Friday, 6 February 2015

Gender Justice, Intersectionality and What My Feminism Means to Me

That title is a bit heavy-sounding, I realise (and probably a little misleading, as this post will not be the meaty 5000-word essay a title like that would lead one to expect), but I was having a conversation with my colleagues yesterday, and it helped to solidify a lot of things I've only been aware of peripherally in my own journey as a gender justice advocate.

It was announced that Chimamanda Adichie is in the running for a Grammy this Sunday, thanks to the excerpt of her 'We Should All Be Feminists' speech that Beyonce featured in 'Flawless***', and this news sparked an interesting debate about feminism in the African(?) context.

One of my coworkers insisted that feminism is a 'Western' import and has no real relevance here, implying that African feminists are mindlessly replicating a struggle that has no bearing on our lives. I found that incredibly difficult to stomach, because apart from his ahistorical analysis which 'proved' that African women are not oppressed (on the basis of matrilineal inheritance laws that may or may not apply in some communities and events like the Aba women's riots), he persisted in saying that women in African societies are empowered, despite hearing testimony from the mostly female group about how our lived experiences prove the exact opposite.

It was interesting to see how, despite real people providing real evidence to this intelligent person, he refused to even acknowledge that  he could be wrong. His worldview and intellectual position on a matter which he was not an authority on (based on the absence of either any real research or lived experience) were more important than the actual reality; it was easier, safer, I will even argue, to hold on to the comfortable and familiar delusion of a world where women of African descent are safe and happy, than to engage with the reality as presented by actual women of African descent.

An interaction on twitter yesterday between Rosie O'Donnell and Lauren Chief Elk ran along similar, albeit more violent lines; Lauren asked Rosie to pose critical questions to a guest billed to come on her show, Eve Ensler. Eve is a prominent White feminist whose work has been critiqued over the years by marginalised women; women of color, trans women and female children have been harmed by the erasure and exploitation that characterises Ensler's activism (see a Google search of 'critiques of Eve Ensler' here).

Rosie's response was violent, disproportionate and racist: she dismissed the (legitimate) questions as being a 'cruel attack', used images of herself with Black girls to 'prove' that she was not racist (as if proximity equals respectful engagement), used a racist slur on Lauren, and even said that she and/or Eve Ensler, both of whom are rich, White, cis-gendered women, have 'done more for women of colour than any woman of colour'.

Needless to say, I was genuinely horrified by her behaviour. But as I thought about it, I realised the parallels between her 'rationale' and my colleague's: We all have biases and prejudices that prop up our worldview which determine whose voice we consider valid/valuable, as well as determining which narratives we dismiss whenever they conflict with our constructed perception of reality. It is my theory that the more privilege one has in an oppressive system, the stronger the effect of these biases on one's ability to reason and to adapt one's ideas upon receiving new information.

I used to get angry with people like my colleague and Rosie, but there are way too many of them in the world. Shit gets exhausting, fam. Now I just use this knowledge to check myself. Oppression is rarely a linear thing; there are intersecting sliding scales of oppression and privilege, depending on the context of any interaction within the system.

Despite being an areligious dark-skinned, unwed African mother uninvested in performing femininity and living on the continent (which therefore places me quite low on the 'value' scale in the neo-colonial capitalist patriarchy that holds sway in most 'Third World' regions and in the White supremacist capitalist patriarchy in the West), I still have privilege based on my status as educated, middle-class, cis-gendered, and urban. There are many, many, many struggles that I can not identify with and in many cases am not even aware of, because they are simply not my story.

Yet, the fact that something is not my story does not invalidate that story, nor does it make it untrue. Gender activism in my region is far from being inclusive (I have many theories as to why this is, but this post is way too long already), and the only truly transformative way we can progress in fighting for 'women's rights' (notice how in activist-speak, 'women' generally means straight and cis-gendered females), the only way we can effectively intervene in the issues affecting marginalised groups that are not like those of us privileged to have the education, resources and platforms that enable us to call ourselves activists, is to share our platform, de-center ourselves when we purport to be allies, and amplify the voices of these groups rather than claiming to speak for them.

In summary, it is vital to listen. Even when it is uncomfortable, we must. Even when it challenges our ideas and shifts what we perceive as 'reality', we must. Progress for some marginalised groups is not progress for all (mainstream White feminists and Real Housewives of the Nigerian NGO, I'm looking at you). We must discard the ridiculous notion that oppression is a binary of powerful and not powerful, and that everyone is always and forever either one or the other. And we must leave no oppressed person behind. This is what my feminism, as an African woman, demands.

What does your activism demand?


  1. This is so timely. I actually had a long conversation with a very rich friend last weekend about the politics of privilege and how because we are severely marginalised in one way (race or gender) doesn't invalidate the fact that we are also privileged in other ways. People need to realize that. They need to embrace both their privilege and their marginalisation and work equally to address both.

    1. I agree with you completely. Thanks for commenting!