Hello again after (an unintentional) two-week hiatus. I’m back and just in time to wish everyone a happy (almost) International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is Inspiring Change and the focus is supposed to be on celebrating the achievements of women and the strides made in our empowerment, whilst not forgetting all those areas that still need work. For my part International Women’s Day had me pondering the diversity of the people who respond to the title “woman”, as well as the diversity of their needs. In short I have been thinking more about intersectionality, but in practical terms. How can we incorporate the information we have into various women’s movements? Communication.
My last couple of blog posts focused on blackness, and some of the challenges that black people face be it the implication of inferiority by the powers that be or the burden of self-loathing. Besides those hopefully being informative and interesting, they were designed to show that unless your life is affected by certain kinds of oppression there are lot of things that you will not understand, things you will miss – oppression that you will help to perpetuate. Unfortunately for all of us, racism and sexism are far from being the only forms of bigotry. If we think for a moment of the complexity of the web of emotions, cultural and social input, political considerations and self-interest behind every manifestation oppression, and the ways in which these various forms of oppressions can interact within the life of one person, it becomes a little bit clearer that there can be no one size fits all approach to women’s empowerment – feminism and the women’s movement needs to be flexible. Feminism needs to continue to be responsive to the lived experiences of women, as well as responsive to its own missteps. All this done in recognition that it is in the interests of the women’s movement to do so as ‘there is no easy or automatic sisterhood between women since sex/gender relations are not the only set of power differentials in operation for any women.’ (Griffith)
Now “communication” may not sound like a radical enough notion for some of us, right up until we realise that we learned how to communicate within patriarchal societies and there is the risk of incorporating a lot of patriarchy’s bad habits into our interactions with others. Patriarchy has always claimed certain rights for itself, including but not limited to the power to define/label, the power to determine truth and the power to assign power. When enquiring into other people’s forms of oppression from a position of privilege in whatever area, be it for example heteronormativity, we risk mimicking the way in which patriarchy interacts with us as women. This is one of the most basic and most visible ways in which women participate in the oppression of each other. We need to check ourselves and our behaviours in the same way that we ask people to check themselves and their behaviour in terms of sexism.
We tend to like to blame our missteps on ignorance, and very often it is true. What is appalling however is how often we fail to take the time to learn. We expect those with “minority” experiences to be wholly responsible for our sensitisation of their needs. This is not true inclusivity. Audre Lorde in her article Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redifining Difference, laments the fact that it is the oppressed that are expected to build bridges that connect them to the mainstream. It is the oppressed that are supposed to re-package themselves and make themselves intelligible to the ruling classes. The oppressed must learn to speak the language of power. It is up to women to make themselves understandable to men. The poor need to make themselves heard by the rich, and it is up to racial minorities to ensure that they are seen by white society. All the oppressed are supposed to go out of their way to educate others as they are the ones to blame for being subversive and falling outside the paradigm of what is to be considered appropriate and acceptable. How often do those who are in positions of power plead ignorance as the root cause of any and all gaffes they perform? What is particularly interesting is that this ignorance is often accommodated and any apparent efforts made to connect are rewarded. This luxury isn’t afforded to those who fall on the wrong side of dominant yardsticks. This isn’t good enough. Privileged women don’t need to meet other women half way – they need to walk all they way there.
We need to move beyond the place where we are aware of the need to recognise the intersectionality of oppression and get to a place where we are actively combatting it. There is the risk that some people may heed that call of “my feminism is intersectional or my feminism is bullshit” by attempting to find token members under various forms of oppression and think that they’ve done their bit for intersectionality. But tokenism is not the goal here. Indeed patriarchy has long been skilled in finding women to advance its position where necessary. How often have women been beaten by the stick of “well she made it through – clearly there’s something wrong with you” when confronted with sexism? What is necessary is an on-going conversation that cuts across all segments of society, not a conversation that begins only when things have gone wrong and there is a conflict in interests. This does not mean that every women’s group in the world needs to have close interaction with every other one, but there is certainly the need to do so within any given society and certainly before we campaign on behalf of other women whose societies we don’t understand. We need to begin advocating with local women, as opposed to advocating for them. We need to lend our voices to their causes, not drown out theirs.
Patriarchy has always been fond of silencing. That is, patriarchy has always enjoyed being able to pick and choose which voices are legitimate and which are subversive. When attempting to understand the experiences of other women we need to be wary of attempts to question the legitimacy of their views when they don’t appear to fit with accepted knowledge or with our worldview. For example, we must not be surprised when certain women feel their interests best protected by political groups that many have been led to believe are despotic and repressive. Furthermore, we must be willing to understand that within different societies, segments of women are going to prioritise different things in terms of feminist advocacy and agitation. There mustn’t be an assumption that we all need to be on the same page with everything all the time, there must instead be a spirit of co-operation and interest in the developments occurring in the world and within the women’s rights movement.
The power to define allows us to undertake all kinds of shenanigans. Under patriarchy, men have defined their point of view as the objective truth. Without regard to intersectionality and the multifarious experiences of women within any given society, dominant women are at risk of doing the same. It is dominance that allows them to attempt to reach all kinds of conclusions on behalf of everyone else, with the added unwillingness to heed criticism. As feminists we are aware that contributors to oppression don’t need to be malicious. When oppression is institutionalised, it is perpetuated by the simple fact of not being actively confronted. It’s the same with other kinds of oppression. As we advocate for the rights of women, it is important that we advocate for the rights of all women.
It may seem odd that the article seems to have a “them and us” mentality at least partially. This is in recognition of the fact that there are a plethora of power relations at play at any given moment that require navigation at any moment. The fact of the matter is that we are not all the same. This isn’t inherently problematic. The problem arises when we make the fact of difference seem to matter so much.