Posts by jindi

Generally leftist, firstly feminist. Vancouver.

Sisterhood or scorched earth?

As I’ve become more aware of the problematic aspects of female socialization, I’ve taken steps to actively work against what I’ve been taught is expected of me simply because I’m a woman. In some ways, the process has been straightforward: I notice my impulses, think about where they come from and who they serve, and then do the opposite. One aspect I continue to struggle with is figuring out how much kindness my feminism should include.

In patriarchy, a woman who correctly performs femininity puts the needs of others before her own. She takes up little space in the world, both physically and behaviourly. She is gentle and quiet, downplaying her accomplishments in order to not appear brash or threatening, and she decorates herself in ways she has been taught appeal to men. She is selfless, unthreatening and, most of all, she is nice.

In contrast, men who behave according to traditional rules of masculinity are competitive and dominant. Protecting their pride against perceived slights is a constant concern, one that justifies using violence when the situation presents a significant enough threat.

Examined together, it’s clear how both male and female socialization benefit men while actively disadvantaging women, so it’s no surprise that feminists focus on identifying and challenging gendered socialization, and freeing ourselves from the shackles of conditioned nicety.

What becomes more complicated for me is figuring out how geniality relates to feminism.

Since feminist activism involves consciousness raising and persuasion, is being kind simply the effective thing to do? Or, since recognizing and rejecting problematic aspects of gendered socialization is central to feminism, does gentleness reinforce problematic stereotypes? Is liberation freeing ourselves from the desire to be, or be seen as, nice? Or is rejecting socially-conditioned impulses to be mild and cooperative simply emulating aggressively masculine behaviour?

A black and white thinker who often has trouble discerning shades of grey, I often find myself vacillating between both approaches, usually depending on the audience and situation. Sometimes this seems like an effective middle ground, other times like insipid half measures.

Some of the more radical feminists I’ve encountered have been admirably raw, openly and mercilessly pushing women to ally exclusively with other women and avoid men altogether. Sometimes going as far as calling heterosexual women handmaidens of patriarchy, some of these feminists aggressively criticize women for allying with, marrying or having children with men.

Seeing these women openly flout the rules of feminine behaviour sometimes makes me uncomfortable, yet I tend to see that discomfort as a result of my socially-conditioned expectation that other women conform to the same version of femininity that patriarchy uses to control us all. Part of me admires these feminists, and believes they push us into the uncomfortable, raw places we must go to deconstruct our internalized misogyny. At the same time I wonder if this ferocity fuels and sustains the movement, or does it fragment the movement by dividing women who could otherwise work together?

On the other hand, does a feminist approach based in a gentler form of persuasion reinforce problematic stereotypes about what’s expected of women? Is seeking compromise just another way in which women continue to settle for patriarchy’s meagre crumbs? Is allying with men or groups who don’t explicitly prioritize women’s liberation selling out? Or is this approach simply a more pragmatic, longer-term journey towards liberation?

I don’t have the answers, but considering many women spend their lifetimes without recognizing or questioning their socialization, I’ve decided to cut myself some slack while I figure it out.

Looking for your input, sisters – on the continuum from scorched earth to sisterhood, where does your feminism fall?

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Shit Liberal Feminists Say: SWERF

Like many feminists, my interest in women’s rights began when I started noticing I was treated like I was less than the men around me. I didn’t analyze much deeper than that – I just needed confirmation that something wasn’t right, I wasn’t imagining it, and that that something wasn’t my fault. Now that my analysis has gone deeper, and is rooted firmly in an anti-oppression framework, it’s clear to me that when I first started learning and believing in feminism I was, in fact, a liberal feminist.

Liberal feminism is an individualistic view of women’s rights that holds equality with men as its end goal. Liberal feminism focuses on advancing women’s positions in existing institutions and believes that what women want out of life is what men want and have already secured for themselves.

Way back then, I understood feminism in relation to my life, my experiences and my choices. I didn’t spend much time considering how my internalized misogyny shaped those choices, even the choices I now see were problematic since they reinforced mechanisms of women’s oppression.

For me then, and for liberal feminists today, the individual is queen. Any choice a woman makes is by definition a feminist choice because choosing is a feminist act. Even choices like pandering to the male gaze or self-objectifying must be applauded. As a result, I often engaged in decidedly unfeminist behaviour while uncritically wrapping myself in a comfortingly progressive label.

Once I began critically examining my beliefs and learning more about the history of feminism, I realized the many ways in which so-called liberal feminism falls short. What soon became clear was that liberal feminism isn’t feminism at all. Uncritically worshipping individual choices ignores the structures and institutions that support patriarchy. Focusing narrowly on advancing in the public sphere ignores the oppression women face in our homes. More worryingly, refusing to examine the context and impacts of choices allows men and women to continue reinforcing misogyny and male supremacy while patting themselves on the back and failing to work towards liberation for all women in any meaningful way.

Contributing to misogyny while declaring yourself a feminist requires a stunning lack of self-awareness and critical thinking, and an intricate set of unquestioned beliefs whose main purpose is to preserve a self-concept that’s allegedly based on beliefs in women’s rights, when in reality, that self-concept is based on an illusion.

Nowhere is this creative ego preservation more evident than in the commonly used catchphrases liberal feminists recite en masse, mostly in response to critical examination by radical feminists who understand that examining our internalized misogyny, analyzing our choices and beliefs and dismantling patriarchal institutions is essential work for feminists who are truly dedicated to the liberation of all women. Not just women who are like us or women we like – all women.

This post is the first in a series I’m calling “Shit Liberal Feminists Say” where I examine these mantras and how they’re used to silence radical feminists and distract from the fact that liberal feminism is an empty ideology that shores up male supremacy.

First up: sex worker exclusionary radical feminist (SWERF).

Why it’s Wrong

Despite repeated evidence that women in prostitution are largely poor women of colour, many of whom were sexually abused as girlsentered prostitution while underage, and identify lack of housing as their main barrier to leaving prostitution, liberal feminists cling to the romanticized notions of “sex work” depicted in movies like Pretty Woman and, in doing so, literally whitewash reality. For liberal feminists, sex work is inevitable, voluntary, empowering and fun, and women who choose it should be unquestioningly celebrated. In an empty nod to actual facts, they sometimes mention the coercive nature of street prostitution, but quickly draw a meaningless line in the sand between “trafficking” and “sex work” despite studies showing that countries that decriminalize prostitution see trafficking increase.

In contrast, abolitionists see prostitution as male violence, as the sexualized practice of dominance and control over women who are coerced, with money, into sexual activity in which they wouldn’t otherwise participate.

Contrary to liberal feminists, who demonstrably exclude most women in prostitution so they can uphold a uniformly empowery notion of “sex work”, abolitionists don’t exclude any women from our analysis. We acknowledge that some women choose to enter into prostitution. Understanding that patriarchy both limits and shapes women’s choices, abolitionists believe the context of more privileged women’s choices – and the impacts those choices have on marginalized women – must be scrutinized as part of the hard work needed to make sure our movement leaves no woman behind.

We also believe that, as a movement that aims to free all women, we need to focus most of our attention on the most marginalized among us. Deciding to focus most of our attention on a majority of marginalized women as opposed to completely ignoring them in favour of a small minority of more privileged women isn’t exclusionary – it’s feminism.

What it’s Used For

SWERF is a schoolyard taunt aimed at shaming critically-thinking feminists into silence. It is an attempt to smear abolitionists as outdated pearl-clutchers, to delegitimize us as irrelevant and not worth listening to. In the face of a growing body of knowledge that erodes the very foundation of choice arguments about prostitution, “SWERF” is a petulant child with hands over ears screaming “lalalala” when life doesn’t go according to plan.

What it Reveals

Supporting an argument that excludes the majority of women in prostitution, while calling the very women who consider the whole picture exclusionary, shows how intellectually vapid and hypocritical so-called liberal feminism is. Just like calling support of prostitution, which exposes the most marginalized among us to increased levels of violence and abuse, a feminist position, this isn’t about women’s liberation, it’s about feeling good and progressive and not having to actually change anything.

Supporting prostitution and screaming “SWERF” at abolitionists isn’t feminism, it’s capitulating to male supremacy and writing marginalized women off as collateral damage. It’s living in a dream world of consequence-free individual choices. It’s refusing to go beyond scratching the surface, and instead hiding behind buzzwords and tepid half-measures while trying to silence women who are willing to dive deep no matter the cost. Screaming SWERF at abolitionists is misogyny in feminists’ clothing, and it’s just some senseless shit that liberal feminists say.

Radical: from the root

It is hugely important to hold abusive men to account, but we feminist campaigners have learned that the state allows men to perpetrate individual crimes, and have therefore tended to focus on making root and branch change. Lately we appear to have gone backwards. It is as though we have lost the strength and confidence to effectively challenge institutions.

Read more from Julie Bindel here.

Men Know Everything

I had an encounter yesterday that so perfectly encapsulates the different ways men dominate women, that it was almost funny. Almost.

Sitting on a crowded bus headed through Chinatown into downtown Vancouver, I offered my seat to an elderly woman who was standing with her hands full of bags. After the woman, who happened to be Asian, thanked me and declined, I had just returned to my seat when an older white man loudly addressed me in his capacity as the Ultimate Authority on Everything [UAE].

UAE: There’s no point, they all get off in Chinatown anyway.

Me [unimpressed]: They all do, huh.

UAE [even louder]: I’m not being racist or anything, all the Asian people do get off the bus in Chinatown.

Me: I don’t want to talk with you.

UAE [angrily]: Go fuck yourself.

Mulling it over, I was astonished at how such a short interaction could display so many different glimpses of the power relations between men and women, and between white people and people of colour.

Upon seeing a woman of colour do something he didn’t agree with, something that didn’t impact him in any way, this white man simply had to tell me why my behaviour was wrong. His opinion, as the Ultimate Authority on Everything, was so important that I simply had to hear it, whether I wanted to or not.

It’s the same principle behind catcalling: men see public space as belonging to them, and women passing through their public space as mere props offering our bodies and behaviour up for their appraisal and comment. And damn it, their comments are so important that we’d better listen – or else.

This Ultimate Authority on Everything’s comment was clearly a racist one, one where he revealed that he thinks Asian people are a monolith, identical automatons as opposed to a diverse group of people with as many varied thoughts, activities and chosen fucking bus stops as white people.

But of course, he couldn’t see his racism. What he could see was me, a woman of colour who didn’t adequately appreciate the gift of his brilliant logic. He saw me, a mere womb-haver who couldn’t possibly have learned more about racism during my life as a person of colour than he had in his 0 seconds.

Men know everything – all of them – all the time – no matter how stupid or inexperienced or arrogant or ignorant they are. – Andrea Dworkin

As a woman who told him I didn’t want to speak with him, I violated his penis-given right to inflict himself however he wants on whomever he wants. And, as men presented with women’s boundaries often do, he reacted aggressively out of his threatened sense of entitlement. I didn’t defer to him and therefore I must be punished.

Experiences like these are all too familiar to women. Men speak over us, they confidently claim they’re right even when we know them to be wrong, and they punish us when we don’t play along. It gets to a point where we learn to stay quiet, to not correct faulty assumptions, to not speak our truths or even offer our points of view because we’re so tired of having to be constantly vigilant and on guard, armed with facts and perfectly, immediately articulate. The impact, like so many other types of male domination, is that we’re silenced while men’s words and ideas become narratives that shape our world. After this man became aggressive, I responded how women everywhere do to protect ourselves from male violence – I quietly moved away and watched him warily until he got off.

By the way, the people who got off at his stop weren’t all white… and the woman who refused my seat didn’t get off in Chinatown. I’m betting he didn’t notice, but what the hell do I know?

Read More Women. Read More Feminists.

Of all the books you’ve read, how many do you suppose were written by white men? Think back through grade school, high school, university – the books you read for entertainment and for education. Chances are the answer is “most of them”.

In keeping with my efforts to counteract my male-supremacist conditioning, for the last few months I’ve read exclusively female-authored books, both fiction and non-fiction. In terms of feminist writing, there is no better resource than RadFem Archive, a treasure trove of essays and novels from brilliant feminist thinkers including Dworkin, Jeffreys and MacKinnon.

Happy reading, sisters!

Sleepless in Patriarchy

One night last week, when I should have been sleeping, I was awake ruminating about my partner’s stepfather – more precisely, his blatant racism and misogyny.

Evaluating personal relationships has been a central, and difficult, part of my journey to better align my life with my feminist values. Figuring out how to respond to the misogyny that creeps into almost every social interaction is painful and exhausting, especially as, through trial and error, I try to balance asserting myself and challenging misogyny with maintaining valued personal relationships.

Once I began noticing that men often interrupted and infantilized me, that they invalidated and dismissed my opinions, that my male friends often made shockingly sexist comments and that my female friends often spoke progressive speak one minute, and then objectified themselves or badmouthed other women’s appearances the next there was, simply, no going back. I couldn’t un-see or un-hear these things, and relationships that used to bring me comfort immediately brought feelings of isolation and disappointment.

Many women, I think, resist feminism because it is an agony to be fully conscious of the brutal misogyny which permeates culture, society, and all personal relationships. – Andrea Dworkin

In many cases, figuring out how to address the misogyny in my relationships was easy. I ended more than a handful of relationships with men and women who consistently demonstrated misogynistic behaviour, especially those who weren’t willing to acknowledge and examine their attitudes.

In other cases, particularly my relationship with my male partner, I decided to invest time and energy asserting myself, educating and explaining. Although the process hasn’t always been smooth, it has been worth it, and we’ve grown closer while we support each other’s growth and, together, recognize and deconstruct the problematic aspects of our socialization.

Other relationships have been more difficult to navigate, particularly my relationship with my partner’s stepfather John. A 70 year old white man who speaks proudly about using pornography and calls women “chicks” and “dames”, he has, one more than one occasion, used racist and sexist slurs in front of me, a woman of colour. In almost any other circumstance, I would cut him out of my life without much thought. Since my partner and I both love my partner’s mother (John’s wife) that isn’t an option, so I’ve had to find other ways to cope, and so far at least, I haven’t had much success.

During one visit, John brashly proclaimed that all women turn into “old bags” once they reach 40. I felt compelled to say something, especially after noticing his wife and stepdaughters’ pained, downcast expressions, but I couldn’t figure out what to say. Instead, upset and confused, I walked away.

Later, while I unpacked his comment’s many problematic aspects and thought back to the obvious pain inflicted on the women he was talking with, I felt ashamed for retreating instead of putting my feminism into action. I would have loved to ask him what about adult women he found so repulsive, and why he didn’t feel creepy perving over women half his age. But I didn’t. I froze, fled, and later berated myself for not standing up.

Since that incident, I spend time before each visit anticipating the racist or sexist things John might say, planning how to respond, and resenting the entire exercise.

It wasn’t long before I got another opportunity. Soon after, John used a racial slur and then loudly dismissed my objections. His angry, domineering reaction set off a storm of emotions, doubts and incredulous thoughts that was too overwhelming for me to set aside and figure out how to proceed. Instead, I left the room with my partner and cried my eyes out. I knew John had dinosaur opinions, but to be so soundly put in my place after objecting to his racist behaviour left me feeling alone, angry and immediately mistrustful.

Later, my partner told John not to make racist or misogynist comments around me, and to listen if I have something to say in response. John settled down for a long time after that discussion, and even though my partner’s support was comforting, I felt conflicted since, yet again, I didn’t seize an opportunity to stand up for myself.

Recently, John told me that, while at a grocery store, he saw a border guard he recognized from his frequent crossings into and out of Canada. Apparently this woman, who appeared to be in her 20’s, and whom John had only previously met in her professional capacity, didn’t appreciate John referring to her there in the grocery store as a “little girl”. After a familiar moment of anxiety and swirling doubt I told him that I understand why she was offended, that as women we’re tired of being treated like children.

Listen, I understand this was no groundbreaking display of feminist activism. But it was a significant step forward for me in this relationship, a step towards me being brave enough to express my opinion and point out John’s problematic behaviour. This is a man who has bought into society’s version of masculinity his whole life. Someone who thinks he’s always right, and people – especially women – especially women of colour – who suggest otherwise must be proven wrong at all costs.

Thinking back on my tiny first step I feel proud and confident that, next time, I’ll be able to take one step further. And then another one. And then, hopefully, I’ll be confident enough to live my feminism as universally and consistently as possible – and maybe even sleep better at night.

Absention As a Political Act

Earlier this month I signed a letter to federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair asking him to clarify his party’s position on Bill C-36, Canada’s foray into the Nordic Model, which has been proven to both reduce demand for prostitution and keep prostituted women more safe.

This week, Mulcair responded with typical pro-decrim rhetoric, smearing Bill C-36 (which was passed after extensive consultation with current and exited prostituted women and front-line groups like Vancouver Rape Relief) as a political game.

I’m getting really tired of supporting so-called progressives while they ignore women’s oppression. For me, Mulcair’s response was the last straw. Here’s my letter to Vancouver East NDP candidate Jenny Kwan, letting her know why I won’t be supporting her candidacy next week.

Hello Ms. Kwan,

As a longtime NDP supporter and resident of Vancouver East, I am crushed to hear Thomas Mulcair’s response to a letter signed by more than 100 men and women asking him to clarify the NDP’s position on Bill C-36.

Bill C-36 is the only thing the Conservatives did right. It correctly positions prostitution as exploitation of women and, accordingly, criminalizes the purchase of sex while at the same time decriminalizing prostituted women and increasing the exit services available to them.

As a longstanding member of this community, you are surely aware that the vast majority of prostituted women are poor women of colour whose choices are limited by classism, racism and patriarchy. This reality is in stark contrast to the currently popular red herring argument that “sex workers” freely choose to enter prostitution, and that decriminalizing pimps and johns puts prostituted women at risk. It is violent men who put prostituted women at risk, and decriminalizing prostitution protects those men, and sustains the conditions under which they can cause harm.

Bill C-36 is the first step towards the Nordic Model, a model implemented in Sweden, which has seen 0 murders of prostituted women since its adoption 15 years ago. In contrast, in Germany, where prostitution has been decriminalized, more than 60 prostituted women have been murdered since 2002. I urge you to investigate these facts before replying with the commonly stated, but completely disproven claim that decriminalizing prostitution helps women. This claim is simply not supported by fact.

In Canada, Bill C-36 was passed after consultation with current and exited prostituted women and front-line groups like Vancouver Rape Relief. Support for Bill C-36 is in line with your commitment to aboriginal women, and the only logical position for someone who claims to care about exploited women.

If the NDP refuses to support prostituted women by supporting Bill C-36, I will be forced to abstain from voting. I cannot support a party that relies on debunked, regressive ideas that endanger women’s lives.

I have been an engaged and active voter my entire adult life. I used to shun people who didn’t vote, judging them as apathetic or lazy as we obedient, politically engaged people are taught to do. Now that I recognize that neither the Left nor the Right serves women’s interests, I’m beginning to see abstention as a valid political choice. Messy? Perhaps. Dangerous? Potentially. But, surely, no more dangerous than supporting a party that won’t support a law that helps keep vulnerable women safe.