what is feminism? feminism today and for the future

I spoke at a Queen Mary, University of London panel event entitled ‘what is feminism? feminism today and for the future’  in 2012. This is what I said (drawing a lot on what I had said previously at other events);

What is feminism? is not a question that I, or anyone else on this panel, can answer tonight – not in the ten minutes we have to speak anyway. It’s a debate that is full and complex. Everyone has a different idea of what they think feminism is – and that is the beauty, the joy and the frustration of the movement. I can tell you my thoughts. There is so much I could say and want to say about this – since I’m here for black feminists, I’m going to speak about the situation internationally and the importance of working towards what I term a linked liberation.

Worldwide, only 20 countries have women as leaders in power today – out of 196 nations. Up to one billion women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetimes. Trafficking of women and girls was reported in 85% of conflict zones. 82 million girls now aged 10 to 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Literacy rates for women in Africa, Asia and Latin America are substantially lower than those of men. Lack of political and economic power, women’s poverty, female genital mutilation, sex selective abortions, forced marriage, dowry deaths…

We live in a world in which patriarchy combines with racism, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world in which, no matter where you are or who you are, life is not the same for women as it for men. What is feminism if not providing space to resist this? Women’s rights ideas and activism are seen everywhere in the world because every single community and country on this planet has profoundly entrenched inequalities between women and men, and hierarchies of power and dominance based on difference – be it gender, ethnicity, economic class, caste or regional difference.

However, despite their strength and purpose of activism, black women are often automatically construed as weak, defenceless and faceless, amalgamated into a mass of vulnerability. In reality, it was women who ended the civil war in Liberia by demonstrations and barricading the men during peace negotiations until they came to agreement. Women protested against disappearances in Argentina. Women lawyers started the revolution in Libya. Women made up 40% of the protesters in Tahrir Square. In March this year, women were killed in the marches calling for peace in Côte d’Ivoire. Women in Nepal have been demonstrating for a constitution that respects women’s rights for months. Women in Nigeria are planning a march against rape this November. ‘Patriarchy’ is not a term many in the UK use with ease, but it women I know in China, Guinea, India, Liberia and Rwanda know what it is, know what militarised and fundamentalist forms of masculinity do and in many ways, have a more nuanced and deeper understanding of patriarchy and gender relations than most long-standing feminist activists I know in London.

We need to get rid of the idea of the ‘liberated’ white women and the oppressed black women – neither is true. The horrors of forced marriage, female genital mutilation and dishonor based killing are very real, but violence against women is not limited to black communities and to countries outside Euro-America. Let us not forget only 6 percent of reported rapes end in a successful prosecution and that 2009 showed a dramatic increase in the numbers of women killed by violent partners in the UK. This includes all women. White women are not living in some feminist fantasy utopia of equality and opportunity and black women are not all oppressed.

I’ve had enough of the discussion of whether women’s rights are an invention of ‘the West’ or if feminism is something for white, middle class women. It does not hurt less when a woman is abused just because it takes place in Afghanistan, or China, or Columbia, or Guinea, or Southall. Black women do not see their rights as something that is alien. I’m sure all the panelists here will agree with me when I say white women do not own feminism: the feminist story belongs to all women, everywhere. We need to shift and broaden our gaze to reconfigure the terrain of what consists of feminist and activist, to look up and see the interconnectedness of our world.

In terms of the future of feminism, I want to make a plea. For feminism to have meaning for all women, it needs to be concerned with more than just oppression on the basis of gender. Women from all backgrounds and communities identify with feminist beliefs but the movement needs to take into account their needs and realities – both in terms of representation and analysis. Look at feminism in the media. Who are the women writing about feminism? What issues and which feminists are getting media coverage? Look at the feminist events being organised. Which women are speaking? What are they speaking about? Over the past few months, I’ve started to consciously do what I’ve been subconsciously doing for years: a diversity audit, a count of the numbers of black women, black men, white women, white men and a note if there is anyone living with a disability or openly gay. The numbers aren’t good.  I have lost count of the number of feminist events that I have attended (not tonight I’m glad to say) where the women speaking are all white, there are no women living with disabilities and there is very little analysis of race, class, sexuality and how they interrelate with gender, Feminism is not just a movement for white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual women but if most of the women who are speaking for feminism fit this, then it becomes very difficult for women who do not fit to think of it as a movement for them. We started black feminists because there was no space, not in the anti-racist nor in the feminist movements, for discussion that integrated analysis and action around multiple forms of oppression. We live in a world of interlocking hierarchies and oppressions. It must be part of our feminist mission to dismantle this and take ableism, class privilege, heterenormativity and homophobia, racism, sexism, transmisogyny and all other forms of discrimination and prejudice as seriously as each other.

For me, feminism is about is about putting on the glasses and seeing the world for what it really is, and then taking action.

We are at a historic moment right now, in the UK and internationally. A lot is changing at the moment – and there is a real backlash to feminist progress achieved over the past decades. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to continue the struggle. Everything that we enjoy today, that we take for granted, was created by struggle, by people standing up and seeking a better way forward. It is now our turn to do the same and defend what is right.

the hypocrisy of international women’s day

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine when the conversation turned to International Women’s Day. I asked her whether she was looking forward to it to which she dismissively said, ‘Yeah, but for us, every day is international women’s day.’ I replied, “Yes, but this is the one time of the year where everyone else pays attention.’ This was an offhand conversation. I did not expect it to come to frame my experiences of the day this year.

I lost count of the number of times people wished me International Women’s Day on Thursday. A fair few of them were feminist activists but this also included many who seem to count winding a feminist up as one of their more enjoyable pastimes. Even those who I have not seen for months sent me text messages and emails. My email inbox was filled with different newsletters or emails from organisations wishing me a happy International Women’s Day telling me what they stood for and how this was important for women, how absolutely central to their work women’s rights was and in what ways they were going to celebrate this day. There have been so many events planned that my head is spinning from finishing the merry-go-round that is the days around 8th March.

Whenever 8th March comes around, the vibe reminds me of independence days. In so many ways, 8th March is an independence day for women. It’s a chance to reflect, think and write about what we have achieved so far, feeling proud of the activism that brought that to pass (even if it is not your own), taking stock of how far we have to come and how far there is left to go. The anniversaries of the anniversary (100 years of international women’s day, 60 years of Indian independence, 55 years of Ghanaian independence and thus the start of decolonisation in sub Saharan Africa) take on special significance and become key moments in and of their own right.

All of this is good, right? So why have I spent the last few days feeling so annoyed?

My reaction is to blatant cynicism and hypocrisy I have experienced. Plenty of people do precious little for women most of the time, focusing their attention on issues that disproportionately affect men, organising events where just white middle class men are able to speak and not seeing the ways women are differently affected by the same issues nor the issues of particular concern to women. Then, all of a sudden in March, they realise that now is their opportunity to prove their feminist credentials. They organise an event, write an article or otherwise speak out on women’s rights. The amount of attention around international women’s day almost crowds out the work of year long feminist activists. Of all the events organised, count the number that have been organised by activists. Why would you organise an event this week, knowing the number of organisations and institutions with much bigger marketing budgets that will ‘have it covered’? Of the media coverage received in the past week, how many activists have written articles or otherwise been profiled? And how much of all of this has focused on black, lesbian or bisexual, trans, disabled and/ or working class women?

This all matters, and it matters because of the attitudes of the people who come to ‘own’ IWD. This becomes clear when you consider their actions the rest of the year and exactly how they choose to mark the day.

In the week beforehand, I heard about some plans. A European embassy in an African country invites women’s rights activists to a reception with the injunction that the dress code is ‘smart and feminine.’ A school in Beijing provides a free photo-shoot for its female members of staff, complete with hairstyling and makeup. There are events up and down the UK offering massages and a chance to buy jewellery. The website www.internationalwomensday.com is run by Aurora Ventures, a private investment firm. International Women’s Day is not for activists anymore. It seems to have largely become depoliticised, an alternate Mothering Sunday or Valentine’s Day, stripped of its call for fundamental, radical and transformative social change.

On 7th March, I attended an event on the perspectives of women in LGBT campaigning. Afterwards, I congratulated one of the men in the organisation: ‘This was a great event, well done; just make sure that all the events you do from now on have at least 50% women on the panels,’ only to be told that this was impossible as it ‘would be too difficult.’

Thursday morning, David Cameron announced the criminalisation of stalking and the piloting of ‘Clare’s Law’, declaring ‘ending violence against women and girls is a priority for this government.’ He ends by saying ‘So International Women’s Day is vital as it forces people across the planet to focus on issues like this. But we have got to make sure that action to stamp out violence against women continues every day – and that’s what this government is determined to do.’ Given the brunt of the government’s economic policy is falling on womenand the impact of cuts to services (31% in the current financial year) and legal aid, how seriously can anyone believe David Cameron or anyone in his coalition government cares genuinely about stopping violence against women?

The South Bank Centre’s Women of the World festival is perhaps the main women focused event happening in London the weekend after International Women’s Day. I have heard mainly positive feedback and I do get the impression that Jude Kelly, its artistic director, is a committed feminist who has fought hard to be able to put on the festival at all. When I return on Sunday night, I sit down with their April programme and google the names of those taking part in events. I count the numbers of women and men: 49 women and 153 men. Fifty-two women are missing and 52 men have taken their place.

I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, a 32% representation of women is not so bad. It is usually much less. A few months ago, Kira Cochrane found that 22% of newspaper articles are written by women, 28% of Question Time contributors are women and 16% of Today Show reporters and guests are women. Given the abysmal statistics elsewhere, must we be content with figures like 32% when women make up over 50% of the population?

We are meant to be grateful for the small crumbs that are offered in March. These are expected to suffice to sustain us for the rest of the year. I do not believe any of these people or institutions actually care about women beyond our use as a PR opportunity. This ethos is simply not followed through the rest of the year. It should be obvious that the awareness, discussion and celebration need to continue past early March. You need to pay attention towomen 365 days a year and not just on the one day which has our name on it. After all, women’s rights are for life, not just for International Women’s Day.

This piece was originally posted on Black Feminists on 12th March 2012.

an appraisal of Rwanda’s response to survivors who experienced sexual violence in 1994

I had written a journal article based on the research I conducted in Rwanda for my LLM thesis back in 2008. It took a whole 3 years for the journal to come out from the time I submitted my article to publication. This piece appeared in the Special Issue of the Wagadu Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies on Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict: Gender, Society and the State in Spring 2012.


Over a million people were killed in 1994 during Rwandas genocide and war, with many women compelled to offer sex, raped, held in collective or individual sexual slavery and mutilated. An estimated 250 000 to 500 000 women still alive were raped between 1990 and 1994, 30 000 pregnancies resulted from rape and the 67% of survivors considered HIV positive continue to suffer the consequences of wartime sexual violence (Wells, 2004-2005).  Countless women now live with serious illnesses, pain or injury, unable to provide for families.  The level of trauma is severe, compounded by shame, exclusion, stigma, survivors guilt and contested feelings towards the children of bad memories born of rape and as many perpetrators were neighbours who often live nearby. Despite commitment to the rights of women and recognition of the prevalence of rape during the genocide, the Rwandese government has been slow to offer legal redress, medical treatment and counselling and has not prioritized prosecution and punishment. Conviction rates are low.  Reparations are not forthcoming.  Neither the national courts nor the gacaca, have investigated and prosecuted these cases in a fitting manner.  Although attention has been paid to sexual violence, defects in the drafting of statutory law and its implementation discourage reporting, investigation and prosecution.  Recent procedural revisions dismiss very real fears around fair trial, public ridicule, and increased trauma.  Difficulties in addressing the legacies and widespread nature of sexual violence are being overlooked as the government prioritizes the construction of a sense of nationhood and continuation of its own power over the needs of survivors.  The result is that many women, infected with HIV or with other serious illnesses, are slowly dying without reparation, healthcare, counselling or seeing perpetrators brought to justice.

You can access the full journal article here.