There's no place for racism in women's liberation

There's no place for racism in women's liberation
Comment: Intersectionality in feminism means also fighting the structures that dispossess People of Colour, writes Malia Bouattia.
8 min read
07 Mar, 2018
#IWD2018 should also serve as a moment of reflection and strategising for the future [Getty]
Another International Women's Day (IWD) approaches and we certainly have much to celebrate in light of the struggle for women's liberation around the world. 

Recent years have seen a growing focus on sexism and women's oppression across society, from the red carpets of Hollywood to the street, and in workplace struggles, social movements and trade unions.

However, IWD should also serve as a moment of reflection and strategising for the future. We should come together not simply to celebrate our achievements but to identify the challenges ahead and how we will tackle them.

The question of intersectionality continues to be absent from mainstream platforms which claim to champion women.

Today, if we switch on our television screens, the acceptable and digestible, state-approved feminist approach points to Hollywood as "the movement", and it certainly doesn't inform us that the problem goes beyond a few bad apples. Our focus should instead be directed towards the power structures that allow the apples to rot and fester without any consequences, for so long.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair, many celebrated the shift afoot across Hollywood, as women spoke publicly about their experiences of sexual harassment and violence in the industry. 

This was followed by the launch of Time's Up, a platform that would provide survivors with the legal support to take on their abusers in the workplace. This space should certainly be welcomed given that many women wouldn't otherwise have access to the financial means necessary to hold accusers to account before the courts. 

Privilege and wealth can sadly, at times, dictate whether you're able to seek any justice at all. 
The campaign's debut open letter, social media posts and empowering photo-shoots, made clear who the headline faces of the campaign were going to be.
Once again, in the name of sisterhood we were expected to leave racism to one side
While the A-list women looked visibly diverse in their united-against-the-patriarchy poses, the underlying politics that were represented, showed many of us the holes within the project; namely, the lack of ideological intersectionality. It appeared that, once again, in the name of sisterhood we were expected to leave racism to one side.
For example, one of the familiar faces on the 'team' pictures that were released, was that of Lena Dunham. As a public figure, the actress/writer/director's history of problematic statements and actions have practically led her to become the face of 'hipster racism'.

It also doesn't stop at her casual racism that includes Islamophobic posts on social media, or the hyper-sexualisation of black men. Dunham has even taken to defending Girls writer Murray Miller against accusations of rape made by a woman of colour, actress Aurora Perrineau.

Despite the fact that she brands herself a feminist, her hypocrisy and double-standards when it comes to oppression only demonstrate that her feminism is of the white, wealthy, non-intersectional kind.

But perhaps she's reformed? After all, she's now likely to be found with South American and African American actresses leading the fight against sexual harassment and violence.

This is, in many ways, the problem with aesthetically pleasing empowerment campaigns that do not lay down the necessary political foundations for the struggles ahead.

They trade in the application of intersectionality for tokenism, by focusing more on ensuring there is a face for every ethnicity, than the tools to dismantle the structures that inflict and sustain each particular form of misogyny.

Indeed, more time is spent "celebrating" the achievement of establishing the space, than on ensuring it is a sustainable and principled one, which responds to the demands of the movements on the streets.

One might expect, at this point in history, there would be a broad set of universal principles underpinning any efforts at liberation, especially supposedly inclusive feminist ones.

Yet, when it comes to some of the intersections of gender and race, it feels as though the particular violence experienced by women living under occupation, dodging drones and white phosphorus, or being raped and killed by groups created in the aftermath of US-western military occupations, are completely overlooked.

Individuals such as Gal Gadot can be an IDF supporter and former soldier, in defense of the illegal occupation of Palestine, and at the same time be presented to us as a 'sister' in the struggle, who bravely leads by example for girls and women around the world. 
Today, we cannot afford to pick and choose who is worthy of dignity, equality and freedom
The creator of, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, put it best when she wrote an open letter to Gadot, in which she discussed the international solidarity needed to free Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian girl arrested and held in an Israeli jail. Al-Khatahtbeh stated:

"I believe that there are a few things we should all be able to agree on, and standing against the mass incarceration of children feels like it should be an easy one. 

"Regardless of whatever political convictions you may hold, I have to believe that every woman, especially the current face of Wonder Woman, can agree that Israel must free a 16-year-old girl from its prison system and military courts. There must be some lines drawn upon which our humanity can collectively agree."

Al-Khatahtbeh declined the Revlon's Changemaker Award that celebrated a campaign headed up by Gal Gadot to call-out the flawed approach to women's empowerment. She addressed the hypocrisy in having such work led by women who seem to uncritically support a system that oppresses countless Palestinian women, and even imprisons them as young girls.

Similarly, America Fererra went to visit troops in Iraq in 2010. Does she regret that? Do her "sisters" in the Time's Up campaign discuss the way the military industrial complex feeds violence and death of women in the global South?

Is the new movement also concerned with women in Yemen, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia and Syria, among others?

Are they concerned with the lives of working class and racialised women at home, who bear the brunt of the violence of the traumatised men who return home? And what about all those black women who suffer violence and discrimination at the hands of the state? Where are their voices, their badges, their space?

The disconnect between the theory and practice of intersectional feminism was also clearly demonstrated at the BAFTAS in London last week.

Actors and actresses brought an activist, a voice from the movement, to the awards ceremony as their plus one.

While it was pleasant to see many on the front lines of social justice dressed in beautiful clothes and walking down the red carpet, it also felt uncomfortable - a very brief moment, a performance, with little substance.

The all-black attire of the guests, and the Time's Up badges didn't appear linked to a strategy, or long term commitment to the struggles that each campaigner represented. Nor did it reflect any actual disruption of the structural factors that have undermined and tossed aside such voices in the past.

The show-largely-went on as usual.

But, Sisters Uncut decided to be the disruption that was otherwise lacking.

They stormed the red carpet in T-shirts that read 'Time's Up Theresa May' to protest the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, which will have a devastating impact on survivors who are more likely to be criminalised than supported through the proposed policies.

Sisters Uncut highlighted their intention to "add another voice to the global Time's Up campaign against gender-based violence, by demanding that the government meet their obligations to support all survivors of domestic abuse".

And while protests doesn't necessarily have to take the form of direct action, an international campaign that attempts to unite the experiences of all women who have faced oppression by proclaiming #MeToo, should surely seek to take on institutionalised misogyny, wherever its advocates go.

It may seem unfair to focus so heavily on the politics of a few celebrities, or even petty.

After all, it is surely positive that they are making the case against sexism from their platform. 

Yes, but we should also highlight what and who is being silenced, as well as celebrate the spotlight and megaphone given to the issue of sexism.

We must avoid falling into replicating superficial performative politics and always ask that we go further, deeper, and more actively into the struggle against the structures of oppression.

We have recently celebrated 100 years since (some) women in the UK could vote.

The debate about intersectionality and depth of politics is not new.

Sylvia Pankhurst, a leading figure of the suffragette movement, already fought the leadership of the women's liberation struggle at the time for their failure to incorporate international solidarity, anticolonial, and working class politics in their vision of a better future.

She fought the rise of fascism, racism and exploitation, and developed deep ties with leading figures in the global South. She famously described her struggle as aiming to "create a society where there are no rich or poor, no people without work or beauty in their lives, where money itself will disappear, where we shall all be brothers and sisters, where everyone will have enough".

Women's liberation for Pankhurst was part and parcel of the struggle for a different world, free of oppression and poverty for all.

Today, we cannot afford to pick and choose who is worthy of dignity, equality and freedom either.

Fighting against the structures that uphold sexism and misogyny can only be effective if it also targets the structures that kill and dispossess People of Colour at home and abroad, the structures that exploit working people the world over, and the structures that hold all of us down, so a few can continue to prosper.

In fact you don't stand up for everyone, you're barely standing up for yourself. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.