The issues that divide: building a diverse feminist movement

Recognition that identity politics had immobilised and fragmented the women's movement has driven the search for diversity among young feminists. Rahila Gupta asks: Who can, should and does the women’s movement speak for?

Rahila Gupta
20 September 2012

It is a fact widely noted: there has been a resurgence of feminist activism in Britain in the last five years with unprecedented numbers of young women joining the movement. Uppermost in the minds of those women who have spearheaded some of these campaigns and conferences, like the London Feminist Network, UK Feminista or Go Feminist, is the million dollar question that has preoccupied all political movements. How to transform popular discontent into an enduring movement which will bring about real transformation? It was the opening question posed at the UK Feminista summer school 2012.

Although the recent pursuit of diversity is an important counterbalance to the identity politics of the 80s, it is the most problematic of questions. We need to analyse how diverse a movement can be before it becomes unfocussed. By the mid-80s, the sense of a national British women’s movement had ebbed. The energy of the women’s lib conferences had dissipated and women had regrouped into setting up service oriented organisations like the Women’s Aid Federation working on specific issues like violence against women. It was also beginning to be challenged for its overwhelmingly white, middle-class, heterosexual make-up, by black and working class women and lesbians who felt that behind the attractive packaging, sisterhood was an empty, or at least, a much contested concept.

What began as an important challenge - posing the questions who can, should and does the women’s movement speak for - rapidly went down a cul-de-sac of identity politics built on a hierarchy of suffering and victimhood, where political legitimacy was derived from personal experience and was not open to challenge from those who did not speak from within that experience. Thus if you were not a black lesbian you could not challenge her politics. It immobilised and fragmented the women’s movement. The wider political context of the 80s when Margaret Thatcher was in power, systematically shutting down political protest and destroying the unions, made mass movements seem a thing of the past. Despite the great buzz of excitement generated by the number of women’s groups that sprang into action with funding from progressive metropolitan authorities like the Greater London Council (GLC) much feminist activity was defensive: instead of demanding 24 hour nurseries we were fighting to save the local nursery from closure.

Whilst a diverse movement which includes everyone, at its best, can lead to the creation of an open political culture, based on inclusivity rather than exclusivity, there must be a shared commitment to the political principles of the movement. Are we talking about diversity in terms of identity or in terms of political views? Today, there appear to be two great irreconcilable divides – the black women’s movement is stalked by the spectre of religion and religious fundamentalism, and the white women’s movement is split on the question of prostitution versus the sex industry. Of course to every generalisation, there are exceptions. As a black woman, I am deeply concerned that prostitution is constructed in some feminist circles as a viable career choice in an industry which simply needs cleaning up and regulating. It has led apologists to argue against the reality and extent of trafficking into the sex industry because it undermines their central plank which is that women become prostitutes out of choice – the ‘Mummy when I grow up I want to be a prostitute’ bloc. And yet when I was researching my book, Enslaved, the evidence suggested that a majority of women in the sex industry have been trafficked i.e. deceived or coerced into this work. The way in which prostitution is framed is a fundamental divide in feminist politics – if you see it as a violence against women issue, you can only work towards its abolition – even if you hold a somewhat centrist position which supports the regulation of the industry to improve conditions for the women inside it while it lasts, even as you work to end it.

Although white feminists have been waking up to the dangers of religious forces attempting to restrict abortion rights or teach abstinence to young girls, the Christian right are not as well organised here as in the US so religion does not feature as an issue on most feminist agendas. Nadine Dorries, a Conservative feminist, (an oxymoron?) tried and failed in 2011 to have abortion counselling services transferred from abortion providers to independent councillors. For ‘independent’ read pro-life. She was concerned that women were not getting the best advice for one of the most important decisions of their lives. The pro-choice agenda has been a central demand for feminists and could not be sacrificed in the interests of diversity.

Any attempt to find common ground with feminists who operate within a faith based framework particularly where it undermines the universality of human rights is bound to be slippery. There is the question of political agency when engaging religious identities in politics. If you are engaging beliefs that assign all authority to a transcendental power, what Professor Chetan Bhatt calls, displaced agency, rather than human relations and laws and, in our case -  patriarchy, it would be well nigh impossible to include them in a diverse movement.

Whilst white feminists are happy to challenge Christian feminists, they are reluctant to challenge Muslim feminists for fear of appearing racist. Given the level of anti-Muslim racism and the unequal power of Muslim women in relation to Christian women, this reluctance is understandable but must not become an excuse for inaction. Organising along religious identities is simply divisive. A recent survey by Southall Black Sisters (SBS) of the women who use their services found that all of them, even deeply religious women, preferred to come to a secular centre where they could mix with women of other religious backgrounds and gain strength and understanding of how all religions and their cultural interpretations constrict women’s rights. A report, She Who Disputes produced by the Muslim Women’s Network outlined the challenges facing Muslim women – honour killings, forced marriage and domestic violence, and racism provoked by the hijab – but, apart from the last one, these issues are shared by women from across Asia, Africa and the Middle-East. It is actually counterproductive in the way in which it reinforces the very stereotypes that some Muslims complain about – that honour killings is seen as a Muslim issue whereas a secular organisation like SBS makes the point that this occurs across a wide range of communities with a common patriarchal culture.

Southall Black Sisters celebrate a victory against Ealing Council in 2008.

When SBS was involved in the Home Office Working Group on forced marriage, for example, they argued strongly against mediation for women facing forced marriage and domestic violence on the grounds of safety. They lost the argument to Baroness Uddin and An-nisa, a Muslim women’s group who both endorsed the practice. An-nisa and Uddin may or may not identify as feminists, but in claiming to stand up for women’s rights, they stand on our territory, and when that stand actually undermines women’s human rights, we must challenge them.  

My focus on the issues that divide feminists is to make the point that diversity has to be carefully built. Whilst it is a useful counter against sectarianism, there have to be shared political principles so that the movement is not being pulled in different directions.  To sustain a movement beyond its first explosion on to the scene, there does need to be a core group of people who commit to it. Besides questions of power and equality which are often overshadowed in the focus on diversity, a movement needs to take on the issues that concern its diverse membership, so that it can keep them all on board. All easier said than done.

This article is based on a speech by Rahila Gupta, 'Building a diverse feminist movement', delivered at the UK Feminista Summer School 2012.

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