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.