I wrote a piece for The New Left Project trying to step back and reflect about what has been happening when it comes to conflict within the movement in the past 15 months.
I started writing it one Friday night after work in July last year as a way of thinking through and articulating what I was feeling – and it went up yesterday. Six months is surely one of the longest lengths of time it has taken anyone to write a post. It is also, at 3,226, probably one of the longest pieces that has been written about this subject on the internet.
There was a time back in the summer when I was not going to publish it at all. I was worried about the backlash it seemed almost certain to receive (because pretty much everything that is written about this does), the impact this would have on me personally after years of feminist/ activist drama and the amount of my energy and time it would take. Everything seemed so polarised that it felt any attempt to be reflective and nuanced would be attacked by all sides.
So I wrote it and I left it. I came back to it a few months later, added some bits, rewrote others and then left it again. I repeated that last week and finally had enough. I wanted to just send it out there, partly so that I could stop thinking about it (and rewriting it) and partly because I wanted to see whether it made sense to others. Before I came to Nigeria, I had spent five years in the activist scene in London trying to mobilise people into the movement and work with others to try to shape the movement to be more inclusive and diverse. I am pretty much done with this (for now in any case) so this is my attempt to reach out one last time.
The past twelve months have been a tough and exhilarating time to be a (black) feminist activist in the UK. We have seen issues around race, disability and gender identity in particular placed at the heart of feminist debate in a way that has not happened during the memory of those of my generation. We have long been asserting there will not be a women’s liberation that is meaningful to all women without simultaneous end of structural racism, homophobia, heteronormativity, ablism in all its form, class oppression, neo-colonialism and global power structures, transphobia and transmisogyny.
This analysis has not been limited to black feminists. Indeed, the importance of working towards a linked liberation, where the achievement of one ‘set of’ rights is conditioned and incomplete without the achievement of all others has been long discussed within many activist movements for decades. Constantly raising and pushing this has been met with some success, with anti-racist, socialist and other movements having significantly expanded their frame of organising to include the experiences and realities of women. This often is not accompanied with a deeper understanding of patriarchy and how it combines with other forms of oppression and marginalisation or with recognition that marginalisation can come from within families, communities and movements as well as without. At the same time, the (dominant) feminist movement has made substantial progress and, at the very least, frequently makes conscious efforts to ensure it reflects the truths of all women. Campaigning against policies that trap immigrant women in abusive relationships is one of the many examples of black and white women working together. The struggle against religious fundamentalisms and their specific impact on women’s rights and freedoms is another.
Progress has been limited however. Most activists seem not to see the rise of the faith agenda, as witnessed by the increasing number of faith-based schools and funding of faith based organisations to assist women who have experienced violence which use methods such as mediation to ‘solve’ domestic violence, as a core concern. There is little campaigning by wider movements on issues of reform of the immigration and asylum systems. The struggle for LGBT rights has remained overwhelmingly focused on issues of marriage and adoption, neglecting the poverty experienced by many LGBT people who are also black, disabled and working class.
Limited shift by those for mobilise for social justice in recognising the interconnectedness of all movements is echoed in the feminist movement. All of this continues to cause conflict as women who are further marginalised by dominant structures of power and hierarchy struggle for their needs, realities and priorities to be taken seriously by others in a movement they want to believe is also theirs. These tensions are neither new nor inherently bad. After all conflict and challenge has great potential for renewal and dynamism. What matters is how we respond to it. Ways of current engagement and the anger, confusion and pain recent debates have caused has led to many within the movement feeling frustrated and disengaged.
We need to step back and reassess where we are as a movement and how we relate with each other.
It ends by saying:
Somehow we need to come to a place where all parties recognise and address all inequalities and power imbalances and weave this understanding throughout their activism. We need to do this collaboratively with genuine desire and humility to learn from each other, being proactive without relying on others to teach and in the spirit of working out our differences. I like to think of this as a rights based peacebuilding approach that recognises that there is not a level playing field between all parties. Just as achieving real, sustainable peace, is difficult, requires continuous work and is subject to setbacks, nevertheless it is possible as long as those engaged are willing to talk and listen and think and change.