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.