Dispatches from the Margins: Disposable Women

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.

WPUKIn 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 IMG_20170817_131210_957.jpgabout 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.)


Bibliography

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

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Race, Place, and Feminist Space

A brief foreword: this is a personal reflective essay about my recent trip to Liverpool for Writing on the Wall, the experience of being in this city, and the thoughts it shaped in me.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of violence against women & girls, including rape and FGM.


 

Getting There

This year I’ve said no to a lot of things. Girls aren’t typically taught to say no, and women are discouraged from setting boundaries, so getting into the habit of saying no not only felt like some much needed character development but a way of unpicking the threads of gendered socialisation that tie women to the role of pleasing others at the expense of our own needs. This year I decided to prioritise two things: my writing and my mental health, which mostly complement one another but can be in conflict as deadlines draw in. And I’ve said no to everything likely to compromise either or both of those things, including a few panels. I think a couple of people have felt slighted by my no, cushioned as it was in politeness, but ultimately that’s their issue. Leaving my home to speak before people can cost quite a lot of energy, especially if it involves long hours of travel and an overnight stay away from home. The mental and physical resources aren’t always mine to spare.

Still, there are times when saying yes is impossible to resist – when the cost -benefit IMG_-ki1vps.jpganalysis balances out. Last week I was part of Glasgow International for After Dark, a creative conversation between LGBT artists of colour. I’d never been called an artist before, and still don’t see myself as one. Writer, yes – I feel that in my bones, and have external validation from the publishing industry. But, artist? Funnily enough, another participant questioned his own right to the label of writer because of the way Black people go largely unrecognised as ‘legitimate’ cultural critics. Or not so funny. A recurring theme, whatever the medium we worked with, was that none of us had been encouraged to think of ourselves, our work, our voices as having authority. But it was satisfying to connect, to talk about our work and the lives that inform it. Opportunities to meet other creatives who are both LGBT and people of colour are a rare, exquisite thing.

As a girl I’d never have imagined a future where I’d enter the Gallery of Modern Art under the label of artist. The GoMA is a beloved part of Glasgow’s cultural landscape. But,IMG_20180515_101715.jpg like so many of the city’s architectural wonders, the building was funded by the labour of enslaved Black people. Growing up amidst the tensions created by that repressed history, it was impossible for me to develop a sense of belonging. When Blackness and Scottishness are often treated as two mutually exclusive identities (a seemingly endless number of white Scots can’t get their head around Black people being born ‘here’, raised ‘here’, from ‘here’), how could it be otherwise? It felt powerful to sit and talk and eat and drink in the Gallery, to claim a space that was never meant for us.

Another event I couldn’t resist saying yes to is Beyond #MeToo, a panel at Writing on the Wall – Liverpool’s longest running literary festival. I like the North of England: it has a higher Black population density than Scotland, and is cheaper and less affected than the South. And, like a great many feminists, I’m passionate about talk of women’s rights, bodies, and boundaries. The other panellists – Winnie Li, Hibo Wardere, and Vanessa Olorenshaw – are all women I’ve been keen to meet. Going felt instinctively right. So I did.

Usually my journeys to unfamiliar places involve a constant companion that goes by the name of anxiety, but getting to Liverpool is actually alright. I crochet a few rounds of a blanket and listen to St. Vincent (since taking up white gay Twitter’s recommendation, I’ve been hooked). Even through delay and disruption, it is possible to hold onto a sense of calm – which is uncharacteristic, but feels like a good omen. I’m getting there; getting there in the literal sense, physically approaching Liverpool on the third and final train of the journey; getting there in my head, too. When I’ve been struggling with mental health problems and am starting to reach a place of wellbeing, “getting there” is the answer I give when anybody asks how I am. It’s not a bullshit answer the way “fine” is, but the fine layer of euphemism coating the honesty makes it feel safe.

Beyond #MeToo

I get to Liverpool later than planned, but still with enough time to drop off my bag and draw on my brows before the event. In the hotel lobby I meet Vanessa, and we immediately click. Her vision of maternal feminism and no-nonsense approach to sexual politics grab my attention, and I make a mental note to track down a copy of her book. There’s something deeply enriching about engaging with feminist perspectives coming from a standpoint that’s different to your own, learning about women’s experiences and politics that don’t necessarily mirror what you have lived or known. Then Winnie joins us, and she’s even more of a badass than Twitter has led me to believe – I say badass, because speaking openly in public about your experiences of sexual violence the way she does takes serious guts. She has a self-possessed quality, a way of occupying public space, that I can’t help admiring. Much like saying no, a woman carrying herself in this way is not an intended outcome of female socialisation. We talk, during the taxi journey to the Women’s Organisation, about everything from our writing habits to the FiLiA conference. Their company is galvanising in a way that’s unique to space shared between women.

Hibo, the last remaining panellist, is waiting for us at the Women’s Organisation – or maybe that should be first, because she was at the venue before us. But Hibo is the last of the women I meet in person. She is every bit as resolute in her opposition to violence against women and girls, every bit as resplendent, as she appears on Twitter. When we compliment her, Hibo laughs and says “I am a rainbow walking. Always in colours.” During the panel Hibo reveals that for years after undergoing female genital mutilation she hid herself away, and wearing bold colours was a way of celebrating being in her body. To my thinking, it is an act of resistance for any woman whose body has been made into a site of trauma to reclaim herself; to find ways of being fully present and perhaps even taking delight in her physical self.

IMG_20180510_001036.jpgWe get to know each other over pizza (which should be mandatory in every green room), sharing bits of our lives without glossing over trauma. So much is possible when women come together and talk openly about violence. When you have the support of feminist women, and are free from the worry of whether your disclosure will be shamed or disbelieved, it is much easier to get to the root of how and why violence against women happens. There is also a lot of joy in those connections.

The panel goes well. Maggie O’Carroll, Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Organisation, has a gift for chairing – an unaffected warmth that stops the event from feeling too formal. It’s also worth pointing out that one advantage of doing panels without men is you are much less likely to be spoken over. Women, especially those who are part of the feminist movement, tend to be good at holding space for one another to speak. And speak we do, about our writing and activism and everything in between.

Dark-Chapter-by-Winnie-M-Li-_-Legend-PressWinnie reveals that she loved writing as a child, but never anticipated that her first book – Dark Chapter – would be based on the story of her own rape. The perpetrator left her with 39 separate injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Winnie quit her job, went about the business of putting herself back together, and rebuilt her life. Her writing perfectly captures the reality of experiencing sexual violence. In an interview with the Guardian she said that “it’s like you’ve been gutted like a fish – it was like somebody had gouged the Winnie out of me,” words which have stayed with me ever since. Winnie talks about the layer of silence that surrounds sexual violence, even between female friends, and her determination to break it. Winnie’s point about that silence resonates. Before I started spending time in feminist spaces, building friendships with feminist women, it would have been unthinkable to talk about my experiences of male violence.

Rather poignantly, Winnie says she was “‘lucky’ to be a victim of stranger rape”, believed by those around her and the criminal justice system because she met society’s standards of a perfect victim. It’s a terrible indictment of this world that any woman would feel fortunate to experience one type of violence over another. But the reality is the majority of women who are raped fall into the category of imperfect victims. At least 70% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Most of us knew and perhaps even liked or trusted our rapists beforehand, meaning that – despite this being a common pattern of sexual violence – it is easier not to believe us, the imperfect victims. Believing that only strangers are rapists means you don’t have to confront the full extent of the problem, the reality that male violence against women and girls is endemic. It means you don’t have to sit with the difficult knowledge that rapists are not shady monsters, but average men: men we know socially or professionally, men who are husbands or boyfriends or fathers. This is the ugly truth of life under patriarchy: women & girls are at risk of sexual violence – overwhelmingly committed by men – and the few of us who get believed are comparatively lucky.

Hibo recounted her experience of FGM and how it has influenced the trajectory of her life. She said “I can remember every little detail of that day, the smell of my blood in the cut-one-womans-fight-against-fgm-in-britain-today-9781471153983_lgroom.” A procedure that took 45 minutes would have repercussions for the rest of her life. Hibo underwent type three FGM, which she wrote about in her memoir Cut. Of this experience, Hibo says “you don’t heal from it, you learn to cope with it.” During her work in schools, Hibo was compelled to start challenging FGM when she realised young girls were at risk. Explaining her advocacy, Hibo says “I used my trauma as a tool for education.” Her work has changed how the education system, the British government, and even the FBI approach the issue of FGM. Hibo is proud of how attitudes have begun to shift against FGM in recent years, a change to which her work has greatly contributed, but is adamant there’s still a long way to go before this particular battle is won. Every 11 seconds a girl is cut. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but nobody has yet been prosecuted for carrying the procedure out on a girl.

IMG_-c2bx6e.jpgNext it’s my turn to speak. I have boundless respect for the other women on this panel and feel honoured to sit alongside them. Yet there are no pangs of imposter syndrome, which is another recent positive step. I tell the audience about the context that shaped my work, the isolation of growing up Black in Scotland, the ways in which gas-lighting is used to cover up racism – which the country has long since struggled to acknowledge as a social, political reality. It’s easy enough: there’s no scarcity of women of colour in the room. I talk about the importance of having found feminist community in digital spaces; that it felt natural to raise a dissenting voice online in a way that it didn’t in person, offline. I share my motivation in creating a learning resource for women trying to engage with feminist politics, how it’s done with the goal of helping build a truly anti-racist feminist movement that really is committed to the liberation of all women. And then I turn to Vanessa.

In her own words, Vanessa advocates for “women’s rights, as mothers, in the public Liberating Motherhoodsphere.” Before having children she was a barrister, which shows in how she forms an argument. As a new mother, no longer practicing her profession, she was conscious that “my political power was gone, my economic power was gone, my body had changed.” She struggled against the idea mothers are not political, a misconception “which Mumsnet prove wrong.”  To Vanessa there is no doubt that women’s bodies exist as the site of oppression in patriarchal society. She calls for an embodied feminist politics that recognise the significance of sex in determining how we experience the world. Vanessa points out that boys begin assaulting girls from a young age, highlighting the patterns of violence that emerge through gendered socialisation.

In particular, Vanessa calls for greater recognition of care work and models beyond outsourcing domestic tasks – often to women who are working class and/or of colour. Despite being vital to the continuation of humanity, care work is devalued as feminised labour and made invisible through essentialist claims that nurturing is a natural part of being female. When her first child was born, Vanessa was asked relentlessly when she planned to go “back to work” – nobody who asked recognised that she was constantly working to look after a new baby, as she wasn’t getting paid to do it. Ideas of what counts as ‘real’ work are upheld by the pillars of patriarchy and capitalism. Vanessa cites Adrienne Rich as an inspiration for her work, crediting Of Woman Born as an essential read on motherhood and feminism.

The Q&A is as interesting as it is challenging. Mandy Vere, a bookseller at News From Nowhere, asked our thoughts on the relationship between shifts in language and feminist politics. Winnie felt this most keenly in the difference between ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ in discussions of sexual violence. She thinks the shift towards ‘survivor’ is a “push to use the word less full of horror and trauma”, that ‘survivor’ offers a more positive and media-friendly spin. Most importantly, Winnie points out that surviving sexual violence is not a linear experience. Ten years on, she sees herself as a survivor, but is conscious that she could struggle again and identify more with the term ‘victim.’ “Trauma can return.” Hibo talks about vagina – specifically, the stigma attached to the word and the sexism in making it unspeakable. She is quite right in observing that without vagina none of us would have been born, so a bit more appreciation is due.

I pick up on the shift from ‘lesbian’ to ‘queer’ in recent years. While it’s a positive thing that more people are finding language that fits them, lesbian gets dismissed as “old fashioned” in a way that’s deeply harmful and ultimately lesbophobic. For hundreds of years, lesbian lives and loves have been erased or broken apart, often with violence. Lesbian is a less palatable word than queer because it is a sexual boundary that explicitly excludes men from women’s desire, whereas queer is ambiguous – and so less threatening to the status quo. Patriarchy depends on men having access to women’s sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour. Lesbian says no to all of that. Lesbian is women directing our love and energy towards women. It’s a powerful word, and an important one to use. Vanessa critiques the term “gender based violence” on the grounds that it obscures the power dynamic typically in action. She says “we don’t commit violence with our gender, but with our bodies” – often male bodies against female bodies.

People ask about everything from ethics to the implications of self-identification. But the comment that most stands out comes from a woman, let’s call her Valerie, who shares that she is a survivor of sexual violence. She speaks up because she doesn’t want Winnie alone to carry that burden of being ‘out’, and because she is conscious that many women in the room will be in the same boat. Valerie’s courage is powerful to witness. Her voice shakes, and mine does too as I clutch the microphone and tell her she’s not alone. After the event, Valerie approaches me. She says that being Black was a huge factor in why the police didn’t support her when she went to tell them about being raped. I tell her that knowing how I’d be seen as a young Black woman was a huge factor in why I never alerted the authorities. Ultimately neither of us could heal the other, but throughout our conversation we could hear and understand one another – which made a world of difference.

I do not feel obliged to disclose my experiences of sexual violence. I do not owe those details to anybody – not as a woman or a feminist or a writer. And it’s entirely possible that I won’t ever write or speak publicly about this subject in any greater detail. But it’s there: me too.

Afterwards

Afterwards, we each grab a slice of leftover pizza and head off for dinner and drinks. On our way out of the Women’s Organisation, Winnie and I notice a poster for the panel on the bathroom door: fame at last. Being something of an introvert I had initially planned to spend my evening in the bath, reading a book, looking out at the lights across Liverpool from the vantage of my hotel room. But I’m enjoying spending time with these women and want to share their company for a bit longer. We sit down in a bar and begin the lengthy process of setting the world to rights. It is in here that I make an important discovery: Liverpool has a quality gin scene. Mine comes in a glass that looks like an infinitely fancier variation of the fishbowls that were popular to drink from when I was an undergrad, complete with pomegranate seeds and blueberries. I could grow to like Liverpool very much.

I’ve known Mandy (the radical bookseller) online for what feels like forever, but this is the first time we’ve been together in person. We get to know one another better. She tells me about what it’s like to be part of a radical collective of booksellers (spoiler alert: pretty damn cool), what drew her to Liverpool, and her family. At a few points through the evening, the nature of my accent is queried. It’s exhausting to have a Scottishness that is never assumed and always in need of explanation. Even without malice, as in this context, it must be qualified in a way that invariably leaves me feeling like an outsider looking in on Scottishness. Still, there is belonging to be found in this group of women – transitory though our meeting is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in patriarchy female friendships are always framed as being of secondary importance to relationships with men, when talking and connecting with women is what enables us to spot the traps gender has laid for us, and for every other woman too. What is gender but a series of restrictions imposed upon a girl, until she learns to restrict herself?

In the morning I have a delicious vegetarian breakfast that fuels my upcoming adventures. It even includes vegetarian black pudding. Never having tasted black pudding before, vegetarian or otherwise, it was a masterclass in creative use of beans and pulses. At the table beside mine, conversation mainly seems to consist of a man talking at his wife, pontificating about everything from Kim Jong-un to the merits of scrambled eggs. I feel sorry for her, until she finally does offer an opinion: that it’s refreshing to see a hotel staffed only by the indigenous population. Indigenous, native, Briton, from here ‘originally’ – there are so many coded ways of saying white, but the racism behind them never varies. A world away from last night, when having a panel that was majority women of colour was a cause for celebration.

I shoulder my backpack and set off to News From Nowhere. Having followed the bookshop on Twitter for years, I am desperate to see it in person. Getting there is easy. For once, I don’t struggle with the map. Above the door is a gay pride flag, and in the window display – alongside the books – is a cardboard cut-out of Theresa May in a police uniform. Yes, I have found News From Nowhere. The shop smells like homemade candles and books – heaven, in short. There’s fiction, feminist theory, biography, zines… There are books on disability rights, sexual politics, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh history, a whole shelf devoted to Liverpool’s own Black community. When I arrive, they’re in the process of changing the display table from books about anti-racist activism to mental health. This is my kind of place. I browse, dreamy and happy, and chat with the booksellers.

Winnie meets me in the bookshop. We talk, lingering by the Women’s Prize for Fiction display, and I recommend Meena Kandasamy’s book When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. Like Winnie, her writing gives voice to deep truths about violence against women, addressing the link between gender and power. It’s a devastating read, but this book burns with resistance and is exquisitely crafted. It would have been great to talk to Winnie more, but we’ll both be at Bare Lit fest at the end of the month. The booksellers very kindly offer to watch out bags, and we each head out to explore the city.

20180518_151742.jpgI walk to the International Slavery Museum, taking in Liverpool as I go. The architecture is striking against the blue sky, and cherry blossoms line a walkway towards the dock. It’s a beautiful city in spring. There are a number of art spaces and cafés I could happily delve into but this mission, I feel, is important. So many of Scotland’s ongoing problems with racism are rooted in an unwillingness to examine the country’s history with race, a refusal to acknowledge how that past shaped the present reality. Earlier this year I visited Berlin, and there are public monuments to the victims of World War 2 placed throughout the city. Each monument included explanations of how and why these people died, giving history to provide context. It was deeply emotional, but there was something healing in giving public space over to recognising those atrocities. Repressing a history only adds to the trauma – which is why I am determined to visit the Slavery Museum.

The Slavery Museum is “the first museum in the world to deal with transatlantic slavery 20180510_124136.jpgand its legacies”, exploring not only the past but how it has informed life in modern day Britain. Beside the entrance is an invitation for people to write about the thoughts and feelings evoked, and stick their postcard on a wall. I like that people are given the space and encouragement needed to try and grapple with the painful knowledge held here. The realities of the slave trade were horrifying. Black people were beaten and raped and killed and worked to death for the profit of white people. Denying it doesn’t help the African people who were forcibly removed from their homes, and it doesn’t help anybody now either.

On display are chains once used to shackle people, brands that once glowed white and burnt into human flesh. A model plantation shows the horrifying living conditions of the enslaved people, and explains that a group of escapees committed mass suicide rather than going back when capture was imminent. The sound of waves plays on loop, clashing with the testimonies of enslaved people being read. I feel overwhelmed. It is explained in detail that enslaved people were dehumanised to legitimise the violence inflicted upon them by their white owners, to justify that ownership in the first place. And this tactic of dehumanisation continues to influence the ways Black people are racialised today.

There are interactive maps of popular routes for transporting enslaved people, explanations of where they were taken and why (always to the place that would bring white people the biggest profit), and ledgers recording the sale of human beings. Generations of enslaved people lived and died without ever tasting freedom or human dignity. The display I found hardest showed samples of cloth that were traded for African people. With a scrap of material, it was once possible to purchase a human being and have them work beyond the limits of endurance for the rest of his or her life. This horror cuts deep.

On my way out of the museum, I am caught by a stream of schoolchildren on a trip. All of the kids I spot are white. Some of them mess around, the way children do, but I hope that what they see here today plants a seed of awareness that will grow over time. I take a minute to breathe, and then head back to the bookshop. On my way I see a monument to Melusine, the river goddess, and spend a moment by her side to find a sense of peace. It works. I say goodbye to the booksellers, News From Nowhere, and finally the city itself.

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I liked Liverpool very much, and also the person I felt myself to be here – capable and calm. A return visit is definitely on the cards, next time with a bigger bag for more books and zines. Travel makes life seem full of possibilities, or rather it highlights the possibilities we are liable to forget in the course of everyday life. When Mandy asked about my life in Scotland, I had told her the truth – there are things I deeply love about my home country, but it isn’t a place I can live indefinitely. I’m tired of living in a country where my body, my hair texture, my voice, my presence in public life, must all be justified. It would be nice to walk around with some kind of disclaimer that says “Yes, I’m Black. And my accent – like the rest of me – is Scottish. Those two things can co-exist.” But, in the words of Sonya Renee Taylor, the body is not an apology. And folding my body into the confines of an apology over and over again is not a price that I’m prepared to keep on paying.


Bibliography

Meena Kandasamy. (2017). When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife

Winnie M. Li. (2017). Dark Chapter

Heather McDaid & Laura Jones (eds.). (2017). Nasty Women

Vanessa Olorenshaw. (2016). Liberating Motherhood: Birthing the Purplestockings Movement

Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Books for White Women to Read About Race and Feminism

A brief foreword: I hope this list helps women, in ways big and small. And while I hope it contributes to the education of white women and assists the unlearning of racism, it’s important to point out that my main motivation in writing this list was to help create a feminist movement that is not hostile – but instead nurturing – towards women of colour. My decision to undertake this labour was driven by the politics of necessity rather than political principle. Here’s the thing: we should be beyond lists like this. It’s not a comfortable truth, but there it is. That being said, should often requires us to divorce theory from practice and has limited use in movement building.

All the same, it’s necessary to observe that I can only afford to undertake educational projects geared towards white women from a place of well-being, when I have the mental and emotional energy to spare – which isn’t always the case. Don’t read these words and feel bad: that’s not productive in either direction. Instead, think about what it costs women of colour to reach out to and try building trust with white women; do your best to minimise that cost, and work out ways to carry it yourself. Happy reading, and may these books take your mind to interesting places.


 

White women often approach me in feminist spaces or get in touch to say that my writing was the first time they considered that race politics and feminist politics were related. What this makes me feel is complicated and, at points, conflicted. On one level there is an appreciation that these women have accepted my invitation to begin practicing radical honesty about race and the feminist movement. It’s affirming to see that they’ve started doing the work of unpicking their own racism, figuring out exactly how it manifests (including within feminist contexts), and trying to improve. I also find it moving that this work stays with them, and has changed their way of being. Yet there is also an acute pinch of something between pain and frustration as I am made to look directly at the extent to which racism is the norm within feminist spaces, so unexceptional that it’s invisible. It’s a bit like being set on fire and then being told by the woman holding a can of gasoline and a smoking match that she hadn’t noticed the flames.

Still, it’s impossible – or at least I find it impossible – to be cynical in response to someone making a wholehearted effort to change and do better. From birth, we breathe in the values that define the society around us; internalising the logic of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy is all but inevitable. And so we all fail at points. Failure is inevitable, even and especially when it comes to practicing feminist values. The only question is whether or not a woman is prepared to get back up, dust herself off, and try again.

So I curated this list of book recommendations for white women who want to learn more about race politics, how they integrate with feminist politics, and the requirements for interracial solidarity between women. It’s not an exhaustive list. It’s not a definitive list. But these are all texts which articulated certain truths that ought to be brought from the margin to the centre of the feminist movement.

I have quite deliberately chosen books by writers living in Britain, because conversations about race politics tend to become Americentric unless we consciously resist it – which enables that old excuse of racism being an American problem, not something we need to worry about in the UK. Writers of colour are doing revolutionary things in Britain, and deserve more recognition for work that deals with ongoing socio-political problems.

  1. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

Why I'mThis book is the place to start. It explores Black British history, connects that history with the present, and provides highly relevant insights about what it’s like to be a Black woman in contemporary British society. A substantial portion of Why I’m is devoted to the thorny issue of feminism and race politics. In a chapter called The Feminism Question, Eddo-Lodge writes candidly about her love for the feminist movement and the sense of alienation created by white women’s racism.

If you don’t understand why the hierarchy of race creates tension between women of colour and white women, this is an excellent introduction to the surrounding politics. It’s written in straightforward language, expressing difficult ideas in a way that makes them easy to engage with. If I had pots of money, I’d buy enough copies of this book to hand out to almost every white woman that I know.

If feminism can understand the patriarchy, it’s important to question why so many feminists struggle to understand whiteness as a political structure in the very same way.

Why I’m is so important because it contains a wealth of truths that are often repressed. The book holds the kind of truths that are apparent to most people of colour as a result of our lived realities, and there comes a certain relief in hearing them acknowledged when whiteness is so invested in covering them up. The truths found here are also what many white people consider to be a revelation – never having thought about how people of colour experience certain aspects of life, and not having encountered enough of our perspectives for them to seem like a standard part of human experience, white readers might encounter ideas totally new to them. And that’s ultimately a positive thing.

  1. The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla (2016)

The Good Immigrant is an extraordinary collection of essays written by people of colour TGIabout their experiences of British life. The combined insight of the writers will blow your mind. More than half of the contributors are women, though I would encourage you to be open to the essays that are not. Think about it this way. Within the canon of books and ideas we are taught to think of as being central to feminist thought, white women’s experiences are often treated like the normative standard of female experience. There is an underlying assumption that what holds true for white women will have universal relevance for all women. And while all women do experience oppression through the hierarchy of gender, gender is inextricably linked with race in women of colour’s lived experiences. It’s not a case of deciding which one is worse or trying to separate the two: that luxury isn’t available to us, although it’s something white women seem happy enough to speculate about when trying to convince women of colour to pick ‘a side’ in the false binary of feminism or anti-racism.

What makes The Good Immigrant such a powerful book is that is doesn’t try and separate forms of oppression into their own distinct boxes, but instead acknowledges they have a common root: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. None of the writers try to split themselves into one camp or another for the sake of one-dimensional political analysis. It’s honest, relevant, and – at times – really funny.

There’s something white women can be quite resistant to hearing, from me or anyone else: women of colour have just as much in common with men of colour as we do white women. The similarities and differences we share with each group effectively balance out. Sometimes, one set of commonalities looks like a negative image of the other. So if you don’t immediately see the value of reading every essay in The Good Immigrant to better understand women of colour’s experiences, remember that we share an experience of race with men of colour to the same extent we share an experience of gender with white women.

  1. Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection, ed. Phyll Opoku-Gyimah (2018)

sistaOften we turn to the words of lesbian women for valuable feminist insights, which makes a lot of sense. Who better to learn about loving, centring, and prioritising women from than lesbians? But white is often treated as the default standard of womanhood – including lesbian womanhood. So I’d like to direct your attention towards Sista!, a mind-blowing collection of writing from lesbian and bi Black women.

I can already feel some women bristling at the phrase “same gender loving” in the title, and do think there is a critique to be made somewhere down the line. However, and far more pressingly, there is an unfortunate pattern of white women seeing the differences between their ways of practicing feminism and Black women’s ways of practicing feminism as proof that Black women are somehow insufficiently radical. White women can be very quick to act as feminist gatekeepers on the assumption that those differences exist because women of colour are less informed, and with a bit of educating we’ll catch up. And so I invite you to read Sista! before criticising.

This book is a kaleidoscope of amazing perspectives about women’s art, women’s community organising, women’s dating practices outside of heterosexuality, women’s bodies, women’s politics, and women’s inner-lives. It contains a wealth of truth on what it’s like to be a Black woman in Britain, and some of the writers – like Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the Director of UK Black Pride – share a lot of valuable information about lesbian feminist organising that doesn’t centre whiteness. Sista! absolutely deserves to be recognised as a significant work of British feminist writing.

  1. Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch

Aside from the genius title, you should read Brit(ish) because Afua Hirsh manages to Britishexpress a lot of topical truths about what it’s like to be constantly in the position of outsider because of your race. She makes deft connections between the personal and the political by unpacking Britain’s complicated and – more often than not – ugly history with race and linking it with the realities of being a person of colour in modern day Britain. It’s a striking blend of memoir and cultural criticism, which works well because of the extent to which Black people have been erased from British history. If l’ecriture féminine is your thing, if you enjoy books where women find ways to articulate their own experiences in ways that don’t fit into the masculine logic of genres, this is definitely one for you to read.

Brit(ish) shines a light on a kind of female experience that isn’t always acknowledged as relevant to British culture or the feminist movement. Hirsch addresses issues like colourism and class privilege in a really straightforward way, showing how they manifest in everyday life – that they’re not abstract, and have very real material consequences.

What else makes this book shine is the way Hirsch demonstrates that you can be privileged on one count and marginalised on another at the same time. Drawing from her own life for examples, she conveys how it’s possible for someone to benefit from the hierarchy of class while simultaneously being oppressed as Black and female. (Full disclosure: I’m also a Bougie Black girl.) If you’re uncertain about how intersectionality works, this book does a great job of illustrating how power can flow in multiple and – at points – opposite directions.

  1. Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, ed. Shabnam Grewal, Jackie Kay, Liliane Landor, Gail Lewis, Pratibha Parmar (1988)

Charting the JourneySome truly extraordinary feminist writing emerged in Britain during the 1980s – though overshadowed by the seventies, it was a decade when a number of pivotal feminist perspectives were first published. And while I don’t dispute the lasting importance of any woman’s writing, and the worth of continuing to cite our foremothers, there is a problem with how they are remembered. As is so often the case, white women’s contributions to the feminist movement are enshrined as part of the canon and the words spoken or written by women of colour are treated as having limited relevance or forgotten altogether.

Charting the Journey is one of the boldest and most urgent books British feminism has ever produced. And yet it’s out of print, largely unrecognised. This book challenges misogyny, imperialism, racism, classism, heterosexism – just about every ‘ism’ going – and was pioneering in its criticism of how dominant structures of power acted against women.

A mixture of essays, poems, and interviews from women of colour, reading this book now is useful not only because it uplifts the spirit, but also because it fills in some of the gaps about women of colour’s political organising that exist as a consequence of the selective feminist memory. If you think it’s at all important to know about the feminism that unfolded before the present day, the women’s work that paved the way for what we have now, Charting the Journey is an essential read. There are some dazzling moments. Maud Sulter, a trailblazing artist and Black Scottish feminist, interviews Alice Walker. Women overlooked and underappreciated shine, and they do so unapologetically.

This book also takes an international perspective on the feminism, so if you’re uncertain about how the movement functions globally or want to learn more about how the lives of women are connected around the world, Charting the Journey is a worthwhile starting point.

 

Womanhood: On Sex, Gender Roles, and Self-Identification

A (not so) brief foreword: this essay was originally commissioned by an independent publisher looking to release an anthology on gender. In 2017 they asked if I’d be interested in writing an essay on womanhood. I was a little surprised, the publisher being explicitly queer and me being a radical feminist, but ultimately pleased: their goal was to publish a collection with plural perspectives on gender, and I believe wholeheartedly that having the space for plural perspectives on any issue is essential for healthy, open public discourse. I knew that my lesbian feminist essay would probably be in a minority standpoint, and felt comfortable with it being published alongside contradictory perspectives. Given the extreme polarity of gender discourse, which results in a painful stalemate between queer activists and radical feminists, it was encouraging to think we had reached a point where multiple views could be held and explored together.

So I wrote the essay, made the requested edits, and produced a final draft with which the publisher and I were both delighted. Their words: “We’re really happy with the edits you’ve done and the areas you’ve developed on upon our request. You did a splendid job refining the essay.” However, certain people objected to the inclusion of my essay before having read it. Some early readers gave the feedback that they were unhappy to find a perspective that they were not expecting, and alarmed that I had connected my personal experience of gender as a woman to the wider sociopolitical context we inhabit. Backlash escalated to the point that the publishing house faced the risk of having their business undermined and their debut collection jeopardised.

They gave me the option of writing another essay for the gender anthology, or having this essay published in a future collection. I declined both choices, as neither felt right – fortunately, there are more projects on my horizon. That being said I have great sympathy for the publisher’s position, and find it regrettable that their bold and brilliant venture should be compromised by the very people it was designed to support. Furthermore, I wish the publisher every success with this project, and all future endeavours. As for the essay, controversial even before being read, I have instead decided to publish it here as the seventh part of the series on sex, gender, and sexuality. It is, in my opinion, a good essay and deserves to see the light of day.

If you enjoy or learn from this essay, and can afford to do so, please consider donating to cover the lost commission of this work. [UPDATE: the publisher has offered partial payment depending on the success of their crowdfunding campaign. Thank you to everyone who has supported me. It means a great deal.]


 

Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. – Ntozake Shange

I absolutely love women. I love women in a way that leaves me breathless, in a way that catches just behind my ribs and gently tugs at my heartstrings until they unravel. I love women with a depth and fervour that is fundamentally lesbian. And in loving women I find extraordinary reserves of strength, the will to keep on challenging white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984), the motivation to chip away at every hierarchy and oppression that acts as a pillar upholding the ills of society. A love of women is central to my feminism, for bonds between women – links of solidarity and sisterhood in particular – have a revolutionary power unequal to any force on this earth.

According to Adrienne Rich, “the connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” The connections shared by women, and all that flows across connections between women, open the possibility for radical social change – which is why lesbian existence and feminist politics are complimentary forces in a woman’s life.

Loving women as I do, I have spent a great deal of time musing upon what it is to be a woman, from where the appeal of women springs. As many young lesbians do, I speculate about the nature of the draw which compels us to watch all sorts of random crap on television simply because the middle-aged actress we fancy has a small role in the production. Having grown up in this world as a girl and subsequently learned how to negotiate this world as a woman, I have also reflected upon the social and political significance of the category – the weight which is undeniable. The question of what it means to be a woman has been central to feminist discourse for hundreds of years: establishing what womanhood is, pinpointing the means and motive behind woman’s oppression under patriarchy, and working out how to end that oppression are central feminist concerns.

At present the feminist movement is split in two over how to conceptualise woman and woman’s oppression. The tensions between queer ideology and sexual politics have proven every bit as divisive as the sex wars of the 1980s. The source of the split lies within gender – specifically, whether gender ought to be conceptualised as a hierarchy or as an identity within feminist analysis. Feminists have historically identified gender as the means of women’s oppression: patriarchy is reliant on gender to establish and maintain a hierarchy that enables men to dominate women.  But by the turn of the century queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam began to suggest that gender may be subverted and experimented with until the very fabric of society is no longer recognisable.

Owing to the mainstreaming of queer ideology, we have entered an unprecedented era governed by the logic of postmodernism – a time in which the relationship between the physical body and material reality is untethered by the politics of identity.  As such, those engaging with the progressive politics – be they liberal or radical – begin asking ourselves anew: what does it mean to be a woman?

Woman as a Sex Class

A key element of feminist analysis is the recognition of woman as a sex class. By this I do not mean that all women’s experiences meet the same universal standards, or that all women are positioned similarly within the world’s power structures: factors such as race, disability, social class, and sexuality all shape where a woman is situated in relation to power. Rather, this perspective offers an acknowledgement of the role in which patriarchy plays in determining the power dynamic between women and men. Women’s struggle against patriarchy is collective, and emancipation from systemic oppression cannot be found through individualising a structural issue. Women of all colours and creeds, women of all classes and castes, are actively subjugated from birth – a political analysis which fails to incorporate this reality cannot truly be thought of as feminist. Women’s oppression is a direct result of having been born female-bodied into a patriarchal society. Considering woman as a sex class is, therefore, fundamental to meaningful feminist critique of patriarchy.

This mode of analysis – radically feminist analysis – can grate when misapplied by white women who seek to deny any difference between women’s lives. But when carried out correctly, with rigour and consideration, it has the potential to change the world.

My own womanhood is hardly conventional, Black and lesbian as it is. I do not meet white Eurocentric standards of female beauty or womanhood and no longer aspire towards those standards, which are rooted in racism and misogyny. Owing to skin pigmentation and hair texture, my Blackness is impossible to conceal – even if it were possible, having begun to unpick the misogynoir I have internalised from an early age, I would not choose to hide it in order to assimilate. To be visibly Other is to live with an increased vulnerability, to be perpetually open to manifestations of structural oppression. For a time I despised both my Blackness and my womanhood as a result of the painful alienation misogynoir brought into my life. I have since learned to place the blame firmly where it belongs, with the source of these cruelties: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Since embracing radical politics I have learned to love both Blackness and womanhood, to love myself as a Black woman, in a way that was never possible during my pursuit of conventional beauty standards.

My lesbian presentation (Tongson, 2005) is a further rejection of those beauty standards. I style my hair in a fashion that is distinctly lesbian and have maintained a crisp undercut since coming out. At various points certain members of my family have attempted to enforce compulsory heterosexuality by shaming any outward presentation of a lesbian aesthetic, endeavouring to guide me back into the feminine role. I am told that returning to conventionally feminine presentation would render me “softer”, “more approachable”, and closer to the ideal of beauty. And while I could choose to pass for heterosexual, allowing an assumption that I am available and receptive to men to cushion me from a degree of marginalisation, I do not. I have no desire to appear soft or approachable, least of all to men – the oppressor class. Alice Walker proclaimed that “resistance is the secret of joy”, and she was quite right: there is a feeling of pure elation that flows from resisting the trap and trappings of heteropatriarchy.

Like every single woman living in a patriarchal society, I experience systematic oppression as a consequence of being female. Women – all women – are bound by the rigidity of the gender role ascribed to us on the basis of our biological sex. We are socialised from birth to be soft, compliant, nurturing so that we are primed to adopt the caring role required for upholding the domestic sphere owned by a man, be he husband or father. As Mary Wollstonecraft notably lamented, women are actively discouraged from pursuing our full potential as self-actualised human beings. Instead, women are subjected to a deliberate social (and often economic) pressure designed to create in us an ornamental source of sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour for men.

From Sojourner Truth to Simone de Beauvoir, there is a long and proud tradition of feminists critiquing the role of femininity. During her time as an abolitionist orator, Truth deconstructed womanhood to great effect, asking “ain’t I a woman?” Arguing against the hierarchies of race and gender that determined how the category of woman was understood in North American society during the heights of the transatlantic slave trade, Truth offered her own story as testimony to the falsehood of femininity. Truth used her own strength and endurance as empirical evidence, asserting that womanhood was in no way dependent on or related to the characteristics which construct femininity. Her opposition to gender essentialism and white supremacy continues to influence feminists’ perspectives on womanhood to this very day.

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir further critiqued femininity, connecting the socialisation of gender to the oppression of women by men. She theorised that man was the normative standard of humanity and woman understood purely in relation to him:

Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.

That woman is relegated to the Other, lacking in positive definition, mandates a life that is male-centric. If woman exists as the negative image of man, she is forever bound to him. Self-definition has long been recognised as a necessary tool for the liberation of an oppressed group, and if women remain dependent on men for definition then the root cause of our oppression can never be fully tackled. Adrienne Rich once claimed that “until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves” – as is often the case, her words contain more than a little truth.

Gender is normalised through essentialism, positioned as a natural and inevitable part of life. From the get-out-of-accountability-free card that is ‘boys will be boys’ to the constant refrain of “she was asking for it” when men act upon the cultural conditioning that assures them they are entitled to women’s bodies, the hierarchy of gender maintains the gross power imbalance at the root of sexual politics. Here is how I understand the connection between biological sex and gender roles:

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.

We teach boys to dominate others and disavow their emotions. We teach girls to nurture others at the expense of their own. And I think this world would be a better place if we encouraged more empathy in boys and more daring in girls. If gender were abolished, if we raised boys and girls in the same way, patriarchy would crumble. Like a great many feminists before her, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advocates the elimination of gender:

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

It is impossible to consider the position of women in society, the reality that we are second-class citizens by design of patriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of the harm done by gender. Womanhood is caught up in the constraints of the feminine gender role, prevented from escaping male dominion. In the abolition of gender lies a radical alternative. In the abolition of gender lies women’s liberation.

Therefore, recent reframing of gender as an innately held identity has proven problematic in ongoing feminist struggle. Gender identity politics rely on essentialism that feminists have fought for hundreds of years, an essentialism that argues women are naturally suited to the means of our oppression. If gender is inherent – a natural phenomenon after all – then the oppression of women under patriarchy is legitimised.

Womanhood

During the second wave of feminism, it was argued that woman simply meant a biologically female adult human. Feminists (Millett, 1969; French, 1986; Dworkin, 1987) made the case that womanhood could and should exist purely as a biological category, unfettered by the feminine gender role – a vision of women’s liberation. This perspective is directly contradicted by a queer understanding of gender, which primarily focuses on gender as self-expression:

The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality. – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

A queer notion of gender presents it as a matter of performativity, arguing that dominant power structures may be subverted through transgressing the barriers of masculine and feminine gender roles. Identification with the characteristics associated with a gender role is taken as belonging to the category. Those who identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as cisgender. Those who do not identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as transgender. From a queer standpoint, sex is not a fixed category but rather an unstable one. Queer politics are formed gender as a mode of personal identification. Radical feminist analysis, in which gender is understood as a hierarchy, is dismissed as old-fashioned.

If one cannot say with absolutely clarity what is woman and what is man, the oppressed and oppressor classes are rendered unspeakable. Subsequently the hierarchy of gender is made invisible and feminist analysis of patriarchy grows impossible. Without words used as markers to convey specific meaning, women are deprived of the vocabulary required to name and oppose our oppression. Postmodernism and political analysis of power structures make uneasy bedfellows.

Here is where the controversy lies, where gender discourse grows explosive beyond the point of reconciliation between queer and radical feminism. If gender is a matter of personal identification, it is a purely individual matter and, therefore, depoliticised. The power differential between oppressed and oppressor is negated by a failure to consider man and woman as two distinct sex classes. Gender ceases to be visible as a means of oppression, further obscured as the categories of man and woman are considered immaterial. If sex classes are unspeakable, so too are the sexual politics of patriarchy.

If womanhood can be reduced to the performance of the feminine gender role and a personal identification with that gender role, there is little scope for distinguishing between the oppressor and oppressed. Womanhood ceases to be indicated by the presence of primary and secondary sex characteristics and instead becomes a matter of self-identification. The oppressor may even benefit from a lifetime of the privilege conferred upon men through the subordination of woman and then claim womanhood. Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of BBC Woman’s Hour, came under fire for highlighting that prior to transition, transwomen benefit from the social and economic privileges accorded to men in patriarchy. Shortly afterwards, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received backlash for differentiating between the experiences of women born as such and 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.

If it is no longer possible to consider the experiences of those born female, to analyse the relationship between sex and socioeconomic power, feminists can no longer identify or challenge the workings of patriarchy. This is a particularly unfortunate consequence of embracing queer ideology. Women’s rights are human rights, as the slogan goes – inalienable and absolutely worth fighting for. The injustices faced by women around the globe are intolerable: one in three women will be subject to male violence within her lifetime. Yet, if the linguistic tools necessary to critique patriarchy are removed from the feminist lexicon, women’s liberation hits an insurmountable stumbling block: you cannot challenge an oppression you cannot name, after all.

The cultural significance attached to the word woman is in a state of flux. As queer politics would have it, womanhood is simply the performance of the female gender role. As radical feminism would have it, the female gender role exists purely as a sexist stereotype of woman rooted in essentialism and misogyny. The only escape queer politics offers women from patriarchal oppression is for all those who are biologically female to identify out of the category ‘woman’. To claim the label of non-binary, genderfluid, or transmasculine – anything other than a cisgender woman, who is naturally suited to her status as a second-class citizen – is the only route queer politics offers biological women to being recognised as fully human.

Women, by queer logic, cannot be self-actualised and have no meaningful inner-lives. We are simply Other to men. It is for this reason that queer ideology has been able to reduce women to “non-men” – to “pregnant people”, “uterus-havers”, and “menstruators.”  It is worth asking: does trans-inclusivity depend upon women being written out of existence? While queer theory has reflected upon the nature of masculinity, it has not deconstructed the category of man beyond the point of recognition. Just as in mainstream patriarchal society, man is the normative standard of humanity and woman defined in relation to him. The positive definition of womanhood is treated as expendable within queer discourse.

As linguist Deborah Cameron asserts, women’s power to self-define is of immense political significance:

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.

However one understands the category of woman, its erasure can surely be recognised as a disastrous impediment to the liberation of women.

Lesbian Sexuality

The controversy over how womanhood is defined manifests most acutely around lesbian sexuality. An unfortunate consequence of queer politics is the problematising of homosexuality. Lesbian women and to a lesser extent gay men (for it is women’s bodies and sexual practices that are fiercely policed within patriarchy) routinely face allegations of transphobia within queer discourse. A lesbian is a woman who exclusively experiences same-sex attraction. It is the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics that create at least the potential for lesbian desire – gender identity is of little relevance to the parameters of same-sex attraction. As it is governed on the basis of biological sex rather than personal identification with gender, the sexuality of lesbian women is under scrutiny within queer discourse.

These words are not written with detachment. It is not an abstract concern alive only in theory. The reality is, this is a particularly uncomfortable window of time in which to be lesbian. We face mounting pressure to expand the boundaries of our sexuality until sex that involves a penis is considered a viable option. And sex that involves a penis quite simply isn’t lesbian, whether it belongs to a man or a transwoman.

I am deeply concerned by the shaming and coercion of lesbian women that now happens within queer discourse. The queer devaluation of lesbian sexuality – from the insistence that lesbians are a boring old anachronism to the pathologising of lesbian sexuality that occurs when we are branded “vagina fetishists” – is identical to the lesbophobia pedalled by social conservatives. Both the queer left and religious right go out of their way to imply something is wrong with lesbians because we desire other women.

Lesbian women are attracted by the female form. In addition to sharing a profound emotional and mental connection with other women, lesbians appreciate the female form – the beauty of women’s bodies is what sparks our desire. If biological sex ceases to be recognised as determining womanhood (or, indeed, manhood), it can no longer be said that there is such a body as a woman’s body. If the distinct set of sex characteristics which combine to form womanhood are rendered unspeakable, attraction inspired by those characteristics – lesbian desire – is made invisible. Something vital is lost when women are deprived of the language to articulate how and why we love other women (Rich, 1980).

Lesbians are being coerced back into the closet within the LGBT+ community. We receive strong encouragement to abandon the label of lesbian, which we are told is comically archaic, and embrace the umbrella term of queer in the name of inclusivity. But no sexuality is universally inclusive – by definition, sexuality is a specific set of factors which when met offer the potential for attraction. It is unreasonable – and frankly delusional – to imagine that sexuality can be stripped of any meaningful criteria.

A queer woman is less challenging to the status quo than a lesbian, easier for men to get behind, for queer is a vague term that deliberately eschews solid definitions – a queer woman may well be sexually available to men, her sexuality in no way an impediment to offering men the emotional, sexual, or reproductive labour upon which patriarchy is dependent.

Queer stigmatising of lesbians is a tactical manoeuvre designed to undermine acknowledgement of the female sex category. If there is no need to address same-sex attraction between women, the significance and permanence of sex categories demands no scrutiny. That encouraging lesbian women to consider sex that involves a penis has become newly acceptable, a legitimate line of discourse within the progressive left, is a terrible puzzle. The logic of it is straightforward enough, yet the underlying truths about what is happening within LGBT+ politics are not easy to look at. Yet still I cannot help turn it over and over in my mind, working at the ideas like a Rubik’s cube until the pieces fall into place. Queer ideology seeks to enforce compulsory heterosexuality in the lives of lesbian women just as surely as the standards set by patriarchy. By denying the possibility of lesbians exclusively loving other women, by delegitimising lesbians living woman-centric lives, queer politics undermines our liberation.

Conclusion

There is a persistent thread of misogyny running through queer politics, from the inception of queer to its present incarnation. Queer was the product of gay men’s activism, concerned primarily with sexual freedom and transgression: as such, queer did not represent the interests of lesbian women when it came into being during the 1980s and does not represent the interests of lesbian women now (Jeffreys, 2003). Queer is less about collectively challenging structural inequalities at their root than an individualised subversion of social norms.

Though it promised a radical, exciting alternative – one which many women have embraced, along with men – queer politics are ill equipped to dismantle systematic oppressions. Queer erasure of womanhood, queer disregard for women’s boundaries if they happen to be lesbian, and queer obscuring of the gender hierarchy breathes a new lease of life into patriarchy, if anything.

I dream of a world without gender. I dream of a world where men can wear dresses and be gentle without either being treated as a negation of manhood. But much more than that, I dream of a world where no assumptions are made about what it means to be woman beyond the realm of biological fact. And if that makes me a heretic in the church of gender, so be it – I’m an atheist.

Gender roles and the hierarchy they maintain are incompatible with the liberation of women and girls from patriarchal oppression. It is because I love women, and because I am a woman, that I cannot afford to pretend otherwise. Embracing gender as an identity is the equivalent of decorating the interior of a cell: it is a superficial perspective which offers no freedom.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex. London: Vintage

Judith Butler. (1990). Gender Trouble. London: Routledge

Andrea Dworkin. (1987). Intercourse. New York: Free Press

Marilyn French. (1986). Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals. California: Ballantine Books

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press

Jack Halberstam. (1998). Female Masculinity. Carolina: Duke University Press

bell hooks. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press

Kate Millett. (1969). Sexual Politics. Columbia: Columbia University Press

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate

Adrienne Rich. (1979). On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

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

Ntozake Shange. (1982). Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo. New York: Picador

Karen Tongson. (2005). Lesbian Aesthetics, Aestheticizing Lesbianism. IN Nineteenth Century Literature

Mary Wollstonecraft. (1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

 

Dispatches from the Margins: On Women, Race, and Class

A brief foreword: this is my third dispatch from the margins – the first and second of my personal reflective essays on feminist movement building are available here. This one is dedicated to Jo & Cath Planet, and Siân Steans – women who are there for other women in every way that matters. I’d also like to thank Liz Kelly for opening my eyes to the ways in which power can be used, and the responsibilities that come with its accumulation.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.


Writing is really a way of thinking – not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet. ― Toni Morrison

Eternal Sunshine

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

My relationship with the feminist movement is struggling. I feel like this truth might make tough reading for some of the women who attach significance to my voice, but in a way that makes sharing it all the more necessary. I have no desire to be placed upon a feminist pedestal. Therefore, I am resistant to having my reputation as an essayist or feminist theorist obscure the aspects of my life which are too messy to fit within the limits of public expectations. Please don’t read anything I have written and imagine that I have all the answers to any set of questions – I’m a low-functioning depressive trying to negotiate a range of ongoing problems; “just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind.” It’s tempting to buy into the vision behind the public expectations placed upon me, of this intellectual Amazon who fears nothing and gets shit done, but it would also be deeply dishonest.

Everything good that I’ve said or done came from a place of uncertainty, which is the home of radical possibility. I never imagined that Sister Outrider would go this far, or I’d have written it anonymously. At the time of starting out it was inconceivable that women around the world would read my words and engage with my ideas – it seemed infinitely more likely that nobody would be interested in my perspective. It never fails to surprise me when women assume that I began this blog with a belief in the importance of my own words or ideas. That belief never did materialise, although I am now confident of the instinct that tells me what to examine. Which is why it’s possible to write all of the following…

There needs to be scope for women to explore the lows as well as the highs of practicing feminism – in particular, space for women marginalised through race, class, and sexuality to address problems created in our lives when the women who have more power than we do decide to wield it against us. Those exchanges are painful and demanding, but without them the women who ought to be centred within feminism end up pushed to the margins or growing so alienated that they leave the movement altogether. I have watched women with good hearts, sharp minds, and highly relevant critiques leave the feminist movement when the women holding the lion’s share of power refuse to hear them.

Radical feminists pride ourselves on being women who speak truth to power, and rightly so – but so much of what is good about our movement breaks down when women among our ranks are the power to whom truth must be spoken, when those women refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of critiques directed towards them. As a result, racism and classism flourish within the British feminist movement. It’s soul-destroying to watch a movement that is supposed to be about women’s liberation recreate the same hierarchies we’re meant to be dismantling – hierarchies with real, damaging consequences for women around the world.

When I first started to engage with radical feminist communities, I dared to let myself hope that I had finally found my tribe. Growing up a biracial Black girl in Scotland (a country whiter than a thousand packets’ worth of Uncle Ben’s rice) was an incredibly isolating experience. Add a large dose of mental illness and irrepressible lesbian tendencies to the mix, and we have ourselves a black sheep. There was never a context in which I fully belonged, or so the world told me on a daily basis. And then, as a young woman, I found this glorious, mismatched set of women who wanted to escape the elaborate pink prison society trapped us in – a prison called gender – and dismantle it brick by brick.

Radical feminist spaces nurtured my ideas and pushed me irreversibly down the path of liberation politics. I have made lasting friendships within these communities, forged connections with women I am honoured to call sister. I have also been hurt repeatedly by women behaving in ways incompatible with feminist values: white women who caucasityweaponise racism against me, white women who expose me to graphic racism because they wish to capitalise on my response, white women acting as though anti-racist politics must come at the expense of my commitment to feminism, white women treating women of colour like tokens instead of self-actualised human beings, white women approaching women of colour as a handy source of progressive ally cookies as opposed to valued comrades in political struggle, white women who don’t see race because acknowledging it would complicate their feminist utopia (remember how Charlotte Perkins Gilman casually endorsed white supremacy and eugenics in Herland?), and white women using sisterhood to claim that women of colour addressing all of this racism are the real problem because undermining solidarity between women. It’s exhausting. Carrying all this on a daily basis is mentally and emotionally exhausting.

I’m out of whatever combination of optimism, energy, and naïveté led me to believe I could do anything to improve upon the dynamic of race within the feminist movement. It’s painful to admit, but I don’t actually know if a feminist movement in which women willingly divest of hierarchical power is possible anymore. I’d like to keep believing that it is, but carrying hope around in both hands leaves you exposed and less able to defend yourself. This prolonged feeling of despair makes it very difficult for me to both reconnect with any feminist spaces and take sufficient care of my mental wellbeing. For months now I’ve been thinking about how to continue engaging with the feminist movement in a sustainable way, and there is no obvious answer. My relationship with feminism is struggling because of racism, because of that barely concealed disdain straight women reserve for lesbians, because of the spectacular array of cruelties visited upon women who voice truths inconvenient to the wider (and whiter) feminist movement.

We can rise up from our screwups, failures, and falls, but we can never go back to where we stood before we were brave or before we fell. Courage transforms the emotional structure of our being. This change often brings a deep sense of loss. During the process of rising, we sometimes find ourselves homesick for a place that no longer exists. We want to go back to that moment before we walked into the arena, but there’s nowhere to go back to. What makes this more difficult is that now we have a new level of awareness about what it means to be brave. We can’t fake it anymore. We now know when we’re showing up and when we’re hiding out, when we are living our values and when we are not… Straddling the tension that lies between wanting to go back to the moment before we risked and fell and being pulled forward to even greater courage is an inescapable part of rising strong. – Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I want to repair my relationship with feminism. This movement – the project of liberation – is everything to me. Feminism isn’t something I can simply put down or let go of – it has filtered through into every aspect of my life, shaped my way of being, and changed how I engage with the world for the better. I want to get back to a place where I feel like part of something so much bigger than myself, linked with women around the world in purpose. How to do that remains unclear. There is no way to undo knowledge or experience, so I can’t find a stronger connection with the feminist movement by going backwards. Instead I must locate a path onwards, even if I must build it from nothing. Zadie Smith once wrote that “you are never stronger than when you land on the other side of despair” – and the place beyond despair is my eventual destination, even while the route remains unknown.

I’ve asked an assortment of friends who are seasoned feminists what brings them back to the movement, and each of them speaks of a connectedness that eludes me – a way of finding joy in women, the unexpected and delightful moments opened up by practicing feminist principles, or an act of resistance bringing about results. And while all of these experiences – especially shared connection with women – are uplifting, they no longer keep me tethered to the movement after so many repeated onslaughts of racism and cruelty.

Bojack 5

Bojack Horseman

For months on end I had this recurring fantasy of driving a blade into one of my arteries, of the profound calm that would descend as I lost blood – a sense of euphoria better than having your first orgasm or the last slice of pizza. The reality would, I expect, be far more panicked and utterly horrible. Yet the idea grew into a fixation. These are what healthcare professionals refer to, through the veil of euphemism, as “intrusive thoughts.” Though it scared me, this vision appeared so vividly and frequently that it felt like a permanent fixture in my mental terrain (mental being the operative word). It has now been a month since this scenario appeared in my mind. It has now been a month since I last participated in Facebook, Twitter, or any feminist space. That doesn’t feel coincidental. I share this information to remind women that their conduct in feminist spaces, digital or material, has an impact on other women. Damage done may manifest in a whole variety of ways, not all of which are necessarily linked to mental illness. The degree of impact will differ from woman to woman, because some of us are coming from a stronger place than others.

Being in contact with feminist spaces where cruelty was not only permissible but actively encouraged has contributed to the decline of my mental health. There are at least two dozen women in my life who have, in one way or another, been damaged by toxic practice in feminist spaces. This problem is widespread and threatens the very foundations of our movement. It’s one of those things we never talk about, how cruelty and dominance have found a home in radical feminism. Fear has created a layer of silence around this problem, perhaps because so many women are afraid to acknowledge the extent to which toxic practices have been normalised within feminist space. Another part of that reluctance stems from women’s fear – particularly white women’s fear – of considering what it means to be the oppressor, and not the oppressed, in any political analysis. There is a false kind of safety in feminism which looks only at the hierarchy of gender, as it protects white middle class feminists from having to do the difficult work of critical self-examination and unearthing truths that are less than flattering.

White women seem to take the phrase ‘white feminism’ very personally, but it is at once everything and nothing to do with them. It’s not about women, who are feminists, who are white. It’s about women espousing feminist politics as they buy into the politics of whiteness, which at its core are exclusionary, discriminatory and structurally racist.

 

For those who identify as feminist, but have never questioned what it means to be white, it is likely that the phrase white feminism applies. Those who perceive every critique of white-dominated politics to be an attack on them as a white person are probably part of the problem. – Reni Eddo Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Feminist consciousness is a process, not a destination, which lasts women a whole lifetime. There is no end point to feminist consciousness: developing it involves effort, critical self-reflection, and a willingness to divest of whatever advantages we hold as a result of structural power imbalances. In short, as feminists we can always learn more – especially from the women we are arrogant enough to believe have nothing to teach us – and grow from that knowledge.

It is essential that we as feminists are prepared to give up a position of dominance to ensure the liberation of all women and girls. Exploring the full implications of what it means to belong to any dominant political class is not comfortable work, but confronting those difficult truths is necessary work. It’s important to remember, however hard it may feel, that unlearning a prejudice is a minor inconvenience in comparison to being subjected to that prejudice. For feminism to be truly radical, for feminism to succeed as a liberation movement, we must consistently go to the root of structural inequalities.

women race classNo practice which upholds the hierarchies of race and class can be described as radical, let alone feminist. Feminism is a political movement aiming to bring about the liberation of all women and all girls, not merely the white and middle class. However, there is a persistent strain of what masquerades as radical feminism – led by women who are predominantly white, middle class, and heterosexual – which aims to dismantle the gendered inequalities experienced by certain women whilst clinging to the privileges brought to them by hierarchies of race and class. It ought to go without saying that weaponising racism and classism against women who hold less social power than you do is a fundamental contradiction of feminist principles, yet this pattern of behaviour is rife within the British feminist movement.

This strain of white middle class feminism cherry picks which oppressions to challenge and which to enact on the basis of self-interest. The sad irony is that all oppressions share the common root of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. It is impossible to eradicate misogyny when you’re holding onto racism and classism with all of your strength.

Sisterhood is love and solidarity in action. Sisterhood is rejecting mean-girl cliques. Sisterhood calls out and calls in. Sisterhood is quiet, tender, loud, and joyful. Sisterhood is hard. Sisterhood is rewarding. Sisterhood is leading with love and letting go when love’s lost. Sisterhood is celebrating womanhood in all of its forms and facets.Crunk Feminist Collective

Periodically I am asked what I consider to be the biggest challenge facing feminists today. The answer is this: the dogmatic tribalism of white middle class feminists shielding each other from being held accountable for their hierarchical race and class politics. For women who claim to oppose “identity politics”, they participate in those politics frequently, abandoning reason and empathy both in order to protect women sharing their privileged identities from being challenged in any meaningful way. That Lean In brand of feminism, all about advancing the interests of comparatively privileged women at the expense of less powerful women, acts as a barrier not only to solidarity between all women but to the radical thoughts and deeds essential to liberation politics. It has to stop.

This total absence of critical self-reflection, enabled by a politics of individualism that is the antithesis of collective struggle, means that oppressive practices are imported from the mainstream into the allegedly radical. Gaining power has superseded liberation as their objective, meaning that those white middle class women who consider racism and classism legitimate extensions of their feminist practice are a threat – both to the feminist movement, and to women who hold less socioeconomic power than they do. These women sneer at any feminist analysis which addresses privilege precisely because that feminist analysis challenges the hierarchies from which their own power stems.

Where we are positioned in relation to power is not always static, and often determined by context. A nuanced analysis of power is central to feminist critiques of patriarchy – pretending that any hierarchy is somehow not relevant to or worth addressing within our analysis of power is an exercise in self-defeat. As feminists, we’re fighting in resistance to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – a system of power which Patricia Hill Collins describes it quite succinctly as a matrix of domination. Hierarchies of race, class, and gender are interlocking, interdependent, and fundamentally connected.

Although it was forged though being relentlessly Othered, I believe that never having an walls angela davisinherent sense of belonging has ultimately served me well; it is for this reason that I am usually open to the possibility of connection with women who are different to me, whether this difference means that they hold more power than I do, less power than I do, or something close to parity. As is often the case when one is visibly Other, learning to use difference creatively has been essential to my survival. Being positioned on the fringes of groups in which I have some level of belonging also gives me a handy vantage point – my eyes are drawn to common causes, sites where coalitions may be built between people marginalised in various ways. The authenticity of my ways of knowing the world gets challenged in pretty much every setting, meaning that it’s virtually impossible to sink into complacency and ever make the assumption that I know everything. If I had grown up taking my own belonging for granted, I very much doubt that I’d be a woman who writes or thinks in this way. Not bad, as silver linings go.

To be Other on multiple counts is profoundly challenging, but it also creates rich standpoints and fertile ground for movement building. I almost wish that it were possible to bring white middle class feminists en masse to a standpoint rooted in Otherness, even briefly, so that they would be more open to empathising and connecting with those Audre Lorde knew to “stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older…” I’d like to share the joy in what Otherness makes possible with white middle class feminists because, having felt it, practicing cruelty and domination against women with less power would be at least become harder to countenance. Replicating hierarchies would, perhaps, lose its appeal if a true vision of radical alternatives could be witnessed. Or maybe that’s foolish talk. Either way, I’m glad it’s a hypothetical scenario – if white middle class feminists chose cruelty and dominance over kindness and connection, it would crush what hope I have left for this movement.


Bibliography

Brené Brown . (2015). Rising Strong: The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution

Nathan Connolly (ed.). (2017). Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class

Brittney C. Cooper, Susana M. Morris, & Robin M. Boylorn. (2016). The Crunk Feminist Collection

Reni Eddo-Lodge. (2017).  Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Audre Lorde. (1979). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Patricia Hill Collins. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment

Zadie Smith. (2000). White Teeth

Dispatches from the Margins: Depression & Digital Detox

A brief foreword: this is my second dispatch from the margins (read the first here & the third here), and this essay is dedicated to Moon for inspiring it. Also for being a really good friend.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.


I deleted Twitter and Facebook. To 99.9999999% of the world’s population, my absence is irrelevant. To a small pocket of the feminist movement, my absence holds some level of significance. My mum was a bit surprised, because there were times when the only way I could have spent longer with my phone was if it had been surgically attached to my hand, but she was also pleased for exactly that reason. So other than a few feminists and my mum it’s unlikely that many people are really bothered. Still, there have been quite a few messages asking a) where I went b) if I’m well c) when I’m coming back – enough that I’ve decided to share some thoughts on the matter.

The first point to make is that I have a debilitating combination of depression and anxiety. I’m sick. Mental illness continuously shapes how I move through the world. That doesn’t always filter through the bright and shiny lens of social media where, even if we consciously attempt to resist building an idealised narrative around ourselves, only the good parts of our lives are consistently visible to others. On Twitter I tried to communicate some of the realities of how mental illness impacts my life without undermining my own privacy. It’s hard to gauge how successful that was. But I stopped performing wellness, because Screenshot_20170525-233335.jpgmaking mental illness invisible contributes to a culture of shame – it’s what leads people to conceal their problems rather than seeking help. But something shifted. My mental health declined. Twitter is all about communication, sharing thoughts and ideas. And there were nights when all I could think of, the only idea that presented itself, was suicide. Which, even in that state, I realised Tweeting about probably wasn’t the best plan. I’d retweet the @SoSadToday Twitter account in the hope of conveying no more than a socially acceptable level of despair.

Social media isn’t a great environment when you’re feeling fragile. Too many engagements become more about confrontation than a meeting of the minds, more about likes and petty point-scoring than genuine connection. There is an abundance of cruelty in digital spaces – even the feminist ones, which is an ongoing source of dismay. How women choose to interact with women who hold less power than they do – that is the ultimate indicator of how strong their feminist politics hold. Altogether too often, the women on the margins of the feminist movement are considered unworthy recipients of kindness by the women at the centre of the feminist movement. This hurts to witness, and it hurts to be subject to. No feminist should be kind only to the women who have something to offer her, or the women with whom associating may prove advantageous. Maybe more women should start thinking about kindness as a form of feminist praxis.

Choose to be kind friends, choose to be kind:

Not duplicitous, not two-faced,

Not passive-aggressive, not dishonest,

Not spiteful, not cowardly anonymous.

Have good grace, bring out the best, don’t stress.

When faced with a choice, choose kindness.

– Jackie Kay, Kinder

So often women of colour contact me because they feel overwhelmed by the cruelty white women direct towards them in feminist spaces, the casualness with which racism is weaponised against them. And I try to be supportive, try to listen to their truths that have been wilfully ignored elsewhere, try to give practical advice when possible. But it breaks my heart. And it makes me angry. That anger isn’t abstract – I feel a deep rage that women of colour are treated as expendable in a movement to which we are essential. I hate that our pain is brushed off as a mild inconvenience by the very women who cause it.

Being stuck between men of colour and white women is like being trapped between a rock and a hard place – women of colour are encouraged to accept misogyny or racism as our lot in life and liberation politics, depending upon which group we’re aligned with. Men of colour are quick to assure us that whatever misogyny they subject us to is small fry in comparison to the harms white supremacy acts upon women of colour. White women fall over themselves in the rush to claim that racism is a minor issue compared to the real threat of patriarchy.

I am tentatively prepared to reach out and build solidarity with both groups, but it is a sad irony that men of colour and white women fail to grasp that they each give women of colour as little reason to trust them as the other. Both groups represent a risk as well as the potential reward of coalition building within liberation politics. It would almost be amusing that men of colour and white women both use one another as a foil to convince women of colour that they are the less bad option, were the consequences not so devastating.

The idea of a digital detox came one afternoon when I was looking at my computer screen thinking I’d rather kill myself than keep looking at social media. It felt like death would be better than get suckered back into the cesspit of cruelty that white middle class feminists enact to avoid being held accountable for their racism or classism. Which is probably a disproportionate response but, as we have established, mental illness manifests in messy ways. And then I realised there was a third way: I didn’t have to kill myself, and I didn’t have to absorb any more of the toxic practices masquerading as feminism either. I could just delete social media, distance myself from that deluge of cruelty, and spend time doing things that make life feel worthwhile. Which is exactly what I have done.

I didn’t technically go anywhere – or rather, I went to all the same places I usually do, but without posting on social media. Mostly, I’ve been in my house. I’ve knitted one and a IMG_20171228_165010_683.jpghalf scarves and crocheted just under half of a blanket. One week I went walking in the highlands, which was beautiful. Periodically I visit the local library for more books. Most days I try to fit in a walk by the river, because the writer’s lifestyle runs the risk of being sedentary. I’ve also been cooking proper meals as a form of self-care, trying to look after my body and mind both. And I’ve been present in all of those things, giving them my full focus.

Our lives have become very small, limited by the tiny size of the screens we peer down at. Sometimes the whole world and everything that’s important to us seems to be completely contained within the tiny square of glass lying in our hands.

– Tanya Goodin

FB_IMG_1493853686713.jpgThere’s something insidious about how we use scrolling through social media as a way of numbing, distracting from emotions we’d rather not experience. It’s easy to do, but sooner or later we need to pay the debt on everything that’s repressed – with interest. So instead of looking for a diversion in any of the devices I own, I’ve been sitting with those difficult things and trying to resolve or make peace with them. Mostly that’s going well. So, to answer your questions, I’m not exactly alright but I’m doing the things that are necessary to become alright.

Being online has become increasingly difficult as my profile has grown. At first, being heard on Twitter was a revelation – it was the first context where I ever felt properly seen and listened to. When we talk about race or gender politics, there’s a big risk that someone would rather gaslight than have their investment in the status quo called into question. To be brought into a space where looking directly at systems of power becomes unavoidable isn’t easy, and remaining there takes courage – not everyone is brave enough. Early experiences of being dismissed as imagining things when I talked about how racism or sexism manifested made me reluctant to do so, and it was only through developing a radically feminist consciousness that I found the conviction, vocabulary, and inclination to be a dissenting voice. The women within various radical feminist communities on Twitter were vital to that process – and so, even now, I think of Twitter fondly. But my relationship with that space is no longer so positive or straightforward. As my public visibility grows, so does the scale of expectations placed upon me. It’s disconcerting to have knowledge and skill projected onto me at times when washing or feeding myself is a profound challenge.

Screenshot_20180105-013559.jpgRecently I’ve fallen in love with Bojack Horseman. I’m currently watching it again for the third time. It’s this zany black comedy about a horse/man (there are anthropomorphised animals living alongside people – don’t ask) who was in the most popular family sitcom of the ‘90s. He skyrocketed to fame. Fast forward to the present day, and it’s immediately clear that hyper-visibility has crushed every functional aspect of Bojack’s life. The series starts with him having been out of work for seventeen years, immobilised by the twin spectres of success and failure. Bojack clings to unhealthy coping mechanisms, which makes for amusing but poignant viewing, in order to escape the pervasive sense of existential dread that follows him everywhere. The opening sequence is mesmerising. It shows us Bojack waking up in his opulent Hollywoo(d) home, moving through the film studio where he works, sliding past a glamorous premiere, reeling through a fancy after party. And with every scene change the panic in Bojack’s eyes grows increasingly more apparent.

In some respects, I find Bojack very relatable – he’s wildly depressed, which he doesn’t always handle well, and struggling to cope with the ramifications of being in the public eye. I’m a moderately popular essayist, a hyper-visible Black woman on the internet. It’s not fame, and neither would I want it to be. But anonymity is gone. I don’t get to blend in and be invisible in certain contexts, and with any degree of power comes responsibility. Margaret Atwood wrote that “a word after a word after a word is power”, which is certainly true. Words have given me power – at least, substantially more power than I had before claiming voice and publishing my work.

I try not to devolve into a performance of myself. I try, for my own sanity, to maintain boundaries between what is public and what is everyday. I try to keep my personal life and my @ClaireShrugged life in harmony, to keep balance between being Claire Heuchan and Sister Outrider, which isn’t always easy in the face of expectation. Social media and the extent to which our lives are now lived online complicates all of those objectives. It was discombobulating, the number of times I’d move from digital to analogue space and back again. Occupying digital space has given me voice, but becoming hyper-visible in digital space has to some extent distorted my sense of self. Marina Diamandis writes about this conflict with real insight:

I can’t remember when I first became conscious of it but I started to feel like there were two parts of me, artist self and private self, and there was nothing in between to link the two anymore. I was one or the other, and neither part of my personality could be present in the same environment….When one part of a personality dominates, other parts shrink and life can take on an unreal, two-dimensional quality. I felt confused as to why I no longer felt like I fit into the world I’d built.

Diamandis also wrote a song called Disconnect about the cycle of anxiety and alienation caused by reliance on social media. Her lyrics, as ever, capture a lot of relevant details about modern life. That song has basically become my anthem. I’ve switched off to look after my health and take a breath. I’m taking the space and time to recalibrate. My goal is to integrate my public/creative self with the person I am when nobody is watching, or at least find a way for the different aspects of me to complement one another. During this digital detox, I’m also trying to evaluate social media’s impact upon my mental health.

I know there’s a correlation between my wellbeing falling apart and internet usage – it’s not the reason I’m depressed or anxious, but both my depression and anxiety are exacerbated by certain elements of digital space. Twenty years from now, there will be a wide array of writing on the impact of living within a digital golden age – in particular, the effects of coming of age in a time when smart technology is omnipresent. There’s a reason Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and so many Silicon Valley executives have chosen to raise their children in tech-free environments. Kids using phones for three hours per day are significantly more likely to be suicidal, and there’s no obvious reason to believe it’s any different for adults.

At present it seems unlikely that I’ll come back to Facebook. I don’t want to be added to any more so-called radical feminist groups where cruelty is currency. Those groups are never as private as women think (I’m not even on Facebook now, yet still I ended up with receipts), and their behaviour is not without consequence – the foremost of which is harm to women with less power than them. I don’t want to watch any more of the bullshit performative dramas that certain feminists (who are mostly white/middle class/straight) wage against other feminists (who are mostly of colour/working FB_IMG_1498781060309.jpgclass/lesbian). If only a middle class woman weaponising racism and classism against her fellow feminists generated the same outrage as a working class woman using the word cunt in anger… I don’t want Facebook pressuring me to reply to messages on my Sister Outrider page at 11pm, when I’m trying to chill out and knit with my grandmother, in order to maintain an “excellent response rate.” The idea of being permanently publicly available is, frankly, horrifying. Facebook is so much needless stress. Facebook makes me feel tired and unhappy. Facebook is cancelled. The only things I’m going to miss are the depression memes and all the photos of my friends’ adorable brown babies.

I am tired of explaining

And of seeing so much hating

In the very same safe haven

Where I used to just see helping.

– Amanda Palmer, Bigger on the Inside

As for Twitter, I’ll come back when I’m good and ready. There was some joy on that site, and meaning in the connections I made there. There was also a lot of messed up shit. Last year there was a police investigation into the abuse I received following my first article in the Guardian – some of it was Tweets, some of it was comments left on this blog. There is one particular memory that stands out: crying silently as I printed out the abuse at the request of the two officers who visited the house, praying my grandmother wouldn’t come into the room and see any of the words in front of me. I’d put all the relevant screenshots into a file, thinking I could just email it to the police, but apparently their system wasn’t up to that. So I printed them all out, one by one. Not going to lie: that was a traumatic experience. After that day it was impossible to go on deluding myself that the digital and the physical worlds could be kept at a safe distance from one another; that online abuse didn’t seep into my everyday life.

I love Book Twitter, Black Twitter, and Gay Twitter far too much for this goodbye to be final. But my way of being on Twitter will have to change somehow, when the time comes. It can’t absorb so much of me when I have so little to give. There were two FB_IMG_1497130315418.jpginstances last year when I could have met with feminist friends from other countries and had to cancel at the last minute because I’d shifted from passively to actively suicidal. Both times I was honest about being ill, if not the exact nature of the problem. Is there a polite shorthand for “sorry to flake on you, but I’m trying really hard not to kill myself and need to remain in a safe, controlled environment until this feeling passes”, or is that wishful thinking? Sometimes literally all of my energy has to go on not self-harming. Last summer I made a series of desperate calls to suicide prevention hotlines. Things got bad. Each time the person on the other end would talk me down, explaining that my family and friends would not, in fact, be better off if I died. At the time I’d thought it was just a natural dip in my mental health, which has been completely destabilised since my grandfather died in 2016, but one factor behind these oscillations is caused by being hyper-visible in digital space.

There are those who probably worry I’m exposing vulnerable parts of myself. And they’re right. Those same women probably think this is unwise in a time when so much hostility is being directed towards those of us who practice a feminism that seeks to dismantle every facet of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. And possibly they’re right about that too. Maybe not, though – I think part of the problem within digital feminist spaces is how quickly some forget (or ignore) the humanity of women whose questions take them to uncomfortable places of critical reflection. There are layers of contradictory meanings, different stories told to different women, levels of duplicity that need to be weeded out and replaced with radical honesty. The only way to enact a lasting, meaningful change is to be part of it, so this is my truth: I’m mentally unstable and heartsick over cruelty.

A number of feminist friends have been in touch since my digital departure. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg tells us, no actual friendship needs Facebook. The comments of one friend in particular (you know her as @Bigoldsupermoon) stayed with me. We were texting one afternoon, slagging off the commercialised idea of wellness that wealthy white women sell – the steamed vaginas and at-home coffee enema kits that make up Gwyneth Paltrow’s unfortunate cultural legacy. And then a notification came through. I’d turned off notifications for every app, save WordPress, and couldn’t help but be curious: the alert showed me that someone had linked to my blog at the words “crazy lesbian”, a description entirely more accurate than the OP realised. He went on to argue that, owing to the Bible and Qur’an, “we can also conclude through divine law that feminism is a Satanic doctrine.” I know I shouldn’t read any of this trash, but it was actually quite nice – I hadn’t felt that comparatively sane for months.

Anyway, Moon suggested that I write about the blesbiarchy – her term for my flavour of

FB_IMG_1506421298442.jpgBlack lesbian feminism – through the lens of mental illness and self-care. Moon is basically a genius. The idea stayed with me, as all ideas that demand to be written into being do. I’ve put together a little playlist to go with it, songs that I’ve had on loop through this digital detox.

 


  1. Disconnect, by Clean Bandit (feat. Marina and the Diamonds)
  2. Enjoy the Silence, by Depeche Mode
  3. Bigger on the Inside, by Amanda Palmer
  4. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, by Bessie Smith
  5. Mama Said, by Dusty Springfield
  6. Uncomfortable, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  7. Fatal Gift, by Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton
  8. Fade Together, by Franz Ferdinand
  9. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, by Nina Simone

 


Bibliography

Marina Diamandis. (2017). It Takes a Long Time to Get Over Yourself

Tanya Goodin. (2017). OFF. Your Digital Detox for a Better Life

Jackie Kay, ed. (2017). Ten Poems of Kindness

 

Aux femmes blanches qui veulent être mon amie : guide féministe Noir de solidarité interraciale

For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity is now available in French! Many thanks to the amazing women of Révolution Sorore.


Bref avant-propos : il s’agit de la conclusion de ma série d’essais sur la race et le mouvement féministe. Les parties 1, 2, et 3 sont toutes accessibles ici. La connaissance présentée ici a été acquise à mes dépens. Utilisez-la comme vous le souhaitez. Je dédie cet essai à toutes les femmes – Noires, racisées, et blanches – qui m’ont soutenue sur le chemin de la sororité.

Dès que je parle de racisme dans le mouvement féministe, cette question revient constamment : les femmes blanches demandent « que puis-je faire de concret contre le racisme ? Comment puis-je être solidaire des femmes racisées ? ». Il s’agit là d’une question compliquée, à laquelle je réfléchis depuis maintenant un an, et il n’y a pas de réponse simple. Il y a plutôt plusieurs réponses, aucune n’étant fixe et toutes étant sujettes à des adaptations contextuelles. La réalité de la situation est qu’il n’y a pas de réponse simple et établie aux siècles de racisme – racisme sur lequel notre société est fondée, et sur lequel ses hiérarchies de richesse et de pouvoir sont établies – qui façonnent les rapports entre les femmes racisées et les femmes blanches. Cette asymétrie de pouvoir et de privilège affecte les interactions personnelles. Elle crée les strates de défiance justifiées que les femmes racisées ressentent envers les femmes blanches, même (et peut-être tout particulièrement) en milieu féministe.

La modification des rapports dans lesquels la race n’existe que comme hiérarchie et construire des formes de solidarité pérennes entre femmes va nécessiter une introspection et un effort constants, ainsi qu’une volonté de la part des femmes blanches de changer leur approche. Voici ma perspective sur les étapes concrètes que les femmes blanches peuvent passer afin de remettre en cause leur propre racisme, qu’il soit conscient ou inconscient, dans l’espoir de leur donner la possibilité d’être véritablement sorores avec les femmes racisées.

« La première chose que tu dois faire est d’oublier que je suis Noire. La seconde est que tu ne dois jamais oublier que je suis Noire » Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

Reconnaissez les différences causées par la race. Ne définissez pas les femmes racisées par nos ethnicités respectives. De même, ne prétendez pas que nos vies sont les mêmes que les vôtres. Ne pas voir les races revient à ne pas voir le racisme. Ne pas voir le racisme revient à le laisser prospérer sans remise en question. Commencez par reconnaître notre humanité, en voyant les femmes racisées comme des personnes pleinement accomplies, dotées de perspicacité, de capacité à penser de façon critique, ainsi que – et c’est souvent le point le plus négligée dans cette conversation – de sentiments. Commencez par examiner la façon dont vous pensez les femmes racisées, et construisez à partir de ça.

Monopolisation du féminisme et autorité

Les femmes blanches qui monopolisent le discours féministe et qui se présentent comme les seules autorités qualifiées à déterminer ce qui est et ce qui n’est pas le Vrai Féminisme perpétuent de nombreux problèmes. Ce n’est pas un hasard si les contributions des femmes racisées, en particulier leurs commentaires s’adressant au racisme ou au privilège blanc, sont fréquemment reléguées au rang de distraction par rapport aux enjeux principaux du féminisme, c’est-à-dire les enjeux qui ont des conséquences négatives directes sur les femmes blanches.

Le présupposé tacite selon lequel la perspective d’une femme blanche est plus légitime et plus informée que la nôtre, que si les femmes racisées se renseignaient simplement davantage sur un enjeu particulier alors notre regard deviendrait lui aussi nuancé, est persistant. Ce présupposé est soutenu par la croyance selon laquelle les femmes blanches sont l’avant-garde du mouvement féministes, et que les femmes racisées sont au second plan. La situation est la même s’agissant de la politique de classe, avec les femmes des classes populaires étant catégorisées comme non informées quand leurs perspectives féministes diffèrent de celles des femmes de classe moyenne. Le renforcement de ces hiérarchies est le plus grand obstacle à la solidarité entre les femmes.

Les femmes blanches ont l’habitude de trancher entre ce qui est féministe et ce qui ne l’est pas d’une façon telle qu’elles centrent le vécu des femmes blanches et le positionnent comme la référence normative du vécu des femmes. Si le vécu des femmes blanches est la référence, le vécu des femmes Noires et racisées devient, par définition, la forme déviante – et ce paradigme contribue à altériser les femmes racisées.

Le féminisme est un mouvement politique dédié à la libération des femmes de l’oppression. Cette dernière est en partie genrée, mais aussi en partie basée sur la race, et la classe. Elle est aussi en partie reliée à la sexualité ou encore au handicap. Et au sein de ces catégories, il y a toujours possibilité de recoupement. L’incapacité à reconnaître l’intersection de ces identités maintient l’oppression des femmes les plus marginalisées, ce qui n’est en aucun cas un objectif féministe. Dire aux femmes racisées qui dénoncent le racisme « les filles, ce n’est pas votre moment » rentre directement en contradiction avec les principes féministes. S’attendre à ce que les femmes racisées gardent le silence pour le bien général, c’est-à-dire au bénéfice des femmes blanches, n’est, par nature, pas un acte féministe. L’idée qu’il y a un lieu et une heure pour reconnaître une forme d’oppression vécue par les femmes mine les principes sur lesquels le mouvement féministe est construit. Les femmes blanches doivent écouter ce que les femmes racisées ont à dire sur le racisme au lieu de détourner les critiques.

Les femmes blanches ont une fâcheuse tendance à s’imposer comme les sauveuses éclairées tout en présentant les hommes racisés comme des oppresseurs barbares et les femmes racisées comme des victimes passives d’une oppression qui ne vient que des hommes de leur groupe ethnique. Cette logique reconnaît que les femmes racisées subissent des violences genrées tout en effaçant l’oppression basée sur la race que nous subissons. De plus, cela nie la réalité de l’appartenance des femmes blanches à une classe oppresseuse – façon habile et déloyale de retirer aux femmes blanches toute responsabilité dans le maintien du racisme systémique. Si le problème du racisme n’existe pas, il n’y a pas besoin d’en parler. Si on ne parle pas du racisme, les femmes blanches peuvent continuer à en bénéficier sans remise en question.

Afin que la solidarité interraciale existe au sein du mouvement féministe, la question de la propriété doit être soulevée. Encore et encore, les femmes blanches se comportement comme si le mouvement féministe était leur propriété exclusive, auquel les femmes racisées peuvent à la rigueur participer sans jamais contribuer à la définition du discours et des actions. Non seulement cette approche efface le rôle historique essentiel des femmes racisées dans le mouvement féministe, mais elle nie la possibilité que les futurs efforts de collaboration se produisent sur un pied d’égalité.

Les femmes blanches qui veulent établir un rapport de confiance et de solidarité avec les femmes racisées doivent d’abord réfléchir à la façon dont elles pensent les femmes racisées, à la façon dont elles nous conceptualisent – est-ce que vous nous considérez comme des sœurs ou comme quelqu’un à qui vous apportez un soutien de façade sans jamais vraiment nous écouter ? Sommes-nous une partie centrale de la lutte féministe ou une simple case à cocher ? Une honnête auto-critique est essentielle. Analyse la façon dont vous nous pensez, étudiez avec critique les raisons, et travaillez à partie de là.

Organisation du militantisme féministe

Etes-vous en train de monter un groupe pour les femmes ? De créer un événement ou un espace féministe ? D’établir un réseau féministe ? Chaque rassemblement de femmes crée de nouvelles possibilités pour le mouvement féministe, et il se trouve que l’une de ces possibilités est l’amélioration des rapports de race en milieu féministe. En termes d’organisation collective, les femmes blanches doivent se poser la question suivante : y a-t-il des femmes racisées dans ce groupe ? S’il n’y en a pas, c’est pour une bonne raison. C’est bien beau de dire que des femmes auparavant amies s’organisent ou que quelques militantes partagent un but précis, mais la façon dont ce groupe s’est formé n’a pas eu lieu dans un vide social. Il s’est formé dans une société où les femmes de couleur sont racisées et altérisée à tel point que notre vécu de femmes est perçu comme fondamentalement moindre. Par conséquent, notre compréhension de la situation politique des femmes, et donc du féminisme, est perçue comme inférieure.

Par exemple, plus je m’investis dans la cause Noire, plus ma légitimité féministe est contestée par des femmes blanches qui persistent à croire deux idées erronées : la première, qu’il est impossible de s’occuper de plusieurs causes en même temps, et la seconde, que la politique de libération peut être clairement divisée puisque le chevauchement des identités n’a jamais besoin d’être pris en compte. L’idée selon laquelle mon soutien à la libération des Noir-e-s ne peut être qu’au détriment de mon soutien à la libération des femmes, qu’il dilue ma politique féministe, ne saisit pas la façon dont l’essence de ces deux engagements politiques a été établie et le fait qu’ils sont intrinsèquement connectés dans la vie des femmes Noires.

S’il n’y a aucune femme racisée engagée dans votre groupe féministe, réfléchissez au pourquoi et ensuite à la façon d’y remédier. Peut-être que votre organisation, votre contenu, ou votre praxis féministe est aliénante ? L’auto-critique est loin d’être un processus confortable, mais elle est nécessaire pour que la solidarité soit possible. Un élément fondamental de cet enjeu est la façon dont les femmes blanches se comportent avec les femmes racisées.

Considérer les femmes racisées comme un simple gage de diversité, et non comme des membres à part entière de l’équipe, trahit une forme de racisme dans la façon dont nous sommes conceptualisées. Nos compétences, savoirs, et engagements pour les femmes ne sont pas vus comme étant aussi évidents que la contribution des femmes blanches au groupe en milieu féministe. Le supposé selon lequel notre présence ne sera jamais qu’une façon de remplir des quotas ignore notre humanité. Oubliez cette façon de penser. Regardez notre valeur en tant qu’individues, comme vous en avez l’habitude avec les femmes blanches, et vous finirez par notre humanité aussi. Déconstruisez votre racisme avec la même vigueur que vous déconstruisez votre misogynie intériorisée.

Il est important que des femmes racisées soient impliquées au niveau organisationnel, en tant que membres de l’équipe qui conçoit les événements et les campagnes. Laissez tomber le paternalisme qui vous persuade que vous, en tant que femmes blanches, vous êtes en position de parler pour toutes les femmes.

Comportements

Point le plus évident : ne soyez pas racistes, ni dans vos mots, ni dans vos actes. D’une façon ou d’une autre, cela se verra. Si vous dites quelque chose à propos des femmes racisées en privé que vous ne diriez pas en public, réfléchissez à la raison pour laquelle vous différenciez ces deux environnements – la réponse est souvent liée au fait que les femmes blanches ne veulent pas être vues comme racistes. Paradoxalement, être vue comme raciste est devenu un plus grand tabou que le racisme même.

Et si votre racisme est confronté, ne voyez pas cela comme une attaque personnelle. Ne soyez pas les femmes blanches qui ramènent tout à leurs propres souffrances, dont les larmes les exemptent de toute responsabilité pour leurs actions. Réfléchissez plutôt à l’étendue des souffrances subies par les femmes racisées en raison de ce racisme – je garantis que c’est si douloureux que votre propre inconfort n’est rien en comparaison. Ayez la même empathie pour les femmes racisées qui subissent le racisme que pour les femmes blanches qui subissent la misogynie.

« A la fin, nous nous souviendrons non pas des mots de nos ennemis, mais des silences de nos amis » Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ne restez pas silencieuses quand vos ami-e-s sont racistes. Ne regardez pas ailleurs. Ne prétendez pas que rien ne soit arrivé. Votre silence vous rend complice de ce racisme. Votre silence normalise ce racisme, et fait partie de ce qui le rend plus légitime en général. Il n’est pas facile de défier quelqu’un dont on est proche, ou quelqu’un avec plus de pouvoir et d’influence. Mais la justice n’est pas toujours la chose la plus facile à mettre en pratique.

Enfin, ne vous reposez pas sur vos lauriers. Dans un récent entretien pour Feminist Current, Sheila Jeffreys regrette l’essor des politiques identitaires, qu’elle associe à la praxis intersectionnelle, affirmant que parce qu’on n’attend jamais des hommes qu’ils fassent tout, on ne devrait pas l’attendre des femmes. Cette attitude n’est pas rare parmi les femmes féministes blanches. Toutefois, l’attitude de Jeffreys soulève la question suivante : depuis quand le féminisme radical lesbien prend-t-il exemple sur le comportement des hommes ? Le féminisme n’est pas un nivellement par le bas, c’est un mouvement politique radical. Et cela implique une intense pensée critique, une remise en cause constante de l’oppression qui ne soit pas sélective mais totale.

Ce sera inconfortable. Ce ne sera pas une tâche aisée. Mais cela crée des pistes entières et nouvelles de soutien et de sororité entre les femmes. Solidarité qui soutiendra et nourrira toutes les femmes dans notre chemin vers la libération.

 

Binair of een spectrum, gender is een hierarchie

Binary or Spectrum, Gender is a Hierarchy is now available in Dutch! The original essay is available here. By her request, the translator remains anonymous – I am extremely grateful for her work.


Een kort voorwoord: dit is het vijfde essay in mijn serie over geslacht, gender and seksualiteit. Deel 1, 2, 3 en 4 zijn hier bij Sister Outrider te lezen. In dit essay, bestrijd ik het idee dat gender begrepen kan worden als iets anders dan een hiërarchie. Dit essay is opgedragen aan E, een ster van een lesbiënne en feminist.


 

 “Het is onmogelijk onderdrukking te benoemen en bestrijden als er geen benoembare onderdrukkers zijn” – Mary Daly

Wat is gender?

Gender is een verzinsel, gecreëerd door de patriarchaat, een hiërarchisch systeem opgedrongen door mannen om hun dominatie over vrouwen te garanderen. Het idee van een binair gender werd ingesteld om de ondergeschikheid van vrouwen te rechtvaardigen door de onderdrukking door mannen als de natuurlijke stand van zaken af te schilderen. Door gender als natuurlijk af te schilderen, wordt niet alleen de hiërarchie gedepoliticeerd, maar overtuigt er eveneens vrouwen van dat radicale weerstand ten opzichte van gender, het middel van onze onderdrukking – vergeefs is door uit te gaan van essentialisme. Deze hopeloosheid leidt tot apathie, wat sociale verandering meer ondermijnt dan onomwonden verwerping van gender. Als het afschaffen van gender (en daardoor het ontmantelen van het patriarchale systeem) een onbereikbaar doel is, hebben  vrouwen geen andere keuze  dan hun status als tweede klas burgers van de wereld te accepteren.  De visie op gender als een aangeboren eigenschap is het accepteren van de patriarchale blauwdruk voor de samenleving.

gender imageGender is een hiërarchie die het mogelijk maakt voor mannen om dominant te zijn en creëert de condities voor de ondergeschikte positie van vrouwen. Omdat gender een fundamenteel onderdeel is van de witte, kapitalistische samenleving (Hooks, 1984), is het is bijzonder ontzettend om te constateren dat elementen van het ’queer discours’ beweren dat gender niet alleen in het aangeboren en onveranderlijk,  maar zelfs heilig is.

Het ’queer maken van gender’ is verreweg een radicaal alternatief voor de status quo, in plaats daarvan versterkt het de normen die door het patriarchale systeem zijn opgedrongen door middel van het repliceren van patriarchaal essentialisme. Een queer begrip van gender daagt het patriarchaat niet op een zinvolle manier uit – in plaats van mensen aan te moedigen om de door de patriarchie gestelde normen te weerstaan, biedt het hen een manier om deze normen juist te omarmen. Queer politiek daagt  traditionele geslachtsrollen niet zo zozeer uit, maar blaast deze nieuw leven in– en hierin schuilt het gevaar.

Door te stellen dat gender ’queer’ kan of moet worden gemaakt, verliest men uit het oog hoe geslacht functioneert als een systeem van onderdrukking. Hiërarchische systemen kunnen per definitie niet worden opgenomen in een politiek van bevrijding. Structurele machtsongelijkheid kan niet omgebogen worden tot deze niet meer bestaat – de1600-Genderbread-Person opvatting van  gender als een kwestie van performativiteit of persoonlijke identificatie ontkent haar praktische functie in een hiërarchie. Elke ideologie die gender niet als een manier van onderdrukking van vrouwen onderscheidt, kan niet als feministisch worden omschreven – inderdaad, aangezien queer ideologie grotendeels onkritisch blijft ten opzicht van machtsverschillen achter de seksuele politiek, is anti-vrouw.

De logica van geslachtsidentiteit is fundamenteel gebrekkig, gebaseerd op het uitgangspunt dat gender aangeboren en essentieel is. Zoals feministen al decennia lang hebben beweerd, is gender sociaal geconstrueerd – een fabricage ontworpen om de dominatie van vrouwen door mannen mogelijk te maken. De opvoeding van kinderen, in zelfs voor de geboorte al ingedeeld in man/vrouw, dient de seksen te verdelen in een dominante en ondergeschikte klasse. Feminisme erkent dat biologisch geslacht bestaat terwijl het tegelijkertijd essentialisme bestrijdt, het ageert tegen het idee dat seks bepaalt wie of wat we kunnen zijn als mensen. Feminisme beweert dat ons karakter, kwaliteiten en persoonlijkheid niet bepaald worden door de vraag of we man of vrouw zijn. Queer theorie stelt daarentegen dat een reeks kenmerken intrinsiek mannelijk is en een andere reeks kenmerken inherent vrouwelijk, en dat onze identiteit afhankelijk is van hoe we met deze eigenschappen overeenkomen.

In plaats van te erkennen dat er veel manieren zijn om man of vrouw te zijn, schuift queer theorie mensen in een steeds groter aantal categorieën georganiseerd door stereotypes. Er is geen wetenschappelijk bewijs om het bestaan van typisch mannelijke of vrouwelijke hersenen te ondersteunen, en claims voor het bestaan van mannelijke of vrouwelijke hersenen zijn het product van neuroseksisme (Fine, 2010). Toch positioneert queer ideologie gender als een aangeboren identiteit, waarbij wordt gesteld dat gender is ’wat je voelt’.

‘De levenslange handboeien van culturele conditionering die me hebben geprobeerd mij te overtuigen dat een geslacht een biologisch feit is in plaats van een sociaal construct, zijn moeilijker te schudden dan ik zou willen.’ – Louise O’Neill, ik noem me een feminist: Opinies van vijfentwintig vrouwen onder dertig

Het probleem met ’gender identiteit’

Ondanks haar essentialisme is het queere begrip van gender steeds vaker in de progressieve en feministische ruimten te vinden. Het is niet moeilijk om te begrijpen waarom. Gender ideologie erkent dat een binaire mannelijke en vrouwelijke genderrol beperkend is voor individuen, maar in plaats van te pleitn voor het uitgebreide project dat nodig is om de hiërarchie van geslacht af te breken, biedt het een veel makkelijker oplossing: een individuele opt-out-clausule waarmee mensen zich kunnen verzoenen met het patriarchaat. Het omarmen van de gender is het omarmen van een verhaal van exceptionalisme .  Het omaremen van gender-ideologie is het accepteren dat er een klasse van mensen is die van nature ingesteld is om hun positie binnen de te accepteren (onderdrukt of onderdrukker) en een groep mensen die uitzonderingen zijn op de traditionele genderregels.

Er is een fundamenteel probleem met queer gender ideologie. Zoals ik eerder heb beschreven, is dat probleem misogenie. Door te beweren dat bepaalde groepen van nature geschikt zijn de geslachtsrol die hun sekscategorie heeft opgelegd, zogenoemde “cis” –personen, moet je misogynie onderschrijven. De vrouwen die als cis worden gecategoriseerd, zijn door de logica van geslachtsidentiteit inherent geschikt om door mannen onderdrukt te worden. Het hele patriarchale systeem wordt derhalve gekleurd door gender ideologie, gepresenteerd als een natuurlijke stand van zaken in tegenstelling tot een systeem van onderdrukking die ontworpen is om mannen de heerschappij over vrouwen te verlenen.

Omdat queer identiteitspolitiek gebouwd is rond een verhaal van exceptionalisme, wordt de machtsdynamiek van seksuele politiek volledig genegeerd. Door de taalkundige verdraaiing van “cis” wordt de onderdrukking van vrouwen als een voorrecht aangevoerd en daarom wordt de bevrijding van “cis” -vrouwen uit patriarchale onderdrukking opgeheven. Seksuele politiek wordt afgewezen door zelfidentificatie, waardoor het lidmaatschap van een seksklasse politiek onzichtbaar wordt gemaakt.

Screenshot_20170904-124333

“Zoveel genders en toch weten we, op magische wijze, welke helft van het menselijke ras verwacht wordt billen af te begen en vloeren te schrobben”  – Victoria Smith

Gender is een gevangenis, en ik heb compassie voor iedereen die daardoor wordt beperkt. Het is afschuwelijk dat mannen ontmoedigd worden om empathisch, vriendelijk te zijn en zich op een creatieve manier te uiten. Er is wreedheid bij het socialiseren van jongens in de mannelijkheid. Er wordt gezegd dat er een verband bestaat tussen gender ideologie en het witwassen van mannelijk voorrecht dat de controle vereist. Dat gezegd hebbende, er is een connectie tussen gender ideologie en het witwassen van mannelijk privilege.  

Dit probleem wordt geïllustreerd door het geval van Ben Hopkins, de helft van het punk duo PWR BTTM. Hopkins is biologisch man en is als zodanig gesocialiseerd in zijn mannelijkheid. Zoals veel bekende mensen die biologisch man zijn, exploitteerde Hopkins zijn roem en macht om zijn vrouwelijke fans seksueel te misbruik.  Volgens een van zijn slachtoffers is Hopkins een “bekend seksueel roofdier die veelvoudig heeft toegeslagen, andere mensen in de queer community heeft gepest en ongewenste advances heeft gemaakt op minderjarigen.” Wat Hopkins onderscheidt van de lange traditie van machtige mannelijke misbruikers is dat hij zich identificeert als genderqueer. Als zodanig zou het queer perspectief, Hopkins acties niet als mannelijk geweld tegen vrouwen beschouwen. Queer exceptionalisme, zoals deze zich manifesteert door de logica van genderidentiteit, maakt het onmogelijk om mannelijk geweld als zodanig te noemen of te bevechten.

 PWR-BTTM-sexual-abuse-screenshot

Mannen worden vanaf hun geboorte aangeleerd dat zij recht hebben op de tijd, de aandacht, liefde, energie en lichamen van vrouwen. Toch ontvangen mannen, in overeenstemming met de logica van genderideologie, ongelukkige, maar willekeurige, in tegenstelling tot een waarschijnlijk gevolg van de gendered socialisatie in de patriarchale samenleving. Ondanks de zelf-identificatie  als genderqueer, heeft het seksuele geweld dat Hopkins tegen vrouwen met dramatisch minder sociale macht dan hij, perfect de logica van mannelijkheid gevolgd. In welke zin kan een man die het meest toxische mannelijkheid gedrag vertoont, beweren dat hij gender queer heeft gemaakt.

Zoals zijn acties duidelijk maken, heeft Hopkins niet bewust de mannelijke socialisatie of zijn recht op vrouwenlichamen afgeleerd. Hoe Hopkins kiest om te identificeren, heeft weinig invloed op de gruwelijke realiteit van de situatie. Door te claimen genderqueer te zijn, probeerde Hopkins het mannelijke privilege waarvan hij profiteerd onder het tapijt te schuiven. Jen Izaakson schrijft voor Feminist Current over de paradox die schuilt in Hopkins’ claim genderqueer te zijn:

“… Hopkins gebruikte glitter, eyeliner en vintage jurkjes om een ​​begrip van en navolging van queer idealen te demonstreren, om een ​​afwijzing van” giftige mannelijkheid” te illustreren evenals een afwijzing van  gendernormen die sociaal toegeschreven worden aan mannen. Maar het dragen van bloemrijke jurken en lipgloss leidt niet tot een feitelijke afwijzing van het mannelijke recht en mannelijke dominantie van mannen onder het patriarchaat. Door middel van zelf-gedefinieerde identiteiten, individuele expressie en performativiteit, in plaats van het mannelijk geweld en ongelijkmatige machtsstructuren te onderzoeken, heeft queer discourse het mogelijk gemaakt voor misogynie om gemakkelijk toegang te verkrijgen tot het feest.”

Evenzo heeft de transactivist Cherno Biko (geboren als man) openlijk bekend dat een transman (geboren vrouw) verkracht te hebben met de fantasie en de bedoeling om deze tegen hun wil te bezwangeren. Ondanks publiek erkend te hebben  seksueel misbruik gepleegd te hebben, werd Biko uitgenodigd om tijdens de vrouwenmars in Washington op het podium te spreken en was de medevoorzitter van de adviesraad van de jonge vrouw in New York. Dit roept vragen op over niet alleen over het schijnbare gebrek aan aansprakelijkheid voor seksueel misbruik binnen het feminisme, maar ook in de mate waarin progressieve politieke bewegingen bereid zijn om geweld tegen vrouwen door de vingers te zien zodra de dader zich als transgender of genderqueer identificeert.

Geweld tegen vrouwen zijn zowel de oorzaak en het gevolg van het patriarchiaat, en ze worden genormaliseerd door de logica van het genderdenken. Genderideologie onderschrijft de machtsongelijkheid van seksuele politiek – een hiërarchie die door gender zelf is ingesteld – en in plaats daarvan beschouwt het gender als een kwestie van zelfidentificatie. Het queer perspectief individualiseert de vraag van identiteit om gender te depolitiseren, waardoor moeilijke vragen over macht en patriarchie worden vermeden.

We worden verteld dat geslacht een diep persoonlijke kwestie is en dient daarom, zoals alle goede liberalen weten, niet grondig te worden onderzocht. Desalniettemin blijkt dat transvrouwen ‘een mannelijk patroon behouden met betrekking tot criminaliteit na een geslachtsveranderende operatie’ en dat ‘hetzelfde geldt voor gewelddadige misdaad’. Gezien het feit dat één op de drie vrouwen in haar leven mannelijk geweld zal ervaren, is dit geen kleinigheid: 96% van de mensen die seksueel geweld plegen zijn biologisch mannelijk. De veiligheid van vrouwen en meisjes is nooit een aanvaardbare prijs om te betalen, zelfs niet in de naam van inclusiviteit. Mannelijke socialisatie speelt een aantoonbare rol in de vorming van houding en gedrag. Als vrouwen het geweld dat we ervaren niet kunnen benoemen noch systeem dat dit mogelijk maakt, kunnen we deze niet bestrijden.

“Toen Simone de Beauvoir schreef dat een meisje niet als een vrouw geboren is, maar eerder een wordt, bedoelde ze niet dat een individu van het mannelijke geslacht, gesocialiseerd in de verwachtingen van de mannelijke genderrol, simpelweg kan beslissen om hormonen te nemen en wellicht operatie te ondergaan en zo ‘een vrouw worden”- Dame Jenni Murray

Door de lens van genderidentiteit kan de onderdrukker zijn mannelijke voorrecht vebergen en de status van onderdrukte opeisen. Door de lens van genderidentiteit kunnen de onderdrukten ook de basis van hun onderdrukking verwerpen door middel van zelfidentificatie. Genderideologie wil een hiërarchie als een identiteit voorstellen. Helaas kan men niet aan structurele en systematische onderdrukking ontkomen – hoewel het queer discours dit als een legitieme route voor vrouwen voorstelt. De man is de standaard voor de mensheid, terwijl de vrouw die zich bezighoudt met ‘Andere’ – gedefinieerd alleen in relatie tot de man (Beauvoir, 1949). Het is geen wonder dat een groeiend aantal vrouwen, ontevreden over de beperkingen die door de vrouwelijke genderrol worden opgelegd en zich bewust zijn dat mensen meer zijn dan het holle stereotype van vrouwelijkheid, stoppen met het zich identificeren als vrouw.

In plaats van de vrouwelijke genderrol als het probleem te identificeren en de genderhiërarchie te ontmantelen, worden vrouwen nu zich niet langer als zodanig te identificeren als ze zich gedragen of voelen zoals mensen nu eenmaal doen. In plaats van vrouwen de middelen aan te reiken om hun geïndividualiseerde misogynie af te schudden, moedigt de geslachtsideologie hen aan om vrouw zijn te verwerpen en zich te beroepen op individuele uitzonderingen op de gendersysteem. Door volledige mensheid en vrouwelijkheid als wederzijds exclusief uit te nodigen, nodigt genderideologie vrouwen uit om deel te nemen aan Ik-Ben-Niet-Zoals-Andere-Meisjes: De Queer Editie.

Het is begrijpelijk dat vrouwen graag de aan vrouwelijke genderrol willen ontsnappen – inderdaad, de bevrijding van vrouwen uit de genderhiërarchie is een kerndoel van het feminisme. Maar het feminisme pleit voor de bevrijding van alle vrouwen van alle vormen van onderdrukking, niet alleen de bevrijding van degenen die stellen dat hun individuele onderdrukking vanwege hun gender verkeerd is – diegenen die “niet een soort ’vrouw zijn’ ambiëren“.

De homofobie van het ’queer’ maken van gender

Ondanks dat er gesproken wordt over een ’queer community’, een alliantie tussen ledengay liberation van de LGBT + alfabet soep, ligt er altijd al homofobie aan de basis van queer politiek. Queer-ideologie kwam op in reactie op  lesbische feministische principes, die een radicale maatschappelijke verandering bepleiten door het transformeren van persoonlijke levens (Jeffreys, 2003). De politieke belangen van lesbische vrouwen en gemarginaliseerde homoseksuele mannen – met name de afschaffing van geslachtsrollen – worden door queer politiek van tafel geveegd. Individualisme voorkomt elke geconcentreerde focus op feministische en homoseksuele bevrijdingspolitiek, wat door queer discours wordt beschreven als ’ouderwets’, ’saai’ of ’anti-seks’.

In de afgelopen jaren is het openlijk anti-homo sentiment gestegen. Pogingen om lesbische vrouwen en homoseksuele mannen uit te wissen zijn nu bon ton in de ’queer’ wereld. Shannon Keating schrijft in een opinie waarin de vraag wordt gesteld of de lesbische identiteit de genderrevolutie kan overleven dat de ’lesbisch’ en ’homoseksueel’ verouderde termen zijn.

“Tegen de steeds kleurrijkere achtergrond van gender diversiteit, begint een binair label als ‘gay’ of ‘lesbisch’ muffig en saai te voelen. Als er zo veel genders zijn, is het dan niet ’close-minded- of erger nog, schadelijk en exclusief- als je je identificeert mete en label dat  impliceert dat je alleen maar aangetrokken bent tot één van hen?”

Er is een volhardende tak van homofobie binnen de genderideologie. Deze manifesteert zich zo regelmatig, omdat deze homofobie verwoven is met genderpolitiek. Aantrekking tussen mensen van gelijk geslacht, wordt halsstarrig geproblematiseerd omdat deze het bestaan van biologisch geslacht erkent, alsmede haar betekenis voor het bepalen voor potentiele aantrekkingskracht – iets wat ingaat tegen de claim dat gender in plaats van geslacht van belang is voor iemands identiteit.

Eerder dit jaar beweerde Juno Dawson, de auteur van The Gender Games, dat het zijn van een homoman eigenlijk niets anders is dan een ‘troostprijs’ voor diegenen die niet bereid zijn om te kiezen voor het leven als een transvrouw. Voor Juno’s transitie leefde en had hij lief als een homoseksuele man, daarom is het is het bijzonder lastig dat Dawson homoseksualiteit verklaarde als iets dat minder respect en erkenning verdient.  Dawson schetste het leven als een homoman als een minderwaardig alternatief, een armzalig substituut, voor de onderdrukking van zijn van een transvrouw. Toen homoseksuele mannen en lesbische vrouwen bezwaar maakten tegen deze homofobie, maakte Dawson een niet-verontschuldiging die een fundamentele waarheid over de politiek van geslachtsidentiteit en seksualiteit blootlegt: “Veel transmannen en- vrouwen leefden voor hun transitie als homoseksuele mannen of lesbiennes dus ik vind het een heel belangrijk punt om te bespreken… ”

Het is ontzettend regressief om te betogen dat homomannen eigenlijk onvoltooide vrouwen zijn. Volgens deze logica is alleen het meest heterosexuele en giftigste van mannelijkheid werkelijk mannelijk. En als homoseksuele mannen in werkelijkheid transvrouwen zijn, bestaat er niet zoiets als een homoseksuele man. Homoseksualiteit is ‘genezen’ – een agenda die traditioneel tot sociaal conservatieven behoorde, maar nu binnen de queer ideologie wordt betoogt. En het is geen toeval dat zoveel van degenen die kiezen voor een chirurgische of medische transitie, homoseksuele mannen of lesbische vrouwen zijn, die na hun transitie als heteroseksueel leven. In Iran, waar relaties tussen mensen van hetzelfde geslacht met de dood worden bestraft, zijn geestelijken bereid om ”het idee te accepteren dat een persoon in een lichaam van het verkeerde geslacht kan worden gevangen”.

Geslachtsideologie is fundamenteel conservatief. Het is gebaseerd op de veronderstelling dat genderrollen absoluut zijn, dat diegenen die afwijken van hun opgelegde genderrol moeten behoren tot een andere categorie. Lesbische vrouwen en homoseksuele mannen dagen genderrollen uit, simpelweg door van iemand van hetzelfde geslacht te houden en  door af te wijken van de heteropatriarchale patronen van dominantie om een ​​seksuele politiek van gelijkheid te creëren. Als we overgaan naar heteroseksualiteit, in overeenstemming met de genderrollen, moeten we ons aanpassen aan de genderrollen zoals die door het patriarchiaat worden voorgeschreven.

Niemand is geboren in het verkeerde lichaam. Een lichaam kan per definitie niet verkeerd zijn. Het systeem van gender is daarentegen onjuist op alle fronten. Het problematiseren van lichamen in plaats van de hiërarchie die ze beperkt, repliceert alleen de destructieve ideologie in de kern van het patriarchiaat. Het keert de benadering van de politiek van bevrijding om, in het beste geval heeft het het patriarchiaat verkeerd begrepen, in het slechtste geval is het er een onderdeel van.

Conclusie

 Kritiek op genderideologie wordt sterk ontmoedigd. Ik vermoed dat dit komt doordat hoe meer men het queere begrip geslacht verkent, hoe duidelijker haar misogynie en homofobie wordt. Zodra de progressieve glans begint te verbleken – zodra het duidelijk wordt dat genderideologie in het beste geval gedienstig is aan het patriarchaat en de schade die deze berokkent aan vrouwen, wordt de queer politiek veel moeilijker om te verkopen aan de algemene bevolking.

 

fuck grEn zo worden de feministen die gender-ideologie bevragen als onverdraagzaam gebrandmerkt, de kritiek en die vrouwen die dapper genoeg zijn om deze te maken, worden als illegitiem weg gezet. Vrouwen die genderideologie in vraag stellen, worden TERF’s genoemd – we worden er telkens verteld dat hun enige motief voor hun kritiek op genderideologie valsheid is, in tegenstelling tot een betekenisvolle zorg voor het welzijn van vrouwen en meisjes. Daarmee citeer ik Mary Shelley: “Pas op; want ik ben onbevreesd en daarom krachtig.” Elke poging om vrouwen te ontmoedigen om onze onderdrukking aan te pakken, is diep verdacht.

 

Geslachtsideologie creëert een valse dichotomie van mensen die vanaf hun geboorte gebonden zijn aan traditionele geslachtsrollen en een uitzonderlijk kleine groep die dat niet zijn. Geslachtspolitiek is het meest uitgebreide en schadelijke voorbeeld van het gebruik van de methodes van de meester om het huis van de meester te ontmantelen. Waarom gender queer maken als wij deze helemaal kunnen afschaffen? Waarom verspillen wij onze energie met het omkeren van onderdrukkende praktijken als we deze helemaal kunnen afschaffen.

 

’Vrouw’ is een geslachtsklasse – niets meer, niks minder. ’Man’ is een geslachtsklasse – niets meer, niets minder. Stellen dat de reikwijdte van onze identiteit wordt bepaald door de genderrol die onze geslachtsrol wordt opgelegd is het legitimiseren van een patriarchaal project. Als feminist, als vrouw, verwerp ik de queerpolitiek en de geslachtsideologie die deze bepleit. In plaats daarvan stel ik dat vrouwen en mannen die buiten het script leven op basis van gender- of het nu queer- of patriarchale classificaties is – omarmd worden als revolutionairen. Alleen door de afschaffing van gender kunnen we ware bevrijding bereiken.

Interracial Solidarity in the Feminist Movement – #FiLiA2017

A brief foreword: this is the transcript of the keynotes address I delivered at FiLiA 2017, on Saturday the 14th of October. I was initially hesitant to share this speech, as I can no longer think of interracial solidarity between women of colour and white women as a viable project. However, out of commitment to feminist documentation and the women who requested it be made public, I have decided to post the transcript.

Writers and theorists who remain immobile, closed to any shift in perspective, ultimately have little to offer. Perhaps in the future I will return to advocating interracial movement building. Perhaps not. Either way, this transcript is an outline of the thoughts I held on the matter.


It is an honour to be here with you all today, and a privilege to share the stage with Kate, Sophie, and Cordelia. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this year’s FiLiA conference. As someone who is passionate about movement building, it is a pleasure to be here speaking about the radical potential within feminist sisterhood. As Adrienne Rich once said, “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” Given their revolutionary potential, I think that as feminists it’s worth exploring the possibilities contained within the connections between women – some of which remain largely unrealised or underexplored. For this reason, I’m here to talk to you about interracial solidarity within the feminist movement – a mine of untapped potential within our politics and many women’s lives.

Before we get going, it’s important to say that the burden of self-reflection and action required to improve the dynamic of race within the feminist movement lies with white women. This is at points a tough conversation, but it’s also a necessary one, and for the white women hesitant about engaging fully with it I’d like to point out that racism is consistently undermining the efforts made by feminist women – the benefits to fully unpicking racism from feminist spaces and communities are legion. To the women of colour in the audience, I have decided to focus on this specific issue because it is vital that all the Black and Brown girls coming into this movement experience better from it than what has gone on before in mixed feminist spaces. Every last one of them deserves more.

Feminism is a social movement devoted to the liberation of women and girls from oppression. The oppressions we experience are the result of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – quite a mouthful, but it is vital to acknowledge that these hierarchies are all interconnected. Systems of oppression cannot be neatly divided into separate entities when they constantly overlap in our everyday lives. Since you’re engaging in a feminist space that’s all about trying to develop ideas on how to improve our movement and make this world a better place to live in, I’m working in the belief that most of you will be receptive. We are all here at FiLiA as feminists who understand the value of movement building. I’ll try to be gentle, but not at the expense of the radical honesty this conversation demands.

The reality is that race politics are where a lot of white women fall down in their feminist practice. Not all white women – but enough that women of colour are reasonably wary of those interactions. White liberal feminists have a habit of failing to consider racism in terms of structural power. White radical feminists can be quite unwilling to apply the same scrutiny or structural analysis to the hierarchy of race as they do to the hierarchy of gender. Both liberal and radical white feminists often carry the expectation that women of colour should prioritise challenging misogyny over resisting racism, as though the two issues are mutually exclusive and not woven together in the fabric of our everyday lives.

For years amazing women such as Stella Dadzie, who will be speaking to you tomorrow morning, have been documenting and challenging the racism and misogyny that Black women experience in Britain. I’m not here to prove that racism exists or has negative consequences for women of colour in Britain: it does. I am here to talk about how we – as feminists, as women who share a social movement – can unpick racism from feminist communities. I’m going to talk about movement building, the dynamic of race in the feminist movement, and practical steps towards building interracial solidarity between women.

As we participate more in feminist spaces and conversations, women build a deep understanding of patriarchy – how it works, and where we are positioned by the hierarchy of gender. Feminism has enabled women to connect the personal with the political in our analysis of patriarchy. Nothing about feminist politics or theory is abstract – it all connects back to some element of women’s lives. The movement also gives us space to think about how structural inequalities have impacted upon our experiences, shaped our realities. And once you start to join the dots between the personal and the political, the extent to which women are marginalised around the world becomes clear.

White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed sex class. And I think that it’s because white feminist women fully understand the implications of belonging to the dominant class that exploring what it means to be part of the dominant racial class can be so challenging. This awareness punctures the fundamentally misguided belief that all women are positioned the same within structures of power.

That knowledge does not fit alongside the claim that a unilateral, one-size-fits-all approach to feminism is going to work – that really gender is the main problem women have to contend with, and everything else can wait. So in order to side-step any difficult conversations about race and power within feminism, we’re fed this idea that talking about race divides women. In addition to protecting white women from the having to confront their own racism, this argument suggests that the energies of all feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression – if we follow this logic, it leads to the expectation that women of colour work towards an agenda that sees a great many white women liberated while we are left within exploitative hierarchies.

Focussing on misogyny alone isn’t going to solve all of the problems created by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, let alone dismantle that system of power. Being selective about the forms of exploitation and dominance that we analyse is not only ineffective, but a contradiction of core feminist principles. Every feminist knows that revolution isn’t brought about by half-assed politics. We have to live those politics and let them diffuse throughout every aspect of our lives. There’s no way that we can drive a cultural shift towards women’s liberation if we don’t make sure that feminism recognises and prioritises the needs of all women – of colour, working class, disabled, migrant, lesbian, bi. All women.

It isn’t talking about race that divides women – it’s racism that divides us. To be specific, women as a political class are divided by the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, acts as a barrier between mutual trust.

So It’s not really a secret that certain strands of feminism have an ongoing problem with race. The feminist movement didn’t form inside of some sort of social vacuum, separate from white supremacist values or beliefs. Everyone in this society absorbs racism. People of colour internalise it. White people weaponise it against us. Even within the movement. Here are some examples of how.

Less so now that intersectionality has become so fashionable, but some white women have a tendency to position racism and sexism as totally distinct and separate problems, issues that do not overlap and do not therefore need to be analysed together. This perspective completely disregards the lived realities of women of colour. While a significant amount of early radical feminist writing and activism was what we would now describe as being intersectional in nature, white womanhood was too often treated as the normative standard of womanhood within the second wave of feminism. As a result, women of colour were and continue to be further marginalised in a context that is supposed to be about the liberation of all women.

Another issue is the response when we try to address racism in the feminist movement. When white women disregard and speak over those women of colour who do voice concerns over racism, that’s not sisterhood. If anything, that pattern of behaviour undermines sisterhood by exploiting the hierarchy of race. Telling us that we’re angry, scary, imagining things, being overly sensitive, or playing on any other racial stereotype to shut down the conversation and assert the innocence of white womanhood is racism, plain and simple. Yet it happens so routinely.

And then there are the hierarchies that manifest within feminist organising, hierarchies that only replicate the system of value created by white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. The balance of authority tipping towards white women in mixed feminist spaces is not neutral. Women of colour ending up on the fringes of a feminist group or campaign, brought to the centre of the team only when there’s a camera about, is not neutral.

Looking over patterns that unfold within feminist spaces, there are three main areas which I invite white women to consider for future collective projects within the movement. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every single issue that stems from racism within the movement, and neither is it a definitive guide. The politics of engagements between white women and women of colour are contextual, relational, and shifting – nothing is set in stone, and truly organic connections can’t be pre-scripted. That being said, perhaps some of these points will prove helpful in shaping approaches to those interactions.

The first point is white women acting as gatekeepers of the feminist movement, positioning themselves as authorities of feminism above other women. Of course white women have developed a rich body of knowledge throughout their participation in feminism, but feminism is a global movement containing multitudes of women – however worthwhile it may be, white women’s theorising cannot reasonably be assumed to hold universal or absolute feminist truths applicable to all women. This tension manifests in a lack of understanding towards the perspectives held by Black and Asian feminists – there can be a tacit assumption that our ideas aren’t worth meeting or building upon within mainstream feminism. Or, if we approach an issue from a different angle to white women, there’s often an implication that if our ideas were a little more developed or nuanced, the disagreement wouldn’t exist. And that makes it very difficult to enter a feminist conversation on an equal footing.

Feminist organising is another area worth drawing attention to. It takes such energy and commitment to sustain a group or campaign. I fully appreciate that, and commend all the women who are part of creating that magic. All the same, it’s important to keep working towards best feminist practice – and improving the dynamic of race within mixed feminist spaces is very much an achievable goal. If there are no women of colour in your group, team, or collection, ask why not. Please don’t fall into the trap of complacency and think that no women of colour are interested in working collaboratively. If there are none, there’s a reason for our absence. Reflect on what it might be about the project that’s off putting and try to work out steps to change it. Give women of colour reason to trust you. Think about it this way: how much time would you realistically spend in an optional activity where being on the receiving end of misogyny was a distinct possibility?

And when there are women of colour within the feminist space, think about your approach to us. Do you give us the same support, encouragement, and understanding that you would another white woman? When we speak, do you listen to our voices and engage with the layers of what we have to say? Do you think of us as full members of the collective, necessary to the work done by the feminist movement, or as tokens and boxes to be ticked on a diversity form? How you answer those questions make a profound difference. Those are deciding factors in whether sisterhood can exist.

The most direct step is to reconfigure how you think about women of colour. I don’t really like the word ally, because allyship tends to devolve into something hollow and performative. It also doesn’t really offer the scope for a mutual connection, which is what interracial solidarity between women is. But unpicking racism has a steep learning curve. How could it not when white supremacist values are at the foundation of this society? During the course of that learning process, especially during the early stages, try and keep in mind that most feminist women of colour have had these conversations about race dozens and dozens of times. And those conversations cost us more than they cost you. There are plenty of quality books and resources on the subject, so make use of them.

And now I have some points for women of colour who are pursuing any kind of solidarity with white women – less advice than reminders. Look after yourself. Don’t forget to prioritise self-care. Your needs are important, and it’s okay to take whatever space and time you need. I think because of the superwoman quality that gets projected onto Black women especially, we are not always positioned as in need of gentleness or empathy – so it is crucial that we take care of ourselves and each other.

Remember that you can say no. It is a complete sentence, short and sweet. And you don’t owe anybody an explanation as to why.

You’re not a learning resource, and you’re not the Morgan Freeman type character in a white woman’s story – you’re a human being with her own story. So don’t be afraid to set boundaries, assert needs, and follow your own instincts.

There is something fundamentally freeing about spaces that are built by and for women of colour. Those spaces have a joy and easiness to them, and there is this indescribable feeling of connection – it’s very nourishing to experience. Women come out of our shells and share so much of ourselves that it is impossible to be unmoved by a women of colour space. Last weekend I was in Amsterdam for the second annual Women of Colour in Europe conference, and inhabiting a space like that is sustaining. That feeling is what I think of when I picture sisterhood. And I think we’ll have achieved a greater degree of interracial solidarity when there is greater scope for women of colour to access that feeling of ease and belonging in mixed feminist spaces.

If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. And I can’t think of a better place to start building it than FiLiA. Although our movement struggles with the dynamic of race, it can improve here and now. To be a feminist is to be an optimist – to retain the belief that structural inequalities can be dismantled, the belief that better is possible.

When women of colour address the racism demonstrated by white women, we are seeking to overcome the ultimate barrier between women. I don’t think many women waste their breathe on a critique if they don’t think it can bring about positive results. I’ll finish with this quote by Chandra Mohanty, which sums it up beautifully: “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.”

Loud and United – Reflections of a Black Feminist on the Road

Dedicated to my mother, Angela, without whom this adventure would have been impossible. Thank you, mum – for getting me to the airport and for encouraging me to spread my wings.


The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. – Gloria Steinem

Before

At the beginning of this year – the first lived without the guidance of my grandfather – I challenged myself to two things: more travel and more adventure. The writer’s life is typically one of books and ideas, and although writing has the power to transport both author and audience to extraordinary places, across the vast expanses of human imagination, I sometimes wonder if I use writing as an excuse to retreat from the world and into myself. By inclination I crave routine and solitude, neither of which can be depended upon in the great unknown. That is, perhaps, why it is so important to push myself outside of the comfort zone so easily constructed around the familiar and open myself to new experiences. Through the unexpected, the unpredictable, we grow and learn more about ourselves in the process. When static, we too often see what we expect to see as opposed to what’s really there in front of us.

20170607_142308Feminist theory is meaningless without the ability to put it into practice. And life, though it can at times be daunting, requires living. So I am on a plane to Brussels for Loud and United, an event which marks twenty years of the Observatory on Violence Against Women. The Observatory was created to put political pressure upon governments across Europe to eradicate male violence against women and girls.

Loud and United is split into two parts: a symposium in which experts, politicians, and activists discuss the realities of male violence against women, and a march through the streets of Brussels to protest that violence. Loud and United is the perfect balance of words and deeds, what Audre Lorde described as the transformation of silence into language and action. In coming together, naming the agent, and resisting the insidious idea that male violence is a ‘natural’ part of women’s lives, we resist the very foundations of patriarchy. I want to be part of that resistance. And it doesn’t hurt that Gloria Steinem is to give the keynotes address.

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This isn’t my first trip to Brussels – last September I was there for what turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life so far: Young Feminist Summer School. Fifty women from across Europe came together to exchange activist experiences and learn from each other’s feminist perspectives. Sharing space and time with my AGORA sisters developed my understanding of the relationship between feminist theory and practice like nothing else, radically altering my approach to feminist organising. Being part of that group blew away the cynicism that threatened to take root in me, dealt with the weariness that came from challenging racism within the feminist movement, and restored my belief that anything is possible when women work together. AGORA also imparted a degree of self-confidence, a sense of my work being legitimate and having a place within the context of the feminist movement.

Attending Young Feminist Summer School changed so much for the better. And I almost didn’t go – partly out of the panic that stems from chronic anxiety, partly due to a heavy bout of Imposter Syndrome, and partly because my grandfather was dying. On the final day of Summer School, I received a call to say that he couldn’t be released from hospital until I had been taught to feed him through a tube – which I did for the final month of his life. It was a difficult time. Becca, one of my AGORA sisters, introduced me to spoon theory during Summer School – a disability metaphor coined by Christine Miserandino to explain the extra limitations capping the available energy to spend on the day to day tasks that make up everyday life. And now, almost a year on, I have even less spoons within reach. In caring for my grandfather I ceased caring for myself, which created something of a spoon deficit.

I have taken leave of absence from university owing to depression, scaled back professional and social responsibilities, and entered a kind of hibernation period to focus on my health. I have set three rules to live by: 1) go to therapy 2) volunteer at the Women’s Library at least one day every week 3) look after yourself properly. It’s a cliché, a bourgeois twenty-something going to Europe to find herself, but I will not apologise for that. After Young Feminist Summer School I can think of no better place to look for that bold young woman with a radical spirit than the city of Brussels, no better point to reconnect with my politics and the passion behind them than Loud and United.  People living with debilitating illnesses and disabilities are expected to justify every last speck of joy, but I am going to grab it with both hands and without apology.

When the plane touches down in Brussels, I begin to feel hopeful. Armed with enthusiasm and a basic grasp of the French language, I set off to board the shuttle bus to the city centre. I spend the journey alternating between staring at the lush expanses of green fields and blue sky and reading Gloria Steinem’s most recent book, My Life on the 20170614_174803Road. Steinem’s reflections are thoughtful, and something about the way she connects physical movement through the world with a development of ideas strikes a chord. What I like most about Steinem’s writing is that from her early essays to recent reflections delivered in her eighties, she doesn’t pretend to know everything and is therefore always open to learning and improving her own feminist praxis. If there were such a thing as total and definitive understanding of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem would have more right to claim it than most. But there isn’t. Feminism is a socio-political movement propelled by women’s actions and ideas – it’s a continuously ongoing process, not a destination. Its progress is best marked not only in the accordance of women’s rights, but in the development of surrounding ideas and attitudes.

Ilaria, a fellow graduate of Young Feminist Summer School, is waiting for me at the bus stop. She introduces me to her girlfriend Michela and we work out how best to communicate. Ilaria and her girlfriend moved to Brussels from Italy last September, which – being a total homebody – I find incredibly brave. Michela speaks French with a little bit of English. I speak English with a little bit of French. We meet somewhere in the middle, with Ilaria translating what Michela and I cannot. As they guide me back to their flat, I feel none of the anxiety of being away from home alone. Because I am not alone.

We drop my luggage off at the Tetris House, affectionately termed as everything has an exact space, to head out for dinner and drinks. As we walk, I am struck by the beautiful art nouveau design of the buildings. Ilaria fills me in on the area’s history. She and Michela live in the most diverse part of Brussels – half of the population is white, and half of the population is people of colour. Houses that were once the pied-à-terre of Belgium’s upper classes are now flats occupied, more often than not, by migrant families. It’s the first port of call for people from all around the world when they first move Brussels. Sure enough, as we meander through the city I see a gorgeous spectrum of brown skin. It is nothing short of divine to feel so inconspicuous.

Belgian fries are in a league of their own, so we get chips for dinner. Mine are accompanied by a falafel wrap, which makes going abroad and getting chippy for tea seem acceptably cosmopolitan. The greatest difference between Brussels and Glasgow is how each city’s inhabitants occupy public space. In the cobblestone courtyards, the pavements are full of tables and chairs set out by nearby bars. To my surprise, Ilaria says that we can sit outside a pub of our choice and eat our meal there. She and Michela choose from a long list of fancy beers – one Belgian treat I decline owing to an unapologetically femme taste in drinks.

At the bar, there are five fridges full of craft beers. They are as mysterious to me as the rules of any sport that isn’t Quidditch. I search for a fruit cider, the closest acceptable approximation to beer. The bartender takes pity on me and comes over to help. He laughs, not unkindly, when I explain what I’m looking for and says that they don’t stock any such thing. I struggle to understand the Flemmish accent to his French. When he realises that not only do I speak English, but that I am Scottish, the bartender is delighted. “Glasgow? I love Glasgow,” he tells me. “That city is CRAZY!” He pantomimes the sort of argument that is characteristic of the city, mimicking those interactions that walk the fine line between masculine bonhomie and pure aggression. It involves a lot of gesticulation and “FUCK YOU!”  That’s Glasgow alright. Perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of the fear that he has given offence, the bartender pours me what can only be described as a triple gin and tonic. He moves the gin to a pint glass upon realising that both ice and tonic will not fit. Fortunately, Glasgow has taught me how to hold my drink.

Back at the table, we discuss lesbian politics and culture. Ilaria and Michela moved to Brussels because it’s a better place to be a lesbian couple than Italy. Life away from Catholic homophobia and social conservatism is happier. Scotland isn’t perfect but, by comparison, I feel fortunate. Two leaders of Scottish political parties are lesbian. Holyrood is “the gayest parliament in the world.” Not bad at all.

We talk about our first forays into lesbian culture – how much the shows with even a couple of lesbian characters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or even solid lesbian subtext (Xena) had meant to us all growing up. We all watched The L Word. There were so many sex scenes in it that I would wait until my grandparents went to church before watching an episode on Netflix lest they overhear. Needless to say, feast days and holidays of obligation (extra church on days other than Sunday) were always welcome – thanks be to God! Michela thinks this is hilarious. She watched Sugar Rush when it first aired, despite not having much English, and would watch programmes in any language provided there were lesbian characters. The lengths to which lesbians will go to see ourselves represented in the media know no bounds.

On the way to the bar, I had spotted people drinking what looked like irn-bru in wine glasses. Ilaria told me that it was, in fact, aperol spritz and suggested we have some next. She asks what’s in irn-bru. Aside from sugar and colour, I haven’t the faintest idea. Does anybody? For a time irn-bru was banned in America, which says a lot about the ingredients in Scotland’s other national drink. At first I’m not convinced by aperol spritz. Michela taps an inch down the glass and reassures me that by this point in the drink, the taste will improve. She’s right.

During

Having been anxious about Loud and United since the moment my plane tickets were booked, I feel remarkably at ease with the world on the day. Ilaria can’t make it, has to go to work first thing in the morning. Michela makes a delicious breakfast and we head out. In the lobby we pass two older women, and Michela pauses to talk to them. I assume they are neighbours, perhaps another lesbian couple, and feel glad for Ilaria and Michela. Older lesbians make the world a better place. But when she joins me on the street, Michela explains that the women go from door to door trying to convert people to Christianity. When Michela told them that she’s a lesbian, they responded that God would still love her. For a split second I wonder if it’s truly a love-thy-neighbour Christianity being advocated here, but Michela explains the catch: God is prepared to love lesbians provided we don’t have sex with women. Neither of us can keep a straight face. I asked Michela what she said to that. She replies, with a mischievous grin: “No way. I love sex with women.” Our laughter carries throughout the street. In this we are agreed. I’ll take lesbian sex over God’s love on any day ending in y.

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Michela guides me through the metro and leaves me at Grand-Place.  The square is even more beautiful than I had remembered, a magnificent display of gilt and Gothic architecture. Spotting a security guard, I explain that I’m here to help the European Women’s Lobby set up for their event. He doesn’t let me in, says the EWL aren’t here yet, and so I sit at the edge of the square and scribble away in a notebook until another volunteer arrives. With a confidence that is uniquely American, she talks security into hallletting us inside. The EWL are nowhere to be seen, so we explore the building and marvel over the opulence of Brussels. The room is extraordinary. Wooden walls panelled with richly painted murals, a high ceiling supported by ornately carved beams, and even pews lining the back – it looks more like a church than a feminist meeting space. There is something delicious about repurposing places that symbolise male wealth and power for women’s liberation. The meeting space in Glasgow Women’s Library, where we recently held an all-female literary festival, used to be a gentlemen’s reading room.

When the EWL team arrives, I am filled with relief. We set up signs and flags, put out badges, organise seat reservations, and arrange a selection of literature about the European Women’s Lobby’s projects – tasks that are comforting in their familiarity after three years of volunteering at the Women’s Library. Believing passionately in feminist documentation, I snap pictures as we go. I take a photo of Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls and text it to Liz Kelly.

Liz theorised the continuum, radically altering the way male violence is framed and conceptualised not only within feminist theory but support and prevention work. I think she’ll be pleased by the way her work is being applied but, more than that, I think she’ll enjoy “disrupting.” It’s a good word. Disruption is very Liz: being so thoroughly radical in her feminism has created a boldness in her this is catching. Being radical in my own feminism lends me a certain courage, too – not once do I question my right to be at Loud and United, or the legitimacy of being there.

As soon as we are ready, the doors open. Two hundred and fifty women from around the world enter the hall, united by a commitment to ending male violence. Edith Schratzberger-Vécsei, President of the European Women’s Lobby, gives the opening address. She talks of how habituated to male violence societies across the world have become, invites us to “disrupt an ancient system” in dismantling patriarchy. “All the forms of violence that we’ll be discussing today have one goal: to silence women.” It is fitting, then, that we should be loud as well as united.

The first panel is HERstory. Women’s organisations from across Europe share their expertise in resisting male violence against women. The agent is named. The root cause 20170608_135151is addressed. Biljana Nastovska is exactly right in her assessment of patriarchy: “violence against women is a manifestation of unequal power relations between women and men. Violence against women is not accidental, but structural and political.” There is something profoundly moving about witnessing the women of the Observatory’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls, the passion of their belief in this cause. Vanja Macanovic explains why she works for the Observatory: “As long as one woman is raped or beaten, prostituted or trafficked, the European Women’s Lobby Observatory will be there to fight it.” Her words, so resolutely spoken, have a superhero quality about them.

I wish that frontline workers in women’s organisations were celebrated and valourised the same way Wonder Woman is – while Diana Prince provides a symbol of hope, the work the women’s sector do is very real. In Britain, 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced street harassment. 45% have experienced it in a form of unwanted touching. And when women of colour resist street harassment, we get racist abuse too. The support and prevention work done in the women’s sector is vital. It makes this world a better place. The Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt neatly sums up the endemic of male violence against women: “when we talk about gender-based violence, it is violence because you are a woman.” In every society, we are punished and abused simply for having been born female.

The second panel is Inspiring Initiatives by Women’s Rights Activists. Inspiring is right. The organisations represented are La Maison des Femmes, Sexual Violence Centre Cork, Lilies of the Street, and Women’s Tribunal. These women stare unflinchingly at the very worst of male violence in order to support women through it, enduring in the hope of creating a world in which male violence is eliminated. The words of Mary Crilly (Sexual Violence Centre Cork) in particular stand out. She talks candidly about the rage she feels against male violence, how the horror of male violence weighs upon her, and feeling burnt out as a result. Mary acknowledges how high the cost can be. And then Mary describes why she keeps going, why every woman in the room must keep going too. She says “at some point in your life someone will come to you and say ‘this happened to me’. If you are open to hearing it, they will tell you.” I think of that telling. I think of being told. Mary is right when she says that meeting such a disclosure with empathy is one of the most important things any of us will ever accomplish.

The mechanism of violence is what destroys women, controls women, keeps women in their so-called place. If we want to end male violence against women, we must think of the most vulnerable and leave no woman behind. – Salome Mbugua

Next, we hear testimonies of women who have survived male violence. Witnessing this panel is an extraordinary privilege. Monica Weissel Alvarez speaks with radical honesty about her experience of intimate partner violence. The total absence of institutional support she received – Monica’s helplessness to escape her abuser, being “trapped in circles of domination” – is devastating to hear about. Alisha Watts recounts her experience of online grooming, of how she was isolated and exploited by her abuser. As Alisha’s voice trembles, I am in awe of her courage – the bravery required to share something so raw and painful in front of two hundred and fifty people in the hope of helping other women and girls. That iconic Maggie Kuhn quote springs to mind: “Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.”

The final panellist to speak is Fiona Broadfoot, who became an abolitionist campaigner upon exiting the sex industry. Nothing on this earth could have prepared me for hearing Fiona’s story. She was groomed into prostitution at fifteen and spent eleven years in the sex trade.

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Of that time, Fiona says “I was at immediate risk of extreme sexual violence and abuse. I lost my identity and what little self-confidence I had. Rape became an occupational hazard.” She repressed the trauma by telling herself it was a job like any other. At 17, Fiona told herself “innocent women will be raped if I don’t do this.” Fiona begins to cry while sharing her story, for which she makes no apology: “it’s a sign I’m a healthy human. I used to distance myself and display no emotion.” It’s only then that I notice the tears on my own face, notice that women all around the room are in tears too. There is no shame in crying. I never want to become the kind of person who can look at such injustice and remain unmoved.

As with Monica’s story, it is devastating on two levels: that Fiona experienced this violence, and that institutional misogyny meant structures that should have helped her worked against her. Fiona’s pimp was on first name terms with the Vice Squad. She was criminalised and he was not. When she tried to rebuild her life, Fiona was kicked out of her college course due to having been arrested for prostitution. Afterwards, she returned to prostitution. Fiona’s words will stay with me for the rest of my life, as will her strength and dignity. Even with so much cause to be angry at the world, Fiona spends her life trying to make it a better place for the girls who live in it. I am determined to follow her example, to emulate Fiona’s generosity of spirit. Getting called SWERF (sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist) on Twitter is a tiny, tiny price to pay for standing beside Fiona and all the women in her position, of which there are many. Although not all women survive the sex industry. The mortality rate of women in prostitution is up to forty times above the average. Between 60 and 80% of women in prostitution experience regular physical and sexual abuse by men. The sex industry isn’t revolutionary or liberating, but a manifestation of patriarchy and capitalism. It is time to end demand, to end men’s belief they are entitled to sexually access women’s bodies.

After the Stories of Survivors of Male Violence panel, I am emotionally exhausted. And so I fulfil that millennial stereotype and check my phone for a bit, retreating into the world of WhatsApp and Twitter. Liz has replied, asking if the continuum was referenced in the EWL literature. I read through the pamphlet, find no direct reference to Liz or her research, and write back to tell her. This is a difficulty within feminist theorising. Good Loud United Badgesfeminist practice involves sharing ideas and making information as widely accessible as possible. Radical feminism can challenge ownership and institutional power as following patterns of male dominance. But there is something inherently radical about acknowledging women’s work, the development of women’s ideas over time and who made it possible. As Virginia Woolf observed, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Making women’s ideas invisible, treating them as common knowledge rather than giving credit, only serves to further the erasure of women in public life. The continuum is a widely known concept. Upon seeing the pamphlet, I thought immediately of Liz’s work. But if I hadn’t read Surviving Sexual Violence (Kelly), hadn’t known where the continuum came from, making that connection would be impossible. Other women could read the pamphlet without being able to trace the idea back to its source.

Referencing women’s ideas is a revolutionary act. It is a form of resistance to say that a woman made this, a woman did this, a woman thought this. And so I reference Liz publicly, Tweeting about the use of her theory in Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls. Liz responds to my Tweet, saying that she loves this use of her work but believes as feminists we have a responsibility to acknowledge one another. The European Women’s Lobby get back to her immediately and positively. I’m confident they will add the appropriate references to the publication, and glad to have nudged them in the right direction. Acknowledging women’s ideas is at the heart of my life with Glasgow Women’s Library.

It’s just as well I do check Twitter. My friend Pauline has Tweeted her astonishment at finding me here, so far from Scotland. I fizz with excitement at the thought of Pauline here in this room. Sure enough, her Tweets pepper #LoudUnited. We make plans to meet up after the symposium. This will be the first time I have met Pauline in person, though we have been friends for over a year. We met through radical feminist Twitter. My favourite thing about Twitter is that it has the power to connect women around the world, that it hosts such a fertile ground for feminist discourse.

As the panel changes over for the final time, a woman sat in the row in front turns to face me. She asks “are you Claire? Do you write Sister Outrider?” Guilty as charged. I nod. She recognised me from Twitter, says that my writing is exciting and that she is glad to have met me. After she turns back to face the front, I mull over her words. It’s not totally uncommon to be recognised at home, buying books or visiting libraries. Those are settings in which I am expected, places where I have worked. But this is a continent away from those contexts. Although my writing has been translated, I could not have predicted that anyone would connect me to it. It is in parts disconcerting and thrilling. I vow not to let myself develop an inflated sense of self-importance, regardless of how far my writing ever reaches.

And then in walks Gloria Steinem, a masterclass in humility from which a good few writers could learn. Her presence is assured yet unobtrusive, though heads swivel. Nothing about the way Gloria conducts herself is designed to monopolise attention. She sits in the second row awaiting introduction whilst Twitter explodes with her arrival.

When Gloria takes the stage, there is heartfelt applause. She holds up one fist in a feminist salute, just like in that iconic photograph of her with Dorothy Pitman-Hughes. It

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Gloria Steinem addresses Loud and United

was Gloria’s commitment to joint speaking tours with Black women, her approach to interracial solidarity between women, that drew me to her work. And now the woman whose words have come to me through books, videos, and podcasts is speaking to this audience directly. She highlights that the women in this room have overcome boundaries of difference to come together in support of women’s liberation. Observing that patriarchy is under five thousand years old, that it was not universal and is not permanent, she creates a feeling of optimism. It is possible in that moment to imagine that a better future is within reach, a world free from male violence.

Although the word intersectionality (Crenshaw) is never explicitly used, the principles are there in what Gloria says. She talks of race and class and caste alongside gender, about how all hierarchies are interconnected, sharing her theory of supremacy crimes: acts of violence and domination committed not for material gain, but with a view to maintaining the privileges that come with being at the top of a hierarchy. Gloria credits Black Lives Matter as being “a brave and important movement” and goes on to discuss the crimes of George Zimmerman. Before he murdered Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s history was littered with acts of violence against women. In her view, these are both forms of supremacy crime. “Supremacy crimes are related. One predicts another.”

Next comes the part I have been silently dreading: the march. At risk of confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about keyboard warriors and slacktivism, I hate going to protests. It’s not a question of if I will experience an anxiety attack, but rather how many. The crush of people, the noise, the difficulty in getting away – these are difficult. Discursive activism is what comes naturally. Earlier this year I went on the Women’s March in London to protest Trump’s inauguration and the erosion of women’s rights. It was powerful to be part of that resistance. It was also terrifying. I put on an oversized pair of sunglasses and prayed that Liz – so bold and determined – wouldn’t notice that I was crying. There was a point when I wanted to ask her if we could go to one side while I closed my eyes and did a breathing exercise, but in the rush I just couldn’t find the words. So I didn’t talk to her for whole stretches of time, lost in my own panic. Liz tried to steer us through the crowds as quickly as possible. Afterwards, knowing what it cost, she told me that I did a brave thing in marching. Liz is a good friend. But today I am here alone, une femme seule. I make a beeline for Joanna, the EWL Secretary-General, and decide to keep a member of the team within sight at all times. So radical.

On the way out of the building, I hand Gloria a Glasgow Women’s Library badge. It’s one of my creations – badge-making is one of the many unexpected skills I have picked up at GWL. Another is confidence. I ask Gloria to sign her book for me, and she obliges. Joanna takes a picture of us together. And for the first time in memory I don’t look at the image wondering whether I look sufficiently thin or pretty. I look truly happy, and that is enough.

The protest is in turns brilliant and scary. Provided I keep the EWL team in sight, the panic is manageable. As we march, we chant: “Sol-sol-sol! Solidarité avec des femmes du monde entire!” Solidarity with women of the entire world. This, I believe in wholeheartedly. Loud and United feels like a fitting description of the group. People stop to listen to our message, to watch the protest go past. The crowd is dotted with pussy hats and feminist banners. We are a force to be reckoned with. A shout goes up: “keep your rosaries away from my ovaries!”

A stage is waiting in the middle of the square. Various women’s organisations wave banners and lead chants. Balloons are blown up. T-shirts and badges are handed out. On the other side of the square, women draw the Venus symbol in purple chalk. In the middle, they lay flowers in memory of all the women killed by male violence. A feeling of harmony between women makes alright simply to occupy this space.

IMG_20170609_224917_653Wielding an impressive megaphone, Joanna takes the stage to introduce Gloria. Perhaps it is my imagination, but Gloria seems more at ease in the midst of a protest than behind a lectern. She observes a truth that is obvious to women of colour yet often disregarded within mainstream feminist spaces: “Sexism and racism go together. You can’t fight one without the other.” The Black women beside me cheer, and I do too. It feels good to have the connection between racism and misogyny acknowledged, highlighted by a woman who is arguably the world’s most recognisable living feminist. There is always that danger in feminist space that white will be treated as the standard unit of womanhood.

Girls line the front of the stage holding up the Loud and United banner. It is moving to see the future of feminism standing before a woman who is emblematic of the second wave, the past and the future woven together in the present. The smallest girl raises her fist like Gloria. When the rally is over, Gloria gestures to the girl’s father who lifts her onto the stage. I love this *picture. It captures the joy, the hope, and the solidarity of the day.

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(*Image shared with the express permission of the child’s parent. Not to be recirculated.)

As the rally disbands, two young women sat smoking on the stage call me over. Both recognise the Glasgow Women’s Library logo on my tote bag. One of their friends was an ERASMUS exchange student in Edinburgh and frequently travelled through to GWL. Many women in and around Glasgow consider the Library a home away from home, a peaceful place to work or while away the hours. It’s nice to think of that Women’s Library joy sending ripples across the continent, of international connections between women.

After

Following the buzz of the protest, it is a relief to sit and chat with my AGORA sisters: Ilaria, Ahinara, and Aurelie. Ahinara has a Spanish translation of Gloria’s book, which I 20170609_224529admire. We get drinks and snacks from a nearby supermarket and listen to a salsa band play live music. It feels good to simply be in that moment. Michela joins us when she finishes work, and I finally get to chat to Pauline in person. We talk about the power of radical feminist Twitter, how online misogyny works to silence women, and anonymity on social media. Wary of threats and violence, Pauline doesn’t share her name or location on Twitter. This layer of privacy enables her to maintain a distance between life online and offline. Men tend to exploit anonymity, use it as a shield from consequence when sending abuse, whereas women often use anonymity as a way of protecting ourselves from abuse. To an extent I regret not creating a separate Twitter account for Sister Outrider and remaining anonymous, but at first it never occurred to me that more than a dozen people would actually bother to read this blog.

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As ever, I am astonished by the energy of my AGORA sisters. Ahinara goes to do more work, and Aurélie departs for a feminist meeting. The rest of us wander through Brussels in search of food. Over dinner we discuss how male violence shapes the very fabric of society. More importantly, we discuss forms of resistance. There is a slight irony to sipping a neon blue cocktail named after Walter White, a character who typifies Toxic Masculinity: Nice Guy™ edition, as the conversation unfolds. Pauline tells us of a case in which a violent father used his last weekend of unsupervised visitation rights to murder his two children and commit suicide in order to punish his wife for ending their marriage. Their bodies, well-hidden, were found by chance. He had intended for her to spend the rest of her life wondering what happened to her missing children. It’s a harrowing story, not an isolated incident but part of the pattern of male violence. Sometimes I think the company of other women – their understanding and encouragement – is the only thing that makes life under patriarchy bearable. That, and good food.

Before she goes, Pauline invites me to come for a visit in her home country. I accept. In the style of Shonda, this is my year of yes – no more turning down adventures or opportunities. Radical feminist Twitter is a brilliant community, connecting women around the world. It’s filled with challenges and complexities, but also women looking to share and develop their ideas. It’s also a good place to make friends. My generation were warned about stranger danger online, yet there are few things I delight in more than meeting radical feminists from Twitter in person. There is something wonderful about being together with someone that has shared space and ideas with you. Bridging the gap between community space online and offline isn’t always practical, but it can be wonderful.

 

Ilaria and Michela take my for my first authentic Belgian waffle, which tastes like heaven, and tour of the Brussels gay scene, which feels like home. In both aesthetic and atmosphere, the bar we gravitate towards reminds me of nothing so much as Delmonica’s, though no doves hang from the ceiling. But first they give me a tour of LGBT 20170609_224229art around the area. For Pride, a crossing is made into a rainbow. In the alley beside Rainbow House, there are gorgeous protest murals as tall as the surrounding buildings. It’s touching to witness this art as resistance, touching that Ilaria and Michela thought to show it to me. There is a popular saying in radical lesbian circles: “A day without lesbians is like a day without sunshine.” Ilaria and Michela remind me of the truth in those words. We discuss lesbian culture over cocktails, including mounting tension between lesbian and queer politics. Like every lesbian I know back home, Ilaria is frustrated that LGBT spaces are dominated by gay men. Still, there is something undeniably wholesome about seeing men sharing tender gestures – holding hands, cuddling on benches, and kissing one another on the mouth in greeting. It’s a refreshing change from the brutality of conventional masculinity.

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“I hope you realise that what you see in porn is not real life lesbian sex! It’s just girls having sex the way men would want them to…”

The next morning, I’m up early – a little fuzzy after the previous night’s antics, but filled with purpose. Pierrette has invited me to join an abolitionist meeting she is facilitating with young activists from across Europe. During Young Feminist Summer School Pierrette ran a workshop on prostitution, the sex industry, and why the European Women’s Lobby endorses the Nordic Model called Whose Choice? – I was impressed by how she conducted that session and am keen to see what other forms her work takes. Like so many great things, the meeting happens in a library. Stickers on the spines of books make books about women, sexual politics, and gender easy to find.

Often we are told that ending demand is impossible, that in this world men will inevitably buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Proponents of the sex industry commonly fall back on the defence that “it has always been this way”, positioning opposition to the prostitution of women as naïve. Similarly, social conservatives tell us that male dominance over women is part of the natural order. Both rely on a sense of hopelessness at the scale of the problem to discourage feminists from pursuing social change. Yet this network of activists demonstrate such commitment to ending demand that I can’t help feeling hopeful, even if it is an uphill struggle. They care. That’s such a simple thing to say, but it’s true. They care. And how one views the sex industry does ultimately boil down to a question of empathy. To feel empathy with women, one must recognise us as fully human. And it is impossible to simultaneously feel empathy with women and view our bodies as sexual objects which money entitles men to access.

20170609_225123A narrative of “choice” is often used to whitewash the structural power imbalances upon which the sex industry depends. According to research, “poverty, family loss, homelessness, drug addiction and a history of physical and sexual abuse combine to make young women vulnerable to entering prostitution.” Consideration of choice without analysis of context is meaningless when discussing the realities of women – and they are overwhelmingly women – prostituted as part of the sex industry. When we talk about choice in relation to prostitution, it is important to scrutinise the choice of the men who buy sex. We must question why so many men feel entitled to sex with women, why they consider sexual access to our bodies an inalienable right. This meeting is one of those rare occasions in life when I am truly happy to see that men are part of the group, giving wholehearted opposition to the sex industry. After all, demand will not end until men’s attitudes towards women change.

Mid-way through the session, Gloria Steinem makes a surprise appearance. I don’t notice her straight away, having returned from the bathroom, although she is sitting directly in front of me. Gloria fits into the group quite naturally. She participates in but does not dominant the conversation between activists and experts, making the odd suggestion when useful. I like that her public profile hasn’t distracted Gloria from feminist activism and organising. The way she occupies group space, present and unassuming, is true to good feminist practice. Though I could happily spend all day learning from this group – not simply what they say, but how they say it – I must resume my own life on the road.

As I leave the room, Hanuka presses a copy of her book into my hands. Big City Violets is a diary of her time as a social worker, filled with difficult truths and delicate line drawings, which makes this gift all the more personal. I begin to read it on the journey home, until the turbulence grows too much. Even then it stays in my thoughts. Writing can be cathartic, a way of giving voice to painful things that are hard to express and making sure they no longer go unseen. Hanuka’s book shows a cycle of trafficking and prostitution and drug addiction and violence, a cycle that decimates women’s lives. Not only did Hanuka contain those truths within herself, she put them out into the world. So the seeds of liberation are planted.

Exhaustion catches up with me as I zig-zag through passport control. I wonder what Brexit will mean for determining airport lines, how we will queue – such a British worry. But dividing people by whose passport is EU and whose isn’t becomes redundant. Both trips to Brussels filled me with an appreciation for the European Union, in particular all the social good it has made possible. A familiar feeling of horror sets in as I consider anew the consequences of Brexit. What good are the politics of isolation?

Airports are terrible places for grief. I think it’s because the world is filtered into a binary of home and elsewhere, the familiar and the unknown. A part of me cannot help but expect that my grandfather will be there waiting for me, as he so often was, eager to hear what I have achieved during the course of my absence from our home. I remember his delight as I stepped onto the ward last September – the promise of home I brought to him, as he so often brought to me. I remember the scratchy blue wool of his jumper against my cheek. But my mother is waiting for me, has driven over an hour to collect me. There’s work to do at the Women’s Library, on Sister Outrider, and in so many other spaces. I have stories to share and truths to tell. Coming back is not always easy, and neither is continuing. But if we do not return from one adventure then we cannot begin the next.


Bibliography

Kat Banyard. (2016). Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. (1989). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color

Gail Dines. (2010). Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality

Liz Kelly. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence

Hanukah Lohrengel. (2016). Big City Violets

Audre Lorde. (1977). The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

Christine Miserandino. (2003). The Spoon Theory

Rachel Moran. (2013). Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution

Gloria Steinem. (2015). My Life on the Road