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, black women have been part of feminist ideology and organising throughout the ages. ‘Patriarchy’ is not a term many in the UK use with ease, but women I know in other countries 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 gender relations than most long-standing feminist activists in the UK. 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 ‘honour based’ killing are very real, but violence against women is not limited to black communities and countries . 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. Let us stop the discussion of whether feminism is just for white, middle class women. 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. 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 in terms of representation and analysis. Who are the women writing about feminism in the media? What issues and which feminists are getting media coverage? Which women are speaking at feminist events? What are they speaking about? Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to consciously do what I’ve been subconsciously doing for years at events: a count of the numbers of black women, black men, white women, white men and if there is anyone living with a disability or openly gay. The numbers are not good. I have lost count of the number of feminist events that I have attended where the women speaking are all white 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, to think of it as a movement for them.
Working towards a linked liberation is integral to my feminism. Black Feminists was set up in 2010 due to the frustrations many of us felt with the male dominated anti-racist and white dominated feminist movements. Although providing the tools and the friends with which to articulate and challenge the expressions of dominant hierarchies of race, gender, class, heteronormativity and ableism (to varying degrees), the lack of a space where our experiences as black women were at the centre of all thinking, discussion and action only became clear to me the first time black feminists met. It was supposed to be a one-off meeting. Almost two years later, I am proud to be a member of a group that has become part of the long tradition of women organising by using the terms ‘black’ and ‘feminist’ politically. We have a listserv with black women feminists all over the UK and there are women meeting in London and Manchester. Please do get in touch if you are interested: www.blackfeminists.org.
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.
This piece first appeared in the programme for the INTERSECT conference held in Bristol in May 2012.