The face of feminism is no longer just white and middle class

Much has changed since the white-dominated feminist activism of the past.

by
    Hundreds of people march through Mexico City, Mexico, 17 September 2017. Thousands of Mexicans in multiple cities marched against femicides. [Mario Guzman/EPA-EFE]
    Hundreds of people march through Mexico City, Mexico, 17 September 2017. Thousands of Mexicans in multiple cities marched against femicides. [Mario Guzman/EPA-EFE]

    Growing up, I struggled to call myself a feminist. In theory, feminism was supposed to be for all women, but in practice, it seemed to be only for white, upper-middle-class women seeking to break the glass ceiling and integrate into the capitalism of their male counterparts.

    As a Pakistani girl growing up in the US after 9/11, I confronted the misogyny of both the wider white world, as well as the gendered norms enforced by my culture.

    Feminism became a battle cry, not just to end the racialised sexism that I, and so many other women of colour faced, but also against jingoistic policy that expanded US military influence in Muslim countries. The idea that veiled and "oppressed" Muslim women - a symbol propagated by the US media at the time - could be "saved" only by the increased deployment of troops in the region - even when women are among the most numerous victims of war.

    Much has changed since the white-dominated feminist activism of the early 2000s.

    The impact of movements like #BlackLivesMatter and Standing Rock, followed by Trump's Muslim entry ban, crackdown on immigrants, and anti-LBGTQ policy, have all helped to establish the need for a movement led by women of colour and other groups which have historically been pushed out of the traditional fold of "womanhood", such as transgender women, lesbians, sex workers and Muslim and/or black women.

    The coronavirus health crisis and the everyday precariousness that young people face, whether the looming threat of climate change, gun violence or unemployment, has spurred the urgency of a movement that does not just break glass ceilings, but collectivises empowerment and agency for all women.

    Today, two movements exist for women who choose to organise against sexism in the world.

    One is the more "bourgeois" women's movement, which opposes the sexism of conservatives, such as Donald Trump's misogynistic statements or anti-abortion legislation, and calls for liberal reforms such as equal pay or proper electoral representation for women, rather than a systemic restructuring of society and an end to capitalism, racism and imperialism.

    The other is the movement for women who constitute what grassroots movements term "the 99 percent", which mobilises workers, recognises the relationship between gendered labour and capitalism, and confronts war and racism as twin evils responsible for violence against women.

    Sometimes, these two threads converge, often manifesting as bonds of solidarity or more pragmatic alliances. Ever since Trump was elected US president, white women have been more conscientious in including women of colour in feminist advocacy. Their protest movement - Women's March - has principles which acknowledge that "women of colour and indigenous women carry the heaviest burden in the global economic landscape".

    Middle-class, suburban women, many of whom are mothers, are getting involved in politics for the first time, with demands for paid leave and compensation for unpaid domestic labour - a recognition of how capitalism exploits them.

    But this politicisation has its blind spots. Women's March has failed to link up with organisers who have been doing work on the ground for some time. Its stated progressive aims also did not prevent Zahra Billoo, an American-Muslim civil rights lawyer, from being voted off the board of the organisation for opposing the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Veteran Black Lives Matter activists in different US cities have criticised Women's March for "erasing" their labour.

    As such, there were two dates for the Women's March each year. The first is the anniversary of Trump's inauguration - January 21 - and the second is International Working Women's Day, a legacy of the female garment workers' strike in New York in the early 1900s, which is celebrated worldwide every year on March 8. Indeed, in 1917, working women in Imperial Russia led protests on March 8 that triggered a series of uprisings, leading to Tsar Nicholas abdicating from his throne two weeks later.

    In Mexico, women went on strike the day after the protest on March 8 this year, in a bid to demonstrate to the men in their country the cost of their absence from schools, offices, shops and government workplaces. A day without women meant a day without the female workers who held up the economy, and who make up 40 percent of the workforce in Mexico. The strike used women's labour as a bargaining chip to protest against patriarchal violence, which has caused women in Mexico to literally "disappear" in gender-motivated killings.

    More than 10 women are killed each day in Mexico; victims of gang violence, sexual harassment and laws that fail to punish murderers and deliver justice to the victims. In 2018, only 136 perpetrators were convicted for femicide in Mexico, according to Inegi, the Mexican statistics authority. In 2019, more than 1,000 women were killed there.

    Mexican women certainly are not alone when it comes to lethal attacks on their bodies. According to the UN, 87,000 women were murdered in the world in 2017 alone, a staggering and horrific number.

    Latin America has experienced an awakening of women's mobilisation for safety and respect. The #NiUnaMenos ("Not One Less") movement first started in Argentina in 2015, protesting against the murders of women that gripped the region. The grassroots movement sparked fires of resistance across Brazil, Chile, Peru, and other countries, fires that still blaze today.

    In Chile, feminist collectives rallied on March 8 and then organised a second day of protests in a nationwide movement against sexism and social inequality. Protesters marched in Santiago to the presidential palace, charging the state with violence and neglect of women.

    In December, the Chilean feminist protest song "A Rapist in Your Path" went viral and inspired performances from women around the world. The song crucially did not just hold individual perpetrators of rape to account, but lay the blame at the feet of "the cops, the judges, the state".

    In South Africa, women organised self-defence training and handed out pepper spray on stalls in the streets of Johannesburg, a practical and unapologetic measure against sexual violence and harassment. Karabo Moshodi, a 25-year-old activist from Soweto, raised funds to buy 1,000 pepper sprays and employed the assistance of self-defence professionals. Participants were trained in basic self-defence before receiving a spray.

    South Africa has also seen a growing movement led by students, young people and women, after Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old student, was raped and murdered in a post office. Luyanda Botha, a 42-year-old post office worker, confessed to the crime and was sentenced to life in prison. The murder triggered nationwide protests galvanising thousands of people in outrage.

    In India, Muslim women-led a sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, a working-class neighbourhood in New Delhi, for 101 days. The movement for a more just India has drawn women to the frontlines. Women, after all, are the first to suffer in religious, caste and ethnic violence.

    In Pakistan, attendees at the "Aurat March" (Women's March) braved right-wing suppression of their protest. Their slogan, "Mera Jism, Meri Marzi" ("My Body, My Choice") was construed as vulgar by men in power, but hundreds of middle-class women still chanted it in defiance of the threats against them.

    Lesser known, but equally important was a demonstration in Karachi by poor, working women, who do stitching and other forms of labour from home, and who won recognition as legal workers by the government.

    The global south is rife with political and militant movements for the liberation of women, which also confront the role of capitalism and state violence in enforcing patriarchy.

    In the US, the women's movement has transcended white feminism and pink pussy hats. Contingents of marginalised women continue to attend the Women's Day March and to organise their own marches and protests. Take, for example, Gizelle Marie, organiser of the New York City strippers' strike. When black, dark-skinned strippers found their jobs threatened by lighter-skinned Instagram influencers, strippers in New York City went on strike to protest against the loss of their wages. The strike was a breakthrough in sex worker organising centring black women and addressing the ways in which darker skin was considered less worthy of capital, and Marie led contingents of strippers in different feminist actions to promote the strike.

    In the south of the US, black and/or immigrant women and nonbinary people (those who identify as across the gender spectrum, rather than as just as a man or woman) fight on the front lines against Trump's war on Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that ruled a woman had the right to choose an abortion and that government interference violated her constitutional right to privacy.

    Abortion care centres in the South not only stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community, women's shelters, and immigrant advocacy groups, they also provide health care, gynaecological services, education and, if needed, the right to choose abortion. The movement for abortion rights in the South is a coalition of the most marginalised in society.

    The participation of teachers' unions in Women's March throughout the years challenges Trump's privatisation of education and empowers an underpaid profession associated with care and nurture (thus a gendered one, as 75 percent of teachers in the US are women) with a platform and a voice. In 2018, 30,000 West Virginia teachers went on strike, and won a 5 percent raise in pay on March 7.

    Middle-class, white women still seem to gain the most visibility because of their privilege. Yet, the reality is changing. Activism is no longer just the domain of the privileged, but has become the duty of the oppressed.

    While the 99 percent has always organised for collective freedom and liberation, for the first time they are being celebrated, recognised and supported on the world stage, bringing more people to their ranks and radicalising the women's movement as a whole.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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