Le problème qui n’a pas de nom… parce que le mot « femme » est qualifié d’essentialiste

The Problem That Has No Name because ‘Woman’ is too Essentialist is now available in French! Many thanks to TradFem for the translation.


Voici le troisième de ma série d’essais sur le sexe et le genre. Les deux premiers : 1 (Le sexe, le genre et le nouvel essentialisme) et 2 (Lezbehonest (Parlons franchement) à propos de l’effacement des femmes lesbiennes par la polique queer) sont également affichés sur TRADFEM.

Inspirée par la prise de position de l’autrice Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sur l’identité de genre et par la réaction qu’elle a suscitée, je parle ici du langage dans le discours féministe et de l’importance du mot femme.


 « Y a-t-il une façon plus courte et non essentialiste de parler de « personnes qui ont un utérus et tous ces trucs »? », a demandé sur le réseau Twitter la journaliste Laurie Penny. À plusieurs égards, la quête de Penny pour trouver un terme décrivant les personnes biologiquement femmes sans jamais utiliser le mot femme décrit le principal défi posé au langage féministe actuel. La tension entre les femmes qui reconnaissent et celles qui effacent le rôle que joue la biologie dans l’analyse structurelle de notre oppression s’est transformée en ligne de faille (MacKay, 2015) au sein du mouvement féministe. Des contradictions surviennent lorsque des féministes tentent simultanément de voir comment la biologie des femmes façonne notre oppression en régime patriarcal et de nier que notre oppression possède une base matérielle. Il existe des points où l’analyse structurelle rigoureuse et le principe de l’inclusivité absolue coexistent difficilement.

Au cours de la même semaine, Dame Jeni Murray, qui anime depuis 40 ans l’émission radio de la BBC « Woman’s Hour », a été prise à parti par des trans pour avoir posé la question suivante : « Est-ce que quelqu’un qui a vécu en tant qu’homme, avec tous les privilèges que cela implique, peut réellement revendiquer la condition féminine? » Dans un article rédigé pour le Sunday Times, Murray a réfléchi au rôle de la socialisation genrée reçue au cours des années de formation dans le façonnement des comportements ultérieurs, en contestant l’idée qu’il est possible de divorcer le moi physique du contexte sociopolitique. De façon semblable, la romancière Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie est présentement mise au pilori pour ses propres commentaires sur l’identité de genre.

Lorsqu’on lui a demandé « La façon dont vous en êtes venue à la condition féminine a-t-elle de l’importance? », Adichie a fait ce que peu de féministes sont actuellement disposées à faire en raison du caractère extrême du débat entourant le genre. Elle a répondu sans détour et publiquement :

« Alors, quand des gens soulèvent la question « est-ce que les transfemmes sont des femmes? », mon sentiment est que les transfemmes sont des transfemmes. Je pense que si vous avez vécu dans le monde en tant qu’homme, avec les privilèges que le monde accorde aux hommes, et que vous changez ensuite de sexe, il est difficile pour moi d’accepter que nous puissions alors comparer vos expériences avec les expériences d’une femme qui a toujours vécu dans le monde en tant que femme, qui ne s’est pas vu accorder ces privilèges dont disposent les hommes. Je ne pense pas que ce soit une bonne chose d’amalgamer tout cela. Je ne pense pas que ce soit une bonne chose de parler des enjeux des femmes comme étant exactement identiques aux enjeux des transfemmes. Ce que je dis, c’est que le genre ne relève pas de la biologie, le genre relève de la sociologie. »

Au tribunal de l’opinion queer, le crime d’Adichie a été de différencier, dans sa description de la condition féminine, les personnes qui sont biologiquement des femmes, et élevées en tant que telles, de celles qui passent du statut masculin au statut féminin (et qui étaient, à toutes fins utiles, traitées comme des hommes avant leur transition). Dans le discours queer, les préfixes de « cis » et de « trans » sont conçus pour tracer précisément cette distinction, mais ce n’est que lorsque des femmes féministes précisent et explorent ces différences que leur reconnaissance suscite la colère.

La déclaration d’Adichie est parfaitement logique: il est ridicule d’imaginer que les personnes socialisées et perçues comme femmes au cours de leurs années de formation ont vécu les mêmes expériences que les personnes socialisées et perçues comme hommes. La société patriarcale dépend de l’imposition du genre comme façon de subordonner les femmes et d’accorder la domination aux hommes. Amalgamer les expériences des femmes avec celle des transfemmes a pour effet d’effacer le privilège masculin que détenaient les transfemmes avant leur transition et de nier l’héritage des comportements masculins appris. Cela nie la signification réelle du moyen d’accès à la condition féminine pour façonner cette expérience. Cela nie ces deux ensembles de vérités.

Le site web Everyday Feminism a publié une liste de sept arguments visant à prouver que les transfemmes n’ont jamais détenu de privilège masculin. Cet essai aurait peut-être été plus efficace pour préconiser la solidarité féministe s’il n’avait pas, dès la première phrase, adressé une attaque misogyne et âgiste envers les féministes de la deuxième vague. Dans cet article, Kai Cheng Thom soutient que «[…] si les transfemmes sont des femmes, cela signifie que nous ne pouvons pas bénéficier du privilège masculin – parce que le privilège masculin est par définition une chose que seuls peuvent vivre les hommes et les personnes qui s’identifient comme hommes. »

Voici le nœud de la question – la tension qui existe entre la réalité matérielle et l’auto-identification comme facteurs de définition de la condition féminine. Si la transféminité est synonyme de la condition féminine, les caractéristiques de l’oppression des femmes cessent d’être reconnaissables comme expériences de femmes. Le genre ne peut pas être catégorisé comme un mode d’oppression socialement construit s’il doit aussi être considéré comme une identité innée. Cette lecture efface le lien entre le sexe biologique et la fonction première du genre : l’oppression des femmes au profit des hommes. Comme l’a dit Adichie, cet amalgame est au mieux inutile. Si nous ne pouvons pas reconnaître les privilèges dont disposent les êtres reconnus et traités comme masculins sur leurs homologues féminins, nous cessons de pouvoir reconnaître l’existence du patriarcat.

La biologie n’est pas le destin. Cependant, au sein de la société patriarcale, elle détermine les rôles assignés aux filles et aux garçons à la naissance. Et il existe une différence cruciale dans la façon dont les êtres biologiquement masculins et biologiquement féminins sont positionnés par les structures dominantes de pouvoir, indépendamment de l’identité de genre.

« Les filles sont socialisées de façons nuisibles à leur sentiment de soi, socialisées à s’enlever de l’importance, à se plier aux égos masculins, à penser à leurs corps comme des sites de honte. Arrivées à l’âge adulte, beaucoup de femmes luttent pour surmonter, pour désapprendre une bonne part de ce conditionnement social. Les transfemmes sont des personnes nées hommes et des personnes qui, avant leur transition, ont été traitées en tant qu’hommes par le monde. Ce qui signifie qu’elles ont vécu les privilèges que le monde accorde aux hommes. Cela n’élude pas la douleur de la confusion de genre ou les aspects complexes et pénibles de leur sentiment d’avoir vécu dans des corps qui n’étaient pas les leurs. En effet, la vérité sur le privilège sociétal est qu’il ne concerne pas la façon dont vous vous sentez. Il concerne la façon dont le monde vous traite, les influences subtiles et pas si subtiles que vous intériorisez et absorbez. » –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Si les femmes ne peuvent plus être identifiées comme membres d’une classe de sexe à des fins politiques, l’oppression des femmes ne peut plus être directement abordée ou contestée. En conséquence, les objectifs féministes se trouvent sapés par la politique queer.

La linguiste Deborah Cameron a identifié une nouvelle tendance actuelle, celle de l’« étonnante femme en voie d’invisibilisation ». Elle met en évidence le modèle d’effacement des réalités vécues par les femmes, y compris leur oppression, par un langage neutre à l’égard du genre. Mais alors que la féminité est sans cesse déconstruite dans le discours queer, la catégorie de la virilité demeure, elle, à l’abri de toute contestation.

Ce n’est pas un hasard si la masculinité reste incontestée, même au moment où le mot femme est traité comme offensant et « excluant ». L’homme est présenté comme norme de l’humanité, et la femme comme autre-que-l’homme. En réduisant les femmes à des « non-hommes », comme a tenté de le faire le Parti Vert britannique, en réduisant les femmes à des « personnes enceintes », comme conseille de le faire la British Medical Association, le discours queer perpétue la définition de la femme comme autre. L’idéologie queer pousse les conventions patriarcales à leur conclusion logique en repoussant littéralement les femmes hors du vocabulaire et donc de l’existence.

Définir la classe opprimée en fonction de l’oppresseur, nier aux opprimées le vocabulaire pour parler de la façon dont elles sont marginalisées, ne contribue qu’à ratifier la hiérarchie du genre. Bien que ces changements linguistiques semblent à première vue inclusifs, ils ont pour conséquence imprévue de perpétuer la misogynie.

« Supprimer le mot femme et les termes biologiques de tout échange concernant la condition féminine corporelle semble dangereux, écrit la chroniqueuse Vonny Moyes. Refuser de reconnaître l’anatomie des femmes, leurs capacités reproductives et leur sexualité a longtemps été le fait du patriarcat. Il semble que nous ayons bénéficié de quelques décennies dorées de reconnaissance, et que nous avons pu afficher fièrement notre expérience vécue de la condition féminine corporelle, mais nous devons maintenant abdiquer ce vocabulaire au nom du reste du groupe. Même si la logique semble être aux commandes, il est difficile de ne pas ressentir l’effacement de cet aspect de la condition féminine, avec de troublants échos du patriarcat traditionnel. »

Aborder les questions du sexe biologique et de la socialisation genrée est devenu de plus en plus controversé; les adeptes les plus extrêmes de l’idéologie queer qualifient ces deux thèmes de mythes TERF (un qualificatif péjoratif signifiant « féministe radicale excluant les trans ». On souhaiterait bien un caractère mythique au lien entre la biologie des femmes et notre oppression, ou aux conséquences de la socialisation genrée. Dans un tel scénario, celles qui possèdent un corps féminin, les femmes, pourraient simplement échapper par auto-identification à l’oppression structurelle, et choisir de faire partie de n’importe quel autre groupe qu’une classe opprimée. Mais il est manifeste que l’exploitation de la biologie féminine et la socialisation genrée jouent toutes deux un rôle central dans la création et le maintien de l’oppression des femmes par les hommes.

La politique queer reconfigure l’oppression des femmes comme une position de privilège inhérent, tout en nous privant simultanément du langage requis pour analyser cette même oppression et y résister. Le thème de l’identité de genre laisse les féministes déchirées par une sorte de dilemme : soit accepter que d’être marginalisées en raison de notre sexe constitue un privilège « cis », soit protester et risquer d’être stigmatisée comme TERF. Il n’y a pas de place pour les voix dissidentes dans cette conversation – pas si ces voix sont celles de femmes. À cet égard, il y a très peu de différence entre les normes établies par le discours queer et celles qui régissent les règles patriarcales.

Le mot femme est important. Avoir un nom confère du pouvoir. Comme l’observe Patricia Hill Collins (2000), l’autodéfinition est un élément clé de la résistance politique. Si la condition féminine ne peut être articulée positivement, si elle n’est comprise que comme l’envers négatif de la virilité, les femmes sont maintenues dans la position d’objet. Ce n’est qu’en considérant les femmes comme le sujet – en tant qu’êtres humains auto-actualisés ayant droit à l’autodétermination – que la libération devient possible.

« La force du mot « femme » est qu’il peut être utilisé pour affirmer notre humanité, notre dignité et notre valeur, sans nier notre féminité incarnée ou la traiter comme une source de honte. Ce mot ne nous réduit pas à des ventres ambulants, ni ne nous dé-genre ou dématérialise. C’est pourquoi il est important pour les féministes de continuer à l’utiliser. Un mouvement dont le but est de libérer les femmes ne devrait pas traiter le mot « femme » comme obscène. » (Deborah Cameron)

Sans une utilisation fière et explicite du mot femme, la politique féministe manque de l’ampleur nécessaire pour organiser toute résistance réelle à la subordination des femmes. On ne peut pas libérer une classe de personnes qui ne peuvent même pas être nommées. La condition féminine est dévaluée par ces insidieuses tentatives de la rendre invisible. Si les femmes ne se jugent pas à la hauteur du malaise créé par le fait de nous nommer directement, précisément, nous ne pouvons guère prétendre valoir la peine des difficultés que la libération doit susciter.

Toute éventuelle infraction causée par une référence sans équivoque au corps féminin est peu de chose en comparaison des violences et de l’exploitation de nos corps féminins en régime patriarcal. Comme le dit Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: « « Parce que tu es une fille » ne constitue jamais une justification de quoi que ce soit. Jamais. »


Bibliographie 

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2017). Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Kat Banyard. (2010). The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

Deborah Cameron. (2007). The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Patricia Hill Collins. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Second Edition)

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism


 

Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

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The Problem That Has No Name because “Woman” is too Essentialist

This is the third in my series of essays on sex and gender (see parts 1, 2, & 4). Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on gender identity and the subsequent response, I have written about language within feminist discourse and the significance of the word woman.

Update: this essay is now available in French and Spanish.


 

Screenshot_20170315-144208“…what’s a shorter non-essentialist way to refer to ‘people who have a uterus and all that stuff’?” In many ways, Laurie Penny’s quest to find a term describing biologically female people without ever actually using the word woman typifies the greatest challenge within ongoing feminist discourse. The tension between women acknowledging and erasing the role of biology in structural analysis of our oppression has developed into a fault line (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement. Contradictions arise when feminists simultaneously attempt to address how women’s biology shapes our oppression under patriarchal society whilst denying that our oppression is material in basis. At points, rigorous structural analysis and inclusivity make uneasy bedfellows.

That same week Dame Jeni Murray, who has hosted BBC Woman’s Hour for forty years, faced criticism for asking “Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood?” Writing for the Sunday Times, Murray reflected upon the role of gendered socialisation received during formative years in shaping subsequent behaviour, challenging the notion that it is possible to divorce the physical self from socio-political context. Similarly, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire for her comments on gender identity.

When asked “does it matter how you arrived at being a woman?” Adichie did what few feminists are presently prepared to do because of the extremity within debate surrounding gender. She gave a candid public response:

“So when people talk about ‘are transwomen women?’, my feeling is transwomen are transwomen. I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switch gender – it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of transwomen. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”

In the court of queer opinion, Adichie’s crime was to differentiate between those who are biologically female and raised as such, and those who transition from male to female (and were, for all intents and purposes, treated as male before undergoing transition), in her description of womanhood.  Within queer discourse the prefixes of ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ are designed to draw precisely that distinction, yet it is only when feminist women articulate and explore those differences that their acknowledgement becomes a source of ire.

Adichie’s statement is perfectly logical: it is ludicrous to imagine that those socialised and Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichie_photo1read as female during their formative years have the same experiences as those socialised and read as male. Patriarchal society depends upon the imposition of gender as a means of subordinating women and granting men dominance. Conflating the experiences of women and transwomen erases the male privilege that transwomen held prior to transition and negates the legacy of learned male behaviour. It denies the true significance of how one arrives at womanhood in shaping that experience of womanhood. It denies both sets of truths.

Everyday Feminism published a piece outlining seven points that prove transwomen never held male privilege, a piece which would perhaps have been more effective in advocating feminist solidarity if it didn’t direct ageist misogyny towards second wave feminists in the opening line. Within this article, Kai Cheng Thom argues that “…if [transwomen] are women, that means we cannot receive male privilege – because male privilege is by definition something that only men and masculine-identified people can experience.”

Here is crux of the matter – the tension that exists between material reality and self-identification in shaping definitions of womanhood. If transwomanhood is synonymous with womanhood, the hallmarks of women’s oppression cease to recognisable as women’s experiences. Gender cannot be categorised as a socially constructed means of oppression if it is also to be considered as an innate identity. The connection between biological sex and the primary function of gender – oppressing women for the benefit of men – is erased. As Adichie stated, this conflation is at best unhelpful. If we cannot acknowledge the privileges those recognised and treated as male hold over their female counterparts, we cannot acknowledge the existence of patriarchy.

Biology is not destiny. However, within patriarchal society, it determines the roles ascribed to girls and boys at birth. And there is a fundamental difference in how those biologically male and biologically female are positioned by dominant structures of power, irrespective of gender identity.

“Girls are socialized in ways that are harmful to their sense of self – to reduce themselves, to cater to the egos of men, to think of their bodies as repositories of shame. As adult women, many struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of that social conditioning. A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own. Because the truth about societal privilege is that it isn’t about how you feel. It is about how the world treats you, about the subtle and not so subtle things that you internalize and absorb.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If women can no longer be identified as members of a sex class for political purposes, women’s oppression cannot be directly addressed or challenged. Subsequently, feminist objectives are undermined by queer politics.

Linguist Deborah Cameron has identified the trend of “the amazing disappearing woman”, highlighting the pattern of women’s lived realities and oppression being rendered invisible by gender-neutral language. Whereas womanhood is relentlessly deconstructed within queer discourse, the category of manhood is yet to be disputed.

no womenIt is not an accident that masculinity remains uncontested even as the word woman is treated as offensive, exclusionary. Man is positioned as the normative standard of humanity, woman as other-to-man. In reducing women to “non-men”, as the Green Party attempted to,  in reducing women to “pregnant people”, as the British Medical Association advised, queer discourse perpetuates the framing of woman as other. Queer ideology takes patriarchal conventions to their logical conclusion by quite literally writing women out of existence.

Defining the oppressed class in relation to the oppressor, denying the oppressed the language to speak of how they are marginalised, only serves to ratify the hierarchy of gender. Though such linguistic shifts appear inclusive at first glance, they have the unforeseen consequence of perpetuating misogyny.

“Removing the word women and biological language from discussions of female bodily reality seems dangerous. Refusing to acknowledge the female anatomy, reproductive capabilities and sexuality has long been the work of the patriarchy. It seems we had a few golden decades of acknowledgement, and could wear our lived experience of bodily womanhood proudly – but now we have to drop that language in favour of the group. Even with logic in the driver’s seat, it’s hard not to feel this particular aspect of womanhood is being erased with uncomfortable echoes of patriarchy past.”Vonny Moyes

Addressing the issues of biological sex and gendered socialisation have become increasingly controversial, with more extreme elements of queer ideology positioning both subjects as TERF “myth”. It would be easy to wish the connection between women’s biology and our oppression, the consequences of gendered socialisation, were myths. In such a scenario, those in possession of a female body – women – could simply identify our way out of structural oppression, choose to be part of any group other than an oppressed class. Yet exploitation of female biology and gendered socialisation both play a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining the oppression of women by men.

Queer politics repackages women’s oppression as a position of inherent privilege whilst simultaneously depriving us of the language required to address and oppose that very oppression. The issue of gender identity leaves feminists in something of a double-bind: either accept that being marginalised on account of your sex is cis privilege or speak up and risk being branded a TERF. There is no space for dissenting voices in this conversation – not if those voices belong to women. In this respect, there is very little difference between the standards set by queer discourse and those governing patriarchal norms.

The word woman is important. With a name comes power. As Patricia Hill Collins observes (2000), self-definition is a key component of political resistance. If womanhood cannot be positively articulated, if womanhood is understood only as a negative of manhood, women are held in the position of object. It is only through considering women as the subject – as self-actualised human beings with the right to self-determination – that liberation becomes possible.

“The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.”Deborah Cameron

Without proud and open use of word woman, feminist politics lack the scope to mount anyradfem-symbol real resistance to women’s subordination. You cannot liberate a class of people that may not even be named. Womanhood is devalued by these insidious attempts to render it invisible. If women do not consider ourselves worth the inconvenience caused by naming us directly, specifically, we can hardly argue that we are worth the difficulties that liberation must bring.

Any potential offence caused by referring unequivocally to the female body is minor compared to the abuse and exploitation of our female bodies under patriarchy. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”


Bibliography

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2017). Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Kat Banyard. (2010). The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

Deborah Cameron. (2007). The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?

Patricia Hill Collins. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Second Edition)

Finn MacKay. (2015). Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement

Natasha Walter. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

Black Feminism in Triptych

What you are about to read is the first proper thing I ever wrote about Black feminism. It was originally submitted as coursework for my Gender Studies programme in February 2015. The tutor asked that we write a 1,500 word personal reflective essay on any three feminist texts – not necessarily academic, or even in the medium of print – that had strongly influenced our feminist praxis. It was at this point that I ceased actively distancing myself from Blackness in order to pursue the politics of respectability. It was at this point that I embraced Blackness, including the scholarship and creativity of Black women.

If I had to write it again, there are certain parts that I’d change – tightening up my articulation of geopolitics, for example – and yet I remain genuinely fond of this essay. I have chosen to share it to demonstrate that in feminism, as with all things, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Full disclosure: my feminism was once abysmal. We all start somewhere, and this was it for me.


 

Just as there are many schools of thought within the feminist movement, there are a great many paths to the feminist movement – to becoming a feminist. Furthermore, identifying as a feminist is not the end of a process, but rather the beginning of one:

“Feminists are made, not born. One does not become an advocate of feminist politics simply by having the privilege of having been born female. Like all political positions one becomes a believer in feminist politics through choice and action.” (hooks, 2000)

Although I have considered myself a feminist since early adolescence, my ideas, words, and deeds relating to the movement have – mercifully – evolved in the subsequent decade. This essay aims to explore three texts central to my development as a feminist – specifically, as a Black feminist. The first of my chosen texts is Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by bell hooks, a book which played a significant role in my understanding of feminist theory. The second text is We Should All Be Feminists, the written adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, which opened my eyes to the relevance of the feminist movement operating beyond a Western context. The third and final text is Nicki Minaj’s music video Anaconda, a record-breaking riposte to the objectification of Black women within the genre of rap music. All three subjects are the respective works of Black women. The texts in question are responsible for the development of my understanding of the connection between gendered and racialised identities.

In spite of its innocuous title, Feminism is for Everybody made for uncomfortable reading the first time around: until that point, I had been one of those feminists – of whom hooks is deeply critical – who denied that identities beyond gender had any bearing upon the oppression of women . This book challenged the notion of sisterhood – of universally shared female experience – the grounds on which my understanding of feminism had been based, and yet feminist theory had never resonated so well with my own lived experience. Feminism challenges a patriarchal model that is “imperialist, racist, sexist, and oppressive” (hooks, 1981), yet more privileged women often oppose nothing beyond the sexism, as they themselves are not oppressed by other symptoms of the existing hierarchy.

It was hooks that forced me to ask why, although I had read an extensive range of feminist literature produced by white women, racial inequalities faced by women of colour were never mentioned. And, to an extent, it was hooks that provided the answer:

“They [white women] entered the movement erasing and denying difference, not playing race alongside gender, but eliminating race from the picture. Foregrounding gender meant that white women could take center stage, could claim the movement as theirs, even as they called on all women to join.”

However, hooks’ solution raised more questions for me than it resolved, particularly surrounding the notion of self-hood. As Patricia Hill Collins observes, “black women’s lives are a series of negotiations that aim to reconcile the contradictions separating our own internally defined images of ourselves as African-American women with our objectification as the Other.” The self-perception of Black women is, to an extent, warped by internalised misogynoir. Stereotypes inspired by “historically constructed conditions… shaped by structural inequalities, such as racism and sexism” (West, 2003) continue to be shape how Black women view themselves and are viewed by others. Hooks was the first feminist writer I had encountered whose theory encapsulated that reality:

“By repudiating the popular notion that the focus of feminist movement should be social equality of the sexes and by emphasizing eradication of the cultural basis of group oppression, our own analysis would require an exploration of all aspects of women’s political reality. This would mean that race and class oppression would be recognised as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexism.” (hooks, 1984)

The lived experiences of Black women are strongly influenced by racial and gendered oppression. Without the writings of bell hooks, in particular Feminism is for Everybody, I would have remained wilfully blind to that reality. Therefore, this text was essential to me claiming the label of Black feminist.

After having abandoned the belief that feminism was solely concerned with gendered oppression – and that it was the movement ‘led’ by white women – I was no longer able to consider the movement first and foremost in western context without challenging the imperialistic perspective on which that prioritisation was made. My first foray into African feminism was the TED talk delivered by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a speech which showed me that Black feminism was not some abstract concept, irrelevant to feminism as I had previously understood it, but rather the most relatable branch of the movement that I have yet encountered. Adichie faced claims that “feminism was not our [African] culture” , yet – if we are to accept Adichie’s definition of feminist: “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes…” – feminism is fundamentally oppositional to every culture that is built upon a patriarchal structure. Therefore, feminism is no more or less compatible with African culture than European or American.

What surprised me most about Adichie’s words were the similarities between her experiences of feminism and my own. In Nigeria, Adichie experienced the same negative stereotypes surrounding feminism, from man hating to bra burning ; she faced the same erroneous assumptions that gendered inequalities were a thing of the past ; she was irritated by other people’s tacit assumption that the man in her company was in the position of authority, of being rendered “invisible” by it . Adichie is firm in her opposition to traditional roles, exploring the ways in which the potential of girls is limited by the cultural expectations rested upon femininity:

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man… But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man?” (Adichie, 2014)

Furthermore, Adichie outlines the ways in which patriarchal roles restrict boys as well as girls. She is not the first feminist to consider the ways in which masculinity is damaging to men – in fact, although Adichie and hooks define feminism by different criteria, they are both critical of the cultural expectations surrounding masculinity – yet Adichie’s comments struck me as particularly insightful. By proposing that society consciously shifts collective behavioural patterns regarding gender, Adichie highlights how simple it would be to dismantle patriarchal values in a matter of generations. Adichie’s input allowed me to understand the power of feminism when applied on a global scale, to see that considering feminism in a purely Western light was deeply restrictive.

Finally, although it has not shaped my understanding of feminist theory, my awareness of feminist practice deepened considerably with Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. To appreciate the cultural significance of Anaconda, the content of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back (sampled heavily by Minaj) must first be considered: the video begins with two white women scrutinising and stereotyping the figure of a Black woman, who remains silent throughout the exchange, until Sir Mix-a-Lot interrupts. Yet the defence is hardly gallant, being based entirely on the sexual worth Sir Mix-a-Lot places upon Black women, culminating with the iconic line: “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon.” Anaconda serves as an obviously phallic metaphor, a powerful and predatory representation of male sexuality. In Sir Mix-a-Lot’s video, Back women dance for his pleasure whilst he passes comment on their physical merits, a common premise within the genre:

“African American men who star in music videos construct a certain version of manhood against the backdrop of objectified nameless, quasi naked Black women who populate their stage. At the same time, African American women in these same videos objectify their own bodies in order to be accepted within this Black male-controlled universe.” (Hill Collins, 2005)

With her own video, Minaj dismantles the tropes exemplified in Baby Got Back. Unlike Sir Mix-a-Lot, Minaj performs alongside the dancers – there is no hierarchy in place. They are free from the critical eyes of white women or the proprietary observation of black masculinity: Minaj and company dance for their own entertainment. That the women, Minaj included, are scantily clad, twerking, and gyrating – doing so without the intent of providing men gratification – is an assertation of independent sexuality. Indeed, Minaj’s inversion of clichés caused me to consider the source of my perceptions of Black womanhood and move beyond them. Though a music video carries less academic weight than a textbook or journal, the feminist message behind Anaconda developed my awareness of the intersection between race and gender.

Contrasting with the images of peaches and pears used by Sir Mix-a-Lot to represent Black women’s buttocks, Minaj snaps a cucumber in half and cuts a banana to slices. What this phallic imagery lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in effectiveness. Minaj clearly rejects a male sexuality in which she is expected to play a passive role, preferring instead to be an active participant. Drake – the only male featured in the video – appears close to the end (demonstrating his irrelevance to the process), and it is notable that Minaj leaves the frame when he attempts to touch her without her consent. Seeing Minaj not only reject a man, but the male sexualisation of the Black female body, was powerful. Until Anaconda, it hadn’t occurred to me that a music video, or any similar medium within popular culture, could spread a feminist message.

Anaconda caused me to re-evaluate the representation of Black women within popular culture, and also the way in which feminism can occur outside of the academic sphere. Like bell hooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nicki Minaj challenged my preconceptions surrounding race and gender, catalysing real development in my perspective as a feminist.