To many feminists, infighting is seen as a mechanism which divides women and breaks the solidarity which should unite us all: our gender.
But to me, feminist infighting enables cross-cultural debate and allows us to share our different experiences as women. Certain disadvantages can mean our oppressions are multi-faceted and compounded and infighting brings these inequalities to the surface. It therefore lets us critically examine our own privileges and how our personal identification with feminism can silence the voices of women whose oppressions may be completely antithetical to ours. Infighting should be seen as a way of making the feminist discourse more inclusive, recognising that feminism is as much about the politics of difference as it is about unity.
As a British Bengali, I have been subjected to discrimination, directly and indirectly because of my gender and race. Despite these setbacks, I was privileged to have been able to go to university and become a professional. I seek career progression and to be on a level platform to my male peers. This aligns me with the sort of individualism which gives no credence to the struggles of a Rohingyan refugee or a single mum subject to welfare cuts in Britain and would make no material difference to either quality of life.
In Channel 4’s ‘Ways To Change The World’ podcast, Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi proclaimed “I don’t believe you need to know what feminism is to become a feminist”. I contrasted this with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which paints climbing the corporate ladder as a feminist ideal. The significance of Nawal’s words reemerged when I later read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race:
“Colour-blindness is a childish, stunted analysis of racism. It starts and ends at “discriminating against a person because the colour of their skin is bad”, without any accounting for the ways structural power works...This definition is used to silence people of colour when we attempt to articulate the racism we face.”
Like Reni, I challenge the pretension of the moral high-ground. Class, name, colour, whatever the prefix, the ‘blind’ soundbite has been a recurrent theme in feminist political discourse. To me, the we-must-unite-under-one-feminism preamble smacks of wilful ignorance. Several of my friendship circles consist of Muslim women, South Asian women, and Black women, many of whom have met my discussions on feminism with indifference: ‘it’s not for us’. What they mean is ‘it doesn’t include us.’ This doesn’t mean they aren’t feminists, but rather affirms that under its badge of unity, mainstream feminism sidelines the oppressions we experience as minority women.
When we claim to be colour-blind for the greater good, we become complicit in the structural racism that pervades us. It’s structural because it’s embedded, it’s desensitised, it’s invisible. It validates women who have been born with the greatest privileges to assume that their experiences are omnipresent and that their oppression is universal, negating the agency of women who are otherwise underprivileged, whether by virtue of their social status, the colour of their skin, their disposable income, their disability, or the societal construct of ‘beauty’ imposed upon them.
Part of this narrative, the #MeToo movement has had a ripple effect in India, where sexual harassment has been called out in Bollywood. While we should in no way undermine the seriousness of rape, away from the limelight of entertainment industries, tackling marital rape and daily sexual abuse isn’t so glamorous. In a recent podcast with the BBC, lawyer Ayesha Osori discussed how in Nigeria, the first question is “what was she wearing?” As a consequence, many Nigerian women cannot relate to the privilege of #MeToo when their culture does not recognise the criminality or moral repugnance of rape.
It’s convenient for me, sitting in my privilege, to say that more women should get an education, become CEOs and politicians, and that we should end sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet, I simultaneously exclude the victim of marital rape who can’t afford to go to school or use a hashtag to end the historical stigma by which she is eternally bound. If mainstream feminism sees women’s emancipation as being equated with the class of men in boardrooms, it is a feminism of convenience rather than true inclusivity. It self-certifies its authority and legitimises the inferiority of those who do not benefit from its edifice.
Racism, colourism, misogyny, classism, sexuality, colonialism, slavery, religion, objectification, capitalism, poverty and homophobia, should all form part of the strategy to counter the oppression which feminism challenges. The first step towards achieving this requires the reckoning of an uncomfortable truth: mainstream feminism excludes these variables. There is also a misconception that infighting pits our privileges against our suffering to measure our entitlement to be feminists. This should be countered with the realisation that both privilege and oppression can co-exist. They are not predetermined by a set paradigm, but shift, from one variable to the next. The feminist dialogue can and should be expanded through infighting because without new ways of thinking, feminism remains exclusive.