All posts tagged feminism

  • Dark girls, rise- shadeism and internalised racism

    This week, I guested on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, taking shadeism with Dr Jude Smith Rachele. Jude organised the recent screening of Dark Girls in London- a US based documentary film interviewing several black women on their experiences of having their worth and beauty weighted on the shade of their skin. The film is powerful and resonates with scores of women battling white supremacist, Eurocentric beauty ideals in Africa, Asia and diaspora communities. You can watch a preview of the film here. Try not to cry.

    Shadeism, or colourism, is a devastating by product of living with the consequences of structural racism. However it is dressed up, it is the adulation of light skin, and the demonisation of dark skin.  I guess we can’t spend years trying escape colonialism without internalising some of it’s toxic ideologies. In our conversation, I tried to bring light to the fact that this white supremacist ideology can be reinforced from all areas- your family, the magazines you read- and that we need to make a conscious decision to reject the sexist, racist beauty ideals that have been foisted upon us without our permission.

    You can hear our conversation about the topic on Woman’s Hour here.

  • Our priorities are not the same.

    ‘Not every community has the same goals or the same needs. This takes us back to Step 1. Listen to what is being said, understand that just because your community functions a different way that doesn’t make it better [… ]Frankly, I couldn’t care less about whether or not someone changes their last name, or who is shaving what. That stuff is all noise to me, but if that is what matters to you? Great.  Just don’t expect my priorities to match yours.’


    Our priorities are not the same. Earlier today I tweeted Mikki Kendall’s piece on xoJane entitled ‘so you want to be a good ally’. I called it the definitive piece on racism in feminism – because it’s a piece of writing I’ll continue to refer back to over the next few years when I’m asked the questions she addresses in the piece. As a black feminist, there wasn’t much that I hadn’t heard before, but I feel like I learnt from the paragraph I’ve quoted above.  In particular, it helped me to understand and articulate the complete lack of sympathy I’ve been feeling for high profile feminist campaigns recently.

    I’ve not always felt like this. Those who’ve known me for years will know that I’ve often been vocally supportive of plenty of feminist campaigns have been in the news.  These campaigns are almost always headed up by white women, and if they are not, they are rarely branded as feminist. The recent win by anti FGM organisation Daughters of Eve, headed up by FGM campaigner Nimko Ali, is a very pertinent example of this.

    The race dynamics in feminist campaigning is inherently unbalanced- we can’t escape the structures of a racist society unless we’re always vigilant of it. There comes a point in any unbalanced relationship when you realise that there is a lack of mutual support. So, though I might resonate with these campaigns in theory, in practice I can see the shiny veneer of white universalism, and I wonder if that campaign was ever really relevant to me at all.

    And when it comes to black feminist campaigning, these women are not there. I’m expected to support you, but when I ask you to support me, you’re not there.  Our priorities are not the same, and when it comes to intersections, we can’t split them up.

    Feminist activism, work, and campaigning is a broad church. And this is why I like Mikki’s paragraph- she articulates my feelings on the most publicised aspects of feminist activism. But she doesn’t dismiss that those high profile priorities are important to some- she just says that it’s foolish to kid yourself that they’re priorities for all feminist women. We’re not a homogenous group. A host of our topics are important, but our priorities must not be surrendered to existing unjust power structures. I feel the same.

  • On race, feminism and activism- my speech for UK Feminsta Summer School 2013

    I delivered the following speech at UK Feminista’s Summer School. A few people have asked about the content of my speech, so I thought I’d post it here. I understand that UK Feminista will be hosting video from the weekend shortly, so keep a look out for that also! Trigger warning below for discussion of sexual assault.

    At summer school this year, there are some vital sessions centring on building your own feminist groups- which I think is fantastic. When I first started getting involved in feminism a few years back, I always found myself dismayed when I was the only black face in the room.  If you are white and in charge of a feminist space, you might sometimes find yourself wondering why black women aren’t involved in your work.

    Before I go any further, I must specify that during this talk I will be using the word black in the political sense.  This term is for people who self- identify, originate or have ancestry from global majority populations (i.e. African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin America) and Indigenous and mixed race backgrounds. The phrasing has roots in the civil rights movement. I find it much more liberating that reducing myself to an ‘ethnic minority’ or defining myself against that which I lack- the term ‘non- white’.

    Secondly, I’d like to tackle what’s sometimes referred to as the burden of representation. Inevitably, in a political sphere so heavily dominated by white voices, what I say is too often misrepresented as the ‘black women’s opinion’. Indeed, the nature of some of the work I do depends on this characterisation- that’s a compromise I have to make in order to be heard. But I need to stress that I’m not talking on behalf of anyone here but myself- if other black women agree, then that’s a bonus.

    I’m going to speak to you today about intersectionality and privilege, both concepts that have been very much trashed in the national press. But first I’ll tell you a bit of my story.

    I first attended at UK Feminista summer school a couple of years back. I learnt a lot and made some friends for life, but I also found myself confronted by some incidents that made me feel unwelcome as a black woman who is also a feminist. There wasn’t a big single moment- more of a dripping tap of signifiers that conditioned me to stay quiet about race for fear of rocking the boat.

    On the first morning, someone had taken the time to scrawl the word ‘why?’ on the sign-up sheet for a black women only session. As feminists, we understand the importance of self-defining women only spaces, so that was jarring to see. In a session looking at beauty standards in fashion magazines, I found myself in the position of having to explain that light skinned standards of beauty could not seriously be equated with the fact that many models have long hair. I found myself explain to a white woman that she could grow her hair in an attempt to aspire to these beauty standards, but I can’t change the colour of my skin.

    It was painful watching a white woman and a Muslim woman argue about the burqua- an argument prompted because the white woman insisted that the conference was not focusing enough on the evils of Islam, and that Muslim women needed to be saved.

    Each of these moments of casually discounting the experiences of black women made for an unwelcoming environment. This isn’t an indictment of UK Feminista as an organisation. Panels like this one prove that race and intersectionality are on the agenda and are important. But it is indicative of a wider problem.

    Our national discourse on race is warped beyond logic. Feminism is not immune to this. Every meaningful discussion about race centres on white feelings instead of black truth. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been accused of racism against white people for daring to discuss the consequences of a white dominated political atmosphere.

    We seem to be in a state of colour-blindness, in which people insist that they ‘don’t see race’. This is a state of denial. When I repeatedly fail to see a reflection of my race in images of power, politics, influence, wealth, aspiration or beauty, I cannot afford to ignore the problem.

    Black feminist academics bell hooks and Kimberle Crenshaw use term the white supremacy to conceptualise a landscape in which white is considered the norm. It’s less to do with the KKK, and more to do with the current state of play.

    There are of course other factors that contribute to an unjust status quo, such as class, gender, disability, and sexuality. What is important is that none of these struggles are separate, and none of these struggles are hierarchical. Smashing the patriarchy whilst propping up other systems of dominance is useless (though it might help accelerate a few careers). In our fights, we recognise our privileges in conforming to the status quo and understand that these factors can often intersect. That is intersectionality.

    The thing about insidious racism and insidious sexism is your narrative is constantly doubted. As a survivor of sexual assault I can draw clear parallels between both of these states. You might confide in a friend about your experience of assault, and you can quite easily find yourself confronted with a wall of denial. Some will be very invested in proving you wrong. Perhaps you’re just straight up lying, perhaps you provoked your attacker, perhaps you were asking for it.  Expressing experiences of racism elicits a similar response. You have no proof that it was racism; you’re being over sensitive, you are playing the race card.

    This victim blaming conversation will centre on the feelings of the person accused. Before reporting my sexual assault I was strongly warned to consider my attacker’s future career prospects, because, by reporting, I was ‘ruining his life’.  When I wrote honestly about my experiences of racism, I was told that I was making a very serious accusation, that I had upset a lot of people; that I was cynically trying to make a name for myself, that I was trying to ‘shut down debate’ and stop white people talking.

    I’ve outlined some of the problems I’ve faced in white feminist spaces today. Truth be told, many of the attitudes I’ve faced over the past year have almost succeeded in driving me away from feminist activism altogether. Debates around feminism in the mainstream press, some of which I have initiated or participated in, have been dominated by white voices. Debates about intersectionality and privilege have been less about meaningful conversations and more about white people passing the ball to each other. The women who deride and dismiss intersectionality in the press stand to gain from an overwhelmingly white feminist consensus. I’m sad, but not surprised to see that this consensus has pushed marginalised voices of black and transgender women to the fringes, again and again.

    When I consider the future of any kind of inclusive feminism, I can’t imagine it without intersectionality.  I’m not the first black woman to say this. It began with Sojourner Truth asking ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ back in 1851. Michelle Wallace was saying the same thing in the 1970s. In the 1980’s bell hooks was writing it, in the 90’s Angela Davis was teaching it. I’m sitting here in 2013, yet I don’t feel I can confidently say we’ve made any sort of progress.

    I’m optimistic for the future, and I’d like to be proved wrong.

  • Young people, porn and consent

    I wrote a guest blog post for Simon Blake, CEO at Brook Charity, on young people, internet porn filters, consent and sex. Read it here

  • What is good porn?

    There is currently a debate in UK feminism about ‘rape porn’ and whether it should be banned. I’ve not yet drawn a conclusion on my thoughts around this, but I do have some questions.

    I wonder if a lot of the framing of this discussion of rape porn is really about violence. Porn by definition requires consent. The people participating in the scenes are workers. So ‘rape porn’ here is a bit of an oxymoron. As feminists we understand rape to be sex that has taken place without consent. No grey areas. We also know that rape does not always involve violence (the realities of rape are often very divorced from the stereotypical stranger jumping out of the bushes with a knife in a dark alleyway).  It’s really important to stress the point that rape does not always involve violence. My own sexual assault did not leave me with bruises on my body but I suffered the mental health repercussions for a very long time afterwards.

    However there is a discussion to be had here about simulated scenes of sex without consent, scenes that sometimes depict violence, enacted by paid actors and if/how this contributes to the rape culture that we live in.

    I read this piece by @chiller and it got me thinking.

    In it she says “People getting off on abuse is people getting off on abuse, and we need to start calling it.”

    Without ascribing a value judgement to this statement I want to explore the implications of a consensus that this kind of porn is bad- a consensus that could become concrete if the government moves to make it illegal.

    When we determine the porn that is bad, we may as well go one step further determine the porn that is good. However, I feel that this step is hindered by a further feminist consensus that all porn is bad full stop. Honestly, I don’t think looking at pictures and watching videos of people having sex is a bad thing. But I do have an issue about these pictures and videos created and consumed uncritically, under a white supremacist patriarchy, for profit. If you watch porn you might know the consequences of this- like any visual medium it reflects some of the worst discriminations and prejudices in our society. This made all the more stark when genitals are involved. Sex between women is offered up solely for the titillation of men, sex between white people and black people is classed as marginal and taboo, there are deeply racist narratives regarding white women being debased by groups of black men and a thousand submissive stereotypes of Asian women.

    All the while, there has been concerted effort (though not without significant feminist opposition) to create porn that is focused on woman centred sexual pleasure, from queer porn actresses like Courtney Trouble and feminist directors like Anna Span. Whilst I can’t say I’ve watched any of their work, I do think their work is a step in the direction. However, feminist porn is a molehill compared to the mountain of the porn mainstream. It doesn’t seem quite enough.

    There is a feminist sticking point regarding what our sex and sexuality looks like divorced from patriarchy. It’s a huge topic, and porn that doesn’t pander to a white supremacist, patriarchal gaze goes some way in covering it. One day I’d like to see us at point where we can own our desires, without patriarchy and without slut shaming.

    So this is my question: what does good porn look like?

  • Feminism on the internet

    On racism, call out culture and holding each other accountable for The F Word

    On the democracy of the internet, the return of Spare Rib & how it might work around online feminism for The Guardian


  • Family Planning lecture at LSE- some quick thoughts

    Today’s family planning panel at the LSE provided real food for thought, particularly around human rights and women’s welfare worldwide. It is a fundamental human right of every woman to be able to choose when they want to be pregnant, and a lecture hall full of pro-choice health professionals was nothing less than refreshing.

    The event’s twitter hashtag was #nocontroversy, but it’s safe to say the event wasn’t complete without some anti-choicers slipping through the net and shouting from the floor. I’ve jotted down a few thoughts on the event (which was largely positive).

    An explicitly gendered perspective is absolutely crucial- and it’s something I felt was lacking from the panel. This means crediting the women’s organisations who have championed this cause for years. This means saying the word ‘feminism’ explicitly when talking about the intricacies of the issues. When we talk about vulnerable child brides in developing countries being denied family planning advice because they’re married, we need to address the fact that this intrinsically patriarchal. When we talk about governments worldwide deprioritising and underfunding family planning efforts, this needs to be linked with the fact that women’s issues are too often side-lined in the public sphere. Family planning is a reproductive rights issue- an on-going battle for women across the world to take charge of our destinies, with our reproductive systems not governed or restricted by any state. Let’s talk about the fact that too often, those governing are men, and those restricted by legislation or culture are women. We should be honest, and we should be clear- family planning is a feminist issue.

    A global summit is undoubtedly a good thing, but an emphasis family planning issues in developing countries gives the west an easy way out. 300 miles west, women in a developed country, Northern Ireland, are forced to travel abroad to access abortion services. Kids in the UK are still not receiving compulsory sex education- the key to a holistic approach to reproductive rights. And, whilst the West’s problems pale in comparison to the battles women and girls in the developing world face daily, a panel that doesn’t address these factors paints a false idea of what it’s like to be a woman in the west.

    Celebrity advocates can take important causes and elevate them to high profile status, so it was great to see actress Ashley Judd taking part in the panel. That being said, when member of the Society for Unborn Children (SPUC) provided the floor with an anti-choice rant, it was disappointing to see Judd’s retort centre solely on explaining how important it is that contraceptives prevent abortions. If we are to defend women’s reproductive rights in all forms, we can’t pander to anti-choice rhetoric in any way, shape or form. Judd’s contraception yardstick was used to placate- even reassure- the suited man from SPUC. But those who are anti-choice make their arguments very clear- they oppose all methods of contraception that prevent conception, as well as opposing a woman’s right to access abortion services. Placating their demands with halfway house agreements delegitimises access to abortion in the very same breath as it defends contraception.   We must be clear about out values from the start- there is absolutely nothing wrong with safe and legal access to abortion.

    Opposition to a woman’s right to choose manifests itself in a few tired forms, but the thread linking each is the assumption of some kind of anti-humanity agenda. Defending and promoting reproductive rights has nothing to do with a western conspiracy to reduce population growth in developing countries (as one imaginative audience member suggested), and everything to do with women taking control over our reproductive systems.

    You can read more about the London summit here.

  • Vampires and feminism

    A slight deviation from current politics…

    So, my dissertation paper has been accepted to an academic conference at the University of London’s Institute of Germanic and Romance studies. If you’re interested in literary analysis, vampires, Twilight or feminism, you should try and come! Abstract is as follows:

    ‘Love to her becomes a religion’: The Twilight saga, feminism and regression 

    Traditionally, vampiric stories challenge patriarchal proscription. This paper explores Stephanie Meyer’s deft use of patriarchal gender roles to buck vampiric philosophy’s tendency to challenge the status quo, resulting in putting the modern women firmly back in her subordinate place. Vampires are equipped with the power of penetration, and the dissertation explores this notion to female vampires in the series, and the significant factor of Bella Swan’s eventual vampiric superpower being self- restraint.

    As vampire philosophy often renders human beings weak and female, whilst vampires are strong and male, the paper will also be examining power and control between humans and vampirism in particular, Meyer’s fetishation of female victimhood, and romantic notions of female self-sacrifice using Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 feminist theory The Second Sex to analyse Meyer’s regressive writings.

    Edward Cullen is presented as the monster with a heart, and the epitome of perfection.  Working with the theory of a vampire bite as a metaphor for the loss of female virginity, this paper applies Carol J. Adams’ feminist vegan critical theory The Sexual Politics of Meat directly to the texts in order to expose the close and dangerous relationship between the notions of love, lust, bloodlust, abuse, control, sex and violence- all used repeatedly in the Twilight saga to promote a false idea of romantic love.

    The conference is on the 2nd to the 4th November 2011. Provisional information can be found here– I’ll post up more details (prices, programme ) as and when I get it.

  • Leave them kids alone: On sexualisation

    A shorter version of this post is available on Liberal Conspiracy

    My four year old sister has a pink pair of plastic high heeled shoes. They are not the type of too-big heels that little girls tottered about in years gone by. They fit her little feet perfectly, and she clops about the house in them. She also has a red scooter that she rides along the street, picking up and collecting the elastic bands that postmen drop on their rounds. I ask her why she does these things (wears the heels, collects the bands). Her answer was the same for both. It’s fun. When my sister wears her pink high heels she isn’t vying for the attention of men or boys. She isn’t sexualising herself. Yet when I first saw her teetering about the house in these heels I panicked.  In my grown up mind, a high heel is a shoe designed to make the leg look elongated and sexually appealing. My instinctive protectiveness towards my sister made me want to snatch away the shoes, to dispose of them, to have her running around in trainers again. I didn’t want anyone looking at my sister like a sex object. But upon more thought, I came to the conclusion that the only person sexualising her was me. By assuming she thinks the same about high heels as my adult brain does, I was thinking of her as a being with a comprehensive understanding of sexual consciousness. She isn’t.

    At a recent friend’s family get-together, music was playing, and one six year old got into the spirit by imitating the dance moves she had no doubt seen on TV. She was quickly reprimanded by a fellow party goer who told her not to dance like that, ‘because little girls who dance that way grow up to be whores’. She didn’t understand why she was being told off, and started to cry.

    And yesterday on Question Time, Germaine Greer saw fit to brand little girls in sequined Jordan-pink jeans ‘tarts’.

    Over the past week, lots of concerned adults have seen fit to speak on behalf of children, caught up in the grasping fear that they are all being sexualised beyond anyone’s control. Amidst all of the arm flailing, hand wringing concerns over the sexualisation of children, there has been some blind confusion about exactly who or what is sexualising them.  Reg Bailey, author of the Department for Education’s review into the issue entitled ‘Letting Children be Children‘, is baffled. In his analysis of this increasingly sexualised society, he finds it hard to pin down any cause, admitting ‘it is far from clear how we arrived at this point’.

    Predictably, his much anticipated report was ultimately meaningless, based on emotional unease instead of quantifiable evidence, without even a distinct definition of sexualisation in the first place.  It’s almost depressingly comical to watch commentators and journalists alike repeatedly stumble over and miss the root of this dilemma.

    The perspective of this sexualisation is almost philosophical. Many news reports cite worried parents lamenting the loss of their children’s innocence, but I think it’s worth asking- lost innocence in who’s eyes?

    Children are not sexualising themselves. Adults are sexualising them by projecting adult morality on to them. More often than not, that adult sexual morality is entrenched in sexist ideals. The sexist ideals floated to the surface when that six year old girl was warned she would grow up into a whore if she continued to dance provocatively. Sexist ideals dictate to us that the way a woman or girl dances must reflect how much sex she has had, or wants. Sexism tells us that women don’t just dance for dancing’s sake- like every other female action and endeavour; it’s orchestrated for the benefit of men. Because after all, isn’t that why we function?

    What happens when you project your patriarchal adult moral ideals on to pre-pubescent bodies? The judging starts.  Suddenly little girls are called whores, tarts, sluts.

    This sexualisation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and is indicative of the wider problem of objectification of women’s bodies.  Is it any wonder that these toxic gender roles are filtering down to kids?

    They imitate their idols and we shame and punish them for it. The female idols in question are often regarded with disgust for balancing on the knife edge between daring to announce publicly that they have sexual feelings, and exploiting their sexual imagery. Morality crusaders are quick to let us know that sex is all around us, and that sex sells. But that’s a lie. It’s not sex all around us, but the objectification and consequent marginalisation of women’s bodies, commodified into accessory status. But for some strange reason, nobody wants to talk about that. It’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to challenge patriarchy. It’s easier to wail about this sexualisation of our children, all the while colluding in the myth that all of these sexualising factors are immediately permissible once the girl in question turns eighteen.

    Regulation and legislation will not fix this. Equality will. Free women from these narrow, suffocating gender-fascist ideals of appearance and behaviour, and the girls will follow.

  • Abstinence based sex education is a dangerous message

    I’ve written for The Guardian’s comment is free about Nadine Dorries and her victim blaming on yesterday’s Vanessa Show.

    Tucked away on daytime TV on Monday afternoon, Nadine Dorries was justifying her proposals for elements of abstinence-based sex education for girls. The Vanessa Show saw the Conservative MP go head to head with Julie Bentley, chief executive of the sexual health charity FPA. The women, along with presenter Vanessa Feltz and retired rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio, discussed the bill that was unveiled to the House of Commons two weeks ago.

    When it was first introduced, Dorries insisted her aim was to empower teenage girls to say “no” to sex. There is really nothing empowering about teaching young women that their sexuality is not their own. Abstinence-based sex education teaches girls that sex isn’t something that they participate in – instead, it’s something they give in to. Towards the end of the debate, Dorries said:

    “A lot of girls, when sex abuse takes place, don’t realise until later that that was a wrong thing to do … Society is so over-sexualised that I don’t think people realise that if we did empower this message into girls, imbued this message in schools, we’d probably have less sex abuse.”

    Read the rest here!