Society Should Walk Towards an Anti-racist Feminism

Contributions of racialized women should be heard by the feminist movement

Fadoua Soussi
Mar 12 · 8 min read
Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

A few days ago, on the 8th of March, it was International Women’s Day, and for this, I would like to congratulate all the women fighters I know and those who read me. Firstly, I would like to say that we women have to take the lead in the design and construction of institutions and policies. This should guide us towards a fairer and more egalitarian future. That is why today I wanted to write a little about feminism, race, and faith. The movement cannot survive as long as women do not unite and fight together for the inequalities within the movement.

Historical insights to feminism

For some time now, it has been commonplace in feminism to refer to the differences between women. Indeed, at first, as a women’s liberation movement, feminism emphasized the differences between men and women, in such a way that intra-gender differences were diluted, minimized, and put on the back burner. Early feminism emphasized what women have in common, which is also what differentiates us from men in a society of patriarchal domination.

Feminism “united” women from unique backgrounds and social conditions, or so it tried to do. And it could not be otherwise. The first feminism associated with the French Revolution had to face the fact that all women (aristocrats, bourgeois, plebeians, and female clergy) were excluded from the citizenship that was then being forged. In the following century, suffragism was disqualified by the left because they claimed it broke the class unity between proletarian women and men while establishing an unnatural alliance between women of different social classes, between bourgeois and proletarian women. And this idea that feminist struggles broke proletarian unity was brazenly defended while a real inter-class pact was established between men, embodied in the family wage, which would relegate women to the domestic sphere.

White feminists have the unfortunate habit of discussing racism and sexism as two completely separate forms of discrimination.

Because of both external criticisms that sought to delegitimize feminism and intra-feminist approaches by minority women, feminists quickly became aware, both theoretically and militantly, of the differences that undoubtedly exist between women. We realized that by focusing only on what differentiates us from men and minimizing the differences and inequalities that exist between us; we were hiding and making invisible a part of us…. In such a way that the feminist ‘we’, rather than encompassing us all, became exclusive and made some women the ‘constitutive outside’ of feminism. It turned some into ‘the other’ women not taken into consideration by mainstream feminism, which had — in fact — as an implicit reference to a certain type of women (white, middle class, etc.) And not to all, as it proclaimed.

Mistakes discussing sexism and race

White feminists have the unfortunate habit of discussing racism and sexism as two completely separate forms of discrimination, which do not meet at a common site and are therefore not worthy of joint consideration. Emer O’Toole’s otherwise stellar analysis of gender roles in Girls Will Be Girls is undermined by the casual erasure of racialized women because of this statement “people of color or women”. This is, of course, a false dichotomy that positions white women as the standard.

Treating white women as normative not only serves to marginalize “racialized” women within the feminist movement but positions our needs as secondary to those of white women, propagating the hierarchy of race within feminism.

Considering white women as normative defines who is valued as a source of knowledge related to women’s experiences and who is not. It shapes the criteria of who is heard within the feminist movement, and who is ignored by default. If white women’s concerns become simply women’s concerns, then race conveniently ceases to be a feminist issue. Black women criticizing racism can therefore be dismissed as threats to feminist unity, accused of “trashing” white women when we criticize their racism.

It must be made clear that covering up is not synonymous with oppression, and uncovering oneself is not synonymous with freedom.

The racialized representation of passion, particularly common in the cliché of the Angry Black Woman, automatically invalidates any attempt by black women to address racism. Therefore, racialized women are so often subjected to a policing tone in feminist discourse. Silencing critiques of their racism allow white feminists to avoid the challenge of uncomfortable self-reflection; they justify them by claiming to act in the name of sisterhood.

Islamophobia and feminism

Colonial images of Muslim women as victims of religious patriarchy and bearers of a backward culture that threatens modernity, or as exotic belly dancers and odalisques performing for the curiosity of Western audiences continue to shape the way we see them represented in Western literature, film, and popular culture. These contradictory narratives from the founding discourses of gender Islamophobia in the modern period.

Since 9/11 and after any act of violence linked to Muslim extremist groups, Muslim women wearing Islamic dress are the most vulnerable targets of hate crimes and harassment in many Western nations. One of the contemporary challenges for Islamic feminism lies in responding to these conditions and strengthening the role of Muslim women as agents of change on their terms, rather than as passive victims of either patriarchy and religion, or racism and Islamophobia.

What is not seen, what barely grazes the media surface, are the attacks that an entire community is systematically facing. The most affected, once again, are women. It is called gender Islamophobia and comprises using Muslim women as an object on which to project hatred towards the religion. Patriarchy and Islamophobia are allied so that women are the most attacked, the most insulted, and the most assaulted, especially those who wear hijab, as they are the most visible face of Islam.

Thus, women’s bodies become, once again, a battlefield for men’s wars. On one side, those who impose: the Muslim woman must cover herself; on the other, those who force the emancipated woman must uncover herself. And, between both oppressions, the Muslim woman fights for her voice to be heard. Without interference. Without noise. A clean cry in the face of the same old discourse: criticism of women’s bodies. It must be made clear that covering up is not synonymous with oppression and uncovering oneself is not synonymous with freedom; the amount of clothes I wear does not define who I am or how I am.

In the struggle for freedom, the hijab has become a target of prejudice and aggression, but also a symbol of resistance and dignity in the face of hatred. Wearing the hijab in Spain is anti-system and, although the attacks hurt, they only reaffirm the struggle.

Patriarchy is the pending battle in this struggle. The challenge is not an easy one. Facing them are armies of prejudice, colonialism, and religious conservatism. Each of their decisions becomes a battle cry; each centimeter of skin reconquered a victory. And, as a defense, sorority, respect, and diversity.

Ownership and Authority

Many problems are perpetuated when white women position themselves as the bearers of feminist discourse, uniquely qualified authorities on what is and is not correct feminism. The contributions of racialized women, particularly comments that address racism or white privilege, are often dismissed as a distraction from the main feminist concern, namely issues that have a direct negative impact on white women.

The unspoken assumption that a white woman’s perspective is more legitimate than ours, more informed, that if racialized women simply learned more about a particular issue, then our perspective would also be nuanced, is persistent. Underlying that assumption is the belief that white women are the guiding experts of the feminist movement, and that racialized women are in a subordinate position. The same situation plays out in class politics, with working-class women classified as uninformed when their feminist perspectives do not align with those of middle-class women. Reinforcing these hierarchies is the biggest obstacle to solidarity among women.

White women have a habit of arbitrating what is and is not feminist in a way that centers white femininity, positioning it as the normative standard against which female experience is measured. If white femininity is standard, black and racialized femininity become deviant forms by definition, a paradigm that contributes to racialized women being formed in that belief.

Feminism is a political movement dedicated to the liberation of women from oppression. Some of that oppression is gendered. Some of it is racialized. Some of it is class-based. Some of it relates to sexuality. Some of it relates to disability. And within these categories, there is always the possibility of overlap. Failure to recognize the intersection of identities ensures that the most marginalized women will continue to be oppressed, not a feminist goal by any set of standards. Responding with “this is not the time, girls” when black women address racism contradicts feminist principles. Expecting black women to remain silent for the common good, i.e. for the benefit of white women, is not a feminist act. That there is a time and a place for acknowledging oppression experienced by women undermines the principles on which the feminist movement is based. White women must stop disqualifying critiques of racism and instead listen to what racialized women have to say on the subject.

There is an unfortunate pattern of white women being framed as the enlightened saviors, black and racialized men as savage oppressors, and racialized women as passive victims of oppression derived exclusively from men who fall within our ethnic group. This model acknowledges that black and racialized women experience gendered violence while erasing the racialized oppression to which we are subjected. It also denies the reality of white women belonging to an oppressor class, a clever and disingenuous maneuver that absolves white women of their role in maintaining systemic racism. If the problem of racism does not exist, there is no need to discuss it. If racism is not discussed, white women can continue to benefit from it unimpeded.

Remarks

For interracial solidarity to exist within the feminist movement, the question of property must be addressed. Time and again, white women behave as if the feminist movement is their exclusive property, something that black and racialized women can join, but never lead in establishing discourse or action. This approach not only erases the crucial role that black and racialized women have historically played in the feminist movement but denies the possibility of future collaborative efforts to take place on an equal footing.

White women who desire trust and solidarity with black women, indigenous women, Muslim women, etc., must first consider how they position these women in their minds, how they conceptualize us: do they see us as sisters, or like someone, they fetishize or have not listened to properly? Are we a central part of the feminist fight, or a box office exercise? Honest internal reflection is essential. Analyze how you think of us, critically explore why that might be, and work from there.

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Fadoua Soussi

Written by

Full-time scientist || I write to make science accesible for everyone || Be critical & fact-check.

The Faculty

A community of academics and storytellers writing and sharing thoughts about teaching, learning, research, and life at the faculty.

Fadoua Soussi

Written by

Full-time scientist || I write to make science accesible for everyone || Be critical & fact-check.

The Faculty

A community of academics and storytellers writing and sharing thoughts about teaching, learning, research, and life at the faculty.

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