes, disappointed but not surprised. But expecting it doesn’t make it any easier to bear.
For years, feminists like bell hooks have warned us of the danger in making stars of women in the feminist movement, the risks that go with raising any woman onto a pedestal until she is above criticism. This incident, where a woman’s racism becomes unmentionable, proves the necessity of those warnings.
So now I write directly to those women – the ones who are white and middle class and straight and have nothing to lose (except for the trust of women who lack the power or the profile to be useful to them in some way) by defending the racism and lesbophobia of a woman whose life is very similar to their own. Let us try this exercise in imagination.
Say there is to be an event about an issue of vital importance to you. Say it’s a panel about that issue, and one of the speakers is a man named *Peter. You have known for a while that Peter says some fairly sexist things on the internet. Peter is not a fan of women having political representation. Peter thinks that women’s distinct social and cultural spaces are a threat to the natural order of things. Peter falls back on misogynistic stereotypes, like women being inherently suited to domestic work, to justify his comments. You have been wary of Peter for some time now, as you are wary of coming across any misogynist, because the community of people who organise around this issue is fairly small and tight-knit. But a lot of men who are involved in the cause think he is fantastic. Peter has quite a following.
And then something unexpected happens: the organisers of the event cut Peter from the line-up in opposition to his sexism. This is a huge relief. You let yourself hope that this is the time, that people are finally ready to talk about the culture of misogyny that has been allowed to thrive in lots of spaces built around this issue that is your passion. You are sick and tired of how women are treated here – pushed to the side-lines of discussion, treated as lesser, viewed mostly as a secondary concern. Still, maybe things are changing for the better: now Peter’s sexism has been exposed, the sexism of other men will slowly but surely be challenged too.
But no. The women who speak against Peter’s sexism are told off for being trouble makers, you among them. It is implied that you and your sisters are being hysterical. You are told that, as your comrade, Peter deserves your loyalty and support – despite the fact that he has given nothing of the sort to women involved in the cause. You are told that even though Peter doesn’t always say things in the right way, in the politically correct way, he is a good guy who is definitely not sexist. It is suggested that you women are being too angry about this so-called sexism, and maybe you’re all a bit hormonal because it’s that time of month, eh?
You are asked not to speak about Peter’s sexism in case it damages his reputation or looks bad for the cause around which you have campaigned. You close your eyes. You wonder why you fucking bother. You exchange some comforting messages with the women hurt by Peter and his defenders. You don’t know what will happen next except that, with the inevitability of the tide coming in, this will happen all over again. There will always be another Peter clinging on to misogyny. There will always be people who should have been your comrades in struggle looking the other way.
Think of all the reasons men give you to mistrust them. That’s exactly how many reasons that white women give women of colour not to trust you. This is what it’s like navigating racism in the feminist movement, and it’s exactly how racism snakes through the feminist movement: you are Peter, you are Peter’s defenders. And we are wary of you in the same way that you are wary of men, and it puts us in an even harder position because we have to be wary of men too. I don’t know how to make it plainer. If you are not willing to do the work it takes to understand women of colour, to feel empathy for women who are not white, then we are not sisters. The division between women is of your making – I am trying to fix it, though I swore it wasn’t worthwhile.
Respectability politics have been weaponised against women of colour for hundreds of years, and I refuse to let white women capitalise on that history to silence women speaking up about the harm visited upon us by a toxic white femininity. Politeness is used by the most powerful women in the feminist movement to cover up the harm they enact against women with the least power. It happens with race, class, disability, sexuality… And it’s relentless. This idea that we can’t challenge racism because it makes the movement look flawed is bullshit. The movement is already flawed, regardless of how it looks, and the only way to fix it is by addressing the problem: in this case, racism. White, middle class, straight feminists are invested respectability politics and ‘appearances’ because both conceal the reality of how these women weaponise their power against women with less power. Feminism isn’t about politeness or appearances. It’s about the liberation of women & girls. And the path to liberation is often uncomfortable, because it demands we give up the convenient falsehoods that prop up the status quo.
The Politics of Voice
There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard. ― Arundhati Roy
The politics of voice in the feminist movement are complicated. Not every woman is allowed the space to speak in the first place. And of those women who are able to speak, some are listened to and others ignored. Vectors of race, class, sexuality, disability, nationality, and so much more go into determining which women are heard in the feminist movement. The closer you are to the normative standards of womanhood – white, middle class, straight, and so on – the greater your chance of being listened to and engaged with. The further away from those criteria, the more likely it is that you’ll end up pushed to the margins and wondering whether homing pigeon or smoke signal would be the more effective way of communicating with the women at the centre – because they’re clearly not hearing your voice.
I’m conscious of being in a fortunate position. If I were to put my pen down tomorrow and never write again, my writing would still have influenced feminist thought in a way that can’t be undone. I have voice and a sizeable audience of women who read my blog. I’m also comfortably middle class and relatively light-skinned. Every so often I stop and question whether a working class, dark-skinned Black woman with the same level of writing skill would be heard in the same way or afforded the same opportunities. This is not a comfortable reflection, and nor should it be. As my writing continues to find a home through the publishing industry, I could and would not claim that I am unheard. Rather, the issue is the women who cannot see what I’m saying for all the layers of racism they’re projecting onto me. When I send my writing out into the world, I am negotiating a space where I’m Othered, stereotyped, and subject to overt racism – being aware of that changes how I write with an audience, though there is no way to protect myself from it.
If I talk about that racism in the feminist movement, I become a lightning rod for the racism of white feminist women. Despite my efforts towards patience, empathy, and kindness, I am pathologised as the Angry Black Woman – a hostile force, and a threat to white women. And if I condemn white women’s racism it is, of course, trashing. But critiquing racism in the feminist movement is not the same as trashing. Trashing implies an equality of sorts, but the hierarchy of race tips the playing field entirely in favour of white women. The game is rigged in their favour, as every woman of colour knows and many white women deny. Reducing Black women’s critiques of racism to trashing takes a legitimate criticism and turns it into the product of rage or aggression. And if we’re just Angry Black Women, there’s no need for white women to hear what we’re saying & address their own behaviour. Racism makes its own convenient get-out clause. And so I try to be vigilant towards racism, even and especially when it’s a form I don’t experience.
Like many feminists, I’m enthusiastic about badges and have a pretty decent collection. Wearing some of them, like the vagina cupcakes or “lesbian, not queer” or “I’ve read about sex in the Women’s Library”, results in a degree of backlash. But none of my feminist badges have ever attracted the same level of anger as the one depicting three women of colour posed like Rosie the Riveter. The badge is a personal favourite, as it shows women of colour side by side and united in sisterhood. One of the women wears a hijab. And every time I wear it in a mixed feminist space, without fail, a white feminist will make a big show of asking why I’m showing something that features a hijabi. “What’s with the scarf?”, “Why would you wear that image?”, “Don’t you know Muslim women are oppressed?” And so on.
It’s a strange logic, imagining that removing visual representations of hijabis in a feminist setting will bring them any closer to being liberated as women, but then whiteness is quite a drug and often gets in the way of reason.
I’m not an authority on Muslim women’s realities and cannot write or reflect on their political struggles from a place of lived experience. I’m not going to speculate about whether the hijab is a good or bad thing, which is a grossly simplistic way to think about anything. It’s not my place and there are women far more qualified to go there. But as a Black feminist I am going to stand against the racism directed towards Muslim women – that’s what I believe sisterhood is.
If any women reading this want to know more about Muslim women’s lives or feminism, they should make a point of listening to Muslim women’s voices and reading their words. The book I’m most excited about reading is Cut From the Same Cloth, an anthology of essays written by British hijabi women. If a white feminist had coordinated such a ground-breaking project with such incredible writers, it would never have taken so long to crowd-fund. The usual suspects would have got behind it and recognised this book for what it is: a vital collection of women’s writing containing valuable insights into women’s lives, a fine example of écriture feminine. My suspicion is that if white, western feminists were to engage properly with what hijabi women say for themselves, they’d have to stop playing in the dark and give up their fantasies of the Other – therein lies the root of their reluctance.
Holding white women accountable for racism is not throwing women under the bus. Looking the other way when that racism harms women of colour, however, is. Having to face consequences for your harmful actions is not the same as being victimised, though people seem to get confused when it’s a white, middle class, straight woman inflicting the harm. Imagine for a second what would become possible in the feminist movement if white, middle class, straight women stopped speaking over women less powerful than they are, and instead amplified voices different to their own. Imagine if, instead of weaponising their power, they leveraged it to make space for all the women with less power than them. That is what sisterhood should be.
(*My deepest apologies to Spider-Man, who has done nothing to deserve this comparison.)
Sabeena Akhtar (ed.). (2018). Cut From the Same Cloth
Toni Morrison. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (ed.). (2018). Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection