03/07/2013

Goodbye School!

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Finishing my A-levels and saying goodbye to school was a weird experience for me, because I wasn't quite aware of how much I'd actually miss it all. Especially the important stuff like seeing my friends every single day or getting motivational speeches from members of the RE department, but just the whole environment of my sixth form was just really crucial in my development as a person. I mean, it wasn't really perfect, I didn't really like everyone in my year, and by the end of it, I was ready to move on. Leaving year eleven wasn't as huge a deal, because despite everyone proclaiming it to be the end of an era, almost everyone was back two months later. I still haven't emptied out my locker, so I will inevitably be back in school at some point to collect my notes on Elizabeth I, and I have promised my teachers that they will see me again - either in person, when I invite myself in for tea, or when I am on the news, busy being a foreign correspondent or human rights activist or whatever. 

The main reason that I didn't write an awful lot during the last year is not just because I was supposed to be revising for exams. (In fact, I got through the first two seasons of Game of Thrones when I should have been memorising the poetry of John Donne, but anyway.) It's just that, for the last few months especially, I wanted to focus on my social life. I want to remember the small adventures I've had with my friends, the ridiculous discussions with my classmates, the stunts pulled by my eccentric teachers. Like, I am going to remember my History teacher's theory about the collapse of the USSR being due to the influence of Dallas, and my RE teacher bringing order to the class during a debate on Jay Z and the illuminati by shouting "I'm going to pull a Khrushchev" before proceeding to pull his shoe off and hit it against the table. I wanted to just appreciate the time I have with my group of "angry young feminists" before we end up living in different parts of the country. Another reason why I hadn't updated is that I felt far too pressured to be be very serious, as this is supposedly my serious Grown Up Girl Blog.

After spending a huge amount of the time before exams stuck in my room, the last thing on my mind after finishing was hardly going to be sitting in front of a screen, trying to think of something to write. Recently, I found my trusted "A Room of One's One" notebook in which I had jotted notes from a lot of events that I attended - supposedly to write up about on this blog, but I never got round to it. Therefore, the point of this rambling introduction is to re-cap some of those events. 

Islam and the Politics of Resistance: the case of women in Iran

For some reason, I had decided to burden myself in my last year of school with the extended project. After months of turning up to the meetings with no work done on it beyond marking out passages in Edward Said's Orientalism that I wanted to use, I realised that a) I need a more specific topic than just "orientalism and feminism", and b) I needed to work that out quickly. Fortunately, I had heard of this free lecture at LSE through Ananya and it ended up helping my project focus on the history of women's rights in Iran over the last hundred or so years.

If you want to listen to it yourself, there's a podcast of the event here. Baroness Afshar argued that Iranian feminists are uninterested in Western feminism, and in fact, have been attempting to make gains for women's rights within an Islamic framework. She highlighted the importance of education on religious texts and access to judiciary in bringing positive changes in women's lives, such as the rise of women in further education. She also eloquently highlighted the battle on two fronts that women have to deal with - the misogyny within their own cultures, and the imperialist chants of liberals who want to "save them". Another point she made was that "women's dress code should not be a focus of obsession" - pointing out that Western feminists often make the wearing of the hijab as the sole area of oppression, and spoke about the economic sanctions that disproportionately affect the poor and often the women, who struggle to find employment.

My project ended up being a 5,000 word rant about orientalism, and its legacy in discussing the rights of women in the Middle East. The lecture was one of the things I used, alongside this excellent piece at Ajam Media Collective: "Misreading Feminism & Women's Rights in Tehran: Beyond Chadors, Ninjabis, & Secular Fantasies". I also used this piece by Homa Hoodfar, and of course, Lila Abu-Lughod's popular piece "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?" One of the books I read for my university interviews was her ethnography Veiled Sentiments and since then, I've been trying to read as much of her as I can. She's releasing a new book at the end of the year! I am ridiculously excited to read it.

In the words of one of my (former) teachers, "Orientalism is the most you book ever". One of my friends told me that in a lesson, a debate started after people spoke about my project presentation and the argument I made, and I'm glad people listened, as I had people asking me for recommendations for books or areas that they should explore.

Sexual Whiteness

Another free lecture I went to called Sexual Whiteness, and it was an exploration of the way that gender and race are viewed in France. Unfortunately, I don't have any detailed notes on this because I was so exhausted on the day, but the thing I remember clearly was in the Q&A section. In fact, it wasn't even a question but a white man stood up and began ranting at length about why he wasn't allowed to join a LGBT+ group specifically for PoC. Everyone in the audience was just sitting like "uh, what did I just hear?" - especially during a lecture that was all about race relations in Europe.

I had actually forgotten about this until I found the only non-wobbly piece of writing from my notebook, which just said "WHAT THE FUCK". Safe spaces are something I've been thinking about an awful lot recently, with the disintegration of a quite large feminist group I had been a member of on Facebook. Honestly, if I had not become friends with other women of colour through that group, I probably would have quit getting involved in feminist spaces completely. After explaining to a white feminist for the millionth time why intersectionality is important - why considering the experience of women other than those who are white, western, cis, and so on, is a necessary part of their feminism - you can just feel exhausted. It's tiring to deal with sexism alongside dehumanising bullshit, which occurs far too frequently in "progressive" spaces I've been in.

This leads quite well into the next thing I want to talk about:

New Statesman feminism debate

Another event that I attended was the New Statesman about "What is the most important issue facing feminism today?" Perhaps because of the format of the debate alongside the time constraints and the huge amount of things that can be covered under the topic heading, there wasn't an awful amount actually covered. The most interesting things that really struck me during this debate were said by Juliet Jacques and Bim Adewunmi, who spoke about the importance of intersectionality in their lives and the way in which race, class, and so on impact their experiences. Bim said at one point "I lived intersectionality before I knew there was a name for it" and at one point, when Girls inevitably came up, one of the members of the panel asked why no one had said this about Friends. Bim smartly said "uh I did", and spoke about how she always noticed the few black characters in Friends - because she never had the option not to, unlike the rest of the panel and the mainly white audience. "Representation means a lot and you don't notice it much because you're the universal".

Dirty Wars

I am going to be totally honest and admit that I haven't had time to actually finish reading Jeremy Scahill's book Dirty Wars, despite owning a lovely signed copy with "in truth and justice" written at the front from attending a talk at the Mosaic Rooms. I couldn't take any notes because we arrived quite late into a room crammed full of people, and I felt uncomfortable enough standing awkwardly on the side of the room enough without trying to dig out a notebook and pen from my bag. At some point this summer, I am going to finish reading it along with his book on Blackwater, but in the mean time, I've been listening to interviews he's given on the topic of the book and I think the Citizen Radio one is particularly interesting. This short video with the Guardian is cool too, and he talks about the criminalisation of journalism.

Most of the year so far has been spent worrying about exams (and eventually, cramming desperately for those exams). I haven't finished a book unrelated to school in an awfully long time, and I haven't really been keeping up with the "real world". Hopefully that will change!


20/01/2013

On Intersectionality

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As I spent part of my Religious Studies lesson complaining with Anna and Lucy about the ridiculous actions of many prominent left-wing feminist journalists over the last few months, I realised pretty quickly that a lot of the people around us had no clue what we were talking about. Therefore, to make what I'm talking about more clear to people that don't spend waste as much time as I do on twitter, here are a few pieces that illustrate the issues that have been rumbling for a while:


I have felt very frustrated recently, and I feel like a lot of it has got do with trying to reconcile myself with my identity as a British Iranian girl - especially with how I often feel uncomfortable in feminist spaces that I'm involved in. When I quote Flavia Dzodan's "my feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit", it is not being said as something that has no impact on my life. No, I need my feminism to be intersectional. To quote Barbara Smith:

“Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”

Suzanne Moore said this in one of her recent articles in the Guardian: “Intersectionality is good in theory, though in practice, it means that no one can speak for anyone else... It refuses to engage with many other political discourses and becomes the old hierarchy of oppression.” The Vagenda wrote a piece along the same lines a couple of months ago that can be summed up as "but intersectionality is hard" as a defence of Caitlin Moran.

That's... not what intersectionality is. As Bim Adewunmi illustrates with this excellent quote:

I am a woman, a black woman born in London to Nigerian parents, a Muslim woman (who does not wear a hijab or veil). I am educated and self-employed but relatively low-earning. These things, as standalones or collectively, define how I see the world. One often bleeds into the other so comprehensively, they seem almost interchangeable. This is, in its most basic form, what we call intersectionality: the idea that we wear a lot of caps, and often in challenging one wrong, we are challenging many. In reading that Moran tweet, my first thought was: “I cannot afford to take off my ‘race cap’ and focus just on the plain ol’ sexism that plagues the television industry; and nor do I want to.”

I have witnessed countless instances of feminists failing to acknowledge intersectionality and for all their talk of solidarity, I can't see an awful lot of "sisterhood" when instead of asking Muslim women from the Middle East about their experiences of sexism, western feminists with no experience, understanding, or knowledge of the region or religion claim that Middle Eastern women need "saving" in order to become "liberated" like them. The idea of asking Middle Eastern Muslim women about their experiences seems utterly remote.

Intersectionality is not saying "no one can speak for anyone else ever, no one is allowed an opinion ever" - it's common sense in standing in solidarity with someone. Will a white, western woman understand the lived experience of a Muslim Middle Eastern woman? Probably not. Would it make more sense to ask them about what they think about a certain issue? Yes. I'm struggling to find the link but I remember reading an article about rape culture in India by a Western feminist. Swell - except instead of including a single quote from an Indian feminist, all of those quoted were also Western feminists. Instead of speaking for people, it would be far better if Western women made space for the voices of non-Western women to be heard.

The fact is that "mainstream feminism" seems to often only think about the views of a certain type of woman, and a lot of the "left" think about the liberation of a certain group of people, as seen in the attitudes of a lot of left-wing journalists recently:

"Freedom for all! Liberation to everyone! Ahem. Did we say everyone? We meant all the white, western cis people, everyone else later.We're fighting for equality! But intersectionality is too hard to think about! It's so hard being "PC" and like, trying to be respectful to minorities. We're on your team, and the Tories are the Real Enemy so don't call us out because you're breaking up the left. Never mind the fact that we're silencing and hurting groups of people who are oppressed by society already. While we think we're revolutionaries, we're actually just maintaining the same systems of oppression. You're being so "silly" and "ridiculous"! We're a part of group X, which basically gives us a pass to use slurs against group Y (as well as decide what group Y can care about and be offended by)."

Vive la révolution? This is the sort of attitude that a lot of people have to being "called out". I know it's not fun but the most important thing to recognise when you've been told that something you've said, done, or written is problematic is that if you are a true "ally", if you are truly on the side of the oppressed, then you are not going to throw a tantrum about being told this. Empty apologies do nothing if you don't learn, understand and try to do better next time. Real radical politics, in my opinion, requires you to reflect on your own privilege as well.

"Power to the people" means power to all the people. It means listening to those who are oppressed by society. It means adjusting your life (including perhaps your use of language) and acknowledging the privileges you do have in society to make left-wing, feminist movements a safe space for everyone - not just white upper-class journalists. We're not going to get it right every time. Lord knows I've made my share of mistakes. But it's about being willing to apologise and admit our mistakes, to listen, to learn and re-learn, to accept critiques - of ourselves, and especially our idols.