Influenced by seventies empowerment classics, the Spice Girls, and my own experience as a veiled teenager vacillating between homogenous and diverse ethnic communities, the word “Woman” became a defining characteristic of my identity during my middle and high school years. While unaware of all the word’s connotations, I knew from a very young age that to be a woman is beyond breasts, Aunt Flows, and unmentionable monologues. Struggle is inherent to every woman’s life, regardless of her appearance, her location, her age, her past. I believed that to be a woman was not only to experience this struggle, but also to realize it, to embrace it, to fight.
To never succumb.
The realization of the struggle(s) inherent to my womanhood helped me better formulate a worldview that would eventually bring me to peace with several things that had haunted my thoughts for years. Vanity, glass ceilings, career, ambition, opinions, unorthodox language and choices, and unattainable expectations had all carved out comfortable abodes in my head and I was constantly forced to deal with the issues that arose from their sometimes unwanted and sometimes desired presence.
I picked up my first piece of feminist literature at the age of 16. It was your basic introductory work, providing a detailed discussion and analysis of various forms of feminism – as an ideology and as an academic discipline – ranging from radical to ecological. The academic foundation of the activist movement attracted me and eventually led me to take a feminist theory class during my first undergraduate semester. A mixture of an activist fetish, first-year depression, and general intellectual curiosity gently coaxed me into joining a collective of sorts and really exploring the McGill feminist landscape. It was angry, fun, filled with ambiguities. I liked it. It terrified me at times, overwhelmed me, but it was something.
Alas, somewhere along the way, the relationship went sour. The passion left. The tensions had always been there, but were ignored for the sake of solidarity.
Though always aware of my womanhood, I had never been as sensitive to my ethnic and religious identity as much as I was forced to be upon entering university. New ideas regarding power relations, history, politics, gender, and ethnicity were thrust into my adorable 18-year-old face. I embarked on the sort of spiritual and cultural rejuvenation that seems to come with age and paying tuition. I began to re-explore my Islamic identity while also looking into my heritage, beyond the date of my parents’ migration to North America.
And as my awareness of racism and ethnic power dynamics’ pervasive nature increased, the paradox involved in maintaining a capital-F feminist self also increased. I became more and more uncomfortable being associated with Feminism – a feeling fueled largely by how mainstream strands of feminism (including the ever-dominant Radical branch) would treat ethnic identities.
Generally speaking, feminism, as a socio-political and intellectual movement, has been dominated by white women, along with a select few white transgendered individuals and white homosexual men.
Think that’s a gross exaggeration? Send a letter.
There has been very little input in the initial and primary construction of feminist discourse by those outside the aforementioned groups. The “white” history and experience – the meaning and implications of which exceed the scope of this column’s word count – defined, created, and have sustained what we understand feminism to be today, specifically the Liberal and Radical strands.
Now many will respond that several types of feminism today have evolved into more inclusive movements that take into consideration that so-called “women of colour” have different experiences than white women as women.
And that’s precisely where the problem lies: women of colour.
“Women of colour” beautifully illustrates the exact problem I discovered with feminism, as a woman who did not fit the mainstream criteria for being just a Woman. As a “woman of colour,” I am not just a Woman. I am a woman with a little something extra; there is a difference struck between women like me and white women. There is no Woman. There are no Women. There are two groups: women and “women of colour.” This tidily, and unfortunately, translates into the “us” and “them” categorization.
Because this distinction is made and has been proudly appropriated by “women of colour” without much criticism, this presumption that the white woman’s identity is a sort of “foundational” identity for all women is prevalent within feminism. As mentioned earlier, feminism was created and has been sustained on a very white – and North American – experience and history. This experience and this history have created the framework within which decades of feminist theory and thought have been constructed.
This paradigm was most aptly demonstrated when non-white feminists began to critique the very real ethnic power imbalances that existed in the discourse during the sixties and seventies. “Ethnicity,” including also faith and culture, was more or less fitted into the existing framework: the framework that was built on the white woman’s experience with and understanding of patriarchy. There was no real attempt to rethink the intellectual and historical foundations of the movement. Those thinkers, like Angela Y. Davis and bell hooks, who did attempt that reconceptualization, have gone into the shadows of academia, existing as mere footnotes at the end of feminist class syllabuses.
So, is the white woman the palette upon which the “colours” of all other women can be found and mixed, used interchangeably to create a beautiful “inclusive” portrait of something which is, in many respects, ugly? If we are all equal, why are some “of colour” while others have the privilege of a much shorter identity label?
I strongly believe that much of the feminist analysis on sex, sexual identities, capitalism, beauty, and gender deconstruction comprises a powerful tool, building ideas that require our consideration if we want to change our status-quo condition. I am not, however, foolish enough to believe in the universal applicability of these ideas here in North America (forget the rest of the world).
There is a real void within mainstream feminist discourse that has marginalized the very women whom it has allegedly sought to empower and “save.” Feminism is still very much a white woman’s movement and discipline; it has tokenized women it sees as “of colour” in its attempt to be more inclusive and universal. This is not progress: this is not equality. This is a kinder racism: unintentional, and really a part of an institutionalized mentality and epistemic history, but racism nevertheless.
What is required for feminism’s return to relevance is a complete reconsideration and questioning of the foundation it was built upon, one sustained by the white woman’s narrative on patriarchy. This reevaluation can potentially lead toward a more holistic feminism – hopefully rebranded as something for all men, women, and everyone beyond – that is based on an understanding that the experiences of all women with patriarchy vary. All women view and interact with “patriarchy” in different ways and more than lip-service recognition of this fact is required to transform feminism.
There should be no saving involved. There should be no brackets. There should not be two categories of women, if it is women about whom we speak. There should be realization, embracement, and battle. There should be real inclusivity – of cultures and ideas. Nothing fitted neatly into the existing crevices and cracks.
And there should be just Women. Period.
Sana Saeed writes in this space every week. Embrace her at firstname.lastname@example.org.