Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Black Feminism: The Art of Resistance

Calling all black* women! *We use the term 'black' in its political sense, to refer to all African, Asian, bi-racial, indigenous, Middle Eastern and Latin American women/ women with the above heritage or background.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Why we need to dismantle the myth of ‘Western’ feminism

by Chitra Nagarajan

This blogpost is a revised (and abbreviated) version of what I said on a panel discussion recently at King’s College, Cambridge. Other panellists at their ‘Why is Feminism a Global Phenomenon?’ Women’s Event included Katherine Ronderos of the Central American Women’s Network, Humeira Iqtidar of King’s College, Cambridge and Ellah Allfrey of Granta magazine.

Why is feminism a global phenomenon?

Worldwide, only 18 countries have women as leaders in power today – out of 192 nations. Up to one billion women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetimes. Trafficking of women and girls was reported in 85% of conflict zones. 82 million girls now aged 10 to 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Literacy rates for women in Africa, Asia and Latin America are substantially lower than those of men.

We live in a world in which patriarchy combines with racism, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world in which, no matter where you are or who you are, life is not the same for women as it for men. What is feminism if not providing space to resist this? Women’s rights ideas and activism are seen everywhere in the world because every single community and country on this planet has profoundly entrenched inequalities between women and men, and hierarchies of power and dominance based on difference – be it gender, ethnicity, religious, economic class, caste or regional difference. As Kofi Annan, the then United Nations Secretary General said in 2005, ‘When it comes to violence against women, there are no civilised societieshalf of humankind lives under this threat -- in every continent, country and culture, regardless of income, class, race or ethnicity.

The main argument that comes up when you talk about feminism or women’s rights internationally is that it is an invention of ‘the West’ imposed on other countries in a form of cultural imperialism. Not only does this have very little basis in reality and is deeply condescending, but it is an argument largely perpetuated and accepted by male elites to justify their actions. You talk with women and they will tell you something completely different. It does not hurt less when a woman is abused just because it takes place in Afghanistan, or China, or Columbia, or Guinea. Women do not see their rights as something that is alien. The feminist story belongs to all women, everywhere. We need to represent matters accurately.

Despite the strength and purpose of activism in Africa, Asia and Latin America, women in ‘foreign’ countries are automatically construed as weak, defenceless and faceless, amalgamated into a mass of vulnerability. In reality, women’s activism, against violence, poverty, destruction of their homes and environments and for peace, justice and education is alive and flourishing everywhere. Very real issues and vulnerabilities exist for women all over the world, and these of course differ depending on context. However, from my own experiences, women’s rights activists in China, India, Liberia and Rwanda are light-years ahead in thinking, mobilisation and strategy and sheer passion and energy.

Have we forgotten the role women played in the struggle for freedom in South Africa, in ending the war in Liberia, standing against ‘disappearances’ in Argentina and in independence movements all over the world? Are we ignoring the continuing importance in ensuring equal parliamentary representation in Rwanda and demanding democracy in much of the Middle East? At this very moment, it is women who are at the forefront of the marches calling for peace in Côte d’Ivoire at present, and women being killed for it. How can we not honour these actions?

Women engage in feminist activism all around the world and insights of gender power imbalances are universal. Interestingly, it is women I’ve come across who live in Europe and North America who are most likely to resist the term ‘feminism.’ Activists everywhere frame their world using common ideas; the fight against women’s oppression and exploitation and for emancipation. Many activists, such as Feminists in Resistance in Honduras, explicitly use the term feminist. Feminists in the UK may wince when they use the term ‘patriarchy,’ feeling it carries with it a definite taste of the old school, but it is an idea that is felt and a term which is used with ease elsewhere. Women I have known in China, Guinea, India, Liberia and Rwanda know what patriarchy is, know what militarised and fundamentalist forms of masculinity do and, even if they are unable to speak openly about these things, in many ways, have a more nuanced and deeper understanding of patriarchy and gender relations than most long-standing feminist activists that I know in London.

These may not be conversations that we have openly but these are conversations we have had in private for generations. Conversations with family, friends and colleagues have opened my mind to new ways of thinking and continue to do so. A woman's rights activist told me when I was last in Liberia that she considers polygamy to be a form of violence against women. This analysis is not mentioned in international human rights law but it is what activists are saying in countries where polygamy is practiced, from Indonesia, to India, to Liberia. I have heard some of the most radical critiques of the institution of marriage and ‘good wife’ ideals, not from feminist activists and academics in the UK, but from my family and friends in India. In China, sexual harassment and being asked to sleep with interviewers in a tough job market was a very real concern to my friends in their final year of university, and they themselves attributed it to men being valued so highly that women are asked to ‘give a little something extra’ to be considered. When I was in Guinea last year, I was thrilled to see one of my colleagues from Sierra Leone had covered her notebook with quotes about definitions of feminism. (I promise there was no intervention from me there).

We need to shift and broaden our gaze to reconfigure the terrain of what consists of feminist and activist, to look up and see the interconnectedness of our world. We in the UK live in a position of power, in a country that exports violence and capitalism. In recent history, the UK and its partners have waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, engaging in ex post facto rationalisation of military actions by the instrumentalisation of the rights of women and gender equality that has actually made it more difficult to talk about women’s rights. Consumers in the UK buy products not only made by the sweat and blood of workers exploited by international companies but which also fuel wars, such as that occurring in Congo. We walk past houses in which women and girls trafficked into this country live and in which they are forced to work and be sexually abused by men who then walk out into the streets free while the women remain trapped. We live under an immigration system that denies women’s claims and sends them back to countries where they are likely to endure further torture and abuse. The thirst for petrol of the global power holders causes environmental disasters that destroy the lives of those who live there. We need to have a more nuanced understanding of who and what are the perpetrators, what the human rights of women mean in practice and who is protecting and promoting them.

When talking about women’s representation in decision making, a woman a few months ago said, ‘If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.’ Where do you think she was? Any guesses? It was actually a woman in Zambia who said this, but the reality behind those sentiments hold true all over the world, including in this country. Lack of political and economic power, women’s poverty, female genital mutilation, sex selective abortions, forced marriage, dowry deaths… How can anyone say we’ve achieved gender equality –anywhere in the world? Women are definitely still on the menu. For me, feminism is about is about putting on the glasses and seeing the world for what it really is, and then taking action. There are feminists activists all around the world doing just that, to ensure our vision of a better, freer, more just and equal society. As a result, the question for me is not, why is feminism a global phenomenon but rather, how can it be anything else?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

No minorities in the English countryside, or in Midsomer Murders

by FeministaSista

Just listening to the Today Programme and apparently the creater of Midsomer Murder has been suspended for claiming that there was no place in the programme for ethnic minorities.  This story has been widely reported in The Telegraph, Guardian, BBC News and so on.

Am I surprised?  Well, no considering the funny looks and remarks minorities often face when 'venturing out of the cities'.  If you don't believe me, take a look at the first episode of the new reality tv show on Channel 4OD - Love Thy Neighbour.  A black family with three young boys are competing with a white stepfamily to win a house in an 'idylic' village, but immediately on arrival they were gawked at as if the villagers had spotted a new species.  Perhaps they had, as some of the locals mentioned that their children had never seen a black face before, apart from on tv I'm presuming.

Then we cut to a number of vox-pops from villagers wondering if they would fit in, and stating that 'some' people just wouldn't like it.  I suppose we were supposed to be somewhat uplifted when they beat the other family to go through to the next round, but the programme left a bitter taste in my mouth.

It will be interesting to see if there is a blacklash to the suspension of Brian True-May, after all he did create a successful series and they are hard to come by.  And is it racism if you're simply recreating the reality which exists in villages throughout England?  As supposed to projecting an idealistic (but possibly unrealistic) notion of multiculturalism on our tv screens?

What really sticks in my throat is the assertion that True-May believes the lack of black faces is the reason for it's popularity.  Is this because the series harks back to 'the good old days' when everyone was English and looked the same?

The logical conclusion which follows from that line of reasoning is that you can't be black and English.  But do people still think that in 2011?

Monday, 14 March 2011

UN Women

by Lola Okolosie
UN Women.  Never heard of it?  Well, that is not altogether a surprise.  News of its launch was lost amidst coverage of the North African political uprisings.  In a week in which we celebrate 100 years of International Woman’s Day, it  seems apt, then, to remind people of this little known organization.

Set up to ‘champion’ equality for women on the global stage, its remit encompasses tackling violence against women; advocating for female involvement in politics and making the economic argument for women’s equality.   In the Asia Pacific region alone, it is estimated $40 billion is lost each year as a result of women’s limited access to employment.  Such statistics remind us of the urgency with which the issues linked to gender equality, in an age of ever increasing globalization, are a serious concern for all.

UN Women replaces four smaller organizations, themselves hindered by poor funding.   A lack of adequate financial support threatens to render this new body as ineffectual as its predecessors.  Only a handful of the UN’s member nations have made core-funding commitments, both the UK and US governments remain conspicuous in their absence.  Such inaction could make the organization and its director, Michelle Bachelet, toothless lions, existing merely as representational mascots to gender equality.

In July 2010 International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, supported the setting up of the organization.  Indeed, he was “relishing the opportunity to work with the single powerful agency which will have responsibility for promoting the rights of women across the world, and ensuring gender equality.” He qualified this statement by urging ‘UN [Women] to get started with delivering real change on the ground quickly.’  The question is, how can this be done when it faces a funding shortfall of £312 million?

Kathy Peach, Head of External Affairs at VSO UK welcomes Mitchell’s enthusiasm.  However, for many gender equality campaigners, empty support is not enough.  Peach  argues that “it is now time for the Government to put funding behind its words and commit a minimum of £21 million in core annual funding to UN Women so it can start to deliver real change for millions of women.’

Over 400 events were held to mark the centenary of International Women’s Day and to celebrate what has been achieved in that time.  The congratulatory tones of the last week must not lead us to forget one key fact; we are still a long way from winning the battle for women’s equality.   It’s time to put the proverbial money where the mouth is, Mr Mitchell.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Seven inspirational African feminists

By Minna Salami. This post is a modified version of a post on MsAfropolitan
1. Nawal El-Saadawi – The Egyptian novelist, essayist and physician, whose works have have the central theme of women’s oppression and desire for self-expression has written books that have been banned in Egypt and some other Arab countries. It’s no surprise that she might rub people the wrong way: claims such as ‘all women are prostitutes in one way or another’ because patriarchy forces women to sell their bodies at a price, and that the lowest paid body is that of a wife, are not likely to be popular. El-Saadawi writes in her book ‘Woman at Point Zero’:
“They said, “You are a savage and dangerous woman.”
I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”
2. Waangari Maathai - The first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize is a spokesperson for ecofeminism, she was also the first East African woman to hold a doctorate, but what she refers to as ‘the tragedy of her life’ was the sexism she encountered at university in Kenya which meant she was unable to continue her academic work.
Her ex-husband is to have said that he wanted a divorce because she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”.
3. Ama Ata Aidoo - The Ghanaian novelist was once asked in an interview how she deals with people saying that she learnt to be a feminist abroad-out of Africa and how she learnt to give voice to the silenced African woman. Aidoo replied, “…if the women in my stories are articulate, it is because that is the only type of women I grew up among. And I learnt those first feminist lessons in Africa from African women.”
Discussing the misconception that most female African writers that write about women’s issues are not feminist, Aidoo rejects those suggestions in her case, saying: “how much more loudly should I declare my feminism?”
4. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The Nigerian writer has referred to herself as a feminist who likes to wear lipgloss. I kind of like that because even though it’s absolutely fine to not wear lipgloss, or make up, it points out that women can like make up and be feminist. 
5. Bisi Adeleye – Fayemi - Nigerian/Ghanaian feminist activist Adeleye can claim the impressive titles of social entrepreneur, organisational development practitioner, fundraiser, trainer, writer and last and perhaps most significantly, the Executive Director and co-founder of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), an Africa-wide grantmaking foundation for African women’s organisations. She has said:
I am a feminist because I am angry. I am angry because despite what most constitutions, laws, policies andscriptures say, women are still treated as second-class beings. The lives of women and girls do not seem to mean as much as the lives of men and boys.
And also:
I am a feminist because I have hope. I have hope in the love, brilliance and creativity of my sister feminists, who rise and rise again.
6. Shailja Patel - On her blog, the Kenyan writer and poet quotes another huge inspiration of mine, Arundhati Roy.
‘A feminist is a woman who negotiates herself into a position where she has choices,’ Arundhati Roy says and Patel embraces that as her favourite definition of feminism.
7. Jessica Horn - A poet with ‘roots in Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon and the shadows of New York’s Yankee stadium’, Horn has commited her creative and professional life to exploring women’s experience and advocating for respect of women’s rights. She says:
I was raised by a woman that I have come to recognise as a revolutionary mother, who used the act of mothering as a process of education and affirmation for the minds and sensibilities of her children. From this upbringing I learned that the real catalyst for liberation is neither force nor discourse, but the revolutionary power of love.

If you would like to find out about more African feminists you can visit AWDF for a list of 50 inspirational African feminists.

Would you like to share a feminist inspiration with us?