I’ve had this post saved in my drafts for over 5 months now. I was fearful of posting it out of the high possibility that I could offend many of the people that inspire me to be a better activist. Though some of these sentiments have shifted, I realize now how important this personal statement is to my development as a feminist since my journey abroad. And so, I hope that when you read this you understand I am critiquing a system rather than individuals or white, middle class feminist women.
A professor of mine once said that the United Nations is a community of white, male non-retires thus making it difficult for others to enter the system and create change. I have come to believe the same holds true for the feminist community in NYC, except they are a group of predominantly white, middle class women.
When I left for Costa Rica last year, I simultaneously disengaged myself from the feminist community in the United States. My experiences in NYC and LA had made me resent the world of feminism. I saw many powerful feminists have their voices hidden by mainstream feminist outlets because they chose not to focus on commonly discussed topics such as reproductive justice, or sexualities. And though I witnessed many well-known leaders within the feminist community who were supportive, they didn’t want to share their power in order for the younger generations, women of color, working classes etc so that they may be recognized. I was tired of feeling let down, and sometimes ridiculed, by those whom I looked up to. Of course, there were exceptions and some strong friendships have been made.
While I believe passionately about the many causes and fights within the movement, I can’t help but get the sense that this is a community in the United States that heavily focused on recognition. Though there is an immense amount of support, it’s often followed by sentiments of, “I know better and, I can do this event, job, petition, etc better.” The companionship that I’ve found has often been about self gain - who can I mentor, how can I get my name through the door, who is the best person to network with for this project.
But I don’t think this “problem” has to do with individual people, rather it is the effect of the system in which feminism and feminists exist within. The United States, especially NYC, is a competitive place and it takes a long time to get your foot in the door. Of course, once you have gained access and recognition the thought of someone else taking your place is daunting and so people hold on tightly, almost perpetuating the system that they experienced as activist and writers in their twenties. Hello! Why is it that the same women have been running the largest and most well-known feminist organizations (i.e. Ms.) for such a long period of time without passing the torch to others?
As much as we say there is an increasing focus on intersectionality within feminist circles in the United States, we need to put more emphasis on our communities and ask ourselves how we move forward in a way that encourages mutual learning and respect between all ages, classes, genders, races, etc within feminism. How do we empower younger generations, women of color, working classes, etc to do the feminist work that they love as a career path without continuing a cycle that perpetuates competition over teamwork and growth?
“You can’t build peace by leaving half the people out.” Resolution 1325.
Fighting for justice can be a lonely experience.
I have found myself to be very much conflicted by my decision to attend a peace university. When I applied to this institution, I was naive and believed that everyone would believe in the same peace that I fought for - the only peace that I thought existed - equality and justice. What I have learned is that the notion of peace is different for everyone, and it does not always mean peace for the entire world or fighting for what you fully believe is right.
Students at peace institutions around the world at taught that peace means compromise. While this is certainly an important lesson to learn for daily situations, compromise isn’t enough when there are power imbalances… and we live in a society that is full of that.
Here, I find myself walking the halls, smiling gently at people studying peace who do not believe that I can be a lesbian, let alone create a family with someone of the same sex. I sit next to students who have harassed my friends and colleagues and I go into meeting with counselors who believe that being a gender major means being a “man hater” and activists who seek justice are “troublemakers.”
Perhaps the most difficult reality to swallow are the women and men who know that things must change, but who sit quietly because they don’t have the time, or the desire or the knowledge of how to create change.
I admit that I am incredibly selfish; Speaking out and shaking things up for the sake of equality is a life that I chose and not everyone has to or will be on board. It is a lonely experience, and I know that it will certainly not make you a lot of friends (I imagine it is a lot easier to say nothing… and sometimes I wish I didn’t see inequalities). And yet, despite this knowledge - or perhaps with it - I feel an overwhelming amount of despair.
I am used to being classified into a box with the titles of manhater, sinful, radical, hippy and the like slapped onto my forehead, but when I applied to this institution, I honestly thought that I would be bored. I thought that everyone would agree with everyone and that my thoughts would not be nearly as radical as everyone else’s.
I was wrong. Even at peace institutions there exists sexism, homophobia, violence, harassment, and racism. Apparently, our job as activists and feminists is not even close to being done yet.
On the positive side, there are many other activists out there who are supporting you even when you can’t see it. Check out this post: On the lonely job of progressive activism. http://bit.ly/xbV1Va
As an anthropology/sociology student at Middlebury College, I was taught to respect but also embrace culture. Professors preached about the importance of recognizing the horrors of essentialism and “Other-ing” and the problems that can stem from trying to bring about cultural change in societies that we lack knowledge of. I spent four years critiquing the “Western” gaze so as to remain aware of the impact my beliefs have on others. Edward Said was my “husband” (I was deeply enamored with him) and I condemned the notion of “helping” was condemned.
While many of those ideas still hold true, I am slowly recognizing the dangers of culture and how easily communities can use culture against women’s equality and freedom to life. Around the world, women are being killed (i.e. honor killings) and mutilated (i.e.Female Genital Mutilation - FGM) in the name of culture and tradition. And the reality is, women are often unknowingly forced to be the keepers of the “traditions” that lead to their demise. In various parts of Kenya, Sudan and Liberia, for example, mothers encourage their daughters to get married and go through the rituals of FGM in order to be prepared for marriage. The women who cut the clitorises, labia and sew women up are deemed (highly paid) “priestesses.”
But its not just Africa, the country that we to happily like to examine as “the other.” In the United States, Concerned Women for America are fighting to “protect” the rights of women by not ratifying CEDAW, The United Nations Convention to Eliminate All forms of Discrimination Against Women under the stance that it will negate family law and undermine family values (among other claims). Since when did domestic violence, torture, hate crimes and so forth become a part of culture that we must protect?
And so, I ask, do we honor the universal “culture” of women’s pain? Am I supposed to respect the ongoing torture of women around the world in the name of tradition? To ask women to honor culture is, often times, a violation of our human rights.
I will critically examine and make the effort to understand the beliefs of others but I will no longer tolerate culture until women’s bodies are not only viewed as human rights, but become them.