The Internal Journey Feminists Need to Take: Questions for Feminism.

Not that long ago, I would have distanced myself from the word ‘feminist’. I would have held it at arms length, and maybe even  gone so far as denying that I was one. Through my late twenties and thirties the last thing in the world I would have wanted to be known as was a feminist.

Not because I didn’t believe that women should be treated equally; not because I thought that women really should be paid less and certainly not because rape, sexual harassment and the diminishing of the reality of those things didn’t matter to me.  They all did, and do, matter very much indeed – all the more so as I learn how both my faith and feminism are intertwined with each other.

What caused me to distance myself from the fiery early feminism of my youth were those things that continue to cause such arguments, difficult conversations and schisms** within that movement now: the colonial racism, the appalling transphobia, that strange dichotomy within feminism that calls for an end to a bi-gendered approach (because that keeps women in a pre-defined box of idealised womanhood) yet struggles to accept trans*/transgender women; the obsession with wanting the same power as men (best typified by the hot mess that is the ‘Lean In’ thing), yet failing to notice how our daughters still sought to define themselves by how they looked.

(**I’m a Christian – I know a good schism when I see one.)

In fact, whilst Western Women had the vote, the right to an education, access (at least in some cases) to birth control and a degree of bodily autonomy that their Grandmothers and Great-Grandmothers could only have dreamed of – it seemed to me that in some very fundamental ways, the political movement that was feminism was more interested in navel gazing and a self-obsessed approach to the world than in addressing the primal motivators that prevented it from making the kind of changes of which it was (and still is capable) of.

It is not an accusation, or criticism, to say that we white western women have internalised colonial, racist, hetro-normative societies attitudes along with the rest of western society. Despite being so angry about all of these things (but without the language to articulate them, far les address them) I had also internalised these same things and no amount of ‘liberal mind set’ was going to change that.  How could it. Growing up, the People of Colour I saw were often objects of fun, I cannot recall the media giving a platform to the work of women of colour and I would be hard pressed to think of any representation of trans*/transgender people that wasn’t sensationalist and poorly informed. (And very little changes there).

So for all the ‘wins’ that feminism had achieved – or helped to achieve – the lack of both grace and generosity in the face of such victories is either startling, or not surprising.  How far can feminism really go – how  much can it really achieve – without addressing the internalised racism (both colonial and prejudicial), the patriarchy we thing we think we are actually fighting against, the transphobia.. why, if we are truly ‘liberating’ ourselves can we be so absent of joy in that liberation that we would not want to change all these other oppressions?

Stopping the daily sexism that women still have to deal with will not liberate us; ending the violence, the rape culture and the victim blaming will not free us: not if feminism remains so white/cis centric, so bound up in patriarchal, colonial structures within which we have allowed ourselves to be defined.

That is why my feminism and Christian faith are so bound up in each other: the liberation offered by Jesus was not focussed on the external, but the internal. Each of us must engage in an internal journey to free ourselves of the chains which bind us to the slavery of power. If we struggle against the powers that bind our external lives without seeking to free ourselves of power which would still bind others, the struggle will never end.

Do we want equality – or a platform for power? Do we want liberation and equity – or rights for ourselves that maintain the status quo? Are we angry about what happens to us – or driven to change the world for the benefit of society as a whole?

I want a feminism and a faith that is gracious in it’s failures, generous in it’s victories, courageous enough to hear the hard questions – and honest enough to answer them.

 

We Need to Listen – But What Are We Hearing?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? ~ Isaiah 58: 6 & 7

Sometimes I will read an article and my reaction will be purely instinctive – it will immediately make me cross, or happy, or mad. Or it might trigger me emotionally and psychologically. And I will get that off my chest by praying and thinking it through, and occasionally it will result in one of my sporadic blog posts.  If I blog first, (and think later) I will usually read it afterward and groan to myself about any number of issues I will inevitably find with the language, or the structure.. I’m not a serious writer, but I like words you see.

I like how they can paint a picture in your mind of a time and a place, of complexity of purpose and character.. I like that they can be used to invoke and incite passion, even revolution.. and as a white, cis, able-bodied person I need to read (and in so doing, listen) to those whose colour, gender identity, disability or beliefs mean that the world see’s them as ‘other’.

By ‘the world’ I mean those who hold the dominant narrative. Think of words for a moment as music – indeed words spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and volume, and these are the properties of music, which has the ability to find and move and lift us up.. (err, yes, I did borrow that from The West Wing, but the point is still valid).

Back to my point.. the narrative that dominates the world in which we live is dominated – as it has been for centuries – by a white, cis, usually wealthy, elite. They drive how we see the world, how we understand it, how it is shaped in our minds. It is the view of the world which we first internalize, and if you are white and cis and able bodied, it is internalized to a degree we rarely, if ever, fully acknowledge.

And yet despite this dominant narrative, there are the stories that can draw us back from this status-quo, the words of those whose lives do not conform to that dominant narrative which can call out to us – and call us out.

If we read them. If we hear them. If we listen.

Sometimes, those words are taken by those who have control of that narrative and co-opt them. Words like.. justice and injustice. When that happens, there is an impact. The lived reality of actual injustice is one of oppression wrought daily. The so-called injustice done to a white cis man of wealth and power is worlds apart from the injustice done by society to trans*gendered woman of colour. But it is not her story that the media give the headlines to.

Injustice is a powerful word – but it’s meaning, it’s lived reality and it’s use to convey the appalling wrongs done to those whose lives are subject to the dominant kyriarchy becomes weakened, the parameters by which we judge what is unjust become warped. What do you hear, when Marissa Alexander tries to tell you of the crushing injustice done to her? Do you hear and understand the wrong she has suffered, or just another woman of colour complaining about her lot?

Women of colour, people of colour, the LGBITQ community, the sick and disabled – they needus to hear them, and to hear them properly, truly. To recognise and respond and stand with them, so that the narrative which shapes the world in which we live is, little by little, given back to those from whom it was taken.

If it sounds a little like revolution.. well, I would argue that it sounds like liberation and transformation, a world transforming from one of systemic oppression to one of systemic liberation.

So I loathe the cheapening of words too important to treat in such a manner: it was this article by Allison Pearson a few days ago when (not for the first time) I was struck by how the word ‘injustice’ can be used so flippantly. In writing about the supposed revelation that Nigella Lawson may have used drugs, she said:

“…if the Grillo sisters turn out to be telling the truth – and I hope they aren’t – then Charles Saatchi is the victim of an injustice.”

If you do not know anything about the case, or Charles Saatchi, then I am glad for you. Don’t Google it – there will inevitably pictures which you will find distressing.

Saatchi is a powerful and very wealthy man, who was photographed choking his then wife, Nigella Lawson. He has since insisted – because his reputation is frankly in tatters – that there was ‘another side’ to that story.  As if anything could possibly excuse, or explain away, this materially and physically powerful man’s act of violence against his wife.

What injustice has he suffered then?

No, there is none. His life will continue, and the perception of the general public will go on being unfavourable to him – but so what? It will not affect his wealth, or status, or power. The police caution he received will not prevent him from maintaining these things, and he has not been incarcerated, kept away from his family and robbed of his livelihood.

We who are white, cis, able bodied – who have some or all of the privileges that being those things mean – need to be quite so that we hear and listen.

Let us not make the hearing harder by distorting the words that might have the greatest impact.

When 140 Characters Just Wont Do…

There are some days, as a Christian, where I can only take a very *very* deep breath and pray for the patience of Job when it comes to some of my fellow Christians, and most usually it is on those well pressed, hot button issues of women bishops and equal marriage.

It is not, of course, that I don’t understand their argument (although when conversation with them is ventured I am frequently left with the impression that I should, in fact, consider myself completely dumb when it comes to scripture).

I am not going to pick through the well-worn scriptural argument here – at least not in this post. I will say briefly that I know the passages concerned but I do not believe that, when taken with the whole context of God’s Grace and Christ’s life, death and re-birth, that it is either accurate or even ‘scriptural’ to suggest that the staunch ‘gay is sin’ is anywhere close to the representations of God’s love and view on the matter.  And it is not as though all conservative Christians remain opposed to things like equal marriage for the LGBT community.  Steve Chalke has –  (and rather bravely). Earlier this year he came out in favour of gay marriage. You can read the article on the Oasis UK website here: http://www.oasisuk.org/inclusionresources/Articles/MOIabridged – it’s the abridged version, but the longer version is also available there.

I try to patient when some conservative Christians proclaim their position so loudly that all anyone else can hear is hate, because we are all struggling after God – because nobody is perfect and because we all screw up.  *But* none of that can allow me to look the other way when people are being hurt, because we are not called by Christ to hurt people but to love them; and it saddens me deeply when people are condemned by other Christians, using the God I believe loves us all.

I struggle with that. I want to shout and scream in righteous indignation to get them to understand the hurt being done… but ideologues are entrenched for a reason. And I wonder if my time is not better spent giving my energy and my love to the people who welcome it, rather than those who patronise me and put me down.

So to all those lovely twitter folk I follow who do not share my beliefs, but have gone out of their way to include me and love me anyway – I want to thank you. I am sorry that not all those who share my faith cannot see the hurt and anger they sow. Forgive us – for sometimes we know not what we do.

*I have updated this post to include a link to Steve Chalke’s article, which may not yet have much popular support amongst conservative Evangelicals, but which I pray paves the way for a more prayerful, thoughtful and loving approach. 09.03.2013

Identity Politics – Respect, Equality and Justice Is Not Dependant on Biology

Let me start by saying that I have very little experience of trans-gender issues. I do know women for whom this is a direct and daily issue, but this gives me no special knowledge or insight on what it is to be a woman who was born or identified at birth as male. So the only perspective I can write from is my own, but there are excellent blogs and articles out there which will help you understand this issue from a trans-gender perspective. (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/julie-birchill-bullying-trans-community or http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2009/12/cis_feminists_s for example).

So if in writing this I say something which offends, then please point this out to me.

On my twitter timeline this morning were many people who rightly (and for various reasons) found Julie Burchill’s(1) article today to be offensive, upsetting and the kind of bigotry which both the Observer and Guardian should know better than to allow. I like the people I follow on twitter – they care about justice and equality, and treating people with respect. It is why I follow them. So in part, my post today is to say to them – you are not wrong in how this made you feel. It upset you because it was upsetting, they were horrible words, the tone was vile and I know that you all care about getting how we treat each other, right.

There has been plenty written about the Suzanne Moore article (and departure from twitter (2) ) which kick started this. So what I also want to speak to is the central issue of equality and respect – because I want to know why, and when, either one of those things  became so bound up in biology that the giving of it became conditional on whether or not your genitals passed some sort of acceptability test. Honestly, when other women do it too, I want to pull my hair out!

I struggle sometimes with the Left – despite my politics being more than ever-so slightly left wing. I struggle with feminism too (I always have). So when they both – as they sometimes do – very publicly argue within themselves about something so extraordinarily simple (and it is) I wonder if I should say anything at all, or say nothing and hover in the background, perhaps occasionally handing out tissues.

Because to me, it’s obvious. (And if that comes across as being patronizing or arrogant then I am sorry, because I do not mean to be).

It does not matter (not one jot) who you are, where you are, what gender you are, what gender you have been, whether you are religious or not, or poor or not, or a child or purple, with antennae. If you are being oppressed because of the gender you are, or the gender you were, or your race or your class or your age – or your antennae – then WE, the human race, should acknowledge, apologise for it, and stop it from happening again.

I know that it is simplistic to say so. I am not naive. So when the Left and feminists (both movements born from the need and desire for equality) act and speak as though there are better fights to win, or that one person’s injured feelings are more important (as with Julie Burchill today) – I remind myself (both in my day to day life and by checking in with those I follow on twitter) that there are so many good people, who get it. Who actually actively seek to learn about it if they don’t. Who try. And who care. You inspire me.

I remind myself that are people whose oppression has not yet been recognized or respected or heard, and who continue to live their lives as they feel called to – women who became women because that is their identity, yet live with indifference at best (and hate, at worst) from other women. Your courage humbles me.

And to the Left and those well known feminists who fail to see that what has happened or what they’ve done is so wrong, who do not get why this matters – I say this:

It matters because if some of us are not equal, none of us are.  It matters because if we cannot treat all with respect, then we failed to be respectful. It’s important because if victories are won when this is unaddressed amongst ourselves, then the victory is hollow. And it shames us all when one person’s equality comes at the expense of another.

(And if you wonder how as a Christian it can matter at all when so many in my Church fail to get their head’s around homosexuality – let alone trans-gendered women and men – I choose to take some things very literally. The bit about ‘there is no male and female'(3) in Christ for example. And breaking the chains of oppression, because God meant to set us free from it, since oppression is so much the work of man.)

UPDATE:  The Julie Burchill article has been removed from the Observer website and an apology has been issued by the Editor. 15.01.2013

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/julie-burchill-suzanne-moore-transsexuals

(2) http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/01/11/guardian-columnist-suzanne-moore-leaves-twitter-following-transphobic-row/

(3) Galatians 3:28

(4) Isaiah 58: 6-12