Sunday, 30 January 2011

Faith and Feminism

by zohra moosa, cross-posted from the New Statesman, where it was first published on 21st April 2009.

I am often probed about how I reconcile my faith with my feminism. Sometimes it comes as an explicit question, as happened when I was interviewed earlier this year for a book on Islam and feminism. I was asked directly whether I found it difficult to reconcile the two, whether there were inherent tensions I had to navigate and how did I square my religion and my belief (the two were conflated in the question) with my feminist convictions.

More often, it is an implied critique, a suggestion that I suffer from some combination of any of: false consciousness, limited agency/choice (where my family, ‘community’ and/or ‘culture’ is presumed to be oppressing me), insufficiently robust or analytical intellectual capacities (no one has actually called me ‘stupid’ yet though), political defensiveness about being Muslim (i.e. refusing to engage in critiques of Islam within the current political/security climate), political or social naiveté, opportunism (some people think it’s a good time to peddle being a ‘Muslim woman feminist’), and/or a misreading of feminism and/or Islam.

Having grown up with both faith and feminism and never really not had either, I continue to find the suggestion that they are anything other than complementary in my life a bit alien. Intellectually I understand the confusion that prompts the question; I’ve had enough people quote parts of the Qu’ran at me to have received the message that they would like to tell me: ‘your primary text is sexist don’t you know’. But to equate a spiritual practice with some people’s literal, and historically and politically vacuous, interpretations of a text is to miss the point in a pretty profound way.

My feminism is informed by my faith and vice-versa because of how I live both. Just as my feminism is more than the job I do at the Fawcett Society, so too is my faith more than the prayers I say.

I came to the feminist movement from religious teachings about empathy, peace, social justice, and the need to work for the betterment of others and the world. I was schooled, in religious contexts, to have a healthy intolerance of exploitation, abuse, marginalization, and dis-empowerment. In addition, there were particular religiously-sourced stories about the importance of respecting women, the righteousness of treating women with dignity and fairness, the value in educating girl children over boy children that reinforced feminist principles for me from an early age.

Over time, feminism has become the natural extension of the moral framework that I was inculcated into from birth. There need not have been anything particularly ‘Muslim’ about my feminist awakenings, but the reality is that in my case there was. In turn, I come to my faith, every day, with a sense of purpose and direction because of my feminist ethics. My spiritual journey is intimately connected with my ideas about humanity and life. As these ideas evolve over time, so too does my spiritual path change, which then affects my politics.

My life is richer for having both faith and feminism in it. So that’s how I reconcile the two.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

On being an African feminist

by Minna Salami, cross-posted from her excellent blog MsAfropolitan.  This post was first published in November 2010.

With artists like Beyonce and Jessica Alba recently claiming to be feminists, it might be the case that we will soon see an F-word revival. That would be awesome.

Yet feminism is not simply about being an independent or successful woman. It is about recognizing and taking a critical engagement with structures that may oppress women such as the ‘institution’ of marriage or elements of religious doctrine or music videos. More than anything feminism is a lifestyle. As was recorded in the charter of African Feminists in 2006:
“…we define ourselves as feminists because we celebrate our feminist identities…Our feminist identity is not qualified with ‘Ifs’, ‘Buts’, or ‘Howevers’. We are feminists. Full stop.”
Or as novelist Chimamanda Adichie, who calls herself a feminist who likes lipgloss said:
“…being a feminist is about more than outrage; it is about being a woman who likes and stands up for other women.”
As for me, I’ve been a feminist since my early 20s. Since then my worldview, my relationships and my life choices have all been shaped by a conviction that gender structures should not limit personal and professional growth and that every woman should have that right.

Being a feminist has been a challenge on many levels, it still is. One of the challenges I have faced as a feminist has been in relationships of romantic nature. From the dating stage when a man offers to put on your coat to the stage where you’re delegating house chores it can be difficult to defy social patterns that place a woman as subordinate to a man (by the way, I don’t necessarily mind a guy helping with outerwear as I discussed in more detail over at men’s mag Webster Style). Despite the challenges, which include not only dealing with the opposite sex, but also with labels and stereotypes, with career choices…, feminism has been one of the best things that ever happened to me. I feel it has freed me from a life where gender roles rather than my heart’s passions define me.

Unfortunately many people disregard feminism without an understanding of what feminism is. In England for example, women earn 28% less than men for the same jobs, in Nigeria women earn 51% of what men earn. Literacy rates for women in Africa are substantially lower than those of men. African women suffer from poverty, HIV, violence, neglected healthcare to notably greater extents that African men, who of course in return also are often victims of oppression. In the West the female body is objectified to a point where a recent study shows that 8 out of 10 women are unhappy with their bodies. Opposing these types of violations of women’s equal rights is what feminism is about.
(sources – Gender Gap Report 2010)

One reason many women don’t consider feminism as an option is because they are afraid that it will alienate men. This is not untrue. I have alienated a few men simply by being a feminist, but turns out I’m quite happy to do that.
Those men that are not terrified by the F-word know that ‘even’ feminists can occasionally become intensely attracted to someone. They know that feminists too can feel sexy, feminine, playful and caring. They know that there is no necessary conflict between a woman’s sexuality and her power or intelligence. They know that feminists don’t necessarily have any desire to be manly. Most importantly, they are confident enough to know that feminism is not about blaming any individual man or undermining their masculinity.

In a loving relationship no part is subordinate because of their gender, no part is the neck or the head or none of that crap. Both parts are themselves, feminine, masculine, extrovert, introvert, tidy, messy, caring, selfish – whatever they might be, but always equal.

Well that’s my take. Would love to hear yours?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Hypocrites & DD’s aka Thank You Rupert Murdoch, Lots of Love, The Suffragettes.

by Bridget Minamore, cross-posted from her blog, 19 Years and Counting. This poem was first performed at the launch of Women’s History Month, January 2010.

Let’s pretend for a minute I’m a female celebrity. As a woman in our society, I’m expected to be 20 years younger than my male co-host but am still told I dress too slutty when I show cleavage on Saturday night TV. Basically in our society, me & my boobs have gotta be Holly Willoughby.

But in our society I also have to be Amy Winehouse. A no-good junkie with a loutish husband - who apparently only writes good music about him, when I’m high. Or I’ll try and be Keri Hilson. A decent singer for a while but no-one listens before I show my crotch and then I’m desperate for attention.

In our society I’ve gotta be blonde, and have an easy name like Sophie, or Jessica. 20 years old from Manchester my news in briefs adorn page 3 convincing you that you & me have mutual interests in common. Apart from the things on my chest. A box by my head to say I’ve said I’m not happy about tuition fees or VAT rises. In our society I’ve got to know about politics while showing off my double D’s and accept those two things empower me & make me a feminist... but being a feminist is a ‘bad thing’ because then obviously a lesbian who doesn’t wear a bra.

And it might be hard, but I’ve gotta be Natasha Kaplinsky. The champion for the working woman who can win Strictly Come Dancing and be the highest paid female news host in modern history, before I go on too much maternity leave, then abandon my kids with a nanny to come back to the show before leaving the show to stay home with the kids and so ultimately, I’m a disappointment on all counts.

In our society I’ve gotta be Naomi Campbell aka the Black Model Italian Vogue puts on the cover after they’re accused of being racist. And the first time I decline being the token black girl I’m told I think too much of myself and I rejected a chance to further enhance the black female model cause. But the second time I’m asked and I agree, I’m told I’m enforcing black stereotypes by wearing a leopard-print bikini so basically, I hate my own race and don’t deserve to be the famous face of black female models.

But at the same time I’ve gotta be Tyra Banks. Second in command of the Famous Female Ethnic Models society, which at the moment only really has two and a half members. Me and Naomi (and occasionally Halle Berry). And I’ve gotta stay number two because any more black female faces might make Gucci or Prada explode. And when they decide to make me look like the other models, Vibe magazine says I’m letting them make me look white, with too much weave on my head and clever lighting at my photo shoots to make my nose look smaller, and after all that, when I leave my natural hair out I’m told it’s too messy. Then I complain and I’m told that I’m expected to take criticism as that’s what I signed up for when I wanted to be famous and you can’t take it back love so get over it. Forgetting the fact you wouldn’t say the same things to a man.

In our society I have to be Jennifer Aniston, aging apparently too quickly, the jilted wife whose husband left me because apparently I didn’t want to have a baby. In our society I have to be Angelina Jolie. Give money to charity but I’m still a home wrecking husband stealer with far too many kids. But in our society I don’t have to be Brad Pitt because in our society, there is no way he could ever be responsible for his marriage break-up.

In our society I have to be Kate Moss. So I’ll have the perfect figure for everything in Topshop but the newspapers say I enforce and promote anorexia. And it’s a good thing I can multi-task, as in our society I’ve gotta be Beth Ditto too, loving my curves and being proud that I’m a ‘real woman’ because anyone below a size 12 isn't, but still too fat for anything but Evans on the high street because my weight’s a bad thing; I’m enforcing and promoting obesity say the magazines.

But don’t worry, it gets better, ‘cos in our society I should be like Cheryl Cole, basically, seen as perfect in the media on all counts. And I can do that easily; flick my hair back while fluttering my fake eyelashes and judging people singing badly. The Nations’ Sweetheart. Let’s just hope I don’t get the phase before that, where I’m weak and pathetic for taking my cheating husband back or the phase before that, when I’m a racist thug for beating up a black woman in a nightclub or the phase before that, when I’m the third best slash worst singer in a TV band that has men watching the videos with the sound off and only 7 year old girls know the words to my songs. And God knows, I better not get the phase after all of those, when I’m racist again and getting death threats because it’s me, apparently, and not the Border Agency that let people get deported.

And I’m irritated now, I’m being sarcastic now, so I’m sorry. But being a woman in our society isn’t so easy, and I’m angry. See, in our society, we glamourise women. Idolise women. In our society, we tell women we can have it all, and at the same time tell women we have too much, and pride comes before a fall. In our society, you’re either virgin or a whore. Beautiful or Heat magazine feature-worthy eyesore. In our society, women are equally adored, and victimized. Told our clothes are too tight but still looked at with appreciating eyes, I know it’s not right but it’s how it is. Bitch slapped on one cheek so you can give me a kiss on the other side – our society doesn’t see things clearly, our society’s a little bit blind. In our society, we have to be celebrities, but at the same time, we’ve gotta be wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers and any combination of the above, not to mention the criticism we get for simply never being good enough. It’s too much sometimes, and I’m sorry if I look at things with negative eyes, but I’m sick of it. I don’t fit into it. See in our society, I don’t wanna be a celebrity, in our society I wanna be me.

But it's not so easy. What chance have I got if I can’t think of a famous woman treated fairly by the media or not condemned by other ladies? Saying the same old miserable things. In magazines, it’s too fat, too thin, stars without make-up so she’s hideous. Advertisements on tv screens, eat kellogs cardboard for just 3 weeks so you too can fit into a shit red dress. Lose baby weight with little stress and c-sections make you less of a woman. Four kids, three men, twice divorced so she’s a slag. Our society says equal opportunities but we still judge as much as we ever have. In our society we fight for equal rights but we still hide behind our criticism and we give unasked advice, and I am sick of it. I won’t fit into it. I’m not prepared to be a faceless pair of page 3 walking tits, it isn’t me to look down at my feet and wait my turn to speak, I know I’m not the simple sexy girl with boobs but without brains and I refuse to dance round poles to prove what I can’t bear to say. I’m not asking for role models, I’m just looking for fair play.

Why I Need Black Feminism

by Yula Burin

Black feminist thought is a body of ideas that offers black women a means of exploring and generating understanding of our lives, and that provides a basis for black women to create strategies for survival, resistance, social justice and change.

To be a Black feminist means being engaged in creativity of the deepest kind, because the project we are advocating and acting on has the capacity to change the world as we know it. Black feminism teaches me that Black women have to be the architects of our liberation. As a group, Black women have a lot of creative energy at our disposal – the world makes use of our creativity but we do not receive the respect, recognition and rewards we deserve. So, the development of Black feminist thought is an arena where we put our concerns dead centre, and it is also where we can begin the process of valuing ourselves and our experiences. We can give each other the support we need to resist our multiple oppressions and to establish structures and organisations that meet our needs.

We are having to overcome historical momentum, one aspect of which is dealing with the aftermath of enslavement, colonialism and imperialism. Furthermore, we are having to overcome thousands of years of the paradigm that determines the basis our relationships: domination and submission. This relational mode seems so deep-rooted that we believe it is immovable and an essential ingredient of our humanness. But the impulse for equality and social justice that so many women can see the need for, challenges the notion that change in our patterns of relating to each other is impossible.

Black feminist thought teaches me that it is absolutely essential to resist white supremacy and privilege, male privilege and the rapaciousness of capitalism. In short, any ideology or set of practices that denies Black women our full humanity. Resistance is the sanest response to political and economic realities whose effects often pathological.

Black feminist thought allows me to name my experience, to struggle against being silenced, to speak the words that need to be spoken and which oftentimes the world does not want to listen to and take on board. Audre Lorde says, “Your silence will not protect you”. And she is right. My silence has not protected me. My silence has been taken as a sign of my agreement with the status quo, and with political actions and structures that are inimical to life. My silence is an accomplice to injustice – do I allow myself to fall into the pit of insanity when confronted with the manifold difficulties that Black women contend with on a daily basis? I suspect that the statistics available concerning Black women’s situation in the world are less than comprehensive, less than accurate, and there are reasons why this is the case.

Black women are facing unprecedented levels of violence in all areas of our lives. We have to do something about this. We have to resist this violence with all the means at our disposal, and we need to gather together in this endeavour. And this resistance against violence recognises no borders because violence against Black women recognises no borders. We have to collectivise our resistance.

In common with most, if not all, women, Black women are socialised within patriarchy; we are raised to serve patriarchal interests. Therefore, any expression of strong female energy is pathologised. Black women are blamed for the ills of Black peoples everywhere. The positive expression of Black female strength and energy is viewed negatively because there isn’t always a Black man around to control that energy. Apparently, there is something very wrong if Black women deviate in any way from the patriarchal script and we are made to suffer as a result.

I want all Black women to be liberated and free to determine what their lives will be. For me, Black feminist thought has transcendent potential and not just a reformist agenda. If every single Black woman was fully empowered and self-actualised our world would truly be a different place. We would not have to waste our energies battling, deflecting, hiding from or medicating ourselves against white supremacist ideology, the politics of domination and the life-denying effects of capitalism.

Black feminism recognises that Black women, as a group, are in need of restitution, respect and recognition. Restitution of our complete and whole humanity. Respect for the sacrifices we make for our families, our communities, our employers. Recognition for the hard works this entails day in, day out. We also need to have our economic and political needs met – it’s all so very simple and clear-cut what our task is as Black feminists. Black feminist thought nourishes Black women’s acts of resistance to the many erasures we live with politically, economically, culturally. Our acts of resistance will continue until we are all liberated.